My journal has become such an important tool for me that I don’t know how I managed before I started journaling consistently. It’s where I’m most honest about what I really think and feel. But as much as I love journaling, I also sometimes dread it. Just because it’s valuable to look beneath the masks we wear, doesn’t mean it’s not scary or painful.
I hear from people who would like to have a journaling practice but something keeps getting in the way. Practical matters, like not having enough time or the difficulty of forming new habits, are commonly named as obstacles.
These logistical concerns do matter. It’s not enough to like the idea of journaling if we can’t figure out how it fits in our day-to-day lives. I’ll share some tips that have helped me build a consistent(ish) journaling practice in a future post.
But much of the resistance to journaling goes way beyond logistics. Most of the fears I’ve heard and the worries I’ve experienced myself boil down to two main questions: What if I have nothing worthwhile to write? and What if I uncover something I don’t want to know?
What if I have nothing worthwhile to write?
Honestly, most of what I write in my journal is repetitive and boring. Often it’s whiny. Sometimes I do wonder whether it’s a waste of time, paper, and ink. I worry that I’m being petty and selfish to write about things that don’t seem to matter.
And yet, I’ve learned the value of making space for the mundane. I can tell when I’ve been neglecting my journal because my brain starts to feel really cluttered. Deciding that the little annoyances and worries aren’t worth writing down doesn’t make them go away. Usually it just means they’ll keep popping up when I’m trying to focus on something else or when I’m trying to sleep.
I used to journal only if I was really upset or confused about something (or had just gotten a new journal). Now, most days I try to write three pages of stream-off-consciousness, which I’ve adapted from Julia Cameron’s morning pages practice.
I’ve found it really helpful to practice showing up and writing every day. It’s a way to clear my head and pay attention to what’s on my mind. Besides, we don’t live from one exciting moment to the next. The everyday things we tend to overlook are what make up our lives.
Showing up consistently also makes space for hidden thoughts to arise. Sometimes it takes a lot of writing through the commonplace for the deeper stuff to work its way to the surface. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been going through the motions of writing my three pages when an unexpected idea or question surprises me halfway through the third page.
And, if I’m really being honest, sometimes I’m afraid I won’t have anything worthwhile to write because I fear I haven’t been doing anything worthwhile in my life or because I’m doubting my worth as a person. That fear of having nothing to say can actually be a way of avoiding a bigger concern.
What if I uncover something I don’t want to know?
When I first started journaling consistently, I only wrote in pencil. While I knew that my journal was a safe place to explore difficult thoughts, I needed that extra assurance that everything I wrote could disappear if I needed it to.
In some ways, this seems ridiculous. I wasn’t really going to erase an entire notebook full of writing. It would be easier just to burn it.
But I was writing thoughts I had never been able to even admit I was thinking. I was asking questions I didn’t think it was ok to ask. I was feeling emotions I didn’t believe it was ok to feel. I’d reached a point in my life where something needed to change and I was terrified.
My journal was a vital space for me to process new ideas and explore my shifting thoughts. But, as with any change, there was also a fear of what I might uncover. No matter how unhappy we are in our current situation, it can feel easier to stay there than to risk something new.
If we’re honest about what isn’t working for us, then we might feel a responsibility to make changes we’re not sure we’re ready to make. If we dare to take a look at what’s going on inside us, we’ll likely find aspects of ourselves we’re not proud of.
I’m all too familiar with the gut-sinking feeling of realizing the truth of the words I just wrote down. Once I’ve acknowledged what’s really going on, it’s harder to pretend that everything is fine.
The thing is, we don’t create the unresolved things in our lives when we write them on the page, we simply acknowledge what is already there. That dread of what we might uncover is sometimes a sign that part of us already knows there is something we need to deal with. Just because that part of us is afraid doesn’t mean we can’t handle whatever our writing may reveal.
So what do we do?
This is not the part where I share the easy solution to make all our fears and doubts go away. That’s not the way it works. After years of journaling, I’m still learning to live with these questions. But there are some things that might help.
Remember why you want to journal.
What do you hope to get out of journaling? For many of us, the very things we want from our journaling practice are also the things we’re most afraid we’ll get.
We want to know ourselves better, but we’re afraid we won’t like who we discover ourselves to be. We want a way to process our thoughts and feelings, but we’re afraid that if we name a dream or admit what’s not working in our lives we’ll feel pressure to take action that scares us. When we’re avoiding an uncomfortable topic, it can be helpful to remember why it’s valuable to know what’s really going on instead of ignoring it.
It’s easier to go exploring when we are interested to see what we can learn than when we’re afraid of what we might discover. Is there anything you wonder about? Start there.
Maybe you can be curious about whether there are patterns in the details you fear are boring. If you notice that you write about how tired you are every Monday morning, maybe there is more going on than having nothing interesting to say. Why are you so tired? What are the consequences? What can you do about it?
What if you got curious about your fear itself? Try asking what it means about you if the things you write about in your journal seem insignificant. What are you afraid will happen if you’re honest with yourself? When our fears stay vague, we tend to assume the worst. Uncovering the stories we tell ourselves gives us an opportunity to see those fears for what they really are and decide how we will meet them.
Let it be fun.
Yes, journaling is invaluable for unearthing the areas in our lives that need attention. A journaling practice will take us to places that are uncomfortable. But it doesn’t have to all be soul-baring, gut-wrenching work.
Take some time to write about favorite memories or describe your dream vacation. Make a list of things you appreciate about yourself, books you want to read, or the most beautiful sights you’ve seen. These things are part of you as well. We don’t always have to be searching for our shadow.
Join a journaling challenge. Make a point of experimenting with different techniques and prompts. If writing feels too hard, try doodling or mind-mapping or talking into a voice recorder. It will be easier to continue journaling if your practice includes joy and fun. Let it be a tool to help you live your life more fully, not just to fix you.
There are very real fears that come up when we start to put our thoughts on the page. I believe it’s worth it. This list of things that help is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it gives a place to start. What would you add?
Next time I’ll share some practical tips and resources that have helped me build my journaling practice. In the meantime, I’d love to know…do you journal? Why or why not? What obstacles get in the way? What helps?