Tag Archives: benefits of journal writing

What has journaling helped you achieve?

I’m curious. For all you dyed-in-the-wool journal writers out there – what are the things that you have made possible for yourself just by keeping a regular reflective record of your thoughts and experience?

Maybe it’s something small but incremental. Or maybe it’s something way more significant and challenging.

Recently I got some feedback from one reader that The Journal Writer’s Handbook had made her think so differently about what she was doing with her life post-retirement that she went out and booked a 3 month round the world cruise. Wow.

And another reader who struggles with insomnia was simply delighted to have had a good night’s sleep after spending a few minutes scribbling down her thoughts before turning out the light.

For me the reflective way has helped me cure my back pain, supported me through times of grief and disappointment, and continues to inspire me with new ideas for writing.

So over to you – what would you never have done without your journal?

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A lesson in presence

Imagine the scenario: you’re really excited at the prospect of spending a family holiday on a beautiful island off the western coast of Scotland. Famed for its pristine white sand beaches and turquoise waters, its deer and its eagles, as well as its mountain wildernesses and deeply moving history, it’s a place you cannot wait to explore and have been looking forward to visiting for months. Not only that but you have a story idea set on the island for which you wish to conduct some research – it could be your first novel and you’re nervously excited about that too.

The plan is to travel via the Lake District to visit family and include a hike in the fells of that spectacular landscape as well. All in all this is going to be your ideal trip.

And then, the evening before you’re due to depart, the phone rings and an unfamiliar voice tells you not to worry, but your son seems to have injured his leg during American Football training. The ambulance is on its way and you can either come along to the pitch or meet him in A&E at the hospital.

Of course I went to the pitch straight away to find him lying on the ground surrounded by paramedics and concerned team coaches. He was wearing an oxygen mask and I slowly realised he was inhaling nitrous oxide to stem the pain in his leg. Having loaded him into the ambulance the paramedics then administered intravenous paracetomol. Meanwhile my brave boy did little more than wince and groan a little.

Much later that evening, after our son had endured much more Entonox, some morphine, two x-rays and confirmation that he has incurred a spiral fracture in his right lower leg, snapping both the tibia and fibula, we had to confront the reality that our long-awaited holiday was not going to happen. With a solid cast all the way up to the thigh on his almost four foot long leg, this boy was going nowhere, especially not on a 7 hour long car journey.

All this was quite a lot to take in. Emotions were high and we were all exhausted. As well as concern for our son, the dawning realisation that we wouldn’t be travelling to our island paradise after all tipped me over the edge. I had to leave the consultation room to weep, deeply disappointed about the trip and then terribly guilty that I could feel like that when our son was laid up on a hospital bed.

The following morning after very little sleep I had a strange experience. Strange yet deeply comforting. The voice that I often hear in my journal whispered to me to remember the moment. And as I lay in bed in my half-waking state I suddenly felt extremely safe and comfortable in the present moment. I was able to push aside all my conflicted feelings and disappointment about our disrupted holiday plans and just allow myself to be completely present, as if the moment was the safest haven there is.

I’m not sure whether this inner experience would have been possible without the reflective practice I’ve done. I can imagine in younger years shedding bitter tears for days over thwarted plans. On this occasion, with the most important thing being our son’s healing, I’ve retreated to and trusted the present moment, and it’s been a place of safety for which I’m enormously grateful.

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Pledge your Journaling Practice

Thanks so much to Sarah Newstead and Amy McDonald all the way over in Australia for taking the time to talk to me about journaling for their super programme Pledge your Practice Change your Life. Check out all the resources they have for you on their Facebook and web-page.

And listen in to the interview we did together right here. We talked about the benefits of journaling, how journaling helps us change our relationship with time and how journaling puts us in touch with our physical self.

Enjoy!

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The feel good formula familiar to journal writers

In a new book entitled “Curious? Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life”, positive psychologist Dr Todd Kashdan has defined a formula for happiness – and identified that heightening our levels of curiosity and open-mindedness about our experience is helpful to our well-being.

Who knew?

Well, if you’ve kept a journal for any length of time you will know that nurturing our curiosity is not only vital to garnering enough material to write about, but it also enhances our lives in other ways too. Curiosity makes us slow down; it makes us question things more keenly; it makes us look closer; it makes us appreciate more, and gives us greater opportunity for understanding and empathy. Think about Alice in Wonderland. “Curiouser and curiouser” were her watchwords. And she breezed through some pretty bizarre experiences without a single shred of angst or stress.

And what of the happiness formula itself?

Check this out:

(Mx16 + Cx1 +Lx2) + (Tx5 + Nx2 + Bx33)

The key is:

M – live in the moment; C – be curious; L – do something you love; T – think of others; N – nurture relationships; B – take care of your body.

Reflective writing is a positive step in the direction of all these factors, helping us be more mindful. Here’s a reminder of a few exercises to tune in to each of them:

  • Live in the moment

Spend five minutes becoming aware of your environment, the sounds, smells, air temperature, the things you can see around you. Make a note of them. Turn your attention to your body. Write about how it feels, where you sense any tension. Every time your mind is tempted to stray off into other thoughts and imaginings, bring your focus back to the page, to the feeling of the pen between your fingers. Keep writing. What’s important about this moment?

  • Be curious

Take a fresh view of an object that is familiar to you. It could be a trinket, an appliance or a piece of furniture. Get curious about it. Write it down.

  • Do something you love

What’s the thing that brings you the most joy and satisfaction? How often do you experience it? What promise will you make about the thing you love to do? Write it down.

  • Think of others

Bring to mind the first person you saw when you left the house today. Write a brief pen portrait of them. Allow ourself to step into their shoes and see the day through their eyes, maybe write a short paragraph in their voice. How have your perceptions shifted?

  • Nurture relationships

Write a letter to someone special to you whom you haven’t seen for a while. What do you want them to know? As you write, what feels like the best, most nurturing  way to reach out to them? Make a plan of action to do that thing and write it down.

  • Take care of your body

Initiate a ‘conversation’ with a part of your body that is causing you any concern or discomfort. What message does it have for you? What steps is it asking you to take to look after it better?  Make a commitment to do the thing your body is ‘asking’ for and write it down.

Our journals can become our handbooks for happiness. Between our minds and the page, the physical act of writing helps us integrate the feel good formula into our own lives. Get curious!

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The good, the bad, and the ugly of story-telling

According to James Pennebaker, revered social psychologist and the pioneer of investigation into the healing power of expressive writing, one of the ways that writing about our stressful or traumatic experiences helps us is by providing us with the means to develop coherent narratives that help us make sense of things. In simple terms, if we can turn our experience into a story we can better come to terms with what has happened.

I agree with this. Taking a considered approach to documenting our experiences, writing about what really happened from our perspective, and how it affected us and made us feel, is an important part of journaling practice, and it can certainly help us to obtain clarity, understanding and ownership of our experience and its impact. This is the good part of telling our story.

Where things go bad is in the subsequent way we might attach ourselves to the story we have created, using that ever after to avoid situations that might feel threatening, or to rationalise our judgements about how others have behaved. This way lies self-pity, constraint, prejudice and assumption – all of which can accumulate into a new type of story-telling prison. This is the bad part.

Moreover Pennebaker’s research seems to corroborate this in the sense that he warns against obsessing over the same story for hours and days at a time. This is when things can get ugly. We become so entrenched in the re-telling of our story that we lose all objectivity and are no longer able to appreciate any other point of view except our own, which by this stage is more likely to err on the side of fiction rather than fact.

Pennebaker recommends spending no more than 15 minutes a day for three to four days writing expressively about a stressful and traumatic experience. Then I guess the idea is to let it go; do nothing else – the work has already been done in the telling of the story.

Personally I feel this doesn’t go far enough. For some people simply telling their story won’t be sufficient. They will naturally want to obsess about it! Therefore there needs to be a way of breaking out of stories that have held us captive for years; and there needs to be a better way of appreciating the point of view of other “characters” in our narrative.

Ultimately there also has to be a way of turning our experience around so it ceases to be a blame-filled story and begins to teach us something about ourselves, something that only we ourselves have any control over changing or addressing.

This is when the power of the story told through our journals becomes effective once again.

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Beyond ranting – the necessary authenticity on the other side

Our journal writing workshop last evening was yet again a wonderful opportunity to share insights and learn new perspectives. My gratitude goes to workshop participant Elinor who shared a wonderful phrase that somehow landed quite forcefully with me. She said: “Necessity has no emotion.”

The reason why this hit me with such a clunk is because it seems to account for what I have found in my journal beyond the ranting. Once I’ve stripped away the whining voice of my inner critic or the exclamation marks of my ego; when I’ve named and shamed the stuck-on-repeat stories with which I’ve been comforting myself, and once I’ve come to terms with my main vulnerabilities, what’s left is a calm, balanced narrative in which I’m finally able to speak my truth. There are no exclamation marks here. No over-blown claims about my own brilliance. No excuses and convoluted reasons why I won’t/shan’t/can’t. Just calm, logical, plain, straight-forward truth. Well hello.

Pearl

Inner wisdom and authenticity are the pearls I’m constantly encouraging my workshop participants to pursue. These are the buried treasures that our journals can reveal to us, but from whose scent the decoys and false trails of our inner critic, our stories, excuses and egoist self-justifications often throw us. How easily we become distracted and displaced! But every pearl needs its grit. It would be foolish though to mistake the grit for the final product!

In Elinor’s insight I’m seeing that authenticity is akin to necessity. Our authentic self is who we necessarily are – who we cannot avoid being, no matter how many layers of negativity, self-judgement and self justification we heap on top. And when we hear its voice we find pearlescent peace, quiet and truth.

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The misunderstood benefits of talking to ourselves

Maybe it’s my age but I’m noticing an increasing tendency to talk to myself. I hear myself giving instructions about the next chore, keeping myself on track with the little things I need to do to make sure the kids have clean laundry, or a nourishing evening meal. This is a trait that I recognise from my Mum. She always laughs when I point out that she’s talking to herself again – and here am I doing the same thing.

I’m curious about it. When I tell myself to go and get the dirty washing from upstairs, or remind myself to take the chicken out of the freezer, it’s as if I’m persuading myself, or at least I’m ensuring that the things I need to do don’t get lost in the creative chaos of my brain. Verbalising the tasks that are required to keep family life ticking over helps in the doing of them. And when I’ve done them I sometimes congratulate myself, which makes me smile.

Such is the case with writing a journal. Although thankfully I don’t spend too much time writing about my chores in there! Instead I verbalise the creative stuff, the ideas I have, the intuitions and the hunches. This is a different type of dialogue with myself – less directive, more exploratory. And it gives me much more cause to celebrate.

There is tremendous value in talking to ourselves. Hearing our own voice anchors us, either in the day-to-day reality of living, or in the imagining of what our reality could be. Verbalisation, either spoken or written, enables us to give form to our thoughts and to make them real. And this is the place from which real choices can be made.

So if you find things aren’t quite going the way you’d planned them this week – have a word with yourself!

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