Using Popular Quotations to Enhance Therapeutic Writing

By Wiitala, Wyndy L.; Dansereau, Donald F. | Journal of College Counseling, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Using Popular Quotations to Enhance Therapeutic Writing


Wiitala, Wyndy L., Dansereau, Donald F., Journal of College Counseling


The authors describe the use of therapeutic writing as a technique for managing personal problems. It was hypothesized that having individuals intermittently read inspirational/motivational sayings would further enhance the benefit of therapeutic writing. The results indicate that popular quotations can be used with therapeutic writing to make the process more interesting and enjoyable. Recommendations are provided to counselors who may want to use this technique with clients.

One way to cope with stressful events is to engage in a task that encourages emotional expression, such as expressive or therapeutic writing (e.g., Pennebaker, 1989, 1997). Therapeutic writing as a means of dealing with stressful or traumatic events has been studied extensively during the past decade. The process involves writing (without feedback) about the thoughts and feelings surrounding a stressful event. Research has suggested that writing for 15 to 30 minutes for 1 to 5 days can have positive results (Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999). Some of the benefits include increased grade point averages, fewer health center visits (Pennebaker & Francis, 1996), decreased impact of intruding thoughts about the stressful event (Lepore, 1997), and increased insight into personal issues (Francis & Pennebaker, 1991). Writing about personal problems has been thought to benefit individuals by providing a release of negative emotions associated with the problem and restructuring the problem in a way that creates more insightful and coherent thinking (Francis & Pennebaker, 1991; Pennebaker, 1997).

Despite the clear advantages of having clients engage in therapeutic writing, there are some limitations of this technique. One limitation is that of closed-system thinking. When individuals engage in therapeutic writing, there is a lack of external ideas and insights, such as the ideas and insights that would be available in a counseling situation. Thus, individuals may remain "stuck" in their current patterns and have difficulties shifting perspectives or even knowing how to start to do so. A second limitation is related to the level of interest or enjoyment experienced when writing about problems. Many clients report that they do not feel confident in their writing abilities and/or simply do not enjoy writing. Consequently, even though therapeutic writing has been associated with positive outcomes, this technique is likely to be underutilized by clients.

One possible means to enhance the use and enjoyment of therapeutic writing may be to have clients reflect on lists of inspirational sayings or quotations from renowned individuals (e.g., "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"; Chinese proverb, Lao Tzu) Having clients consider inspirational quotations that are relevant to their personal issues may provide a jump start to the writing process and may reduce the need for the external input or shifts in perspective that counselor insights provide. Reflecting on inspirational quotations may also help to make the writing process more interesting and enjoyable for the client.

What Kinds of Quotations Do College Students Prefer?

Inspirational or motivational sayings are used across a wide variety of settings to set a mood, to offer a shift in perspective, or to motivate the reader through eloquent forms of advice or encouragement. Numerous books of quotations are available, and many similar lists of inspirational/motivational sayings are accessible on the Internet.

To investigate the kinds of quotations that college students prefer, we compiled a brief list of 54 quotations from two published books (Cook, 1997; Ehrlich & De Bruhl, 1996) and asked 119 college students to rate the quotations according to how much they liked each one. The students' top 25 choices are presented in Table 1. In addition, we asked the students to rate each quotation on how valuable it would be in positively influencing each of four dimensions: (a) behavior, (b) cognition, (c) affect, and (d) motivation. …

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