Well-Being//

Journaling more effectively

4 steps to a more vulnerable, thoughtful, and impactful self-reflection

Sunrise somewhere in southern Wisconsin

Journaling isn’t easy, but the power is in the challenge. More and more experts today recommend journaling as a strategy for addressing all kinds of issues. Just google, “how journaling helps…” and you will see results for anxiety, depression, stress, weight loss, etc. I agree with the experts who recommend journaling for all of these and many other issues in life. Journaling in various forms is a useful and formidable tool for deepening our understanding of ourselves and informing who we are, the choices we make, and the feelings we experience.

As someone who has journaled on and off for more than 15 years I can also say that what the experts usually skip over in their recommendation to ‘journal everyday’ is how to journal well, how to maintain a journal when things get tough, how to use a journal entry for more than just a stand alone experience, and how to be vulnerable in your writing. These are critical components to journaling that need to be taught and practiced to maximize benefits and create a peak experience.

  1. Journaling well: not all journaling is created equal. Many journals entries that I have written (or have read from clients) take the form of narrative. This should be considered a base level of self-reflection. Think street-view. Narrative is an important first step in a journal so that we can set the scene and recall salient details. The problem with narrative is that it is de-personalized and does not get past surface level conscious details. A truly well-written journal entry will go past description and dive into the internal world of the writer: What were you feeling? What thoughts occurred to you in the moment? What thoughts are occurring now as you reflect and relive the experience you are writing about? How does this experience you are writing about connect to or remind you about other moments in your life? These questions move you from the street-view to a removed place that allows you to take memories, thoughts, and feelings out and re-order / re-experience them in a different way that allows for new insights. These second and third order steps will create a deep and rich journal entry that is thought provoking and insightful.
  2. When things get tough: Inevitably, if you follow the steps laid out above, journaling will get challenging as things come up which challenge your self-concept. Examining and reflecting on choices you have made sets you up for an internal showdown. No matter who you are there are emotions, choices, and moments that are at odds with who you want to be as a person or who you think you are. When you recognize these moments you can suddenly get writer’s block or decide to stop journaling. This is a key moment! This is when journaling can truly be beneficial and help you to grow and change as a person. The moment you realize you have reached this juncture in a journal entry it is critical to suspend judgment and just keep writing…you will be amazed at what will come pouring out. In ‘stream of consciousness’ journaling punctuation, grammar, and sense of time and order will go completely out the window. Moments where judgment is suspended and you can pour out your inner experience represents an incredible turning point in journaling, self-reflection, and growth as a person. The ability to remove the ‘inner critic’ and simply let yourself pour out onto the page is why journaling is a healing experience that is recommended for so many reasons.
  3. Re-visiting an entry: More often than not my journals are written and then sit gathering dust on a shelf or unopened in a folder on my hard drive. However, there are several entries that I have re-used, re-examined, and will continue to use for many years to come. It is important to understand that journaling can be a one-off exercise AND that entries can be re-used or re-purposed many times over. Journaling as a one-off exercise should be thought of like a Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandala that is a painstaking work of art that once completed is blown away never to be re-created. In this case, the power of the experience speaks for itself, can never be taken away, and was healing in and of itself. Some entries are like that. Whatever needed to written down and expressed was excised. Other entries can and should be used over and over again like a favorite song or move that as you grow older takes on new and deeper meaning. Sometimes I have taken a hand-written journal entry and typed it into a document on my computer. Other times I have read journal entries aloud or set them to music. Each of these methods allows me to re-enter the space I was in at the time of writing it originally and then examine if I am in the same place or if I have changed. Recognizing change and growth is a key feature of journaling that is often overlooked but represents a method to give ourselves credit, or, in other cases, a kick in the pants!
  4. Vulnerability: The crux of writing a meaningful and thoughtful entry is being vulnerable and gentle with ourselves. It takes a huge amount of mental, emotional, and physical effort to write a solid journal entry. If the writer follows the steps and advice I have laid out above a journal entry should be like a therapy session that is written down by you and for you. Instead of talking out loud and without recording, a journal entry is a physical manifestation of your internal state that can be re-visited, reviewed, and sweated over. Research has demonstrated that song writing (or listening) is such a powerful emotional experience for humans because the way our brains are wired is that music has greater meaning than just the spoken word. In fact, humans are wired to trust songs and we really do need to mean it in order to sing it. The same is true for a journal entry. Writing things down is powerful. Writing down our most private and personal experiences is not for the timid. When considering starting a journal, or encouraging someone else to do so, keep in mind that the more vulnerable you allow yourself to be the more you will get out of the experience. This is a skill that grows with time and should not be expected to happen easily. Be gentle with yourself and trust that over time and practice you will get better at facing your internal world and putting it into words.
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