I remember my first journal as a girl – a small hardcover book, it was labeled Diary and it was magical somehow. It had gold edged paper revealing a treasure within that was sealed with a tiny lock and key. My entries always started out “Dear Diary…” as if I was writing to a faraway pen-pal. And in a sense, I was; but the faraway pen-pal was me. I’d write about the struggles growing up an only-child to a single-mom (yes, there were struggles!), or about that cute boy at school who smiled at me. I wrote about my hopes and dreams of growing up and having a “normal” family and what it would be like to have a sister (I found a sister 47 years later! That’s another story…) I once duct-taped my entire journal closed in case anyone might find it and be able to look into my soul. That journal gave me a way to process my thoughts and see how far I’ve come when I re-read my past entries. Looking back, I could see those past struggles I thought would ruin me, had in fact made me stronger. At the time, I had no idea that I was building resilience.
Call it what you will - diary, learning journal, daily thoughts… whatever you decide, keeping a journal can bring clarity as a source of personal reflection. It can be a way to make sense of confusing thoughts or remembering cherished events. Journals are as individual as you are and creative as you want them to be. Consider these four ways that journaling can improve well-being:
Self-aware people know their strengths and limitations and are honest with themselves. They are able to read their own emotions and recognize their impact on others; they’re realistic about themselves with themselves... Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence and personal leadership. Developing self-awareness is the first step in recognizing our strengths, challenges, and mental models. If you aren’t aware of your emotions, what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and how you’re impacting others you can’t move toward change and growth. You are in control of your thoughts and attitude and thus, take an active role in creating happiness. Journaling helps to create self-awareness by allowing you to reflect and consider alternative actions. Start by asking what’s the situation, what am I feeling? what did I do? what do I need to learn about myself? what would I do differently? Now, write about it.
Optimism is looking at the positive and having hope for the future, the ability to view problems as challenges to overcome. We are naturally wired with a negativity bias and it serves us well by keeping us on our toes in survival situations. However, when we pair negativity with reality testing we can turn negative thoughts to positive ones. I wrote about positivity in a previous blog and how (for one thing), positivity can pull us out of a negativity vortex. Having flexible optimism means being grounded in reality – being able to view the positive and hope for the future while recognizing that “this too shall pass” (a great reminder from a dear friend). Optimism and positive psychology focus on a forward movement and looks at not only fixing what’s wrong, but also looks at building strengths. Get out your journal and shift your focus by asking “what’s going well in this situation? how else can I look at this? what do I need to learn about the situation or other person?”
It’s more than simply giving thanks. Gratitude is celebrating the good and recognizing the efforts of another person. Much research has been done on the benefits of gratitude - Bob Emmons, Ph.D. and Professor of Psychology at University of California at Davis says that gratefulness increases emotional well-being, contributes to healthier relationships, decreases depression, increases achievements and builds resilience. In essence, gratitude increases the positive, decreases the negative and connects people together. Gratitude can even increase physical and mental health. Thinking gratefully can close the door on a negative past experience. In your journal, write three things you’re grateful for everyday – try it for a month and see your world open to more appreciation. Next, try this powerful exercise in gratitude: write a letter to someone in your past or present expressing your gratitude for their actions, thoughts, or words. Call them and read your letter to them.
Resilient people can bounce back from adverse events and see alternatives to stressful situations. Fostering a growth mindset (Carol Deck, 2016) is having a desire to learn and embrace challenges, persisting in the face of setback. A growth mindset is where you readily accept feedback to learn where you can improve. Dealing with stress include the ability to develop courage, resilience, perseverance and transformational coping skills – skills that transform your limiting thoughts and activities to new ones. People who know how to shift from a seemingly hopeless situation are able to emerge stronger from the ordeal.
We are all story-tellers. When we experience an event or situation, we create meanings and then we fill in the blanks with information we don’t have. We make up information for our stories through assumptions and half-truths and we believe our own stories which are often rooted in our fears and insecurities. Bréne Brown (2018) said it beautifully: “stories based on limited real data and plentiful imagined data, blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality”. Start your next journal entry with: “this story I’m making up is…” and make sure to include what you think, feel, and believe. Then, have a heartfelt conversation with someone.
A journal doesn’t have to be beautifully bound with a gilded edge, it can be something you pick up at your local dollar store; and if you prefer it can be and e-version on your phone or computer.
Your journal is like a good friend and thought partner that listens intently on your path to well-being. What are you waiting for? Go journal!
"Time spent in self reflection is never wasted - it is an intimate date with yourself" - Dr. Paul T.P. Wong