Proprioceptive writing: a method for embodied self-reflection

For the last few years, I have been looking for ways to get to know myself better. An unexpected life event in 2019, followed swiftly by trying to maintain my freelance career while solo parenting through a pandemic, left me feeling I had lost my sense of self. Back on my feet, but, like many parents, still trying to maintain the balance of work and home life, I have been searching for a way to support my current reflective practices.

Expensive and time-consuming options are off the table, so it has been refreshing to learn about a free method for boosting self-awareness: proprioceptive writing. This process combines meditation and writing, two of the most effective ways to tap into the inner self.

Rediscovering your sense of self

Proprioceptive writing was first invented in the mid-1970s by author Linda Trichter Metcalf. Metcalf was working as a professor at Pratt Institute and began researching methods to help students find their writing voice. She developed the proprioceptive writing method as a tool to bring the self into focus and clarify one’s own life.

The word proprioception comes from the Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”. In medical terminology, proprioception is the sense that tells us about the location or movement of our bodies.

If healthy proprioception is present, you will know whether someone has moved your finger upwards or downwards even when your eyes are closed. Conditions such as diabetes can disrupt this sense, making it difficult to perceive where your digits, or even limbs, are in space.

The same is true of our emotions and imagination. It is easy to lose sense of where we are in our lives right now, and the metaphorical direction we are heading in. With emotional proprioception missing, we start to feel lost or as if we are simply coasting along.

If we have ignored our inner voice for some time by not completing any reflective practice, we can become switched off to our own feelings and ideas. Curiosity dwindles, and we may not register our everyday thoughts.

Proprioceptive writing can help us to rediscover our dreams and creative energy, while rebuilding our self-trust. Furthermore, it may help us to resolve emotional conflict while dissolving inhibitions.

The benefits of embodied self-reflection

In their book, Writing the Mind Alive, Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon describe the ritual of proprioceptive writing as “utter simplicity”.

The writing task only takes around 25 minutes. During this time, one listens to inner thoughts, writing down whatever is heard. This could include feelings, emotions or worries that come to mind. These are explored through a combination of writing and inner hearing.

Researchers Jennifer Leigh and Richard Bailey noted that self-focus based purely on the reflection of thoughts can lead to rumination, anxiety and neuroticism. Conversely, they found that embodied reflective practices such as proprioceptive writing reduced the likelihood of unhealthy rumination. Furthermore, this practice was found to be helpful for both personal and professional development.

The combination of writing and reflection serves as a method to connect physical sensations with thoughts that an individual might otherwise remain unaware of. By learning to listen to one’s own thoughts in a supportive, empathetic manner, it is possible to develop a stronger connection to our emotions.

Writing in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, Reinekke Lengelle and colleagues reported that proprioceptive writing demonstrated increased vulnerability. Students who completed career questionnaires submitted answers that showed openness and depth of understanding, with richer material than would usually be expected of similar reflective exercises.

Lengelle concluded that proprioceptive writing increased the development of students’ career identities and narratives. This could, in turn, “enable them to contribute usefully to society in a way that is personally meaningful to them.”

By connecting with physical sensations through practising proprioceptive writing, you are likely to experience better internal and external emotional connections. This can lead to greater empathy for both oneself and others, as well as improved confidence levels, providing the right environment for personal and professional growth.

How to practise proprioceptive writing

This self-reflection method involves writing for 25 minutes while listening to music. Professor Metcalf recommends Baroque music to aid creativity. The only equipment required is a pen and pad of plain paper.

You should then follow these three steps for each session:

  1. Write down what you hear. It takes practice to recognise your thoughts and convert them to words, so take your time writing down each feeling as it comes. It can be helpful to think of your thoughts as voices. Perhaps a voice says, “I still need to enrol in that online course”, while another says, “I can’t take on anything else right now.” In the first stage, write it all down without any judgement.
  2. Hear what you write. Now that you have written down your thoughts, it will be easier to listen to what your mind is saying. Take time to explore each thought before you move on to another feeling or concern. For example, if you find yourself worrying that your income is lower than you would like, dig deeper into where this thought comes from and what your mind is trying to say. The process will help you listen to the story you are telling yourself.
  3. Go deeper for each thought. With every thought you wrote down, ask yourself: “What do I mean by…?” In the salary example above, you would explore your income worries further to understand whether your concerns are related to financial difficulty, your perceived status, personal expectations, self-image, self-esteem, self-worth or another issue.

Keep your thinking slow to fully explore every thought in the above three steps, rather than letting your mind race ahead.

The, at the end of the 25 minutes, stop writing and and ask yourself four review questions:

  1. Which thoughts were heard but not written down?
  2. How do I feel now?
  3. What story am I telling?
  4. Do I have any direction for future proprioceptive writing sessions?

These review questions should help to clarify the thoughts you have had, as well as providing prompts to help you get started on your next session.

Proprioceptive writing is a simple technique that combines writing and meditation to support embodied self-reflection. This method of self-reflection can reduce rumination and supports both personal and professional growth.

Practising hearing intelligence can be enlightening as it helps you not only discover what is on your mind, but the meaning and significance behind these thoughts, too. By putting your thoughts into words, you can play closer attention to feelings that might otherwise go unnoticed. It’s a way to make time to really listen to your inner self.

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