If you were on social media at any point in the spring of 2020, you probably ran across something like this: “If you ever considered starting a journal, now is the time.”
Journals (and their even more controversial cousins: diaries) have been around for as long as we’ve had words and pages, but they’re a surprisingly divisive self-help device. We tend to love journaling or ridicule it, and even some who love it don’t engage with it very often.
It’s easy to punk journaling as a navel-gazing exercise in self-indulgence, where you write the story with you in the lead role and everyone else a supporting character. But journaling is much more than a self-serving joyride. A good journal can help you express how you feel, clarify your thoughts, and even bolster some of the positive messages you know are true.
A recent writing project helped me understand this last point. I was developing a mental health journal for men and decided to look through some of my own journals for inspiration. I ran across one I started when I was 11, and found some interesting entries. I was lamenting rejections from friends, pining after crushes who showed zero interest in me, and questioning my ability to make it as a student. But I was also writing about my strengths, coaching myself with an “other fish in the sea” philosophy, and giving myself little pep talks. In other words, journaling helped me express my feelings while learning to respond from my strongest place: the most rational self that knew I was young and supposed to make mistakes.
In other words, I was being my own therapist. Not that journaling replaces therapy – the opinions and observations of a trained outsider can always be valuable – but journaling can aid in the introspection that is so crucial to any therapeutic process. Many of my clients keep a journal and bring it to their sessions to help them talk about the topics that occur to them during the week.
So, why have so many people been telling you to start a journal right now? Here are a few thoughts:
Journals help you express feelings: As long as your journal is free from prying eyes, there is no safer place to express yourself than in a journal. Many people write down the statements they’d never say to someone in person because it would be too harsh and counter-productive. They’re just words and feelings, though, so why not let them out? Frequent journalers often tell me how much relief they feel after writing it out.
Journals help you clarify: My clients often report a common problem: they have a number of conflicting feelings at once, which confuses them and makes them feel stuck. The very nature of journaling forces you to focus on one topic at a time. It’s normal to feel both love and anger for the same person, for example. Write out one paragraph about what you love about them, and then another about what angers you. Each emotion gets its time on stage, one at a time.
Journals help you remember: Yes, it can help you recall what happened during the week, but it’s much more than that. Many of my clients say that writing down stories from their past helped them remember details they had forgotten, or at least ignored. Why is this? I can’t be certain, but I suspect it’s because writing is a slower process than thought or speech, meaning you are slowing down and letting yourself become immersed in the memory. The details of the memory seem to percolate as you move through them at a slower, more deliberate pace.
Journals help future you: Some people write a journal page and immediately destroy it. Others shred them at significant anniversaries. But many hold on to their journals and read through them in the future. A snapshot into the past can help you see how much growth and understanding you’ve gained. I was surprised to find that 11 year-old me had some values and interests that seem foreign to me today, but that many of the fears and self-doubt he carried still knock on my door from time to time. I think a lot of the advice to journal during the pandemic was based on this principle, as people wanted to make sure we have a record of the fears, realizations, and bursts of creativity that the pandemic stimulated.
Journals help you problem solve and self-soothe: Some people use a journal to simply record events and emotions, but it can be much more. It can be your place to brainstorm for solutions to difficult problems. It can be the place for your bullet-point strategizing. It can be the place where you theorize why you feel and do things and how you can change. And this is a big one: for some people, a journal is a place to write down a hopeful, caring message for yourself. We spend plenty of time listening to our internal critical voice, a journal could be one time where we counter that voice with a balanced pep talk or a review of past battles won.
Journals help you write: This might not be a high priority for all of you, but many writers swear by journaling as a way to push through writer's block and get back in the flow. Creative types often turn to a method like “morning pages” to help find their muse. Expressing, without edits or judgment, begets more expressing.
And there you have it. That’s what all those Tweets were about. So how do you start a journal? Stay tuned.