I started keeping a journal early on in my life. I was inspired by reading the diary of Anne Frank and had fantasies that my journal would be important one day. As an imaginative child, my patience for writing was short and I never wrote more than a few sentences before my active mind was distracted by thought. I know of, at least five, childhood diaries that have no more than a few pages marked. Now, I have a dozen thick tomes filled and stored for posterity. Over the years, the reasons I journal have shifted but I know writing has been an integral part of my healing process and has taught me many skills.
In sixth grade, we learned about poetry and created several poems throughout the semester. The final project was creating a book of 10 poems. I loved Emily Dickinson for her obscure and sorrowful poems. My project turned out a variety of subtly, and not so subtly, dark rhymes.
My notebooks were increasingly graced with rhymes and emotional prose in high school. As my first relationship began to reveal my emotional instability, I turned to writing pages of angry, sad, and suicidal thoughts. The poetry was awful, hopeless, and written in a code. Others were framed as letters to my boyfriend, although I never share these. Once the storm had passed, it was too much emotion to admit I’d experienced. Writing poems allowed me to get out what was ravaging my soul. I didn’t necessarily feel better after these purges, but exhausted and able to carry-on a little longer.
In my college years, I began writing less emotional vomit transitioning to more introspective pieces for my psychology and counseling classes. I meticulously collected these value assessment worksheets and writing prompts. It was as if I was trying to say, ‘Look, this is who I am; this is what I believe’. All the messages in my head were telling me how terrible of a human I was, and yet I was able to develop my core values and contemplate what was important to me. Reflecting on these now, often validates my sense of self as if to say, look you always existed.
Some of my most profound healing revelations have come from looking back at old writings. I was home from college one summer, and cleaning out my belongings during the sale of our family home. I came across that poetry project from 6th grade and the contents gave me one of the biggest validations of my life. I had forgot that all the poems were about suicide and death. Reflecting on them for the first time through my adult eyes, I read them with wonder. I was able to see the child who is faultless for her emotions. I finally had self compassion seeing that I had done nothing to deserve such a desire for death. It wasn’t me; it never has been. I no longer have to hold the burden for that childhood scar.
Looking deeply at the darkness in my soul is like looking into a reflecting pond. My reflection has taught me that the shadows point away from the light. I can follow my darkness back to the brightness that I have come to learn is my worth. I have come to love reading over old hurts in search of clues to understand my story and measure growth.
After college, I had my first serious exploration into dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). The blessing of insurance let me complete a whole year-long program. While I kept a dedicated binder for the weekly emotion journals and class handouts, more and more pro-con lists and DEAR MAN letters popped up in notebooks.
Practicing DBT on paper slows down my thoughts and teases out my emotions. It gives me an opportunity to learn a skill while not stuck in the trenches of crisis. It’s a way of taking the theoretical and flexing our mental muscle memory. It's easy to hear something and understand it, making something more permanent and useful requires practice. That’s why they call it a yoga practice.
The technical writing of college ruined my more creative writing skills, slowing my journaling. I felt inclined to be more anecdotal in my writing when I started traveling full-time for work. I realize that if I didn’t write down at least a little of my travels, I would forget most of it. There would be an occasional outpouring of tearful words but I mostly committed events to paper. It felt good to become mindful of the environments I was in and honor the passing of time. Sometimes I would be sitting lakeside recording pre-job jitters while enjoying a sunset. Other times, I would write about a fantastic party I had attended from the bed of a new lover the next day. Even stopping to pause to jot down a quick paragraph about my latest adventure helped me feel less alone on my solo journeys. It felt good to witness my own experiences and know that they were preserved for sharing in the future. It’s easy to forget things done in isolation when there’s no one around to remind you.
ONE JOURNAL TO RULE THEM ALL:
I’d also switch to computer writing as an attempt to become more ecological. At this point, I would have several notebooks for various tasks: one for to-do list and work related data, another for journaling. I even tried at some point to maintain one for notes on the newly popular online education: continuing education and podcasts.
Probably the best breakthrough in my journaling practice came out of a necessity to pair down when traveling abroad. When I headed off for six months of backpacking and yoga teacher training in Central America, there was simply no room for notebooks. I had promised myself to use the electronic equivalent on my phone. That was quickly replaced when I got to yoga teacher training and purchased a beautifully embroidered, Guatemalan notebook. It quickly morphed from class notebook to contain complaints about bunkmates and later stories about a friend almost drowning. The process to allow so many pieces of myself to emerge together after painfully keeping them separate for so long was relieving, even theraputic. There was a letting go of expectation of how I should show up in the world via my writing.
Over the years, I followed podcasts such as Tim Ferris’s and Jamie Wheal trying to find little gold nuggets of self-help. It seems that the experts agree on at least one thing, journaling and tracking helps reinforce change. There is nothing earth shattering about this revelation. I frequently ask my clients to track nutrition intake for this very benefit. I had experienced first hand, the results of keeping an emotion journal my first year in DBT when my therapist showed me the connection between negative emotions and poor life habits. Creating new neurological pathways take slow and precise effort that is facilitated by a journal practice.
The recent popularity of bullet journaling helped me rediscover these benefits. A bullet journal has dot graph paper to promote flexibility between an artist pad in a written journal. I create graphs and charts to check off daily goals or add a calendar right chronological order. I’ve been able to choose the intensity with which I track and have built a regular habit of looking in my journal. It not only gives me a dynamic way to notice patterns, it encourages me to seek out positive behaviors so I can check them off for a little dopamine release.
And then there’s all the wonderful data, getting to look back and see how one change or another helped or hurt my mood. Was micro dosing helping? Or was it just another mystical crutch? As any good scientist knows, it helps to have some data to reach through our own egotistical biases. You can’t measure what you don’t track.
There are probably dozens of other good reasons to keep a journal. This is just a little insight into how I used journaling to integrate all the pieces of my life to reach measurable healing.
If You want more practical ideas on how to keep an integration journal keep an eye out for our upcoming workshop about creating an integration journal on our events page. AlteredStatesIntegration.com, where psychedelic integration meets technology.