The Power of The Positive
By Elizabeth Perlman, Founder and Executive Director of The Intuitive Writing Project
"Unlike the competition and criticism most kids experience at school, The Intuitive Writing Project offers a world of radical acceptance and emotional support.”
At the Intuitive Writing Project, our programs are grounded in The Amherst Writing Method, a transformative writing philosophy created thirty years ago by the visionary teacher, Pat Schneider. The focus is on strength-building, ensuring that every individual is deeply listened to and respected, and that all feedback be positive, based on the power, strength and authenticity of the writing. As all our teachers know, the positive effects of positive feedback can be seen on the happy faces of every one of our writers at the end of every class. And yet, I am still sometimes asked how someone can improve their writing without critical feedback.
We live in such a critical world—so indoctrinated in the “necessity” of criticism—it can be hard to imagine any other way. While there is certainly a time and place for critical thinking, the problem is that we will never write anything (and many stop writing altogether) if we are criticized too much at the outset. I know this because I stopped writing for twenty years, convinced (by a bit too much negative feedback) that my writing was “weird” and “stupid.” As someone who loves writing and needs to write, this was crippling and led to years of struggle and depression. But that’s why The Intuitive Writing Project exists, to ensure that every girl who loves to write gets the support she needs—both as a writer and as a person.
Interestingly, over the last few years, there’s been more and more research to support this positive approach.
In a recent report entitled The Feedback Fallacy by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in the Harvard Business Review, “Your brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and narrows its activity… Point out the grammatical flaws in an essay, ask the writer to fix the flaws, and while you may get an essay with good grammar, you won’t get a piece of writing that transports the reader…. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular, when they see something within us that really works.”
Additionally, in the book Words Can Change Your Brain by Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, they present evidence to prove how words can and do change our self-perception. We are changed by the words we hear, the words we read, the words we speak, the words we write, and especially the words we say about ourselves.
According to Newberg and Waldman, positive words actually improve our ability for clear, rational thought. They also activate the motivation centers of the brain and increase overall brain functionality and physical well-being. Negative words, on the other hand, activate stress hormones that shut down the brain and make us more susceptible to physical and mental illness. The longer you hold a positive or negative thought in your head, the more powerful the positive or negative effect. With time and repetition, the words we say and think actually change the structure of our thalamus—which is what relays sensory impulses to our brain and changes the way we see the world. In other words, the criticism we think we need actually reduces our capacity to create anything positive, whereas positive feedback improves our creativity and makes us better writers.
For me, a positive word is anything that affirms our strength, our value and our worth. By contrast, a negative word negates our strengths, judging and criticizing us to make us feel inadequate and unworthy. Negative words are rooted in fear whereas positive words are rooted in love. Positive words heal, encourage and empower.
Without positive mirroring, we all tend to assume the worst, especially when we’re sharing a personal story. But unlike the competition and criticism most kids experience at school, The Intuitive Writing Project offers a world of radical acceptance and emotional support. And this is how girls become their own greatest advocates and allies—first for themselves, and then everyone around them.
Every writer needs to be heard, validated and supported. The more we can acknowledge a young person’s strengths, the more they will be able to trust in themselves and their abilities, both as writers and as individuals. The more that girls are validated and supported, the more they discover their voice—and the stronger their voice becomes.
The Sufi poet Hafez once wrote about this kind of support, how a rose can only bloom with “the encouragement of light against its being. Otherwise,” he said, “we all remain too frightened.” I know in my heart that it’s true. Because creative expression is so vulnerable, scary and all-to-easily negated, The Intuitive Writing Project is here to offer girls “the encouragement of light.”
3 tips for parents, when listening to your child share their writing:
The way the Amherst Writing Method creates safe space is to treat all writing (no matter how personal) as a work of creative fiction. This helps us focus on the beauty and strength of the language without invading the writer’s privacy or trying to “fix,” “help” or give advice. It is through writing that we clarify and resolve our own problems. The very act of writing is an act of self-instruction and self-discovery. Through the writing process, we can trust that each writer will be guided to their own wisdom.
We listen for the words, ideas, thoughts and feelings that resonate for us and share our appreciation, as in “I loved how the writer described the _________," or "I loved the line about the _________." When you give feedback, repeat back the words, phrases and ideas that you liked and loved, the things that made you think, feel or wonder. Be specific about what you like the most. When we feel truly listened to and have our words reflected back to us, we feel validated and confident.
We often suggest to our students that they listen to other writers read their writing the same way they listen to music, letting the beauty and power of words wash over us. The same is true when you hear your child read their words. The greatest gift we can give another person is to be fully present to them and to listen with an open heart, affirming the power and value of their words.