Almost every self-help approach will advocate Journaling as a tool for emotional processing, but so often it simply doesn’t work. This is because there are foundational principles that make recording your inner world therapeutic.
I Did It My Way…
First Key Principle: you need to do it your own way. We probably have a picture in our mind of sitting in a window thoughtfully recording in a hardcover journal with the red ribbon bookmark hanging down. Romantic indeed, but everyone is different with different brain wiring and different life experiences. So when we journal, we can write notes in a book or we can take a large format sheet and fill it with colour: splashes of paint, or crayons, or drawing spider diagrams, etc, etc. Find your way of getting what is inside out onto paper. Yes, digital can work best for some people.
You find whatever works for you and it must be yours. It can be as weird and as creative as you like because it’s about you processing what’s happening inside of you.
Express, Process, Integrate
Second Key Principle: There are 3 different and discrete stages to Therapeutic Journaling; there are different needs for expressing, processing and, then finally, integrating. Because people don’t understand the differences, they muddle them up and journaling doesn’t work to shift an issue.
- When you’re feeling something emotional that you’re trying to express, you need to start with a venting process to just get it all out. The standard term here is “evacuating”, which means emptying – getting as much out as possible with as little interference as possible. Get it Out.
- I phrase this as “just write words”; so there’s no structure, there’s no thought, there’s no judgment. You have a word in your head and you put it down; it might be the right word or it might not – that’s for future you to decide. It doesn’t have to be a good word it doesn’t have to be a clever word, it just needs to be words.
- So simply get a piece of paper and write words, phrases or even sentences. The only requirement is an ejecting (vomiting) of what is happening inside and then the recording.
- The second stage is processing; the moulding of your raw material into something. The task of this phase is ordering your inner world to make some form of sense. Processing is another common, perhaps cliched, term, but what does it mean in practice. Simply put it is about moving from point A to point B. Point A is the ejected insides where the journey starts and point B is the new understanding you are exploring. The question for this phase is what does this mean? Make Sense.
- Allow the outcome to be something new, even unexpected (possibly uncomfortable). The more that you try to structure the material into what you already think or what you want it to be, the less you will allow change. Remember that you are only doing any of this because something that is unresolved is bothering you. By definition, you need something new to emerge.
You know who you are, but know not who you could be. William Shakespeare
- Once you have expressed your inner thoughts and feelings creating the raw material that you processed into some useful understanding, what do you do with this? This is now the step of integration; of taking what you have gained and bringing it back into your life. Here you ask the question what do I do with this new understanding? Plan and Take Action.
The crucial element behind this principle of journaling for growth is that these three stages are discrete processes. When you muddle them, they just cannot work. There’s no functional way that you can express yourself deeply while also editing and judging yourself.
[BonusBar: A final point of great value is that once you have created your raw material the second two phases can be repeated multiple times, reordering for different needs/contexts and then also replanning with different strategies. The basic resource can be used over and over and even combined with raw thoughts from different times.]
“Your audience gives you everything you need.” (Fanny Brice)
Third Key Principle: to have an audience. In that first process of getting it all out, there is no audience, you are not even an audience. However, our brains are built to make meaning and, in particular, social meaning. So after the initial expressing, there needs to be a context to the processing; this is a key difference to when thoughts are spinning around in our own head. People that are more socially driven find it best it imagines a particular person or scenario. While more systems orientated people are better able to related to solving a particular problem.
- How would I explain this to them?
- How do they see this and how do I change their minds?
- What do they need to know?
- What is the best way to help them understand what I mean?
In Short: Find your own way. Separate expressing, processing and integrating. Have an audience (remember not for expressing).
[Sidebar: if you need emotional safety, then think about a context rather than a particular person or problem; this strategy should be less triggering.]
Journaling can be an effective way of self-therapy, but needs to be done in a way that digs deep enough and then encourages you to apply helpful understandings. Therapeutic Journaling can be used to uncover motivates which are proving difficult to find or to shift; as well as a tool for managing intense emotions or difficult memories.