The Art of Naming: Self Testimony and Mental Health

With almost the whole world confronting changes and losses, large and small, how can people cope as they mourn their pre-pandemic lives and move forward? Language. Historically, storytelling, spoken word, and writing have been ways that humans cope with times of great grief and loss. Testimony is an account of first-hand experience, usually to create meaning and bear witness.

In my clinical work, which requires bearing witness to the stories of hundreds of people, two themes are prominent: The need to not forget and the need to process and create a sense of meaning. Sometimes, these needs can be very vague, a nameless dread or suffering. Talk therapy, journaling, and storytelling share a similar foundation; putting words to nameless feelings and memories. I call it naming.

As the work of psychologist James Pennebaker, PhD, at the University of Texas, has shown, writing about emotional upheavals can improve both physical and mental health (see Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2018). Keeping daily journals can help put words to losses and to help identify ways to move forward.

Other ways to name your experience besides journal writing:
The Debrief: Have a regular scheduled date with a trusted friend or two, virtual or IRL, to discuss your week and catch up.

Letter writing: People treasure receiving written words or cards from friends and family. Letters, on paper, are a memento of our history with the writer.

Audio diaries: Many people have access to an app where they can record their experience. Speaking aloud the words that are in your head help create meaning, clarity, and coherence.

Family meetings: In my work with families, I encourage both children and adults to set aside a time every week to speak about their experiences, air their opinions, and discuss any matters that have import in the household. Busy lives, school, work, and sports schedules often do not allow for sustained conversation for many people. Carve out a space.

(Also check out this great book: The Other Side of Sadness: what the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss, 2019, written by the head of my doctoral committee, Dr. George Bonanno, Columbia University).

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