Self-authoring is a tool developed by psychologists from the University of Toronto, McGill and Erasmus University, with the aim of improving the well-being of anyone who cares to use it. Psychologist Jordan Peterson has described self-authoring on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. In a nutshell, it’s a writing exercise. And you’re writing about your life.
The whole self-authoring suite is divided up into present authoring (sub-divided into your virtues and faults), past authoring and future authoring. It involves writing in a very careful, thoughtful and complex manner about one’s past, present and future. You write in great detail and analysis about key events in your past which have shaped you, existing weaknesses that keep tripping you up and positive traits that elevate you, and what you want your ideal future to look like.
If it sounds self help-y, well, I suppose it is. But unlike cliché, generic and vacuous self-help tools, self-authoring is genuinely effective and therapeutic. A body of research clarifies the relationship between written narrative and mental and physical health. Self-authoring has also shown to offer benefits in terms of finding employment and educational performance. Researchers say that writing a coherent and careful narrative can help in the analysis of cause and effect relationships in the past, allowing you to more effectively learn about your life, and use these lessons to improve your present and future.
Rather than thinking positively in order to attract positive experiences (also known as the law of attraction, which is problematic in all sorts of ways), self-authoring encourages individuals to take concrete and realistic steps in order to achieve their goals. Having well-specified goals makes psychological hardship easier to endure. The act of writing a narrative can also reduce anxiety and depression-related intrusive thoughts.
Constructing a story of a traumatic or stressful event helps to make sense of it. After all, we are narrative-creating creatures. Since time immemorial, stories have shone a light on all aspects of humanity – from our depravity and heroism to our foolishness and wisdom. Thus, Self-authoring is, in a sense, an extension of our innate story-telling nature. It is the telling of our own private drama. But if we want the drama to take a particular direction, then we have to clearly understand how it’s being played out.
I don’t know exactly how long I spent doing the whole self-authoring suite, or how many words I wrote. But it was most likely 10+ hours and 10,000+ words. It’s like I’ve just written a dissertation on my life.
Often, writing about the past – having to re-visit painful events in great detail – was uncomfortable. When you already spend so much time re-playing, re-winding and over-analysing things you regret doing and saying, what good is it to think about this stuff even more deeply? Peterson admits that you may feel a lot worse after doing these writing exercises, but notes that later on this will be followed by a sense of relief and calm.
You may have had to re-visit something painful, but the way the exercise is set up allows you to realistically assess how the situation came about and what you can do to avoid it happening again in the future. This helps to contextualise and solidify the memory, squeeze all of the meaning, value and lessons out of it; let it stay in the past without it nagging your present self, whilst also guiding your present thoughts and behaviours towards better outcomes.
The therapeutic value of self-authoring, for me, has come from giving me more understanding of the past, a more balanced perspective of my virtues and weaknesses, and a clear sense of where I want to be going in my life. For anyone who feels that their motivation and hopefulness is being sapped (and doesn’t want to spend a fortune telling someone about their life), I would highly recommend giving self-authoring a go.