On Keeping a Personal Journal

Gibbs A. Williams, Ph.D.


On Keeping a Personal Journal

Congratulations! You took the plunge and entered therapy or you are very close to doing so. This means you are committed to taking a journey into inner space - your inner space. No doubt you are doing this with the purpose of attaining some significant psychological change. For some, change - even major change - may be relatively quick in coming. For others, change can occur but it is hard won.

You may ask, what can change? How do you know change when you see it? What happens if you get bogged down? Are there any ways to accelerate change?

Fortunately, there is a surefire method of identifying what can change, an aid to getting unstuck, a means to measure progress or the lack of it, and a way to accelerate the process. This method is keeping a personal journal.

Keeping a journal is not the same thing as keeping a daily diary. Into your journal will go those thoughts and feelings that truly connect with what is felt to be deepest and most vital within you. When you journal, how much you journal, and what you journal is strictly up to you. You may be moved to make entries at a set time each day. There may be days when you record your experience hour-by-hour, or large gaps of time - days, weeks, even months - when nothing seems to be all that compelling. The only requirement is that you dedicate yourself to being as absolutely honest with yourself as possible.

A Critical Events Autobiography

We are each the sum of all of our experiences and the meanings we have consciously and unconsciously attributed to them. Obviously, it would be of value to have some record indicating how you got to be where you presently are. In this connection, a potentially illuminating exercise that covers the sweep of your entire life is the creation of a "critical events" autobiography.

To do this, you might divide your life into five-year segments (that is, birth to age five, ages six to ten, and so forth). You might wish to describe the important authority figures in your life - who they are, how they are, their personal histories, how they met each other, your relationship to each and all. Include siblings, extended family, and significant others.

Once you have completed this task, try to recall and record any events that stand out for any reason, commenting on what was concluded from each, then moving on to the next noteworthy event. Include vivid memories, family stories of trauma, major losses, marker experiences (moves), and a basic attitude toward living (either easy or hard).

A thorough dedication to completing this task will inevitably highlight the most important themes, unfinished problems, unresolved conflicts, goals, and inferred obstacles to your living "the good life."

You might wish to share this material with your therapist or counselor.

Journaling Has Many Uses

One way of viewing journaling is that you are keeping in motion an ongoing honest dialogue with yourself. The purpose of this dialogue is to keep you on point, centered, illuminating that which is most present, most vivid, and most real. The following is a list of uses to which a personal journal may be put. While this list is comprehensive, it does not exhaust all possibilities. You might wish to add your own ideas.

  • Record Current Preoccupations (What Is It I Want to Change?): If you wish to know what is really on your mind, there is no better exercise than to let yourself just do "automatic" writing. If you just record what is on the top of your head - no digging is necessary - you will inevitably reveal that which is of utmost importance.

    This is so because human beings seem to operate by focusing on one major theme and sub-themes that dominate their conscious and unconscious minds. Therefore, if you: (1) let yourself record whatever is on your mind, associating to it as freely as possible, trying not to censor; and (2) put the material away for a day or two, then reread it, a clear and dominant theme will jump out at you. This theme may become the central theme of your entire therapy!

  • Set Goals (What Is It I Want to Change To?): Changing in psychotherapy means going from an undesirable state to one that is more desirable. Thus, psychotherapy is goal-directed. Goals may be clear, vague, or blank. One goal may be to generate goals.

  • Document Personal History (How Did I Get To Be This Way?): Changing in therapy means that you will engage in an ongoing process that begins with identifying the problem of the day, exploring it, and working it through. Common to all three steps is forging cause-and-effect chains of meaningful connections. In this light, knowledge of the past is often essential to understanding seemingly unsolvable dilemmas of the present.

  • Problems do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they have a point of origin and a history of developing over time. Thus, one use of journaling is to take a present problem and trace its origins and development over time. For example, you might want to identify when it was that you came to hate your brother, or when you couldn't bear raising your hand in class even though you always knew the answer to the teacher's questions.

  • Once you identify the origins of a particular problem, you might note what the conditions were surrounding the issue in question. Did you know what you were feeling at the time? Did you discuss it with anyone? Were their responses helpful or perhaps hurtful? Looking back on it, are you aware of what you concluded?

  • Organize Chaos: Journaling is an excellent accompaniment to therapy sessions. A journal allows you to have an unbroken dialogue with yourself, to ask yourself challenging organizing questions such as: Who am I? What do I really want? What interferes with attaining and sustaining what I want? Under what conditions do I get stuck? What do I do to try to get myself unstuck? All of these questions help you to learn about yourself in detail.

  • You may also record feelings, thoughts, and memories that naturally flow from what was said and not said during therapy sessions. Giving names to your experiences and writing them down clarifies, organizes, and makes them feel more real. Honest talk over time inevitably reveals the truth of the matter in question, potentially resulting in greater personal freedom and effectiveness.

  • Release Tensions Constructively: It is not unusual to feel overwhelmed at points during the process of self-exploration. At such times, there is an urgent desire to empty out the "negative" feelings. Emptying out or "venting" might take the form of screaming, or crying for hours, or sitting and staring, or restlessly pacing. Journaling is a constructive method of venting that not only allows for release, but often results in insight.

  • Learn To Be Alone and Enjoy It: People often complain about being overwhelmingly lonely, fearing being alone particularly late at night. Here journaling is particularly helpful. The habit of expressing one's feelings in honest words becomes habitual. The journal is like a friend who is always there - always willing to listen to whatever you want to talk about in any way you want to talk about it. The journal accepts you unconditionally - no judgments - just consistent encouragement: tell me more, tell me more, tell me more. In this light, it is possible to learn to understand and accept yourself with ever-expanding breadth and depth.

  • Get Unstuck: Significant change is possible in therapy, but it is often met with resistance. Sooner or later, everyone gets bogged down. Journaling is particularly helpful as an aide to getting unstuck. Because problems are embedded in various contexts, dated journal entries enable you to pinpoint when, where, with whom, and what you were experiencing when you got "off track." Once you have that information, you can explore what triggered the derailing or "stuckness." Identifying triggers and contexts can offer opportunities to generate creative ideas for getting unstuck.

  • Assess Progress Over Time: The desire to change is the primary reason people seek out and stay in therapy. Some changes are obvious, while others are not. Reading your journal, a record of the continuous flow of your vital personal experience, is an objective evaluator of significant change. It can help to read how you were, particularly at the beginning of your therapy, as compared to how you are today. When changes occur, the journal brings to life the process of making meaningful connections, like pieces of a six-dimensional puzzle fitting together into a clear and coherent whole.

Are you intrigued by these possibilities? Then perhaps you may want to give journaling a try!

Copyright © 2000-2001 Gibbs A. Williams