Therapeutic journaling goes deeper than talking about bare facts and events; it’s about writing with the intention to process and heal.
Although I’ve journaled most of my life, the kind of journaling I find most helpful has shifted over the years. When I was younger, my journaling was mostly about what happened and what I did that day. In my early twenties, facing much deeper life challenges than playground tiffs and homework, I discovered the art of therapeutic journaling.
Therapeutic journaling goes deeper than talking about bare facts and events; it’s about writing with the intention to process and heal. This kind of journaling entered my life at a time when I was struggling with family issues, problems in relationships, a lack of clarity around where my life was heading (and whether it was even worth living), and a vocal inner critic that seemed determined to keep me feeling small and unworthy.
Although therapeutic journaling wasn’t the only thing that helped me through this time and the challenging periods I’ve faced since (among other things, talk therapy has also been invaluable), it is something I’ve been able to use to grow beyond these challenges and grow into a richer and fully lived life.
Here are a few ways in which I use therapeutic journaling to help me with life’s biggest challenges:
1. Turning up the volume on my inner mentor (and down on my inner critic)
Personally, I’ve found calling my inner critic a jerk or ignoring it doesn’t work. I don’t like it when people treat me that way and, having experienced the value of self-acceptance, I endeavor to model that with my inner critic. That doesn’t mean my critic can run wild unchecked: I’ve learned to set boundaries with it. One way I do this is using another part of my internal dialogue I call my inner mentor.
Therapeutic journaling is especially useful for reaching into the tangle of thoughts and feelings inside and teasing out those of my sage, compassionate inner mentor, especially when I’m experiencing an inner critic attack. I write out a dialogue, like a script, giving my critic free reign to say what it wants, and then allowing my inner mentor to respond. For example:
Inner critic: This guest post is terrible. Do you really think anyone is going to find it helpful? They’re going to think you’re ridiculous.”
Inner mentor: It sounds like you’re worried about what people will think. You’re worried people won’t like the post and will, therefore, judge me as the one who wrote it.
IC: Yes! I hate the idea of people laughing at me.
IM: And I totally get that! I don’t like to be laughed at either. But what if just one person found this useful, would it be worth writing then?
IC: Maybe. But it’s not useful right now. Look at the writing! It’s awful.
IM: Perhaps, but this is still the first draft. That’s what first drafts are for. Your feedback will be very useful in the final edits and I welcome constructive comments and suggestions for what you would do differently then. Until then, please take a step back so we can finish this draft and at least have something to work with.
Sometimes written conversations between your inner critic and inner mentor might be this short, sometimes they might be pages long. But writing them out gives you space and time to respond to your inner critic without getting caught up in its stories.
2. Encouraging self-coaching
If I’m feeling foggy about a certain issue or question, keeping it in my head leads me to ruminate, thinking the same thoughts on repeat while getting nowhere.
Therapeutic journaling helps me slow my thoughts down, focus on one angle at a time, and parse out each perspective. My favorite questions include:
- What information do I need to answer this question/resolve this issue?
- What do I want the outcome to be?
- What is one step I could take towards resolving or solving this today?
3. Examining which of my beliefs are helpful
Sometimes life throws us curve balls we can’t anticipate or prepare for, but I’ve found the lens through which I view situations and challenges changes my experience of them. As someone with a tendency to assume the worst and look on the dark side, I’ve used journaling to strengthen my optimism and practice my favorite three-word mantra: assume the best.
Through regular journaling, I’ve been able to look back and see where my beliefs about myself and the world have hindered me. Not only has this made me more aware of how I can course correct, but it’s also left me looking out for these beliefs when they occur in real time. With this kind of self-awareness, I have the power to choose: do I believe what is familiar yet self-defeating, or do I choose a new belief, one that is a truer reflection of reality and will serve me now and in the future?
4. Using therapeutic journaling to create an action plan
Sometimes, simply writing about a challenge will lead to shifts and changes for the better. Sometimes, however, a challenge requires more of us: it requires us to change our behavior.
Bridging the gap between what we write about in the pages of our journal and what we do in real life isn’t always easy. But it does always start with a single decision and a single step. One question I use to bridge the gap between the page and real life comes from Lynda Monk, director of the International Association for Journal Writing. She suggests asking: Based on what I’ve written today, what is one action I would like to take?
I love using this question in my own therapeutic journaling because it’s simple and doable. I don’t have to rush in and change everything I feel is wrong in my life: it’s just one action. But, if you ask yourself that one question each time you sit down to journal (and follow through on the action you choose), these small, single actions can create a snowball effect of positive, long-lasting change.
What about you? Do you use therapeutic journaling to help with your big life challenges? If so, what tips can you share? If not, will you try after reading this post? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!