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Kathy Whelan

Posted on February 08, 2023

For Christmas, a friend gave me a beautiful blue notebook. Handmade in Italy, it is small and unassuming, with nothing to dictate its use. Leafing through its lined pages, I decided it would become a journal.

I’ve read that journaling offers many benefits. In Opening Up by Writing It Down, Drs. James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth tell us that expressive writing clears the mind; helps us resolve troublesome experiences that keep us from dealing with other tasks; and fosters problem solving. It can be, they say, “an invaluable skill in learning about and coping with the world,” thereby promoting mental and physical health.

As a young girl, I’d kept a daily diary under lock and key. Like a special friend, my diary listened patiently to my private thoughts. Many years later, a journal kept me company for several months as my children grew up and left home. More recently, I’ve kept a gratitude journal where I list what I’m thankful for each day. I know others who keep logs of daily habits like eating, sleeping and exercising. But what exactly, I asked myself, would my new journal be?

Re-reading what I’d written in 2010, I knew what it would not be. Filling those journal pages were ramblings about my volunteer work, fiction writing, and relationships. As I read, I saw patterns revealing a need for new boundaries in multiple areas of my life. It must have felt good to spill all this out onto my journal pages, but that had been the end of it. Years later, the same problems – sometimes in other forms and with other people – remained unsolved. I had substituted writing for action.

This time will be different, I have promised myself. I want my new journal to help me gain insights leading to actions that benefit my wellbeing. Here is how I plan to approach it this time around:

1. Not a diary. As I think of it, a diary tends to be an account of daily events. My journal will be less about events that have happened and more about my thoughts and feelings around those events.

2. For growing, not venting. Reading my old journal reminded me of the Zeigarnik Effect, our tendency to dwell on unresolved matters or uncompleted tasks. This time around, I will attempt to notice when I’m in a rut with something or someone and figure out how to move forward. While I will welcome the relief that comes from divulging emotions rather than suppressing them, I will be seeking “cognitive growth,” as Pennebaker and Smyth call it, rather than simply blowing off steam.

3. Goals TBD. I will not begin with a concrete goal. Instead, my goals will be organic, arising out of new insights. When I arrive at a goal, I will make it SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timed. I will then track progress toward my goal.

4. Just for me. My journal will be private, a place for me to express my unedited thoughts without concern for what anyone else might think. “Anyone else” will include my inner critic . As I turn a deaf ear to my inner critic, I will try to summon my inner mentor.

5. A compassionate space. As I experience difficult moments, my diary will be a non-judgmental place where I remember that everyone struggles at times and where I treat myself with the same kindness I would show a struggling friend. I will welcome all my emotions.

6. Not a to-do. Nothing about my little blue book requires that it be used every day. In retrospect, I see some merit in gaining a bit of distance from what’s been written to make sense of it and learn from it before going on. And I will write about something that’s bothering me only when I’m ready, not when I think I “should.”

7. An experiment. If my approach to journaling is not working, I will learn from that and adjust my approach accordingly.

If you’re considering journaling, keep in mind that there are many ways to go about it, and it may not suit you at all. Sometimes a conversation with a trusted friend works better. And journaling is not a substitute for psychological or medical interventions if those are called for. If you try journaling and find it unhelpful or harmful, then stop.

Now, as I smooth the first page of my notebook and prepare to write, I look forward to what this experience holds for me this time around.

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