How I got better at journalling
Over the last 18 months or so, I’ve been journalling regularly and it’s made a huge difference to my mental health. My therapist is thrilled but unsurprised (lol).
I’ve always found a lot of value in processing thoughts and feelings by writing them down, but in the past I only really turned to that when my situation was really dire. That resulted in very fragmented journalling, and because I lacked the habit, journalling wasn’t the tool I’d think to reach for first, even when it really would have helped me!
These days it’s my port-of-call and I journal almost every day. Here’s how I did it:
I thought really hard about why I avoided journalling, even when I knew it was good for me.
This involved a lot of thinking (obviously) and a lot of alone time. I’d think about this in the shower, while making coffee, etc. Here’s a few things that came up:
- I had a myth embedded in my brain that my journal should be a fluent account of happenings in my life. That meant that when I picked up my journal after a long time of inactivity, I’d feel obligated to ‘catch up’ my journal on what had been happening in my life, as though catching up with an old friend who I hadn’t spoken to in ages. By the time I’d done that, I would be exhausted and unmotivated to write about whatever issue was actually bothering me.
- I worried about my writing being bad, or embarrassing, or downright stupid
- The hardest one to admit was that I felt like if I wrote my thoughts and feelings down, that would make them real! This is the most important one.
I used tools I learned in therapy to challenge each of those obstacles.
My therapist and I worked a lot on CBT to change unhelpful thought patterns. The process we used was first to notice, then to challenge, and then to reframe. I had already done step one, noticing, which resulted in the bullet points above. My next step was to take each thought and challenge it. I usually do that by saying to myself “That’s interesting, why do you think that?” (usually in my therapist’s voice in my head, hah)
Why do you think that journals should be a fluent account of what happens in your life?
I guess because that’s what’s commonly understood to be a journal? That’s how they’re portrayed in the media. If anyone else were to read my journal, it wouldn’t make much sense, because they wouldn’t have the context of what’s been going on! So, it feels like I have to write down the catch ups.
Why do you worry about your writing being bad, embarrassing, or stupid?
I don’t like being seen as stupid or weak. I don’t want anyone to think that about me and I don’t want to think those things about myself. So I need to hide all evidence of my stupidity and weakness, not take notes on it!
Why are you worried about your thoughts and feelings becoming real? What would happen if they were real?
Oof. If they’re real I have to deal with them. I guess I’m afraid that I can’t deal with them. I’m also pretty sure that some of my feelings (jealousy, heartbreak) make me stupid. See above point about fear of being stupid.
I then tried to reframe those thoughts and eliminate the obstacles
Journals don’t have to be a fluent account
It’s your space to write whatever the fuck you want, however the fuck you want to. You don’t have to share these with anyone, no one else need read them. You can burn them after you write them if you want to. You don’t have to give anyone context. Keep your purpose in mind—you want to journal so that you can work through your feelings. So do that. Don’t feel bound by popular media’s expectations of what a journal is.
The rule I made was No Catchups, just dive right in. This eliminates my guilt if I’ve avoided writing for days/weeks/months. There’s no reason for me to continue to avoid my journal, I can just dive right into my current thoughts.
It’s okay if your writing is bad, embarrassing, or stupid
There’s a lot more to unpack here, but basically, it’s okay if my writing is any of the above. My writing probably isn’t worse, more embarassing, or stupider than the next person’s, but even if it is, that’s okay. No one’s reading this, no one’s keeping score.
The rule I made was Be as dumb as you like, and don’t judge your thoughts. That means whenever I’m hesistating because a voice in my brain is saying “That sounds dumb”, I can silence that thought because I’ve already decided that dumb is just fine in my journal.
Your feelings are already real
A few years ago, a friend pointed me towards The Litany of Gendlin, which has stuck with me. In short:
What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Writing down my feelings doesn’t make them real because they are already real. Writing them down just helps me focus on them and deal with them, instead of denying them and avoiding them (which I’m reeealllly good at). The quicker I can start dealing with things that are bothering me, the better. I am definitely capable of dealing with them, because I am already living with them.
The rule I made was Remember the Litany of Gendlin. If I found myself hesitating, I would repeat the litany, then continue writing.
With my rules set, I next worked on establishing a habit. I re-read The Artist’s Way, which is a book that has many, many faults, but a few gems of wisdom. On of the key tennets is that you don’t have to be in a particular mood in order to be creative. Creativity is a habit. The author suggests that everyone write three pages a day, every day, longhand with pen and paper. So that’s what I do.
When working digitally, I find it easy to get too caught up in bikeshedding—which tool should I use? Ooh maybe I should try a new tool? But all my other entries are over at the old one! I’ll have to migrate them over! etc. etc. etc. No problems if digital works for you! I’ve just personally found more success with pen and paper. It hurt my hand initially, but after about a week I was fine.
Oh! I nearly forgot. One thing I also tried was audio journalling, which you could try! I did that once because I was lying in bed in the dark with my thoughts and I needed to get them out of my head but I didn’t want to turn on a light. So I just pulled up the recording app on my phone and talked.
Most importantly, if I drop a few days, or weeks, (or months, though that hasn’t happened yet), I return with no judgement, no catchups, and no giving myself a hard time.
If I have nothing to write, I do like Bart Simpson and write the same thing over and over and over again, until I’ve filled three pages. This could be “I have nothing to write” or it could be a phrase or poem or quote that I like—I’ve used the Litany of Gendlin before. Usually this bores me enough to spur me into writing something different.
Some days I write about things that have happened to me. Other days I write about thoughts that are bothering me. Sometimes I write about people I’ve known, kind of character studies. Occasionally I do a little fiction. Whatever takes my fancy.
That’s how I got better at journalling. The most important step was all the thinking I did about it beforehand, and the new positive rules I set for myself. The habit-building was secondary to all that, but came easier once I’d removed the guilt and shame that my previous conceptions about journalling caused in me when I missed days or didn’t otherwise journal ‘properly’.