How to Journal

One of the most common suggestions I make to clients in their first few sessions is to begin the practice of journaling. 

Here’s why:

Life is happening all around us all day long, usually at what feels like a very fast pace. We normally don’t have space built into our life to pause and think about all of this life that is happening. There may be thousands of lessons packed into a single day, but we won’t get to learn any of them if we don’t make the time to pause and reflect. 

For those who are intentionally taking time to learn more about themselves, their habits, thought patterns, feelings, and the way past experiences have and are affecting them, taking this pause to reflect on daily interactions is incredibly helpful and usually where the bulk of learning, change, and healing take place.

Let me put this into an example. 

Clare has noticed a typical pattern of hers is to become very uncomfortable and upset when her husband is angry—whether or not this anger is in reaction to something she did or something completely unrelated to her. On a day that she notices herself reacting in this way, she takes time in the evening to sit and write about her thoughts and feelings. She writes down what happened:

Husband was frustrated because of a situation at work

Then she puts words to her experience of the situation: 

I didn’t like that he was angry. I felt that he shouldn’t be upset about that. I wanted to make him feel better.

Within these three sentences lies so much content for further reflection and the keys to explaining why certain thoughts and feelings arise in Clare in response to certain situations. Patterns that she once thought were simply normal or just part of her personality are actually habits picked up from past experiences that may be causing strife in her daily life. 

With these three sentences, Clare can begin to ask more questions: 

Why is anger uncomfortable for me? What makes me believe that someone should not be upset? What makes me think that my job is to make my husband feel better? When have I felt these things before? What was my experience of anger in my childhood? How do I express anger?

Gaining insight and awareness into our current patterns and why they are there then allows us to begin to change those patterns. Clare can go from shutting down, disengaging, and criticizing when her husband expresses anger to becoming curious about her husband’s feelings, validating his emotions, expressing empathy, and staying emotionally regulated in the face of another’s strong feelings. 

Taking time to reflect is typically not something that comes easy for us. The more we build the habit, it will become easier and bear more and more fruit. Not every time you journal will reveal some life changing revelation, but every time you journal, you are reminding yourself that your thoughts, feelings, and experiences are important. You are giving yourself the opportunity to change, grow, and heal. 

One way to journal is to reflect on your experiences of the day. Play the day back in your head and notice what sticks out. What was memorable? What strong feelings did you experience? What annoyed you? What brought you joy? What was stressful? Write down these thoughts and feelings and get curious about why those things stuck out to you. 

Another way to journal is to start with some prompts for reflection. Here’s a few to get you started:

-If you really knew me, you would know that…

-When I look in the mirror, what do I see?

-If I could talk to 12 year old me, what would I say?

-What do I think God thinks of me?

-How do I express anger?

-So far, this is what I have learned about life:

-The last time my heart felt heavy was..

-The most meaningful thing someone could say to me is…

-What really annoys me is…

-How do I react when someone is sad?

-How do I handle anxiety?

Having difficulty getting deeper? Try to keep asking yourself why or where does this come from? Take any thoughts, feelings, questions, or realizations that come up to a trusted counselor, spiritual director, or friend for more feedback and insight. 

This is one path to peace and freedom. This is important work that can be challenging and difficult, but it is absolutely worth it. Pat yourself on the back for taking the time to learn more about yourself and for becoming the person God has called you to be. 

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