“If we humans could see inside each other’s minds, we’d be so surprised at what we saw. I think it would do us good.”
My therapist said this as we discussed my dark, suicidal thought patterns. She continued:
“I speak with so many different clients, and lots of people have these suicidal thoughts. They’re incredibly common.”
I recently opened up about my mental health — including suicidal ideation — in my writing. I was overwhelmed by the positive responses and encouraging words. Readers were grateful I’d shared. One reader told me that I would help a lot of people.
Even though I’d written about my suicidal thoughts, I didn’t know this was a common pattern for many people. I can’t see inside the minds of other people. I only found out because my therapist told me so.
Here’ the thing: as writers, we can let other people inside our minds. We can show what’s going on inside. We can be vulnerable. We can shine a light on the darkest parts of ourselves — and that can help others who are also going through dark times to feel they’re not alone.
That’s why I say bring your battle scars to your writing. Sharing your story — and how you’ve overcome adversity — is more healing than offering quick fixes or seven-step solutions. When you share your story, you create deep emotional connection with your readers, and you invite them along with you in their journey of healing.
Your readers want to know you stand alongside them, you’ve walked in their shoes. The church minister Ian MacLaren wrote:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
You don’t see the battles that others are fighting unless they share what’s happening. Somebody has to take the first step. So share your battles, share the challenges you’re going through, share your wounds and scars. You’ll help your readers feel less alone in the battles they face — and you could be guiding them on a path to healing.
The cure model of self-help writing
So much of self-help writing is based on the idea of a cure, of finding the one thing that will save us, that will let us escape.
As Ann Game and Andrew Metcalfe write in their peer-reviewed article Hospitality: How Woundedness Heals:
“The curing model seeks to eliminate weakness because it is afraid of weakness; it seeks to maintain a fantasy of perfection because it is too fearful to accept reality.”
To put it starkly: much of self-help writing is people presenting a fantasy of what they think life should be like. They’re showing their potential strengths — and yours — in a photo-shopped, Instagram-filtered style of writing, and ignoring the darker side of life.
Fantasy is a wonderful part of life — and I still enjoy reading some self-help. But what’s important is that we acknowledge it as fantasy, rather than a potential reality.
People aren’t websites to be coded
Too much self-help writing is written like a website-design tutorial. Input this code, and you’ll get this result.
I’ve tried designing a website, and it’s never that simple. I was only doing basic stuff, playing around with WordPress. You adjust one thing, and three other things go wacky as a result. That’s websites. How much more so for us as humans?
Our lives are more like eco-systems than computer systems. We’re organisms. If you tweak one aspect, it’s going to impact everything else — and sometimes in ways you can’t predict. I’m as guilty as most self-help writers of writing “set a goal, and go for it!” type advice, but that’s rarely how it works.
When I decided to set a goal of submitting a new article every day for a month, I reached it. But it cost me in my personal life — and now I’ve got work to do repairing the relationships that were broken. Not every sacrifice can be seen in advance, and not every sacrifice is worth it. Life is much more complex than setting goals and achieving them — and I want to write in a way that acknowledges that.
I’m tired of writers telling me what to do — tell me your story instead
I’m tired of writers telling me what to do, what I should think, who to be, how I should be. I want to be me, and I want to read about you. I want to know you’ve been in the trenches, you’re alongside me on this journey of life. I want to know about your pain, to hear what happened, and what you learned.
“We don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped … We suffer, therefore we think.” — Alain de Botton
When you’ve shared your story, I want to draw my own conclusions about how to apply when you learned in my own life. Give me clues, give me hints, but don’t tell me what I should do and how I should do it.
I love how Sergey Faldin thinks of this. He’s moved on from sharing advice to just a “raw and unedited account of what’s been happening and what I was thinking about.” Faldin explains:
“As a writer, your job is to make people feel better. Make them laugh. Maybe even make them smarter. And this often requires you to go a slightly different path than most writers take.
“Instead of telling us what to do, tell us what you did. Instead of writing more listicles, share a story. Instead of making us feel bad about ourselves, make us laugh.”
As Henri Nouwen writes in his book The Wounded Healer, this open sharing requires great courage. Your job is to connect the story of your pain to the humanity of others. Your aim is to help your readers understand their pain by seeing themselves in your pain. That means no holding back. Here’s Nouwen:
“Making one’s wounds a source of healing… does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition which all [people] share.”
Bring your battle scars to your writing and be a wounded healer
Curing is different from healing. As Lissa Rankin, M.D. writes: “Curing means ‘eliminating all evidence of disease,’ while healing means ‘becoming whole.’” Instead of seeking to fix your readers with a cure, you can guide them to a place of healing where they see their own inherent wholeness, and embrace fullness of life. That’s the journey you guide readers on when you share your wounds.
When you put your battle scars on the page, you become a wounded healer. Your wounds become your power. That’s why I’m inspired by the words of the playwright Thornton Wilder :
“Without your wound where would your power be? … The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In Love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve.”
Bring your battle scars to your writing, and you will bring healing to your readers.