Why is it that the journal section at a bookstore is so alluring? Perhaps it’s the potential of a blank page. That space holds the possibilities of all the thoughts, ideas, and questions that build up inside our minds. Journaling could be an outlet, a place not just to store mental tchotchkes, but to reflect and gain insight. One could argue there is no right or wrong way to journal, but there are some misconceptions that might do with a bit of clarifying.
Check in: What comes to mind when you think of journaling?
I’ve heard journaling described as…
“Something teen girls do in pretty pink notebooks.”
“Pointless. A boring ledger of the day I literally just lived and I’m now reliving for some unknown reason.”
“Too much work. Why do I need all these colored markers and washi tape?!”
“Confusing. What do I write about? How do I write it? Does grammar matter?”
“Frustrating. A reminder of all my regrets and worst moments.”
And one of my personal favorites: “A spew of words that turns into a dumpster fire whose only purpose is to help me self-destruct.”
If some of these descriptions resonated with you, it might be time to revisit journaling from a different perspective. As a tool, journaling can be very helpful. But it takes a bit of insight into what you need and what works best for you. Below are some different ways to approach journaling that might just make you reach for that Retro Star Wars spiral bound notebook with the profound Yoda quote next time you’re in the bookstore.
“Already know you that which you need.” — Yoda
The nuts and bolts
“Journaling” can loosely be defined as “a means of expressing or reflecting on your thoughts.” After that, it’s a unique, personalized tool that can manifest in many ways. My journal, for instance, is a huge cacophony of styles and content, each entry serving a different purpose in that moment. It has been chewed on by my dog and has coffee stains on the cover. But sometimes, my journaling is voice recordings on my phone or hastily written notes in a spiral notebook I keep on my desk. A friend of mine keeps multiple journals neatly stacked on a bookshelf, each with their own purpose, with organized sections identified by colored tabs. She also keeps a notes app on her phone, filled with lists and random ideas. Neither of these is right or wrong. It is a reflection of our personal needs. In that way, a journal is a lesson in self-acceptance and self-respect. Your journal should honor what feels right to you.
Clarifying common questions about journaling (spoiler- it really comes down to personal preference):
Spelling and grammar might matter, or it might not.
It could include the date or time or neither.
It may be first person, third person, or a combination of perspectives.
It can be private or it can be shared.
You can write it out on good old fashioned paper, type it up on a word document, or tap it out on a notes app on your phone.
It could include words or images, art, poetry, and narrative.
It could be simple or it could be elaborate. It could be pen to paper sloppy freehand or washi tape, trackers, graphs, and calligraphy.
There is no maximum or minimum word count. Some days it might be one word or phrase, other days it may be a novella. It may not even contain words!
If that list sent your brain into a spiral and left you wondering where to start, may I suggest…
Mental Wandering (also called ‘stream of consciousness’)
Give your mind space to wander without any specific direction or goal. As thoughts flow in and out of your mind, write them down.
Therapeutic benefits: This exercise increases self-awareness, helping us identify thought patterns, beliefs, and perceptions. Have you ever experienced a negative thought snowball? It might go something like “Oh crap, I forgot to pay that bill. What else have I forgotten? When am I going to get my shit together? I can’t do anything right!”
Most of the time this process happens quickly and unconsciously, leaving us reeling from the whiplash of negativity. Increased self-awareness helps us to catch ourselves in the process and stop negative thought snowballs before they get out of hand and overwhelm us. This awareness might also help you identify what it is that you really need in that moment. If you have certain coping skills or other outlets available, you will be able to use them sooner, which can make them more effective.
Identify your truths
What unmet needs came up while you were journaling? Are you burned out, hungry, bored, lonely?
What emotions are you experiencing? How do you know?
What resources and coping skills do you have available to meet those needs or provide an outlet for those emotions in a healthy way?
Review your stream of consciousness and practice identifying patterns in your thinking
Am I thinking in all-or-nothing or black-and-white terms?
Am I catastrophizing or magnifying things?
Am I minimizing or avoiding things?
Am I blaming or deflecting responsibility?
Am I paying attention only to the negative?
Are my expectations realistic?
Am I concentrating on my weaknesses and forgetting my strengths?
Am I blaming myself for something that is not my fault?
Am I taking something personally which has little or nothing to do with me?
(*Once you have an idea of your thought patterns, check out my blog post Choose Your Own Adventure for tips on how to start changing your thinking to be more adaptive and realistic https://www.jcartercounseling.com/post/choose-your-own-adventure )
Tell a story. Storytelling is amazing because it is boundless. You can literally put yourself in any scenario, in any time or space, as any character, and see the situation from every angle, with every possible resource available to you!
Therapeutic benefits: Narratives are a great tool for reflection, learning, and self-exploration. By retelling something that already happened, we can learn from our past. By changing the details, we can gain perspective and explore other possibilities. We can gain insight into our strengths and weaknesses. We can explore our identities. Writing about something that is currently weighing on us or something we anticipate will happen in the future helps us cultivate acceptance and practice problem solving. Storytelling can also be a form of mental role play, giving us a chance to practice social skills, come to terms with realities, and feel and express difficult emotions. The stories we tell ourselves can be devastating or empowering, it is up to us.
*NOTE: If you are using narrative journaling to process past trauma, it is recommended to undergo this process with the support of a mental health professional
Write about a scenario that happened in the past but re-write the story from someone else's perspective.
Write about your ideal self. How would you walk, talk, and behave? How would you interact with others? How would you treat yourself? How would you spend your time?
Write about an alternate universe where you are a super-villain or super-hero (exploring our "shadow" selves can be just as impactful and important as exploring those bright sides). What kinds of problems would you grapple with? What would you be fighting for or against? Who would be your arch nemesis? What would be your strengths and weaknesses?
So many things go unsaid. Write a letter. Write to yourself- your past self, future self, or any other version of yourself imaginable (your ideal self, your angry self, your burned out self). Write a love letter, an apology letter, or a pep talk. Write to lost loved ones. This might be a letter full of all those things that went unsaid, or a repeating session of letter writing to touch base and feel connected every now and again. Write a letter as a form of prayer. Write to your God(s), deities, ancestors, and the universe. Write as advocacy or as an outlet for social and cultural issues. Write to a specific group or to the whole of humanity. Let that first draft of any letter be just for you. Then, if you’d like, send it as is, rewrite it, burn it (safely!), or let it fade into the background and become just another page in your journal.
Therapeutic benefits: Letter writing can help you to redefine relationships with those who have passed away, gain closure to unresolved issues, learn how to express yourself and communicate more effectively, develop healthier relationships with yourself and others, and it can be incredibly cathartic. Re-reading and re-writing letters can help us to reflect and gain insight. Sharing letters can help us to bridge gaps in communication with others, fostering deeper connections and promoting more genuine conversations in relationships.
Sometimes we just need a little nudge to get us going. If you want a bit more structure to your journaling, try a prompt. “Daily” books are great for this purpose (Daily Stoic, daily devotionals, thought-a-day, etc.). Or you could take any passage or quote from any book. You could also Google “(insert literally any topic here) journal prompts” and find a multitude of lists. There are also journals with different themes and styles that can serve as a guide. A couple of my favorites are Zen as F*ck By Monica Sweeney (a journal for practicing mindfulness) and Wreck this Journal By Keri Smith (a journal with prompts that are great for breaking the norm, cultivating creativity, or challenging any type-A tendencies you might have). For the youngins in your life, Big Life Journal is awesome.
Therapeutic benefit: Prompts can help us to reflect on difficult topics, like grief. Prompts might also provide an alternative perspective to help us look at something differently. Sometimes journaling can serve as a coping skill or distraction. Prompts are a great way to help ease an unsettled mind or guide thoughts into a more positive direction.
What are the things you could not live without? Now challenge that and imagine what it would be like to adapt in a world where those things don't exist.
What makes you feel safe, supported, comfortable, or content? What about those things, places, or people foster those feelings in you?
Complete this statement- "I wish I could..." (see, experience, learn, go to, give, meet)
The Big Picture
Journaling can improve your self-awareness, retrain your brain to be more adaptive, help you to understand your relationships better, and serve as a way to practice coping skills, which helps you to handle stress better, regulate your mood, respond to challenges more effectively, be a more authentic version of yourself, and improve your overall quality of life. Resilience!!!
Afterthought: You might be thinking “hey wait a minute, you didn’t even cover gratitude journaling!” Gratitude encompasses so many things. It is a concept, a philosophy, a frame of mind, and a skill. Stay tuned! I have a future blog post planned where I go in-depth on gratitude (including a list of real-world gratitude practices!).