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How to Journal: A Beginner's Guide

I first started journaling when I was about five - my parents gave me my first journal as a birthday present, which I’ve held on to to this day - the journal was called “My Days, My Writings,” and contained little prompts where I could write, in badly-spelled cursive lettering, what I did during the day and what I liked.

As an adult, I picked up journaling again after a breakup in graduate school. At the time, I was reading Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong, and felt deeply inspired by both the research she presented around journaling (mostly attributed to James Pennebaker), as well as her own journaling process that she outlines the book for processing failure (she calls it writing out your “SFDs,” or “shitty first drafts,” a phrase she borrows from Anne Lamott).

I credit journaling for helping me to make it through that year - and my dissertation - with no more than a few mental breakdowns - that, and my saintlike mom answering every single one of my panicked graduate-student phone calls. I also credit all of that reflection for making that year one of the most transformative of my life this far.

While the relationship that inspired it didn't last, my journaling practice absolutely did. Journaling is still my most cherished self-care and transformation practice to this day - whatever life has served up since that year, as long as I’ve been writing, I know that I’m probably going to be okay.

Today, I recommend some form of journaling to most of my clients, at some point during our work together. The process I outline below is a version of the journaling practice I use myself, and what I recommend to my clients to get them started in developing their own journaling practice.

I've outlined the process I use, and which I recommend to my clients, for you below.

1. Pick a medium that works for you.

A journal is great, but so is a random pen and paper. So is your phone's or laptop’s Notes app.

2. Pick a journaling topic, or free-form journal.

Prompt-based journaling is especially effective in coping with rumination, difficult emotions, organizing thought/planning, and dealing with specific dilemmas.

Free-form journaling is especially helpful for clearing minds, calming free-floating anxiety, flow, and creativity.

3. Write whatever comes to mind.

There is no "right" way to journal, as long as you're being brutally honest with yourself and trying your best to be unfiltered. With prompt-based journaling, it’s useful to keep returning to the question to see how thoroughly you can explore it. Some questions can be tough, so this exercise of returning to the prompt can keep you accountable - the point of journaling is to dig really deep and to explore what’s rattling around in our minds, like we would with a therapist or coach. Part of this exercise is to train ourselves to stay present with difficult thoughts and questions - and one of the best ways to stay present is to continually revisit the prompt as we journal.

If you’re free-form journaling, it can be helpful to set a container for yourself by setting a timer, and then writing down your thoughts and thought-process, in real-time, onto the page during that time period.

4. Non-judgment

This writing is for you, so grammar and spelling don’t need to matter. That said, when I first started with journaling, because I tend to be really hard on myself, I struggled with judging my writing constantly - sometimes I felt like I sounded stupid, or what I was saying didn’t make sense, or even - because I was being honest - I was worried that I was being a bad person for what I was writing.

It took practice and talking it over with my therapist to realize that this is totally normal - most people do this when they start. That said, the goal, at least, is to try to (non-judgmentally!) be aware of when you’re judging your writing, and even to write down the fact that you’re judging yourself before returning to your chosen topic, even if you’re not stream-of-consciousness writing - “I’m noticing that I’m judging myself again for what I’m writing. There I go again. I’m going to try to let that thought go now.” Acknowledging and letting go of judgment is a habit, and you may need to practice before it sticks.

5. Journaling Rituals

You can journal as-needed to process difficult emotions, or you can make a regular journaling habit. If you choose to journal regularly, it can be helpful to create rituals that ground you and create a space and container for reflection. Picking a time that corresponds with an existing habit can be useful (like after waking up or before bedtime), as well as tying your practice to a visual/physical “cue,” like setting aside a specific chair, lighting a candle, or journaling with your morning coffee. It can also be helpful to give yourself a time limit when starting - say, 20 minutes - so that the practice doesn’t feel overwhelming.

6. Notice how you feel after journaling.

The benefits of journaling can be very similar to the benefits of therapy - to me, journaling feels kind of like low-cost therapy that you can do on-demand (I have a regular journaling practice for which I have a paper journal, but have been known to spontaneously journal on sticky notes, too!). Done honestly and with a willingness to open yourself to examination, journaling can clear your mind, help with processing emotions, calm anxiety, and stimulate creativity.

If you aren’t feeling a sense of release consistently after you journal, it may help to check in with yourself and see how you’re doing with judgment - sometimes sneaky judgments can work their way in without our realizing that they’re there. It also can be helpful to change up what we’re journaling about - if we’re consistently journaling about heavy things, it isn’t surprising that journaling might feel heavy. Sometimes it can be helpful to work in a fun topic every now and then (“Things I’m looking forward to!”) to give yourself a boost of seratonin.

That’s all! Happy writing!


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