Therapeutic Journaling Part 2: How and Why You Should Journal

For this week’s Meaningful Monday post, I shared a little bit of my own personal experience with therapy so far as a way to lead into today’s Workshop Wednesday where I’ll tie it to journaling. Therapy and journaling go hand in hand the same way going to school and doing homework go hand in hand with each other. Or if you have an aversion to homework for school like I do, let’s take a more fun example like learning how to play the guitar.

It is not enough to go to a guitar lesson and think that 30-60 minutes with your teacher will be enough to improve your playing. They are there to guide you toward that, but ultimately the rest is up to you in and out of the classroom. A good teacher demonstrates what it looks like for you to teach yourself the very thing you want to learn. They open your mind up to what’s possible and challenge you in a way that you need to start challenging yourself.

Therefore, going to therapy alone is not enough to heal past traumas, get hopeful for the future, and learn how to be content in the present moment. You can still get a lot of value from going to therapy and going to a guitar lesson, but ultimately you need to take home with you all that you’ve learned and apply it all on your own. A good therapist, much like a good teacher, makes it their job to make themselves obsolete to you because you want to eventually develop the skills to educate yourself long after your mentorship from them.

This in mind, consider journaling as the homework equivalent to therapy. To use what you’ve learned and ask yourself the kinds of questions your therapist has asked you, and more, so that you can get ever deeper into self inquiry.

Plus, you’ll even cut down on your need for therapy by helping yourself because you’ll learn to discern what issues you have that are actually worth talking to your therapist, let alone worth thinking and talking about in the first place.

Without further adieu I would like to introduce you to three different ways in which you can journal about your life, thoughts, and feelings all dealing with the top three tenses in life and narration: past, present, and future.


Dwelling in the Past

If there are things in your distant past that still haunt you to this day, then it’s worth writing about certain instances and eras in your life that often keep you up at night. You may have had a traumatic childhood in its entirety, or an otherwise okay childhood, but still remember a few traumatic moments or eras in your life that still have an effect on you now.

We all know we shouldn’t dwell on the past because it holds us back from enjoying the present moment, and some of you might be thinking then why write about it? My answer to that would be so that you can finally let that part of your past go. If something in the past still bothers you, it means you’ve yet to process it and learn what you can from it.

Whether you were the victim, or even perpetrator, of an injustice, it is important that you analyze your past to get a better understanding of how and why things turned out the way that they did. Life is mostly random, providing us with fortune and respite in one moment, and then torturing us with trauma in the next. However, as autonomous human beings, we are still responsible for how we may be complicit in some of the things that happen to us.

So long as you’re mired by the past, people and events that have hurt you remain as things that happened to you. Writing about them in great detail is how you make your past happen for you. The distinction being that one was out of your control and continues to control you, and the way out of it is to regain control of yourself by learning how to avoid similar mistakes moving forward.

This requires a really hard look at yourself and being honest with what happened. It is easy to write about the ways in which you’ve been wronged, and believe me I’ve done it, even here on this very website, but it’s not enough to write a detailed account of what has happened to you. You also need to take responsibility for how you may have been complicit in prolonging your own misfortune by dwelling on these events.

I’m not saying that if you’ve been abused in the past that it’s your fault, but what I am saying is holding onto that hurt is only going to hold you back from experiencing any joy or relief unless you learn something from this trauma. Perhaps it’s learning how to treat others better than you have been treated because if you know how much it hurts, and you want to be a good person, then you can make it your responsibility to never enact any similar atrocities onto anybody else.

Even on the inverse where you know you did something wrong and you’re crushed by the weight of your own guilt, then you take in account how it must have felt for the person you hurt and promise yourself to never act similarly again. And while you do have to be brutally honest about how horrible you must have been, you also need to sympathize with the past version of yourself who may have acted poorly due to a variety of reasons.

We all act out sometimes due to unbearable hurt within ourselves, maybe even out of intentionally malicious intent, but most of the time it’s really due to ignorance. Life and humanity are already so complex as they are, so there’s no straight answer for our behaviour. That’s why it’s worth processing and understanding what drives our behaviour and in turn become better people for it.

Living in the Moment

Technically, even if you journal about your current life as it is, your are writing about “the past,” but of course it’s a lot more local and current than dwelling on your childhood. While I personally like to journal about things many months after they have occurred—so that I can have a lot less emotional bias and more objectivity about certain events in my life—writing about the day you just had can have its advantages in keeping yourself emotionally up to speed in real time.

The drawback I’ve experienced in just writing about my past all the time is that it feels like my heart and mind are lagging between each other because my heart wants to live in the moment, but it gets bogged down by my mind’s incessant obsession with my past. Even as of this post I am journaling about things that happened to me in 2021 and finding ways to rethink them so that they happened for me.

But I digress.

Writing about your life as it unfolds day by day is a good way to keep your mental health chronologically in tact with life. This way, you’re always up to speed with yourself rather than playing catch up like some of the past driven journal entries you may doing. This way you even get a more linear experience of exploring your life, thoughts, and feelings, whereas the more distant your past is, the more scattered the events and your thoughts might be.

Daily journaling about each passing day is essential so that you can achieve much more immediate results from your self reflection. Whether you are going through a time of crisis or you’re living the life you’ve always wanted, it’s always worth taking the time to contemplate how you feel about your own fortune and misfortune.

If you are going through something, journaling can help you gain a sense of clarity about the situation and provide yourself with more options as to how to approach your life moving forward. If your life is trouble free for the most part, it’s also good to take stock of what you have and be grateful for it because unfortunately, not all things are meant to last and there’s always…

The Uncertainty of the Future

We don’t know what the future holds and that can cause us a lot of anxiety. Especially considering that the future isn’t even guaranteed because today might very well be the last day you get the tremendous privilege of living. And no, I’m not saying as a threat, I’m just stating a fact of life.

It’s often said how life is short, but the Stoic philosopher Seneca argued that life is not short at all, but only feels that way because of how much of our time we squander on trivial matters. Life is actually pretty long, especially if you’re fortunate and healthy enough to live well into old age. We are given, on average, quite a lengthy amount of time to live and it’s up to us how we make the best use of it.

So journaling about the future and the kinds of things you want to accomplish can help prime you for finding ways to achieve all that. You can set goals and detailed plans about your future. It doesn’t even matter if it seems like wishy washy wish fulfillment at first. The point is to get hopeful about the future so that you have things to look forward to assuming you are even granted the benefit of a bonus day to live tomorrow.

Then on the flipside, if there are things you are worried about, it’s worth writing about these fears so you learn how to better defend yourself against them. Seneca also said that, “we suffer more in imagination than we do in reality.” If you have constant concerns about a future that may never come, it’s worth writing them out to explore as to why you think these painful events will occur in the first place.

Are you still stuck in the past and think the future will be more of the same?

Are you suffering now and think it will only be the same, if not worse, in the future?

Or are you just conjuring something to worry about for the sake of having something to worry about?

It’s easier said than done, but don’t fret. What you can do about this is create action plans that safeguard you from potential threats, or even more preferable, realize that you are causing yourself unnecessary suffering in the present about the unguaranteed future and just stop torturing yourself already.


Time Traveling and Other Hobbies

Which ever timeframe you choose to write about in a given journal entry, the point is to be as objective, honest, and vulnerable as possible so that you get the most of your writing session. Journaling, real journaling, is a lot of hard work. People get the misconception is that you just write about what you ate and did that day, or you draw a bunch of hearts around it with your crush’s name written inside of those cartoon hearts.

And while you’re free to do that if you want, especially if it makes you happy, that’s perfectly fine.

But for those seeking to understand and improve themselves, you must grit your teeth and do the hard work of having these conversations with yourself. Paper is more patient than people, and so just like I said in part one of this series, you will be doing yourself, your friends and family, and your therapist a huge favour by doing your own heavy lifting on your own time.

The more mental and emotional baggage you clear for yourself, the lighter your interactions will be with others, and in my mind, that’s probably the best we can all ever hope for in getting along with our fellow man.