Objectives. Self-criticism and reassurance are important mechanisms for regulating negative emotions but relatively little attention has been paid to interventions aimed at improving them.

Design. This study explored the use of an expressive writing task to increase self-reassurance and reduce self-criticism using a randomized controlled design.

Method. A total of 46 participants wrote either about life goals (the expressive writing task, n= 23) or a control topic (a review of a recent book or film, n= 23) for 15 min, three times within an hour. Measures of self-criticism/self-reassurance, stress, and positive affect were completed at baseline and at 2-week follow-up. The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) was used to analyse the writing of participants in the ‘life goals’ condition to identify psychological processes that might differentiate those who improved and those who did not.

Results. While there were no significant changes in self-reported stress or positive affect, participants writing about life goals decreased in their levels of self-criticism at 2-week follow-up relative to participants writing about control topics. Text analysis showed that experimental participants using words that imply the possibility of doubt or failure, including use of the subjunctive tense (e.g., could, would, should), were least likely to decrease their self-criticism.

Conclusion. Expressive writing shows promise as a means by which people may decrease in their self-criticism. Future research should determine whether such experimentally induced changes in self-criticism lead to the improvements in psychological health that is implied by previous cross-sectional research.

Practitioner Points

  • • 
    Considerable evidence shows that expressive writing improves many clinical, medical, emotional, and behavioural outcomes.
  • • 
    This study shows that writing about life goals can reduce self-criticism.
  • • 
    The effect of writing about life goals on self-criticism is reduced in participants who write about their goals in a way that includes doubt and the possibility of failure.