Post No.: 0371
Your best possible self is a happiness exercise that allows you to imagine your best possible self in, say, 5 or 10 years time in the future. This vision or plan gives us hope, direction and purpose. It needs to be flexible though – so aim high but realistically and be adaptable. It’s generally important to be mentally present but it’s also important to think ahead, make plans and have big and little things to look forwards to too.
So visualise your best possible self and imagine your best possible future as this person, in your career, relationships and so forth. Write about an optimistic sense of self in the future – so not just in your future outcomes but also more importantly your future demeanour and attitude to life (e.g. you’re a person who’s quick to forgive, is optimistic but humble, and is grateful).
Express your life goals in positive terms. This exercise is for a healthy and productive long-term perspective. It focuses you on optimism, hope and setting goals – as long as those goals are intrinsic (to do with your personal growth, health and relationships with yourself and others, rather than for money, fame or anything else that requires a validation from others), non-zero sum (namely win-win), realistic and are not mere wishful thinking. These goals should account for personal meaning, purpose, autonomy, competence, growth and connecting with others or deepening relationships.
This exercise helps you to identify your most important life goals and gives you some sense of control over your life and destiny. It builds happiness in the present through having a sense of purpose and can motivate you to work towards your desired future to make it real. It makes you understand that the past cannot be changed but the future can. You’ll learn about what you really want in life rather than drift through life and so it’ll possibly (re)structure your priorities. It’ll give you a sense of control of your life by highlighting what you’ll need to do step-by-step to achieve your dreams (break every big goal down into smaller, more manageable steps).
Be specific, be imaginative and be creative, but again keep it realistic, and of course focus on shaping a bright and positive future. Consider all aspects of your life, including relationships of all kinds (e.g. family members, your spouse, your children, furry pets, colleagues). Remember that every worthwhile and great goal in life will involve the help of other people so visualise them as part of the picture too.
Envision a future where everything has gone as well as it could. Even if the future doesn’t turn out as you envisioned then the journey or adventure towards it should still be worth it because of the intrinsic nature of your overall goal – you will have at least personally grown. And if you do achieve everything you want then the hardest fought victories always taste the sweetest!
Writing a self-compassionate letter, or expressive writing, is about expressing compassion for an aspect of yourself that you don’t like, you feel ashamed or insecure of, or feel not good enough about (e.g. a behaviour, capability, relationship, event). Expressive writing allows you to work through difficult feelings. It gives a voice to your deepest thoughts and emotions concerning a challenging situation.
Write honestly about how it makes you feel (only you will read it) then express understanding, acceptance and compassion, as you would to a good friend who felt the same about themselves. Most of us are far harsher on ourselves than towards other people – we tend to think other people’s embarrassments are yesterday’s news but our own are permanently lit up on billboards (which is somewhat related to the ‘spotlight effect’). So take the perspective of someone who accepts you unconditionally, remember that everyone has flaws, consider factors that could’ve contributed to the negative quality, and then think about the constructive changes that you can implement to improve or better cope with this quality from here onwards. Focus on how these changes could make you feel happier and avoid judging yourself.
So when it feels right for you, write continuously for 10-20 minutes about your problems or frustrations, exploring them deeply and honestly. Then take a break. Come back when ready and write for 10-20 minutes about self-compassion, alternative perspectives, possible solutions to the obstacles identified, the positives, and how you’ll move on.
Then file this letter away. Revisit it if you feel down about this quality again. Self-compassion is not easy to do for someone who is used to being self-critical but try it for a while. It will help you to pick yourself up again, increase your motivation and lead you towards self-improvement. It’s like a sort of ‘self-hug’, especially for those who aren’t used to being physically hugged by others.
Expressive writing can also be beneficial after you’ve experienced a traumatic event. It can provide a systematic and structured approach to making sense of the situation, and encourage you to work towards a solution as if there was a storyline and that an old chapter needs to end and a new one needs to start. Here, it could take the form of a diary that you can add to if and when you feel like it without a fixed schedule, and where you write down your deepest, uninhibited thoughts and feelings about the event and aftermath. Although the timescales are highly variable and although some feelings may never completely disappear – know that the negative feelings towards any traumatic event will reduce over time if you can just keep on keeping on in the meantime. And you’ll be able to track your progress in your writing. Writing (and not just thinking) about your intense feelings regarding a traumatic or stressful event or thought, with a solution-based focus, will help lift you onto the path of recovery and moving on. It helps organise your thoughts, facilitates a productive interrogation and puts things into context and eventually acceptance.
Writing down and narrating your stresses and difficulties in life helps to offload them a bit. It can thus be cathartic. Writing our thoughts down in this way is infinitely better than approaching our frustrations violently or trying to deny them when we really feel them. Writing can also provide an unhurried pace and enable one to organise or reorganise one’s thoughts in a way that talking doesn’t usually allow, even with a sympathetic listening ear. There’s no problem of ‘awkward silences’ or ‘going back on what you’ve just said’ as you try to find the right words. It complements rather than replaces talking, or can help prepare you before you’re ready to talk to others about something deep and affecting.
Now an important key with expressive writing is that it’s not about bitching, dwelling or ruminating about stressful thoughts or events because this kind of catharsis doesn’t help. It’s about trying to find the positives, the blessings in disguise, the silver linings, and the bright sides, of or from the situation. It’s about self-compassion rather than other-person-bashing! So not all writing when writing problems down is equal. Unfiltered pondering and focusing on the negative or on things one cannot change is unhelpful – one needs to look for and focus on the positives, look for solutions for the things one can change, and look for the bright sides for the things one cannot. One must write as if planning for a better future, with more gratitude, forgiveness and self-compassion in one’s life.
Indeed you don’t have to only write when you experience negative feelings – you can write expressively any day, such as about good things or happy moments that are happening or have happened in your life that you want to treasure (this could be a part of your gratitude diary). ‘Affectionate writing’ is about writing about someone you love.
Expressive writing, with a focus on self-compassion and personal growth – rather than ruminating like a looping, stuck record that’s going nowhere, bitching or self-criticising – is a powerful way to cope with negative feelings and to change the way you think about a difficult situation. Writing about an unresolved painful memory from a positive, hopeful and grateful perspective (e.g. counting our blessings in disguise or even actual direct benefits and lessons learnt) signals the closure of a chapter and the start of a new one. It leaves us with less unpleasant feelings about that chapter, even when we’re not told to deny or ignore the negative aspects of that memory. This exercise is key to resilience.
This is a case where bounded cockiness can be beneficial (e.g. thinking ‘I was way too good for them and I will do better without them and with someone else’, to diminish someone, not in a resentful way but in a ‘laugh them off’ or ‘I had a lucky escape’ kind of way, if it concerns a tough break-up). It’s a mental self-defence mechanism and can be healthy as long as it doesn’t get out of hand or become vindictive. You’ll know you’ve properly moved on, not when you’re still bothered about someone or something who or that has hurt you, but when you’re not bothered about them or it anymore at all.
The best thing we can do in times of trouble is to share our thoughts and feelings with people we trust, but that isn’t always possible or we don’t always feel like sharing some thoughts with others. In these cases, self-compassionate expressive writing is the next best thing. It’s a way to share without sharing, to disclose without judgement, to process in private. This exercise will likely need to be repeated at least once every couple of months because the effects wear off. Although it’s meant as a private exercise, you may later wish to talk to others about what you’ve written too.
These two exercises are about understanding that the past cannot be changed, and even if the present is not so great either – we can always still change the future. We can still grow. We can learn to become more resilient.
Woof. If you have experience of any other ways you’ve personally found effective in helping you to positively move on from an unhappy feeling, relationship or event then please share them with us via the Twitter comment button below.