• Desirée Strother

How to Journal

When it comes to journaling, people either seem to love it or hate it. Somewhere we got the idea that it has a bunch of rules around it, but that's not true.

Journaling is very similar to mindfulness, in that when we're getting started, we sometimes feel like we don't really know what we're doing here. There aren't any "results" happening, so it feels odd to us, when we're so used to spending almost every moment of our time either trying to get a result or feeling exhausted from all the trying.

Journaling, like mindfulness, is not a results-oriented process. It's simply a process, or rather a way to process.

Journaling is like going to the bathroom. Just like how water brings nutrients in and helps us expel waste, just like breathing brings energy and oxygen in and helps us expel waste, journaling works the same way for our mind. It's like going to the bathroom for our brain.

I'm sure you've had the experience where you just keep thinking about something. You push it away or distract yourself with TV or deep cleaning your bathroom, and that may work for a few days, but it just keeps popping up over and over. Or you had an interaction with someone that is just really under your skin, and you keep trying to shake it, but you find yourself thinking about it even when you really want to just move on. Or sometimes you just have a feeling. A general feeling of melancholy or confusion or unrest. You don't really know why or what it's about, but it's just sort of following you around. Journaling makes space in the mind and the heart by moving those things out. Journaling is a place to set your thoughts down.

What journaling is not

Journaling is not a regimented daily writing assignment.

You do not have to start on January 1.

You do not have to say Dear Diary.

You don't not have to explain all your activities or your thoughts simply for the rote practice of it.

You do not have to journal every single day.

You are not a failure if you skip a day, a week, or even some months.

You can journal more than once in a day.

Journaling is there for you, you are not here for journaling.

It does not even have to be written. It can be drawn, scribbled, cut and pasted, recorded.

It doesn't have to be full sentences. It can be quotes, half thoughts, or just words and colors.

What journaling is

Journaling is vulnerable. Brené Brown says vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. That is exactly what journaling is. It is courageous to begin expressing your thoughts and your feelings for yourself. It is courageous to begin showing up for yourself in this way.

Much like our posture in mindful sitting allows our body to communicate to our self "I support you, I am here for you," journaling communicates to our mind, to our heart, to our spirit, "I validate you."

Before we begin speaking the truth out loud to the world, to others in our life, we have to start by telling the truth to ourselves. Journaling allows us to practice that awareness and confrontation in a safe way. It is courageous to confront things that hurt, that we don't like about ourselves or our life, to begin working on things that will change our life as we know it. This is the main reason most of us avoid journaling, whether consciously or unconcsiously. Because emotionally, it is hard work. It is the raw, unprocessed, unrefined stuff of our inner world. That level of vulnerability deserves to be honored and kept safe.

Journaling is discovery. One of my favorite artists, David Stenbeck, shared this piece on Instagram, and this perfectly encapsulates the experience of discovery through journaling. On both a micro (sentence by sentence) and macro (over the years) scale, journaling is a process of discovery about yourself and about your life.

Sometimes there will be huge revelations that will have you slamming down the pen, looking up, and saying "Oh my gosh. I get it now." But most of the time, it's like going on a hike in a new place, coming into a clearing or reaching a precipice and saying, "Oh... I didn't know that was here." It's a felt sense of settling deeper into yourself.

When you sit down to journal, you do not have to know what you're going to express or where you're going. In fact, even if you do have an idea, you will probably end up somewhere you weren't expecting.

Journaling is investment. When we invest money in the bank, it compounds over time to equal an amount much greater than the money we actually deposited. Journaling is the same way. You put in some here, a little there, a big chunk one day, a thought the next day. Over time, you begin to experience the return on that investment as much greater than the time spent journaling or even the thoughts or feelings expressed there. In psychology terms we call this gestalt—the whole is greater than the sum of all its components.

Journaling is creative. Creativity is an attribute of being human. Creativity is not an outcome (a painting, a book, a song); creativity is getting your hands in the mud and working with the mess. Often, we have an idea in mind, a feeling to start with, but then we get in the mud and through the process of messy, vulnerable discovery, we create something wholly new to us—a new way of thinking, a new perspective, a new sense of peace or joy, a new life, a life of consistent renewal.

Journaling is self-therapy. In therapy, one of the very first things we work on that's foundational and continuous through the rest of our work, is tracking, reflecting, and ordering a participant's emotional experience. That means we pull all these overwhelming and seemingly random pieces of experience out of the air and we begin to lay them on the table. We name and identify what the participant is feeling. We put it in an identifiable order.

For example, it might be something like, "Your male coworker got angry, and it seemed irrational to you, is that right? And then you suddenly felt panicked and wanted to leave, but you were afraid of what other people would think if you left the workshop, is that right?" Journaling teaches you to engage in this process for yourself.

Lisa Feldman Barrett calls this granularity, or emotional specificity. Her research shows that those who can put emotions into words, constructing their experience with a high degree of specificity and complexity in the face of intense distress, are less likely to react in a way that negatively impacts themselves or their relationships. They are also able to cope better with experiences of rejection and experience less mental distress.

Journaling has also been shown in the research to reduce stress, help people cope better, and offer people more precise and effective tools for making choices and solving problems.

In other words, when we journal, intense emotional experiences go from feeling like overwhelming explosions to life upsets we have the resources to get through.

"I have to write. I write to try to tie down the chaos of life's moving kaleidoscope and to hold it still for a moment. I write when I am unclear as to how to make sense of an experience or when I find something particularly significant or beautiful. Amazingly, I find that every written reflection is still an adventure, a chance to clamber into this territory called being human. What will I find there? Always something I do not yet really understand." - Sue Johnson, Attachment Theory in Practice


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