A significant and distinguishing feature of online counseling is the use of writing as a medium for healing. The use of e-mail and chats are a prominent feature of many online counseling settings. E-mail may be used as the primary form of healing communication, as part of an online chat or program, or as an adjunct to a webcam therapeutic relationship. Let’s explore the function and impact of writing as a powerful tool in the repertoire of online counseling.
The positive effects of writing have been well researched and applied to other therapeutic settings way before its expression in an online setting. Cognitive and narrative therapies (amongst others) make use of writing in building self-awareness, understanding, and self-expression. Both the positive physical and psychological effects of writing are well documented and its impact in an online form is also well supported (Richards and Vigano, 2012). For instance, Sheese, Brown and Graziano, 2004 (cited in Richards and Vigano, 2012) found that writing in the form of e-mails serves a cathartic purpose in transforming emotional events into the written word.
Writing provides the writer with the opportunity for self-expression but in a format that allows him/her to control the content, speed, and depth of what he/she chooses to explore. This generates a feeling of psychological safety and containment. In addition, the permanence of writing provides its own healing possibilities. A client can look back on what he/she has written allowing for the possibility for deeper reflection and greater self-awareness. Writing functions as a permanent record and perhaps even serves an internal, self-witnessing, observing function for the writer. This increased internal focus and the use of written expression facilitates and enhances self-awareness. Seeing your thoughts and feelings in written form has a powerful impact that encourages further self-reflection (Beattie et al cited in Richards and Vigano, 2012). Psychological processing via text can also allow for the development of a personal story or coherent narrative that can make sense of and serve a containing purpose for diverse experiences, thoughts, and feelings. For example, a client coming to terms with a history of abuse may find it easier and more containing to write about this abuse as opposed to expressing it verbally to a therapist. The writing down of the abuse also allows the client the opportunity to create a coherent story around their experiences and process it at their own pace. It also allows him/her the opportunity for more control and the capacity to more carefully select what he/she feels comfortable with sharing with the therapist at any given point in the therapy.
Writing within the context of online counseling is not only the realm of the client but also the realm of the therapist. Written responses to the client form a significant component of the therapeutic process. A text-based therapy offers the therapist more space for reflection before responding to the client. The permanence and asynchronous nature of a written response allow clients the opportunity to revisit the therapist’s responses and process them in their own time, in a way that direct verbal communication does not allow for (Cook and Doyle cited in Richards and Vigano, 2012).
Writing is a powerful therapeutic tool in its own right and is also a great alternative for people who are less comfortable with face-to-face communication. It does, however, require certain competencies and considerations from both client and therapist in order to work effectively. The client and therapist need to have adequate writing skills and
be comfortable with using words for self-expression. Issues of boundaries regarding the frequency and regulation of written communication need to be carefully negotiated. Keeping these and other considerations in mind, the use of written communication as a component of online counseling allows for a potentially more thoughtful and gently paced therapeutic process.
Richards, D. and Vigano, N. (2012) Chapter 59: Online Counseling. p 698- 707. In
Yan, Z (2012) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior: Volume 1.University at Albany, USA
Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a Ph.D. in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens, and children within her areas of expertise.