One of the most powerful tools I use for helping my clients is keeping a journal.
In fact, I ask nearly everybody to start a simple feelings journal to keep track of their emotions and what triggered them. Even if they keep it for only a couple of days, they get a profound insight.
And it’s not just my clients who benefit, I’ve been keeping a journal – off and on – for twenty-one years. For the past five years, I’ve also kept a book journal where I review every title I’ve read.
What is Journaling?
While a diary is a record of what you did, a journal is a record of your thoughts, feelings, desires and goals. However, there is a lot of crossover and I often record events in my journal – particularly if they trigger an insight.
Journals are often kept on a specific topic. For example: recovering from infidelity or tracking spiritual development. However, there are no hard and fast rules. Write about what you feel passionate about.
Why I Journal?
When my partner was dying in Germany, I was away from my support network in England. It was before mobile phones and social media. I felt very alone. I didn’t want to trouble my partner with my problems – he had more than enough to cope with.
Rather than letting my thoughts go round and round in my head, I sat at his bedside and picked up a notepad and started writing. I felt more grounded; better able to cope.
I kept this journal for a year. In 2017, I decided to publish this journal as My Mourning Year to mark the twentieth anniversary of my partner’s death. I haven’t kept a journal all the time – that would be a diary – but at times when there’s been a lot going on and I wanted to make sense of the lessons, or simply to stop myself from going mad.
This summer, I am publishing my journal about getting a puppy and how it helped with my grief. It is called: The Power of Dog.
Top Twelve Benefits of Journaling
If I could give only ONE piece of advice to someone coping with a crisis, it would be to keep a journal. Journaling is where you record and keep track of your feelings, thoughts and learning. So what are the benefits of journaling?
1. Starting to value yourself
Many people grow up in families that were not particularly interested in their feelings (unless they were happy ones) or their thoughts (unless they fitted with their parents or teachers). Perhaps you were given messages like: put others first, don’t be the big I AM or don’t stand out. Perhaps you didn’t see people from your background or situation in the books that you read and somehow got the message that your experiences don’t count.
Setting aside time on a regular basis to journal says my thoughts, feelings and what happens to me are important. It is the first step to beginning to value yourself.
2. Improving self awareness
Half the time, we are so busy getting through the day and tick off items on our ‘to do’ list that we are not truly present. The rest of the time, we are caught up with worrying about the future or obsessing about the past. Journaling will allow you to step back and spot any destructive thought patterns and behaviours.
3. Increase clarity of thinking
Time and again, it is only when I sit down and explore my thoughts and feelings on paper that I realise what is truly making me anxious or what an argument with someone was really about. Writing gives me time to reflect and looker deeper into my thoughts.
4. Improve ability to communicate with others
When I’ve got my own thoughts straight, it is much easier to communicate them to other people. How can our partners understand something we have only half understood ourselves? It is another one of the powerful benefits of journaling.
5. Developing self reliance
Of course, it’s fine to offload onto our friends and family when going through a hard time but there comes a point when they begin to lose patience and, because they love us, push us into making a decision or finding a solution – even though we’re still at the exploring and understanding phase.
You can’t keep phoning people at three in the morning or going on line to find answers which will tip your over-active mind into melt down. More times than not, you know what’s right for you. All you need to do is listen to yourself, deeply listen, your journal will help.
6. Stopping you from losing sight of your progress
Time and again, my clients moan: ‘I’m back to square one.’ But they’re not, they have been so upset – at that moment – that they’ve forgotten what they have achieved. Flicking back through your journal will soon remind you: ‘I have made progress,’ and ‘I’m not doing that any more’ and ‘I felt so much worse before.’
More times than not, you have come up against a temporary blip not an impossible set back.
7. Helping with the art of solitude
One of my favourite quotes is from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Journaling will help with not only being comfortable with your own company but to know your own mind for when you leave the room. You will be far less likely to do something stupid because you’ve reached: ‘f*** it, anything is better than being here’. The truth is you end in a place a whole lot worse than sitting alone in your room.
8. Keeping focused on what you want
If you’re talented there are all sorts of things you can do. Your friends will ask you sit on this committee or help with this project. They sound interesting and you can easily get caught up in someone else’s excitement.
When you put this project into your journal, you can see immediately: does it belong here, does it support one of my main goals or is it a distraction?
9. Incubating dreams and ideas
The idea for this post came out of my journal. I read a magazine article about journaling. I had a name for what I had been doing with my project of on-going memoir. (I was writing volume five at the time.)
Your journal can be a safe space to think through ideas, give your dreams a chance to breath and develop – without the harsh light of other people’s reactions.
10. Becoming mindful
We don’t live in the moment. We are nostalgic or angry about the past. We are busy planning our glorious. We don’t stop and take in what our senses are telling us right now.
I am sitting in my office with the sun streaming through the windows. I have just finished a cup of strong coffee and the tang is still in my throat. I am writing. It is what gives me more pleasure than anything else. Time and again, when I read back over my journal, I get the same lesson: be in the moment, savour it, the eternal now is all we truly have.
11. Keeping track of your learning
When you write down the lessons learned, they go deeper into your consciousness and they are more likely to feed into your actions. A personal example: I read a great article this morning where a journalist shared what he’d learned from his prostate cancer.
I couldn’t remember what they were – despite clocking they were profound – so I looked them up and added them to this blog post: “Imagine how much worse it could be, rather than how much better; change what you can change, accept what you can’t; and do not let fear rule your life.” I am much more likely to remember this advice now I’ve added to this blog.
12. Speeding emotional recovery
If you’re going through something intense – like infidelity – when there will be setbacks as well as triumphs, you need plenty of on-going support. Your journal can provide this function. My journals have helped me come to terms with the death of my partner and the many layers of this loss. I doubt I would reached a place of acceptance otherwise.
How to start journaling
Don’t worry about the medium. I have used a cheap notebook and I’ve been given a leather bound one with environmentally sound paper made from the bark of a bush that regenerates itself and grows wild in the Himalayas. Both work equally well. I use a laptop when I’m travelling and my desk computer at home. Personally, I prefer to be able to back up my journals – as I have a horror of leaving things on trains, planes etc. (Yes, I’ve lost notes for a book I was writing in this way.)
Keep it private. The biggest inhibitor is worrying what other people will think. So remember this is just for you, you don’t have to justify your thoughts and feelings to anybody. If you’re worried about other people having a sneaky peak, put a password on your computer.
Set a regular time to write. I like to write in the mornings when I am at my best. If you have a regular time, for example on the train to work, it will be much easier to keep going. If your routine has to be broken, jot down a few key words to jog your memory for next time you write up your journal.
Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. It is not about how good you are at writing. It is about recording your thoughts and feelings. Just get in the flow and go for it. If you truly care about such things, you can go back and correct later. By the way, there is a surprising bonus to keeping a journal: it will improve your writing.
Top tips for getting the most out of journaling
Here’s how you get the most benefits of journaling:
- Ask yourself three key questions each time you start to write: What happened? How do I feel? What are my thoughts?
- What have you learned? It doesn’t matter how often you learn the same lesson, put it in your journal.
- Think about what frightens and what truly interests you. Have you written about it?
- Don’t be afraid to examine trauma.
- Reflect on what you’ve written. What are you not saying?
- Don’t censor yourself.
- However, beware of ranting, raving and self-justification. It’s fine in small doses but it can easily tip into ‘I’m right and everybody else is wrong.’
- My motto is: be compassionate towards others and tough on myself.
You can read two of my journals: My Mourning Year and The Power of Dog. The first records the death and the first year of my bereavement. The second looks at how getting a puppy helped with my grief, what I learned in puppy training and how it helped me let new things into my life again.
What do you journal about? What benefits of journaling have you discovered? Join the debate below and post a comment.