On Keeping a Personal Journal
Journaling Has Many Uses
One way of viewing journaling is that you are keeping in motion an ongoing honest dialogue with yourself. The purpose of this dialogue is to keep you on point, centered, illuminating that which is most present, most vivid, and most real. The following is a list of uses to which a personal journal may be put. While this list is comprehensive, it does not exhaust all possibilities. You might wish to add your own ideas.
- What is it I want to change? If you wish to know what is really on your mind, there is no better exercise than to let yourself just do “automatic” writing. If you just record what is on the top of your head, you will inevitably reveal that which is of utmost importance.
This is so because human beings seem to operate by focusing on one major theme and sub-themes that dominate their conscious and unconscious minds. Therefore, let yourself record whatever is on your mind, associating to it as freely as possible, trying not to censor; put the material away for a day or two, then reread it. A clear and dominant theme will jump out at you. This theme may become the central theme of your entire therapy.
- What is it I want to change to? Changing in psychotherapy means going from an undesirable state to one that is more desirable. Thus, psychotherapy is goal-directed. Goals may be clear, vague, or blank. One goal may be to generate goals.
- How did I get to be this way? Changing in therapy means that you will engage in an ongoing process that begins with identifying the problem of the day, exploring it, and working it through. Common to all three steps is forging cause-and-effect chains of meaningful connections. In this light, knowledge of the past is often essential to understanding seemingly unsolvable dilemmas of the present.
Problems do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they have a point of origin and a history of developing over time. Thus, one use of journaling is to take a present problem and trace its origins and development over time. For example, you might want to identify when it was that you came to hate your brother, or when you couldn’t bear raising your hand in class even though you always knew the answer to the teacher’s questions.
Once you identify the origins of a particular problem, you might note what the conditions were surrounding the issue in question. Did you know what you were feeling at the time? Did you discuss it with anyone? Were their responses helpful or perhaps hurtful? Looking back on it, are you aware of what you concluded?
- Organize chaos. Journaling is an excellent accompaniment to therapy sessions. A journal allows you to have an unbroken dialogue with yourself, to ask yourself challenging organizing questions such as: Who am I? What do I really want? What interferes with attaining and sustaining what I want? Under what conditions do I get stuck? What do I do to try to get myself unstuck? All of these questions help you to learn about yourself in detail. You may also record feelings, thoughts, and memories that naturally flow from what was said and not said during therapy sessions. Giving names to your experiences and writing them down clarifies, organizes, and makes them feel more real. Honest talk over time inevitably reveals the truth of the matter in question, potentially resulting in greater personal freedom and effectiveness.
- Release tensions constructively. It is not unusual to feel overwhelmed at points during the process of self-exploration. At such times, there is an urgent desire to empty out the “negative” feelings. Emptying out or “venting” might take the form of screaming, or crying for hours, or sitting and staring, or restlessly pacing. Journaling is a constructive method of venting that not only allows for release, but often results in insight.
- Learn to be alone and enjoy it. People often complain about being overwhelmingly lonely, fearing being alone particularly late at night. Here journaling is particularly helpful. The habit of expressing one’s feelings in honest words becomes habitual. The journal is like a friend who is always there, always willing to listen to whatever you want to talk about in any way you want to talk about it. The journal accepts you unconditionally — no judgments, just consistent encouragement: tell me more, tell me more, tell me more. In this light, it is possible to learn to understand and accept yourself with ever-expanding breadth and depth.
- Get unstuck. Significant change is possible in therapy, but it is often met with resistance. Sooner or later, everyone gets bogged down. Journaling is particularly helpful as an aide to getting unstuck. Because problems are embedded in various contexts, dated journal entries enable you to pinpoint when, where, with whom, and what you were experiencing when you got “off track.” Once you have that information, you can explore what triggered the derailing or “stuckness.” Identifying triggers and contexts can offer opportunities to generate creative ideas for getting unstuck.
- Assess progress over time. The desire to change is the primary reason people seek out and stay in therapy. Some changes are obvious, while others are not. Reading your journal, a record of the continuous flow of your vital personal experience, is an objective evaluator of significant change. It can help to read how you were, particularly at the beginning of your therapy, as compared to how you are today. When changes occur, the journal brings to life the process of making meaningful connections, like pieces of a six-dimensional puzzle fitting together into a clear and coherent whole.
Williams, G. (2013). On Keeping a Personal Journal. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/on-keeping-a-personal-journal/