Recently at a lunch break in a busy cafeteria, a young woman slumped over her table. She was writing in a journal.
When asked what she was writing, she responded, “A little bit of everything, really.”
When I paused, she filled the silence with a bit more explanation. “I just get so angry sometimes, even over little things. So I write down things that happened to me.”
“Does it help you?” I asked.
She nodded her head vigorously. “Oh yeah. Writing things down allows me to not get angry about everything, like I used to do.”
This young woman, like so many others, has learned to use her journal as sort of a portable therapist.
But how does that work, and how can you use your journal to sort through your own problems?
It’s easier than it sounds.
What journaling is NOT
Perhaps you’ve seen the videos of people with beautiful penmanship drawing precise calendars and beautiful flowing poetry in their journals.
The kind of journaling I am describing is not the Bullet Journal as invented by Ryder Carroll. That journal is a very proscriptive, systematic way to record daily events, that combines a journal with a calendar with a goals chart with often beautiful drawing and remarkable penmanship.
You won’t have to buy any special pens, unless you want to. There is no need to copy down your daily or weekly calendar, unless you want to.
You won’t have to learn how to do fancy, flowing calligraphy, unless … well, you can if you want to.
You get the picture. This is not a detailed, follow-these-steps-to-mental-happiness journaling method.
Because that kind of specific instruction and dogmatic adherence to rules and guidelines increases the chance of experiencing failure, missing deadlines, and screwing things up.
And then you quit.
That’s not what we’re talking about here.
What journaling is
The kind of journaling I am talking about is down-and-dirty, wrestling-with-your-demons, acknowledging-your-flaws, finding-new-solutions journaling.
The kind that really changes how your brain processes information.
The first rule of journaling club is that there are no rules. You don’t HAVE to do it any certain way. The rules you make are the right ones for you. So the following are guidelines for you to consider following. Or to consider modifying to meet your needs.
The second rule is to journal when the time is right. Do you prefer to decompress at the end of the day? A lot of people do. Keep it next to your bed and download all that information so it doesn’t keep you up all night.
What about first thing in the morning? Sure! That’s a great time to think about picking your biggest goal for the day, and a few small goals, and making those your priority. Don’t dawdle though, write and run!
What about when you’re experiencing a strong emotion? Absolutely, that’s when journaling for your mental health really performs well.
Did a loved one just trigger an old shame? Is your co-worker frustrating you and you can’t think of the best response? Is an old memory triggering new, horrible feelings?
Write those things down!
“The kind of journaling I am talking about is down-and-dirty, wrestling-with-your-demons, acknowledging-your-flaws, finding-new-solutions journaling.
“The kind that really changes how your brain processes information.”
The third rule is to process your emotions.
It’s not enough just to write down the full experience. At first this might be your goal, while you are getting used to the idea of writing them down.
But your growth will come when you revisit those moments and pick them apart from a safe (emotional) distance.
You can work with your therapist or alone to sort those emotions out. When you see patterns, you can develop questions to help you navigate the situation in the future. Some examples:
- What happened, exactly?
- What did other people say happened?
- Why did you feel [insert the emotion you felt]? Was that the emotion you wanted to feel?
- How did the person make you feel [insert negative feeling here]?
- What did you want to do? What did you do instead?
- Change the goal. What if the goal is NOT to shut the other person down but to make them your ally?
- Who else seems to have solved this problem that can give you advice?
- If you experienced failure in that moment, what would success look like?
By concentrating on how you might better handle that situation from the past, you are practicing how to handle similar situations in the future.
Here’s one journaling tip that can be really freeing when thinking about a rough situation.
Ask yourself, what if the rules were turned off? What (in fantasy) would you like to have happened? Take the moment to provide an absurd possibility for that moment. It might have been nice to punch the principal but … that should never happen.
Clearing the way for new ideas is freeing.
Your journal can help you do that.
Struggling with co-parenting, or just looking for an outlet for the stress of parenting? You likely will benefit from talking to a licensed therapist like Sakina Issa.
Contact Sakina today.
Luckily, these conversations can happen discreetly and by appointment using the same tools you have grown comfortable using at work, like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Just click the button in the upper right hand corner.
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