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Rewrite Bullying and Abuse With Therapeutic Journaling

Research documents the health benefits of expressive writing.

Key points

  • Those who bully and abuse write a script with the targets in the role of powerless and shamed.
  • As research documents, targets can rewrite this past script into an empowering narrative.
  • Unpacking emotional trauma through therapeutic journaling brings physical and mental health benefits.
LeandroDeCarvalho / Pixabay
Replace bullying with journaling
Source: LeandroDeCarvalho / Pixabay

Targets who struggle to overcome trauma from past bullying and abusive behaviours can benefit from therapeutic journaling. While it makes sense to think about erasing and rewriting words that were weaponized to harm, there is also extensive research that supports the way in which writing about one’s life and especially one’s trauma can improve physical and mental outcomes.

Those who bully and abuse exploit targets by projecting onto them as if they are a blank page. The bullying, abusing individual enacts a script that frequently puts targets in a powerless and demeaning role in which they must serve the one bullying or abusing whether physically, emotionally, or sexually. The survival instincts of the targets may lead them to abdicate selfhood as they identify with the aggressor as a self-protective, coping strategy.

The target may then develop—what I refer to in The Bullied Brain as a “Mind-Bully”—an internalized version of the bullying or abuse that perpetuates the trauma despite the harmful acts no longer occurring. One of the ways to transform this “Mind-Bully” into what I call an “Empathic Coach” is to use expressive writing. Essentially, wresting one’s story and selfhood away from bullying and abuse in the past, the target works consciously to script their own role and agency onto a blank sheet of paper.

Intentionally Rewrite Past Harms

The blank sheet of paper is a creative reminder that beliefs about ourselves or the world are actually neural pathways wired into our brains, and they can be unwired and rewired according to neuroplasticity and the groundbreaking research of Michael Merzenich. We are the ones who create the voices in our heads. We are the ones who—as neuroscientist Ramon y Cajal says—can intentionally be the “sculptors” of our own brains.

Repeating or recalling the words or acts of those who bully and abuse hands over precious neural real estate over and over again, when we can reclaim it for ourselves. Psychologist Dan McAdams spent 10 years studying the stories of Americans who specifically used narrative to transform the bad into the good. While they could not control negative things from happening, their true power was in the story of redemption that allowed them to move forward with their lives.

Allowing the traumatizing words of abusive or bullying individuals to stay vocal in one’s mind may keep targets focused on or even trapped in the past. Moving forward, turning abusive individuals’ negative language or acts into a different story where the target is the author can be an empowering way to replace past negativity with a positive legacy.

While not writing about targets of bullying and abuse specifically, Celia Hunt of the University of Sussex asserts that autobiographical writing can provide the therapeutic effect of constructing a sense of personal identity. The act of writing one’s own story makes evident that targets have personal agency and can choose words to describe themselves, their world, and their reputations. When one has suffered the trauma of interpersonal harm and felt forced to play a role in someone else’s destructive drama, this kind of writing holds hope for healthy change.

Therapeutic Journaling

James Pennebaker is the pioneering psychologist who examined the way therapeutic journaling provided relief from traumatic events. In Pennebaker’s process, it is vital that the writing is only for the eyes of the author. This confidentiality allows the trauma survivor to fully experience their emotions without any concern for what others might think or say. It’s the opposite of being drawn into another’s bullying or abuse scenario in which the target is lambasted with another’s words and acts.

Therapeutic journaling offers quiet and safety for targets to find their voices, speak their emotional truths, and record in language what it felt like to be abused or bullied. Panic and fear can give way to clarity and calm. Journaling can transform confusion and shame into understanding and belonging. It’s fully up to the writer.

Pennebaker’s therapeutic journaling unfolds over four or five consecutive days with the writer putting in 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to record on paper their trauma and the accompanying emotions. The goal is to simply write without thinking about grammar, punctuation, or communication.

The writing is only for the writer, and the more it is continuous and uninterrupted in expression, the more it is likely to ease the trauma. It can be tucked away or thrown away. The point is that the writer put their suffering into words. Pennebaker saw that this process allowed those traumatized to unblock their feelings and turn the trauma into a meaningful story—not one told about them, but one that they articulated.

What Does the Research Say?

Thirty years of research confirms Pennebaker’s recognition that therapeutic journaling can be an effective method to improve the physical and mental health of those who have suffered trauma. A study on individuals who had existing medical conditions—asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, HIV infection, cystic fibrosis, and sleep disorders—revealed that expressive writing provided significant benefits to everything from pain to recovery.

A study on therapeutic journaling for veterans returning from war showed significant “reductions in anger, physical symptoms, distress, [posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)] symptoms and reintegration difficulties.” And a meta-analysis of expressive writing demonstrated its efficacy in treating anxiety, PTSD symptoms, and, to a lesser extent, depression.

For some targets, bullying and abuse can go on for years. How empowering to learn that in merely four days of intensive writing—15 minutes per session—therapeutic benefits can be reaped. The brain and body are wired to recover. They respond to the uniquely human ability to write in healthy ways. Exposing the pointlessness of those who harm others with their words and acts starts with four days of active, intentional, conscious articulation.

This rejection of the "Mind-Bully"—our past survival impulse to identify with the aggressor—allows the "Empathic Coach" to arrive on the scene and start speaking. This empathic voice encourages, corrects with precision any mistakes or failings, coaches with wisdom and knowledge, and sees at all times the self as holistic, as trying hard, and as growing their talent.


Baikie K., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing. Advanced Psychiatric Treatment 11.5: 338–346.

Coyle, D. (2009). The Talent Code. New York: Bantam.

Fraser, J. (2022). The Bullied Brain. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Hunt C. (2010). “Therapeutic Effects of Writing Fictional Autobiography.” Life Writing 7.3: 231–244.

McAdams, D. (2006). The Redemptive Self. New York: Oxford University Press.

Merzenich, M. (2013). Soft-Wired. San Francisco: Parnassus.

Pennebaker, J. & Evans, J. (2014). Expressive Writing: Words that Heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor.

Sayer N., Noorbaloochi, S., Frazier, P. et al. (2015). “Randomized Controlled Trial of Online Expressive Writing to Address Readjustment Difficulties among U.S. Afghanistan and Iraq War Veterans.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 28.5: 381–390.

van Emmerik A., Reijntjes, A., & Kamphuis J. (2013). Writing Therapy for Post-traumatic Stress: a Meta-Analysis. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 82.2: 82–88.

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