Journaling is one of the best practices for feeling your feelings—which is especially important if you typically pretend your feelings don’t exist. Many of us weren’t taught how to process our emotions—or even to name and acknowledge them.
Many of us were taught the opposite: Feelings are inconvenient, embarrassing, or dangerous. So, we walk around not knowing much about the emotions swirling inside our own brain and body.
Journaling validates our emotions and reconnects us to what’s real. It removes the added layer of self-judgment—in contrast to talking about our emotions, which can lead to “editing ourselves,” said Lauren Cook, MFT, a Los-Angeles-based clinician working with individuals, couples, children, and families.
Journaling also allows us to “release” our difficult emotions and discover insights about what our pain or discomfort means, said Nicolle Osequeda, M.Ed., LMFT, a therapist in Chicago.
Similarly, when we journal consistently, we discover patterns about our emotions and behaviors, “making it a lot easier to identify triggers and help manage difficult emotions,” said New York therapist Tzlil Hertzberg, LMHC.
The other great thing about journaling is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it, said Stephanie Moir, LMHC, a therapist in Tampa, Fla. This makes journaling a “creative and free process,” allowing “our minds to explore depths and perspectives that we may not be aware of on a daily basis.”
Moir likened journaling to meditation because it lets our minds wander. And there are many ways to explore your emotions on paper. Here’s a wide array of prompts to try:
Access kindness first. If you’re hesitant to journal about your feelings, reflect on what’s holding you back, Osequeda said. Then write yourself supportive, comforting words, and consider how you can create space for self-compassion in all areas of your life, she added.
Track your emotions. If you’re just easing into exploring your emotions, simply jot down how you’re feeling throughout the day for a month or so. To explore further, include what triggered your emotion (if you know) and how you might solve the situation.
Locate the emotion. Moir suggested journaling about where in your body you’re experiencing your emotional pain. For example, you might sense sadness in your stomach or heaviness in your chest. You might feel anger in your red-hot face and anxiety in your stiff neck.
Dig deeper into your emotional pain. Hertzberg shared these prompts: Think about an experience that elicited painful emotions. What thoughts did you have about this experience and what it meant to you? What negative emotions surface most often around it (like anxiety, shame, or guilt)? What behaviors resulted from the emotional pain? How were they helpful and unhelpful to you? In what ways is the emotional pain a result of the unrealistic demands you put on yourself, others, and the world around you?
Explore a memory. These prompts come from Cook: What memory lingers with you the most? How has this experience changed you? Who do you wish you could talk to about this? Why? How are you seeing your resilience through this experience?
Explore your grief. At the top of your page write the words “My Thoughts Related to Grief,” Moir said. Then jot down anything that comes to mind.
Explore letting go. Answer these questions about a relationship, experience, or belief you’d like to relinquish because it’s no longer serving you, according to Southern California psychotherapist Robyn D’Angelo, LMFT:
- Why is this becoming harder to hold on to?
- When I think about letting this go, what fears come up?
- When I imagine my life one year from today (after letting go of what no longer serves me), how have my relationships, experiences, and beliefs changed?
- What would I like to discover about myself throughout this process of letting go?
- What am I afraid I might learn about myself?
- What would happen if I woke up tomorrow without ________?
- How can I celebrate the courage that letting go required?
- What person can I share this with, who’d honor, celebrate, and support me in letting this go?
Name your supports. Therapist Layla Ashley, LMFT, suggested asking yourself: “What strengths, resources, and support do I have that can help me as I face my struggles?” Then, create a list of “what people could say and do to help you feel supported and comforted [when you’re struggling],” said therapist Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D, LCMHC.
Expand your perspective. Create two lists: one with situations and things that bring you emotional pain; and the other with what brings you joy and laughter. “Reflect on how both lists contain important aspects of being human and [are] important to allow ourselves to feel,” said Osequeda. Then, write about how all our feelings are temporary. “Does that change your perspective regarding feeling difficult emotions?”
Pick the prompts that resonate with you and incorporate them into your journaling session. You can even create an entire self-care ritual. For example, D’Angelo starts her mornings with a practice that appeals to all her senses: She puts on soothing music, lights a candle, and drinks hot tea. She uses a warm blanket, turns her phone to “do not disturb,” sets an alarm for 30 minutes, and grabs her journal.
Osequeda also stressed the importance of creating a calm environment. She suggested dimming the lights, turning on a sound machine, and practicing a 5-minute meditation or taking deep breaths for a minute before journaling.
According to Moir, as we navigate our busy, full lives, we forget to pause and let ourselves just feel. But “We need to feel in order to heal.”
Journaling can help us kick-start that process.