The Difficulties of Journaling – And Some Useful Tips

Monday, December 09, 2013

Yesterday, on the Self-Archeology Facebook page one person posted a comment saying that it’s very hard for them to keep a journal. I’ve heard similar things from my clients, friends, acquaintances, and I’ve had difficulties with journaling myself, so I decided to talk about this topic in more detail.

There are different ways to journal. For example, some people much prefer an audio log or video log to a written/typed journal. So, it might be useful to experiment and see what fits you the best.

What stops you from journaling?

I found it to be true that the main difficulty people have with journaling is fear. Here, I will talk about some of the most common fears.

Sometimes people are afraid that they are not doing it right, that they don’t know HOW to journal. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Everything you say is important and might be useful in some way. And nobody will punish you, laugh at you, humiliate you, or hurt you if you don't do it "optimally."

Some people are afraid that somebody might see or hear what they are journaling about. This thought is really scary. However, I think, it’s possible to resolve it by keeping your journal private: in a locked place, or if you journal on your computer to protect the file with a password. I know it probably won’t make the fear go away immediately, but it may help to significantly reduce it, and after some time you may feel free to express yourself as openly as you want.

Sometimes people are very afraid of what they might find in the depths of their being. This is a very understandable fear, too. Not that rarely we discover something that triggers hurt, sadness, loneliness, fear, helplessness, anger, hopelessness, or even terror. This is unpleasant. And the thought of potentially feeling some of those feelings is scary. However, I found that even if I feel very unpleasant emotions while journaling or engaging in other forms of self-archeology, fundamentally I feel better afterwards. I feel relief, certainty, clarity, self-confidence, calmness, vitality, happiness, energy, or freedom. Sometimes it takes time to feel better because you have to process a lot of difficult stuff and grieve, but sometimes it might happen immediately.

Another, even more complex fear that some people may have is the fear of feeling visible, or even the fear of existing. People have said to me that they are afraid to journal because this would mean that they are alive, that they exist, that they have their own feelings, thoughts, experiences, and preferences. Now, if in your childhood you were not allowed to exist, to feel, to think, to do what you would like – and were severely and continuously abused, neglected, abandoned, or rejected and erased in various different ways for disobeying, for feeling the wrong feelings, for having your preferences; for being alive – then the thought of being visible, of being alive, can be extremely terrifying to you. Because in the past the consequences of that were really terrifying – and also because it's very painful to recognize this fact.

The good news is that you're not a child anymore, you don't need anyone's permission to be as you are, and nobody can harm you anymore for existing and for being honest.

How to start?

First, sometimes journaling can be more effective if you choose a place for that where you would feel safe, comfortable, relaxed, undisturbed, and focused. Some people adjust their environment specifically for that (turn off the light, or light some candles, or put on some music, or lie down, or turn off their phone/Skype/Facebook, etc.). Again, you can experiment and see what works for you.

In the beginning, many people find it very difficult to write anything. If that’s the case with you, sometimes it helps if you just write anything. Just write. It may be a sentence, a word, a single letter, or even a drawing. And that's it for now. The next day you can do the same. After a while you may be able to write a little bit more. And in the course of time, you may be able to write in greater length, about deeper stuff, and in more detail.

As mentioned above, some people feel so much fear and anxiety about journaling that it’s even too difficult to write a single word. In some cases I found it to be useful to start with just holding a pen (keyboard, or recorder) – and that’s it. Repeat this for several days, and after some time you’ll probably be able to write something.

For some people, it’s hard to journal without any guidance or direction. If you think it would be easier to journal if you had some kind of template, there are many potential ways, tips, and directions for that. There are various workbooks ("From Trauma to Enlightenment" by Daniel Mackler, "The Art Of Self-Discovery" by Nathaniel Branden, and so on) where you can find specific questions or sentence completion exercises. Also, you can journal by using various other techniques:
  • Free association (you start with a word, write down your associations, and see where it leads and what patterns or connections are visible)
  • Letters to your past or future self
  • Letters to people you know/knew
  • A detailed description and analysis of yourself
  • A detailed description and analysis of people you know/knew
  • An analysis of your relationships (with family members, romantic partners, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, etc.)
  • Things you’d like to share with someone
  • Things you are afraid of sharing with others
  • Dream analysis
  • Analyzing different pieces of art
  • A list and analysis of your fears
  • A list and analysis of your dreams/desires/fantasies
  • Inner dialogue
  • And many more….
Also, I found useful to write about what's going on for me in the present. For example, "I'd like to journal now, but nothing comes to mind, or I feel something unpleasant. What's going on? What do I feel? What are my thoughts? What am I afraid of or anxious about? What stops me? Why?" And so on. Then it's possible to explore what's going on for you, and you have some useful material to talk about.

Addendum

Journaling is probably the most effective tool of self-knowledge, self-monitoring, and self-analysis; and it often relates closely to other self-archeology tools. We can write about everything – including our emotions, states, needs, experiences, thoughts, theories, plans, dreams, fears, inner conflicts, irrational behavior, childhood, adolescence, daily life, family history, past relationships, traumas, interactions with people, memories, and anything else that’s inside of us and a part of us.

Being really open and honest can be very difficult. Talking about our painful past and unpleasant present can be very scary. Especially if we were not allowed to do all of that. It took me long time to become REALLY comfortable in talking about my deepest thoughts, emotions, experiences, wishes, grievances, and conflicts.

I found it important to be gentle, empathic, and patient with yourself and not to attack yourself for not being able to journal as you would like to. And remember, feel free to experiment, figure out what works for you, do it at your own pace, and don’t forget to stop and reflect on your progress.

You are always welcome to leave a comment below and share your journaling experience. How is it for you so far? What’s the most difficult thing for you? In what ways was it helpful to you? When did you start and for what reason? If you didn’t start yet, why?


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4 comments

  1. My biggest problem with journaling is that I have the feeling that I am doing something wrong, something not accepted in society. That is just an aspect of something more general: the guilt for my inner journey. In the intellectual level is clear to me that is what I have to do (what else?) but in an emotional level is so difficult. And I realized that is difficult with people, me myself I am quite comfortably with what I am doing.

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  2. Interesting article. I have perhaps a dozen journals still left over from my childhood. My mother used to read them when I was withdrawn or getting into trouble. To this day, the presence of a ghost audience, a potential critic, a judging ex or significant other, and even my mother's ghost seem to hang on the peripheries of all I would write. Short selling my thoughts on those in my life as if to see their faults too clearly on the page might cut them open without ever having seen the words themselves.

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  3. I get consumed by editing myself in my head as I am writing, stopping the process to obsess over word choice, etc. And all because I am terrified about the judgment from others should they read it after I am dead. Much like the "ghost audience" described by MS Abigail. It is so stifling!

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  4. I tend to be scared of processing my emotions if im going through something. For example, if im not ready to admit something to the world or myself then i hesitate to put it down onto paper. I find its alot easier to write when u feel emotionally certain enough to acknowledge something.

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