The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Ruth Folit
EM: What do you mean by journaling? Although the activity seems self-evident, how do you envision journaling?
RF: Keeping a journal is essentially having an honest written conversation with yourself. Like all conversations, they vary in style. The most basic is reportorial—simply providing information. (Today Bob told me...) Or perhaps the conversation might be a full exploration of the pros and cons of two choices you face.
Alternatively your journal entry may be a wild rant where you use strong words to express uncontrollable emotions. Or you might find yourself in a rambling, unfocused stream of consciousness that initially skirts important issues but ultimately wends its way back to the heart of the knotty problem that is bothering you.
Perhaps you begin by asking a question and then responding to it, which then leads you to another question, and response, and so on. Or you may want to begin with a provocative passage from a book or article to springboard your writing. You may write about what you are grateful for. Or simply list what went right today to remember what's good in your life.
These kinds of conversations, intended for no audience beyond yourself, are fully forgiving. No one will be offended. Or outraged. Or misunderstood. The point of the writing is to express your feelings and thoughts in a safe place. Writing, rather than simply cogitating and ruminating in your head, helps keep you focused. And, of course, as an extra bonus you have a record of the path where your mind went.
No need to write for hours. You'd be surprised what can discover in just five minutes. Remember that you don't have to show your entries to some beady-eyed English teacher. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar don't matter and you can relax and write in whatever fashion suits you. My one piece of advice is to be kind to yourself, in the same way you would be when talking to a good friend. Bring compassion with your journal.
EM. You believe that journaling can help a person in emotional or mental distress heal and grow. How would you say it helps? What in the activity is “helping”?
RF: I believe that most of the time, you are the wisest expert about yourself. Journaling reinforces that notion by spending the time to carefully listen to and express your own thoughts and feelings. Who better ultimately knows how to find more satisfaction and meaning in your life, and solve your life's dilemmas, than you?
By writing these internal conversations—your often-unnoticed inner talk—you become more aware of your own process. As you write you tell your own particular, subjective perspective of the world. With the help of a little distance, when you re-read your journal hours, weeks or months later you see those same words from a different, more objective viewpoint.
When I was 10 years old I learned I needed eyeglasses. My first reaction was “I see just fine!” But when I got those glasses I was instantly amazed at the detail and clarity of the world. When you go back and re-read your entries with an eye to discovery—suddenly you can see your patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. What was once blurry or even invisible is quite often visible and clear. Your beliefs, which you might not otherwise have noticed, pop out: “Oh I get it: I usually see people as being [good/evil/trustworthy/dishonest]...” “I often chose friends who are [kind/undermining/difficult/combative/supportive]...”
Translating an experience into words requires brainwork. When writing you are remembering details, choosing words, building a story, and ultimately constructing a coherent narrative. You are organizing the experience into a meaningful story, a packet of information that you can understand and integrate into your worldview. Once you gain clarity and come to peace with that experience you can learn from it and move on.
When writing about a really upsetting issue, consider writing for just 15-20 minutes per day for three or four consecutive days in order to give yourself a chance to express, allow yourself a break to unconsciously digest what you've written and then come back to write again with fresh energy and new perspective. Dr. James Pennebaker, the social psychologist who has done much of the research on the benefits of writing, gives that exact set of instructions to his research subjects. He has found that a significant portion of people in his studies who wrote about emotional or traumatic experience for a brief amount of time for a few days were significantly more healthy, had lower stress hormone levels, and stronger immune systems than those who had written about a neutral topic (such as a description of the room) during the same time.
There's no formula for how long or how often to write. Do what feels right. There's no pressure to write daily. Some write often when they feel they are in need of making a life course correction. One finding worth noting: give yourself some time after a recent trauma occurs before you write about it.
EM: Do you have an anecdote of someone who helped himself or herself deal with some emotional difficulties via journaling?
RF: I know hundreds of people who would say that journaling has helped them with emotional difficulties. I can offer several examples of how journaling has helped me.
+ Many years ago I was feeling trapped and overwhelmed being the mother of a young family. I spent an hour to write about my feelings and perceptions. It was mostly a stream of consciousness venting and when I finished, I felt like I had just returned from a one-week vacation! I usually find the process of writing soothing and clarifying.
+ When I awake in the middle of the night unable to go back to sleep, I often have a notebook nearby and write for about 15 minutes and then quite easily fall back to sleep. The act of transforming feelings and ideas swirling around in my head into language lets me relax and go back to sleep.
+ I was in the midst of a very difficult time and a close friend let me down in huge ways. I was outraged but I knew that if I unleashed my full fury not only would I have said things I would have felt terrible about later, but the message would have been lost in the ruckus. Periodically during several months (yes, months!) I wrote about my strong feelings which gradually subsided and I was finally able to find the right words to calmly tell my hard truths to the other person. Not only did he hear what I said but he apologized, both of us learned from the interaction, and I have moved on.
EM: When does a “self-help tool” like journaling “work the best,” would you say?
RF: One pitfall of journal writing is that people find themselves going round and round, covering the same ground. Dr. Pennebaker analyzed many different writings and found that those who were able to change perspectives were those who most changed and grew.
So, yes, rant and rave and rage in your journal. But give yourself a time limit. How about 10 minutes of kvetching, and then shift. Find another way to look at the issue: From the other person’s point of view. From a different angle—from a bird’s eye view, from two steps back. From tomorrow, or next year. From a different writing style—use poetry instead of prose. From the point of view of a narrator or from the voice of the issue at hand. (“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!”) Shift from an emotional lens to a rational one.
If you find yourself stuck, going over the same terrain and not making any progress, use the power of language to reshape, redefine, rearrange, or re-contextualize the stymying event or interaction. If you used a keyboard when journaling, consider the “Shift” key to be your ever-present reminder to shift perspectives.
EM: I've heard scores of people say, “Yes, I want to keep a journal! But I never do. How can I get started?”
RF: “I can't find time!” is the common excuse for wanting to but not actually keeping a journal. One underlying reason that we can't “find the time” to write is that fear and anxiety take charge. We are reluctant to write. We imagine the worst. We worry about what we might write. We find anything else (even hated chores!) to do. When you find yourself scrubbing toilets and vacuuming to avoid journaling, stop. Sit down and spend a few minutes breathing deeply.
Set your timer for 5 minutes. Find some paper and write a sentence or two about an interesting object nearby and why you find it interesting. And follow your thoughts. It will take you to some amazing places if you let your hand (bypassing the brain) do the writing. Or begin by finishing this sentence: “Today I wish … ”
Another reason people don't like to keep a journal is that they are concerned that others will read it. Journal software keeps your writing private with password-protection. Try that to give you the freedom you need to write without fear.
In the very unlikely event you find yourself “flipping out,” it's easy: Stop writing. And in the more likely event that you find yourself immersed in writing your inner conversation, keep your hand moving!
Ruth Folit is the designer and producer of LifeJournal software, a journal app that not only offers a place to write privately, but also incorporates information about the best practices of journal writing. A journal keeper for more than 40 years, she has created this interactive and innovative software based upon her own experiences and that of dozens of experts.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at email@example.com, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here
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