Journals: Writing for Therapeutic Purposes

Journals and journal writing have been proven to be therapeutic. But how should you go about it? Do it your own way? Or follow the advice of such experts as social psychologist James Pennebaker? His “rules” (per Susan David, The Cut) include the following:

  • Set a timer for 20 minutes and write freely.
  • “Write just for yourself, and not for some eventual reader.”
  • After a few days or whenever, discard it. Or decide to do something bigger with it.

“It doesn’t matter. The point is that those thoughts are now out of you and on the page. You have begun the process of ‘stepping out’ from your experience to gain perspective on it.”

One long-term keeper of journals, Jamie Friedlander, found that entering therapy automatically decreased her reliance on the form, however. “Speaking to someone about my problems, it seemed, had all but replaced my urge to write about them” (The Cut).

Writing still helps me cope with the little stuff that becomes overwhelming. And jotting down the things I’m grateful for always brings me joy. But I know that for the big stuff — being laid off, feeling frustrated with a close family member, obsessing about my weight — I need to speak, not write.

Therapist Ryan Howes (Psychology Today), on the other hand, emphasizes the benefits of journaling while in therapy:

First, you’ve just taken some time to look at yourself, which continues the flow of therapy and makes you more aware. Second, you’ve begun to organize what can seem like a bunch of disjointed material. Writing forces you to funnel disparate thoughts into one linear stream. Finally, you’re keeping a record of your progress. People who journal for a few months are amazed when they look back to see where they were. Sometimes they’re amazed at how far they’ve come. Other times they’re surprised to find they’re barking up the same tree.

A common resistance among clients is the fear of others finding their words. What I usually say in response is that you don’t actually have to get over this fear. Write stuff anyway, then destroy it; you still get the same effects. Ephrat Livni, QZ.com, agrees:

That final act, tossing the journal, is painful but liberating. Letting go is a Zen exercise. It’s practice in detachment, forcing me to face facts, the simultaneous truths that everything matters and yet, ultimately, nothing does. Shit happens. We keep going. Tomorrow there will be more news.

Another resource is Susan Borkin‘s The Healing Power of Writing: A Therapist’s Guide to Using Journaling With Clients (2014). Although targeted to therapists, anyone can benefit.

One of the author’s suggestions is a guide for keeping track of various internal changes. It’s called ATTEND, an acronym standing for Awareness, Thoughts, Emotions, Intuition, Dreams, and Distractions.

While some are afraid to write in a diary or journal,  Sarah Manguso is one who’s been afraid not to, she explains in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015).

I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination—so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it. // More than that, I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it. // Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead.

What Manguso reports, by the way, is that the original anxiety is now gone.

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