Facing Fear

Last week, I went with my husband to South Dakota for a family gathering. While there, one of my sisters-in-law wanted to hike to the top of Harney Peak. I thought, sure. I love to hike. It will be fun! So several of us set out walking, and we hiked at varying paces for about 2 hours or so to reach the top of Harney Peak. At some point, about 15 minutes from the top, I told my husband to go on ahead because I just wanted to take my time (actually, I had been keeping quite a fast pace and suddenly realized I was not able to keep that pace much longer!). I knew the view would be worth it, so I tried to avoid thinking about the climb as a race and tried to focus on the surroundings instead.

Harney Peak is the highest natural point in South Dakota.

At the top of Harney Peak.

According to harneypeakinfo.com, “at 7,242 feet, Harney Peak stands prominently as the highest point in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. Standing sentinel over the Black Hills, Harney Peak is topped by stone fire tower providing a magnificent view. Nestled in a wilderness area, and accessible by hiking a 3.5 mile trail starting from Custer State Park, the granite summit is the highest point in South Dakota.”

As we hiked toward the summit, it never occurred to me that we were hiking to this little stone structure at the tippy top of Harney Peak. What I mean is that I figured there would be a big flat spot, lots of tress, and there would be an overlook where we’d stand and take photos while feeling totally safe yet proud of ourselves for hiking such a renowned track.

But when I got to the bridge shown below, I nearly turned back.

I took this photo as I approached the bridge (I’m standing at the bottom of stairs that lead up to the bridge, so this photo shows the underside of the bridge).

The “back story”: Somewhere along the way over the last few years, I’ve become “afraid of heights.” Actually, I know exactly how that happened. The short version is that I’ve been dealing with an inner ear problem for a few years, and while most of the time it’s not a problem, certain conditions make me feel unstable…like being near the edge of a cliff. Or walking or riding over a bridge that is high above a ravine, and I can see through the bottom or sides of the bridge into the abyss below. You get the idea.

So, here I was climbing this mountain, and I came to the bridge, and I started feeling panicky. A few people I didn’t know passed me, and that was just fine with me. I took a deep breath, stepped onto the bridge, and I instantly felt unstable because I could see the steep drop below me. I looked ahead, held onto the hand rails, and put one foot in front of the other. Somehow, I made it across that bridge but it was not easy. Then there was the next hurdle. I had to walk up two stairways to the peak. They were constructed of the same materials as the bridge above so that I could see through the bottom as well out each side. On one side of each stairway was a handrail…and I could see as far as…well, as far into the distance as you can imagine. The picture below gives you an idea of how high up in the sky I’m talking about.

Just when I thought I’d had enough, I approached another set of stairs. At least these were made of stone. See the stairs? (mid-right of the photo).

Harney PeakI knew I had to get a grip both literally and figuratively. Turning back would mean walking down those open stairs that I’d just tackled, and it would also mean that my husband would have to come looking for me. So I decided to get a mental grip on things by allowing myself to feel safe for a few minutes. I did this by stepping to the side at the foot of the stairs so people could pass me if needed, by placing my back against the wall behind me, and by trying not to look at the wide-open view I was now facing. I pretended to fidget with my iPhone’s camera settings…anything to avoid looking out into the abyss!

Within 3 or 4 minutes, one of my brothers-in-law came by. He asked if I had already been to the top. I said no and that I was just about to go up (wee little lie), and I stepped into place behind him as he navigated the steps I had been avoiding. I focused my gaze on his shoes as to avoid total awareness that to my right was more than 7,000 foot drop. My brother-in-law was tired–he stumbled slightly at least twice as he went up the steps, which should have freaked me out, but he was so unconcerned that it actually made me feel like I was being a big weeny.

When I got to the top, several others from our party where there already, along with few strangers taking selfies. I enjoyed the breathtaking views (South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado!), then I sat down in a corner and my husband came over with his backpack, and we got out some snacks and rested. People asked if we were going to climb the observation tower. I said no! I was happy to remain on the platform about twenty feet below the observation tower. I did take a few pictures before we headed back down, but I tried not to dwell too much on how high up we were. I walked behind my husband, held onto his belt loops, and focused my gaze on the backs of his legs as we navigated our way back down the “scary” parts. Before I knew it, we were on the wider track again with lots of land between us and the edge of the mountain. I felt a sense of pride that I had gone to the top rather than turned back when I was feeling anxious. Facing my fears–even if not completely on my own–made me feel pretty good about things.

Since that day, I’ve reflected on the feelings of fear and panic I had as I traversed the bridges, stairs, and rocks to climb to the summit. I might not have gone on the hike had I seen photos beforehand or if someone had described what those last few hundred feet up would be like.

I can’t help but point out an obvious connection for me, which is that that journey feels very similar to my current circumstances in a PhD program. I don’t think I would have undertaken a doctoral degree had I known about all the long hours, the frustrations, the physical and mental challenges, and let’s face it–the instances of bruised ego.

I’ve certainly wanted to turn back many, many times. But the thing that keeps me from turning back is that I know finishing will feel so much better than quitting. I know that I’m learning, and I still have much to learn, and there’s a lot to gain from having help along the way. As I teeter on the brink of data analysis and articulating my findings, I know that my peers and my family will help me through the tough times ahead. Being independent and doing things “on my own” has its perks, but why not ask for support when it is needed?

Have you ever experienced a literal or metaphorical challenge that you navigated with someone’s help? I’d love to hear from you.

#Bring back our girls

I wanted to come out of dissertation-hybernation briefly to point you to Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed column in the NY Times called, “What’s so scary about smart girls?” This is an excellent read and should not be missed!

Here’s a particularly salient quote:

“Why are fanatics so terrified of girls’ education? Because there’s no force more powerful to transform a society. The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.”

This is what I’ve been talking about, people! Educating girls has great and powerful effects. Unfortunately, the terrorists are fighting against education, but the world is now watching and is taking action.

Stay tuned…

Language Style Matching

Pennebaker Opening UpAs I’ve posted before, I discovered James Pennebaker’s “Expressive Writing Paradigm” through my doctoral studies. I have always intuitively known that there was some special magic to writing things down. My whole life (well, since I was about 10), I have made connections between wanting to write more when life was rocky and not being interested in writing when life was good. I had also noticed that when things were going REALLY wrong, I didn’t want to write at all, whereas when some amount of time had passed, I could write and actually felt that I benefited from trying to articulate my thoughts, feelings, and experiences on paper or online.

It turns out that researchers like James Pennebaker have been researching such phenomena since the 80s. As I’ve been reading about these types of experimental studies, I become more and more intrigued by the findings related to this line of research. My own research has to do with the desire (need?) and the right to write about difficult experiences, but I am not doing “experimental” research. My research is of an ethnographic nature, and much of my data already exists (i.e., writing that has been published).

Recently I was listening to a conference call with Drs. James Pennebaker and John Evans. I must say that every time I read or hear something about expressive writing–whether or not I’ve read it or heard it before–I learn something new. I think this is because my sustained involvement with the research helps me to really hear and see the nuances of meaning that I might not fully (or ever) understand otherwise. In any case, I heard Dr. Pennebaker say that there’s something called “language style matching” that occurs when the language use of two people “match” or resonate with each other. You know, it’s that feeling you get when you are reading and writing messages with someone and you feel that that person really “gets” you, that you are in sync with each other, that there’s a special connection between you. The way that person speaks and writes make you speak and write in a manner that “matches” the style and voice they use.

It has long been proven that when couples “mirror” each others’ body language, they are more likely to form a bond and lasting relationship. It makes perfect sense that the same mirroring could occur with language.

Well, when I heard Dr. Pennebaker talk about that, I had this huge “Ah Ha!” moment. I wrote a while back about my muse and how I wish that I could write the way I wrote when my late husband was alive. I knew that my writing was better because his writing was so amazing, and I rose to the challenge. I wrote better to match his writing style, and I also spoke more eloquently as a result. I knew and used words that many people thought sounded a bit “fancy,” but really, I loved this shared language that my muse and I perfected. It made me love him more, quite frankly.

So what does that mean in the whole scheme of things? Well, if some developers aren’t using Pennebaker’s language style matching for dating sites, they should be! Otherwise, it makes me wonder about everyday ways that people could benefit from a language muse. [Scratching chin and thinking....] I believe we all could use a boost to inspire us to improve in our writing. It’s wonderful to understand how that inspiration happens.

What do you think? Have you ever had a similar experience where your communication with someone was improved because of the phenomenon of language style matching that I’ve described? I’d love to hear your experience.



Loss for words

Sometimes, the loss feels so great that we cannot (and do not want to) find words.

This week, our Charlie Parker died without warning. We had more than a decade with Charlie, so I count myself among the blessed to have known such a superb cat who had such an intuitive and caring soul. What a fantastic, loving, and beautiful companion he was. He will be greatly missed, always. Rest in peace, my friend. Rest in peace.

Charlie Parker (2003-2014)

Charlie Parker (2003-2014)

Private writing in public spaces

hand writingMany people publish personal writing in plain sight on the Internet. But much of the time, they do not want just anyone to read their writing. In fact, they hope that most people who know them will not find their public blog, Facebook account, Twitter feed, or Pinterest page. They are writing for strangers because that feels safer than writing for friends and family.

Why is that?

I have read studies that site various reasons for this phenomenon. We all need to express ourselves, but sometimes those closest to use do not understand what we are experiencing. In fact, those closest to us may be more critical or dismissive than strangers.

So why do people write in public spaces and risk being “found” by those who probably aren’t intended to be their audience?

In my experience as a teacher, more often than not, students will write about traumatic experiences in journals, essays, or personal narrative assignments. I have often wondered about why they seem to be inclined to share stories of trauma with someone they don’t know very well.

When I discovered James Pennebaker’s expressive writing paradigm, I started to piece together the puzzle. Pennebaker published groundbreaking research on the hidden price of silence in his studies about writing and healing. In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (1997), he reports that early in his career while teaching at University of Virginia, he became interested in seemingly unrelated phenomena: the joy of talking, the nature of lie-detection, and the role of self-understanding (1997, p. 2). He learned from his psychology students that they loved to talk about themselves—and the students who talked the most during group work felt that they learned the most in class (1997, p. 3).

Additionally, Pennebaker learned that people have a need to confess. He conjures images of strangers over-sharing with people sitting near them on buses and airplanes and of people submitting to “lie detector tests,” confessing not because they thought the machine could read their mind, but because the more they tried to hold back the truth, the more their bodies betrayed them through increased sweating, faster heart rate, and other physiological symptoms (Pennebaker, 1997, p. 4-5). It is through the hard work required to suppress thoughts that the body undergoes stress. When the troubling thoughts are finally given an outlet, the person feels relief both emotionally and physically (Pennebaker, 1997, p. 4). He concluded that traumas kept secret can adversely affect the immune system (1997). When a person actively represses or inhibits thoughts, the body reacts to this physiological work with increased perspiration, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, which can create possible long-term stressors on the body that can cause both physical and psychological problems (Pennebaker, 1997, p. 9). Openly writing or talking about stressful thoughts can neutralize many of these problems (Pennebaker, 1997, p. 2).

Expressive writing may, therefore, provide one means of supporting our physical and psychological health. Professor and psychologist Kitty Klein (2003) calls the healing effects of expressive writing about traumatic lived experiences “remarkable” (p. 69). In research studies involving student populations (Pennebaker, 1986, 1997; Klein, 2005; Boals & Klein, 2005), college students in control groups compared to college students in expressive writing groups exhibited improved physical health, psychological well being, and cognitive function for up to four months after writing. Expressive writing or structured verbal disclosure can increase students’ ability to give their stories of trauma narrative coherence (Klein, 2003, p. 71). Pennebaker’s (1997) research on expressive writing suggests that feelings of relief that follow expressing painful emotions are generally accompanied by more efficient cognitive processing and improved well being (p. 9).

People need to tell their stories, that is, to expose their wounds (Frank, 1995, p. 3; Pennebaker, 1997, p.27) because talking or writing about trauma is a natural human response to a lived traumatic experience. The wounds exposed in those stories become shared in the telling and give a voice to the storyteller. Klein (2003) explains that attempting to silence thoughts forces them to remain in memory as fragmented sensory images, and they are therefore more likely to be activated by internal or external stimuli. The nature of memory fragments can be altered by converting them into narrative form (Pennebaker, 1997; Felman & Laub, 1992; Frank, 1995). It is the act of verbalizing the memories that embeds them in a story, which in turn reduces the memory to a state of nonactivation. As a result, when people are not provided opportunities to verbalize stressful events, their physical and psychological health may suffer, and they may experience reduced working memory capacity (Boals, Rubin, & Klein, 2008; Daiute & Buteau, 2003; Klein & Boals, 2001; Klein & Britton, 2007; Pennebaker, 1990, 1997).

Pennebaker’s (1997) work indicates that writing expressively can provide an outlet for people. His research shows that writing can help organize our chaos narratives in order for us to function better both mentally and physically (Pennebaker, 1997).

Recently, I was struck by how the research I’ve been reading sounded similar to a conversation Oprah had with Sanjay Gupta. Watch and see what you think.


Boals, A. (2012). The use of meaning making in expressive writing: When meaning is beneficial. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31 (4), 393-409.

Boals, A., & Klein, K. (2005). Word use in emotional narratives about failed romantic relationships and subsequent mental health. Journal of Language And Social Psychology, 24(3), 252-268. doi:10.1177/0261927X05278386

Daiute, C., & Buteau, E. (2002). Writing for their lives: Children’s narrative supports for physical and     psychological well-being. The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. (p. 53-73).

Felman, S. (1992). Education and crisis, or the vicissitudes of teaching. In Laub D. (Ed.),Testimony : Crises of witnessing in literature, psychoanalysis, and history. NewYork: Routledge. (p. 1-56)

Frank, A. W. (1995). The wounded storyteller: Body, illness, and ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions. NewYork: Guildford Press.


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