Personal History as Therapy

by Maia Fischler

Recording and writing our life stories is powerful therapy. It can create order from a jumble of memories, helping us see and understand the forces that have shaped us. 

Dr. Teri Friedman is a psychologist in Rye Brook, NY, and a strong believer in the therapeutic effects of writing.

Teri Friedman, PhD, a counseling psychologist and former personal historian, shared her experience on the therapeutic benefits of personal history at a recent PHNW meeting. She’s found that telling our stories and organizing them into a coherent narrative helps improve our sense of well-being in tangible ways. Personal history helps us:

  • Build Self-Identity. Recording our stories creates a linear timeline, where it’s easier to see the threads that run throughout our lives, and feel more confident in what we have accomplished.
  • Achieve Catharsis. Telling our experiences to a compassionate, non-judgmental listener can allow us to see things in new ways, giving us insight we may never have reached on our own.  
  • Create Distance. Releasing a secret or trauma that’s been bottled up can normalize it and make it seem less overwhelming. A professional personal historian can help us express a difficult event, reducing its emotional power. She can also help with difficult decisions about what to include and not include in our written narrative.
  • Escape Feedback Loops. Sometimes we can get stuck thinking too much about a particular event, playing and replaying it in our heads. Writing it down can allow us to let it go. 
  • Find Power. When we tell our own stories, we take control of them. Instead of someone who has undergone an experience, we become someone who engages actively, shapes that experience, and takes what’s valuable from it.
  • Develop Self-Knowledge. The personal history process helps us reflect more deeply about what we have accomplished and inspired in others. The examined life is a life worth living!
  • Feel Heard. In these busy times, it’s a rare treat to sit down with someone who’s just there to listen, with compassion and common sense. We all need to feel heard. 
  • Create a Legacy. It’s very fulfilling to know that our history and life experiences will be passed along so that others can learn from them. Knowing that we’ll be remembered, with our own story told in our own words, gives great peace of mind.

For those of us in the field of personal history, Teri’s experience feels very familiar. We’ve all had the privilege of seeing our clients bloom as we help them sift and organize their memories. Maia Fischler of LifeWriter Personal Histories explains it this way:

“I think most people are a little overwhelmed with the idea of writing their life stories, because it all seems so huge and fuzzy in their heads. As we start releasing the memories and setting them out in a nice, smoothly flowing narrative, they’re amazed at how much becomes clear. It can be a real relief to reach back, taking a new look at experiences that may have been buried or tangled for years.”

Personal Historian Connie Shipley poses with her client Art Sorenson, a decorated war veteran, with his book, An Interesting Life.

Teri Friedman has stopped creating memoirs and now works full-time in her psychology practice. But she has always loved the world of personal history, and remains extremely interested in the intersection between writing and psychological well-being. She has used writing as a tool for healing throughout her professional career as a psychologist.

“It can bring the meaning and purpose of one’s life into focus,” she says. “And it can give the pleasure of leaving a legacy for one’s children and grandchildren, creating the profound satisfaction of knowing that one has finally, truly, in one’s own voice, been heard.”

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