A vent session may not do much to alleviate your frustrations, but there’s something to be said for letting out your feelings in a more organized, coherent way: As Science of Us has previously noted, it helps after a particularly crappy day to put your thoughts to paper.
But according to a study recently published in Science, not all journaling sessions are created equal — and if you really want to write your way out of an emotional funk, there’s a certain storytelling technique that can help make your writing experience a little more cathartic.
The study authors recruited a group of around 600 volunteers to write about a past experience that was either positive, negative, or neutral. Some of them were also instructed to write their description with a specific purpose in mind, either to relive the event found an interesting linguistic pattern: The people who used the exercise to make their memory feel more meaningful used a generic second person — as in, “you never know what might happen” or “you win some, you lose some” — at a much higher rate than the rest of the study participants; across the board, those who used “you” also tended to think of their past experiences as more distant from their present selves.
The reason: Phrasing things through the eyes of some hypothetical “you,” the authors argued, helps to transform a personal event into a more universal one. “Generic-you is used to express norms in both ordinary and emotional contexts,” they wrote, “producing generic-you when reflecting on negative experiences allows people to ‘normalize’ their experience by extending it beyond the self.” Saying “I react this way when I’m sad” can feel like an intimate bit of self-disclosure; “you react this way when you’re sad,” on the other hand, places you in the company of other sad people across time and space. We all like to think we’re special, but sometimes, it’s comforting to remind yourself that other people have been, and will continue to be, where you are right now.