The most widely recommended tool by therapists and counselors to supplement therapy is journaling. People who consistently journal report better understanding of themselves, being more in touch with feelings, and being better able to deal with the past. Journaling can be done by all ages, without worry of grammar, spelling, or vocabulary. It is the ultimate self-help tool and also the most cost efficient.
Mary sought help with a therapist because of continuing anxiety. She had a difficult time pinpointing the things that produced her feelings of nervousness. She just knew she seemed progressively less able to cope with her daily life. Her therapy was helping but she felt she could go deeper than an hourly session could permit, and on expressing this to her therapist, she suggested journaling. Mary told the therapist she had attempted journaling in the past, but had never been very successful at it. The therapist, after further questioning, learned that Mary’s fear was not “doing it right.” Mary told the therapist she had repeatedly purchased expensive leather journals, only to stare at the blank page and not know what to write that would be important enough to “mess up the clean page.”
There is no “right way” to journal. The journaling experience can be as unique as the person doing it. It can also be adapted to suit the individual’s needs. Buying an expensive journal is not necessary. In fact, most therapists report better results when their patients use an ordinary spiral notebook or legal pad, at least in the beginning. This reduces performance anxiety of having to write something profound. One therapist advised her client to write on the first page of her notebook, in large letters, “There is no RIGHT way to do this!”
The next suggestion usually given is to set up a certain time of the day to journal, and usually writing in the mornings is best. Many journal writers say they learn more from their morning journal entries, because night entries tend to be simply a recounting of the day’s events. For example, writing, “I had a dream about my boyfriend last night. I still feel upset becauseÃ¢Â?Â¦” will be more helpful to someone than “Today I went to the store, then did my laundry, and then had dinner with friends.”
If morning writing is not practical, then choose a time that you can devote daily to writing.
Joan has been a long-time journal writer. She suggests beginning an entry with listing current feelings. For example, “Right now I feel sad.” By beginning with getting in touch with her feelings, she finds the rest of her entry usually flows much easier. She also suggests using different colored pens for different emotions- green for jealousy, black for depression, red for anger, etc. Journal writing has helped her many times to vent her negative feelings in a safe way.
Evelyn says many of her journal entries are in the form of letters. She said she has written letters to her mother, her husband, and God expressing her feelings. Of course, these letters are for her benefit only, and are not mailed. She gives an example of an increasingly strained relationship with her mother, and not understanding the reason. After writing a letter to her mother in her journal, she realized she still held resentment toward her mother because of an event that happened to her as a teenager. She dealt with her feelings through journaling, and was able to put things in perspective, thus improving the way she interacted with her mother.
Journaling does not have to follow any form. Spelling is not important, nor is grammar. Journaling is not being written for others, so mechanics are not an issue. One does not have to use complete sentences. At a recent journaling workshop, one group member reported that when she is depressed, she only writes words or phrases. She doesn’t worry about whether the words relate to each other, and she doesn’t try to analyze them. However, she says she recognizes a rhythm to her writing that matches her emotions. On days she feels happy, she writes in long, descriptive sentences.
Underlining can help to emphasize a part of the writing that seems especially meaningful. One participant drew “light bulbs” over parts of her writing to highlight moments when her writing seemed to “make the light go on” about an issue she was dealing with. She re-read these “light bulb moments” frequently.
Journaling is private, and your journal should be kept in a safe place. Express to family members how your journal is your private thoughts, and ask them to respect that privacy. If there is a fear that your privacy will be breached, several journaling software programs are available that can be assigned a password, so that journaling can be done on the computer. I personally feel that what I write is no one’s business, and if someone breaches my privacy and gets upset over what they read, that is not my problem. How I feel about someone one day may not be how I feel most of the time. Others have to understand that. Journal writing should never be swayed to please someone’s ego if he or she happens to read it. However, there are times when sharing some of your journal can be beneficial, such as reading parts of your journal with your therapist to aid in the progress of the sessions.
People who journal as a way of self-therapy usually report that at first, their journaling seemed to deal with surface issues, but after two weeks they were astounded at things they remembered or realized about themselves through journaling. The two-week point seems to be the magic point for most people when they notice their journaling take on new meaning.
Many people keep their journal by their bed, or in a nightstand. Others carry their journal with them daily in a purse or briefcase. One man reports carrying his journal in the trunk of his car, and writing each day in the parking lot before going into his office. Again, journaling can be suited to meet your individual needs. If you have a difficult time beginning, some ideas to get you started are:
What are the five best compliments you’ve ever received?
What is your best birthday memory?
When was the last time you had a good cry, and what was going on at the time?
How are you like your mother, and how are you different?
Name your ten best attributes and ten things you wish you could change about yourself and why.
What person has influenced your life the most and how?
What is one thing you wish you could go back and change?
What is one dream you’ve had that came true?
If you have never tried journaling, I urge you to try it. Keep at it for at least three weeks, and you will be astounded at the turn your writing takes. After all, who is more important for you to get to know than yourself?