In recent years, journaling has emerged from the province of new age workshops and entered the mainstream much the way meditation did a few decades ago. As with meditation, which has become commonplace as a "stress reduction" technique, some forms of journaling are becoming known more popularly as "expressive writing." That can be a little confusing, as most kinds of creative writing are pretty expressive. But journaling is not an art form or a literary type like the memoir. Nor is it the same thing as keeping a diary, which can combine a simple recording of events with personal perceptions -- like Samuel Pepys's famous diary of 17th-century London. And many of us remember Little Lulu's "Dear Diary." Maybe because journaling is a form of writing all its own, a number of misconceptions have sprung up around it. I've been teaching journaling for more than a decade, publicly, with private clients and online classes, and I've come across most of them. Here are a few of the most debilitating:
1. Journaling is essentially narcissistic.
In one of my journaling classes a young man told me that he'd stopped journaling after a few months because, he said, "I feel so narcissistic--you know, always writing about myself and my problems." I pointed out that narcissism actually refers to uncritical admiration of one's self or physical image, whereas journaling requires an honest appraisal of yourself, your efforts, and things as they are. Of course, it's fine to write about genuine accomplishments--indeed, that's one of the most productive aspects of journaling. But you also have to be willing to work through problems and events that you may find disturbing and reluctant to acknowledge.
2. It's better to write by hand than on a computer or mobile device.
Not at all. A report on journaling (in the British newspaper The Telegraph) arguing that we learn more while writing by hand than on a computer is somewhat misleading. For one thing, the report follows one obscure study showing that participants who wrote by hand tended to retain information better than those who used a keyboard. But journaling is not about retaining intellectual information. It's about delving into your reactions to events, your emotional state, and how you might improve your condition. The key to journaling is bringing vague thoughts, ideas, fears, and excitements out of the mental realm and making them real by writing them down in any format available. If you have carpal-tunnel syndrome or get writer's cramp, you can even use the voice recognition feature that is now standard on most computers and mobile devices, which allows you to speak your thoughts and have them instantly transcribed by "the ghost in the machine." What really matters is connecting the circuit between thoughts floating amorphously in the ether and recording those thoughts in concrete form, whether by pen, keyboard, or voice-activated device.
3. Journaling is all about wallowing in the past.
Spiritual teachers and secular therapists alike speak of staying in the present moment. That's all well and good, but being present also includes learning from the past and planning for the future. That means being able to address past issues without wallowing in what Caroline Myss calls "woundology"--identifying yourself by the traumas or dysfunctions that have colored who you are now. Experiencing the emotional content of the moment is itself a way of understanding the past and providing a way forward. Returning to your subject over a period of days has been shown to reduce stress and improve both mental and physical health, even for older people who are "at risk of poor healing."
4. Your kids, spouses, partners and parents will accept what's in your journal.
In fact, even the most loving partner probably won't understand or accept many of your concerns, and may misinterpret whatever you write about them. For that reason, privacy is essential, whether that means a locked drawer or a password-protected file. It's also essential not to feel that someone is looking over your shoulder as you write your deepest and most troubling thoughts and feelings--or your most ambitious dreams. Journaling is related to therapy in the sense that it's a way to help you understand what's going on with you and to create strategies for coping. If you choose to share the insights that you've discovered during the process of journaling, that's up to you. But nobody should read your journal except you.
5. It's impossible to write something new every day, or even once a week.
Someone in my journaling workshop once complained that when she tried to journal, her mind went completely blank. I congratulated her. "You've accomplished something," I said, "that Zen monks spend 20 years learning to do!" The laughter that swept through the room confirmed that we're all pretty well aware of how the conscious mind is constantly chattering away--what meditation teachers refer to as "monkey mind." Our minds are never completely blank, but we may feel that what pops up at the moment isn't something we want to explore in depth. And yet that very exploration could bring relief from the anxiety or uncertainty that's bothering us. If you feel blank on any given day when you sit down to journal, you can write about that. Write about your resistance, your discomfort with the effort, or the feeling that it's all a silly waste of time.
6. But it really is a silly waste of time.
Meditators talk about "circling the cushion," reflecting their reluctance to continue a practice that often feels pointless and even downright painful. You could say the same thing about exercise or repainting your house, except that most people would argue that those activities have observable, desirable effects. And yet, the beneficial effects of meditation, especially the kind used in stress reduction, have been measured scientifically now, with convincing results. Much the same has been shown for keeping a journal, or, as it is now often called, "expressive writing."
7. Journaling is embarrassing if you can't spell or write well.
This is another block created by the ego to prevent us from doing something that, while it may be psychologically and physically beneficial, threatens the dominance of the ego. The first thing I tell my journaling classes is that they shouldn't even think about their spelling, grammar or syntax. For one thing, nobody else will be reading their journals if they don't want them to. But more to the point, you shouldn't let concerns about grammar and spelling impede the flow of your ideas. You want to allow yourself the freedom to be honest about what's bothering or elating you, and then explore your feelings without anything holding you back, whether it's your survival ego or the fear that someone is looking over your shoulder.
To learn more about my online class in Sacred Journaling, please go here.