A journal propped up against a post on a back patio.

You’ve Probably Been Journaling the Wrong Way

By Caden Ziegler
Blog Content Contributor 

People have been writing down their thoughts, aspirations, and questions for at least 2,000 years, yet journaling as a practice is easily dismissed today. It seems like the only representation of journaling in the media is either a love-sick preteen or a soccer mom that fits it in between pilates at 5 p.m. and yoga at 6 p.m. I, however, believe journaling is a practice that everyone should do. Many notable people over time kept some kind of record of their thoughts. In fact, Oscar Wilde said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

There is no “right way” to journal, however according to research done around journaling and mental health, there are concepts that are more beneficial. Journaling can be difficult, daunting even, as you hold a pen to a blank page. Before I can get into the mechanics of journaling, there are some overarching ideas that you need to keep in mind when you write.

First off, you need to stop venting. I know, what’s the point of journaling if I can’t rant about my boyfriend being insensitive? I myself am guilty of being a tragedian— a writer of tragedies— when it comes to journaling, only using it when I need to vent or complain. As it turns out, this is probably the worst way to journal. There is absolutely no empirical evidence that cathartic release is good for you— which for me, was a bummer.

In a Science of Us interview, Jeffrey Lohr said “venting increases the likelihood of anger expression and its negative consequences.” Your journal should be a safe place for you to express your thoughts; it’s sacred and private, so don’t let it arise negative feelings within you.

An open journal surrounded by incense, plants, and a lantern.
Writing outside promotes creativity and clarity. Photo by Caden Ziegler.

Instead of writing about how awful a situation is, take a different route and write about how you feel in the midst of the situation. An essential part of formative journaling is the necessity to write in a compassionate way. Dr. Kristin Neff at UT Austin defines self-compassion and mindfulness as “a non-judgmental, receptive mind-state in which thoughts and feelings are observed as they are, without suppressing or denying them.”

According to a study done by Neff, people that wrote with self-compassion are less anxious and “use more connected and less isolating language.” The language that you use to write affects how you view yourself and how you build your social circle. If your goal for journaling is to create peace of mind, enhance creativity, and build meaningful relationships, then you need to be kind to yourself.

We all know writing in a journal can be difficult, so here are a few tips to start out. Meditation can be a great segue into writing; it clears the mind and allows for you realize any goals or intentions you have. Once you’re in this mindset, start writing in your journal.

Beginning to write can be the hardest part of journaling because there is no list of topics that you can check off one by one. So, if you’re stuck on what to write about consider the following topics: gratitude, aspirations you have, something you’ve learned, interactions with people that have been meaningful, or even just talking through your problems. When things get tough, journaling is an easy way to organize your thoughts into clear ideas. But again, self-compassion is critical when trying to work through problems in life. Be willing to meet yourself with honesty, not brutality.

Another important thing to remember is that there is no set structure. Forget punctuation and editing— feel free to ramble on and word-vomit all over your page. Instead of letting your mind be caught up in all the grammar, let the analytical left side of your brain take a step back and engage the right side of your brain and simply write. Not only can this help with creativity, but it also aids in problem solving skills. You’re not writing to be featured on the Times, so have fun with it.

We are only as big as the dreams we are willing to imagine, so writing down your different goals or intentions can help lead you to a more creative and less stressful life. Author Danielle LaPorte said it best in her book White Hot Truth: “knowing how you actually want to feel is the most potent form of clarity that you can have, and generating those feelings is the most powerfully creative thing that you can do with your life.”

We are caught up in a world run by technology, looking at the latest tweets or watching the stories of strangers on Snapchat. You deserve a few minutes every day to take a step back from society, and a step inwards to focus on what it means to be you.

Featured image by Caden Ziegler.

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