Therapeutic Journaling Part 10: The Gratitude Journal

One of the most overlooked, but also one of the most powerful kinds of journals you can write, is the Gratitude Journal. All too often we’ll journal out our problems and hopes for the future that we forget to take stock of what we currently have: The Present Moment.

It’s all we ever have and no matter how much loss we’ve suffered in the past and how much more we’ve got to gain in the future, so long as we’re simply breathing, we have a lot to be thankful for. Maybe you’re not where you want to be in life and maybe you’re suffering a crisis. The mere fact that you get to live and be given the opportunity to learn and grow from hardship should be appreciated.

It’s a strange concept, to be thankful for even hardship. But if you really think about it, without sadness and hardship, we would not have much appreciation for happiness and the good times in our lives. There’d be no contrast. And in the business of contrasting, instead of journaling out your problems all the time, take a moment to be grateful and acknowledge where you’re at.

“He who cannot be contented with what he has will not be contented with what he wants.” – Socrates

It was true over 2000 years ago and it’s still true to this day. Practicing gratitude can help reframe your mind toward abundance rather than always focusing on scarcity. We have evolved to focus on scarcity because human survival was much harder before than it is now, so we’ve still got a lot of leftover monkey brain residing within us. Not to say it’s entirely useless because starvation and poverty are real problems, but I think it’s safe to say that if you can afford the internet connection in order to read this post, there’s a high chance that you’re living a comfortable life, if not a luxurious one.

Yet that’s the problem, right?

Comfortability.

We work so hard to get to the point of comfortability because being challenged is difficult, we just wanna laze around and watch Netflix or play video games all day because they’re the most fun and easiest things to do. But then we tend to grow stagnant when we live a little too comfortably. So just as we need challenges to help us grow, we also need ample rest so we have the energy to tackle the challenges of life.

It’s a balancing act that we will never perfect, but will definitely try our entire lives to employ. You want to be journaling your problems out for the catharsis and possible problem solving that can come with it. And you also want to be writing about the things you’ve achieved thus far and be grateful for what you have in life, even if it may seem very little.

Harkening back to the Socrates quote, sometimes we get so busy chasing things that we think will make us happy that we somehow forget how to just be happy. We think that next relationship, that new job, or that new toy is what’s gonna make us happy, and maybe we get one or all of those things and then it’s like “so what now?”

That’s the tricky thing with life.

It’s good to have goals to strive for so that each day you live is filled with some sense of purpose and direction. But as that old cliché goes, “life is a journey, not a destination.” It’s cliché because it’s true. If you’re not moving toward an aim you are then aimless and begin to feel the weight of existential dread falling upon you.

So you work, work, and work, and you finally achieve your goal, and then you’re confronted with a whole new problem: “what’s next?”

Achieving one goal only opens you up to having a whole new set of problems you did not think possible, and since you have much more life left to live, then the process repeats. Until the very end of your days there’s always gonna be one more mountain to climb because it’s just what we do as human beings. We inherently do not feel like we are or have enough and so we strive to fill ourselves with more and more experiences and possessions—all of which are not bad things in and of themselves, but none of them really mean anything unless we take the time to be grateful for them.

If you have nothing pertinent to journal about, no issues to solve, then take a moment to write a Gratitude Journal because we could all use a little respite here and there. Give thanks to the people you love, the art that you’ve consumed, and even thank yourself for showing up for your daily practice. Life is very short and we tend to go from one thing to the next in a heartbeat, so giving ourselves a moment to breathe and feel that heartbeat, even for just a fraction of eternity, we are reminded that it is Your Write to Live.

Therapeutic Journaling Part 9: Improving Your Self Talk

What all journaling comes down to is improving how you talk to yourself. It’s definitely what I’ve learned from my Trifecta of Tribulations a few years ago. We all have a tendency to narrate and frame our lives in a certain way that can cause us suffering. A lot of it has to do with unmet needs, unmet expectations, and just a general sense of pressure we put on ourselves to be a certain way and experience life a certain way, instead of just letting ourselves be.

With journaling, you can write down the ways in which you behave, how you think and feel about them, and then decide on a course of action on how to proceed knowing what you know. Take stock of who and how you are throughout the day and compare it to how you would like to be better in the future, but also be kind to yourself if you don’t live up to these new ideals you set for yourself.

That’s the important thing about goal setting: aim high, but don’t break your neck.

We all know of a multitude of ways in which we can operate better in the world at large, but we often feel disappointed in ourselves whenever we don’t live up to that standard. This is where journaling can be helpful in keeping track of your past, present, and future trajectory. By observing yourself as objectively as possible, and maybe even seeing yourself as a protagonist to your own novel, you get to write yourself out the way you so please.

Do you want to be the protagonist or the antagonist of your own story?

Sometimes we’re both, such is the human condition. We are walking talking contradictions claiming to have one value and then betraying them seemingly in the next heartbeat. Then comes the shame and the guilt around it. Why? Because we all have a potential future self that is actually judging us in the present. We know we could be better, but often make excuses as to why we’re not living up to that potential.

It’s one thing to have that inner commentary constantly justifying why we squander our time away, but it’s a whole other thing to write that down and face the painful reality that that’s what you actually think all day. When you read back on your journal entries as if it’s a good friend reporting to you the contents of their mind, then it becomes excruciatingly clear how much work you have left on improving yourself.

Whether you write an Internal Family Systems Journal or not, a journal is essentially a conversation you have about yourself, with yourself, and to yourself. So much of the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our thoughts because the quality of our thoughts affect our words, and in turn our words become our actions. To keep track of all these things is to develop the self awareness required to move forward in life.

That’s all life really is in the end, an ever going journey to understand ourselves and operate better day by day until our final breath. The learning never ends until our lives do.

And that’s another thing journaling can help you discover. That you are constantly faced with your own mortality and so much of it has been squandered on self defeating thoughts that hold you back from moving forward in life.

It’s perfectly fine if you fill an entire notebook full of yourself doubt for the catharsis, but what do you once you get that out of your head and onto the page? Well, you do the excruciating practice of actually reading back to yourself what you’ve written and imagine your journal self as someone you care deeply about. What would you want to tell them in counter or support to what they’ve said?

I know in my experience I could be quite harsh on myself to the point of causing my own depression for several days. I used to beat myself up for making mistakes or not living up to my potential to the point of not letting myself do any writing or not letting myself reach out to friends or family to talk to. I was too ashamed of myself to think I was worth all that trouble for people to care about, let alone believe my writing had any merit beyond mere self expression.

Self expression is key, though.

That’s the most important thing about journaling that people need to understand. It has nothing to do with being a good or bad writer or if it makes any sense. It’s all about getting to express yourself as freely as you want because the page is the safest place on the planet.

Anne Frank said it best when she said, “paper is more patience than people.”

The page won’t judge you or shame you for thinking what you think.

The page won’t challenge you on your thoughts.

That’s all completely up to you to do. You can start off journaling with the express purpose of letting your darkest, deepest secrets and desires onto the page, but in the end it’s up to you whether you want to do something about any of that or not. My opinion is that you should, but my opinion shouldn’t matter to you when you’ve got your own intricate inner world that I will never understand, and you’ll have your own reasons for resisting the challenge that journal brings forth. Let alone journaling at all.

But once again, in my experience, I’ve become acutely aware of how damaging myself talk has been, calling myself names, making myself feel guilty and ashamed about certain things I do or say, and giving myself an overall lifestyle of dread and misery.

After several years of journaling and about half a year of therapy, though, I’m starting to see how much time has been wasted on doubting myself and not believing in myself enough. Trusting myself is an even bigger point of contention, but I’m getting there. I’m finally at a place where I can get depressed and tired of life, but simply retreat to myself and recover instead of telling myself how much of a failure I am and unloading my negativity onto others.

If I have a trusted friend or family to talk to a certain thing about. Hell, that’s what my therapist is for when I want an even deeper dive for help beyond unconditional empathy. She will challenge my thoughts and beliefs, pose questions about them, and I am left speechless and mindless a lot of times because it stops the usual noise that goes on in my head.

With journaling and therapy, the goal is to tackle your thoughts and feelings to the point where you really do need to take a moment to stop, breathe, and think before you answer. Whenever your mind stills itself and stops the usual chatter, that’s when you know you’ve hit some big and need to take your time to figure it out.

And in the end you will learn exactly how you need to approach yourself on a daily basis. The kind of empathy and compassion you know you deserve, giving yourself the kind of self talk you need to survive the throes of life. This doesn’t mean delude yourself into thinking everything is fine when things are going to hell, but it does mean taking ownership for the ways in which you can influence the circumstances of your life to the best of your ability.

Improving our self talk is important because we get so used to hearing the same thought patterns over and over again, and we start to believe them. We don’t even know where so many of our thoughts and beliefs come from, whether we’ve come to these conclusions rationally, emotionally, or simply by default. We’ve given our power away by getting influenced by our peers, family, or society, but in the end we are the ones, at the individual level, who are ultimately responsible for the way we think, feel, and act in the world at large.

Therapy, coupled with journaling, is how reclaim that power.

Therapeutic Journaling Part 8: Dreaming of Ideas

For today’s Workshop Wednesday post, I am really excited to share two types of journals that can be used separately or in conjunction with each other. There’s the Dream Journal and the Idea Journal, both of which can be very helpful in receiving the therapeutic benefits from journaling, as well as expand on your creativity.

The Dream Journal

The Dream Journal is where you jot down your dreams in the best possible detail you can manage. Dreams are so mysterious and elusive, we often forget them much quicker the more we go on about our day, so I highly suggest that you write them down as soon as you wake up.

The first stage in writing a Dream Journal is simply writing a narration of what you can remember happening in it. What kind of place did you find yourself in? Who was there? And what are some thoughts your dream self had within the dream itself?

Not sure if anyone else experiences this, so please let me know if you experience this too, but I often remember verbalizing certain thoughts in dreams that are even more out of my control than the thoughts I have in the waking world.

The second stage then is to re-read your entry and see if it holds up to what you think you can remember from it. This is where you’re free to add more details if more come in, or subtract some that you think might not have actually been in the dream because we do tend to add things we merely wish or thought were in the dream.

The third and final stage is the fun part: try to extrapolate personal meaning from them. While there are some websites that give you a rough guide as to what certain people, places, and objects are supposed to symbolize in a dream, it is ultimately up to you to decide what you think these things mean because only you know the specific idiosyncrasies of your life.

For instance, I’ve had the same dream twice in my life where I am lying in a hospital bed while rolling through a desert at night. I see myself in third person as a silhouette on that bed while my mom’s face is in the moon watching over me. I had the initial dream when I was a young kid, and then again when I was a teenager, this time with the addition of three doctor heads floating beneath the face of my Moon Mom.

Upon close inspection of this recurring dream, I think it symbolizes how disconnected I’ve felt from my body during the two of the open heart surgeries I’ve had in my life, and how my mom has always been there to watch over me in the hospital. She’s taken a couple weeks off work both times just to be there with me and praying to God that He’d guide the doctors, nurses, and surgeons in assisting my recovery.

Being in the desert at night symbolizes how cold and alone I feel when I go under the knife in real life, and seeing myself in third person I think might have to do with how I need to disassociate from my body in order to survive the kind of stress its put under during open heart surgery.

I often theorize that having had suffered heart failure as a baby, maybe my ADHD developed because my body was in such excruciating pain and fatigue that my brain fought to keep me alive by firing all the neurons it can to keep itself occupied and distracted from all that pain and fatigue.

The Idea Journal

The Idea Journal is a lot less emotionally heavy, but still fun to write as well. This is where you work out your ideas whether they are for a business, a creative writing project, or everything else in between. You spitball a ton of ideas without giving them much thought, then later see if you can separate the wheat from the chaff.

There’s a common misconception that you might end up exhausting all of your good ideas from the very beginning and will be left with no more in the future. I would argue that the ability to create ideas is a lot like a muscle that you need to train in order to maintain. You need to exercise it by dumping all your ideas out as freely as possible on a regular basis.

One of the things this will do is allow you to write out the bad ideas and make room for the good ideas. Then another thing it can do is give provide a compass for which ideas you actually feel excited about. You can do this in a grocery list form or even in long form describing certain things for a few sentences and paragraphs before you jump to the next.

Either way, the point is to jump around from idea to idea quickly without being too attached to any of them. If you do find an idea that draws your attention the most and you can’t stop writing about it in that session, it might be a sign of how important and engaging that idea will be to work on.

I will confess to the reason why I’ve been able to write two blog posts a week this year is because I wrote a huge Idea Journal listing and briefly describing 50 possible blog posts I could write. A lot of them are the ones you’ve seen since January while a few other ideas were left by the wayside because I either saw no use for them yet or I know they’re good, but I’m not ready to write those particular posts just yet.

However, all the posts in this particular series on Therapeutic Journaling were not from that Idea Journal, rather completely off the cuff every week this month!

Dreaming Up Your Ideas

And now putting them together, you can also use Dream Journals to come up with story ideas. Dream Journals are beautiful to gain some personal insight about your life, especially the dreams that illicit a strong emotion in you like that Ralph Wiggum dream I had. (It actually turned into a huge journey for me to take on personally and one of my favourite blog series to date!)

They can serve the dual purpose of giving you the personal insights that change your life and help you generate creative ideas like they have for me.

Dreams are so interesting because they bend the rules of reality, yet feel very real when you are within them. Even if you become a bit conscious during a dream and acknowledge it for not being “real,” that feeling of hyper-reality still overtakes you if you don’t have the misfortune of waking up from them. Especially the good dreams and even the nightmares.

I’d even go so far as to say that if you become conscious of being in a nightmare, that you try and stay in it and see what kind of obstacle your mind is trying to get you to confront by way of that dream. And in turn you can use all those feelings and weird concepts you experienced in the dream to inform your creative writing ideas.

So for instance, back in 2010 I wrote a novel called Me, Myself and Who Am I? where a man is haunted by his own reflection in the mirror that has taken a life of its own, taunting him and acting like a cynical life coach to him.

I could not have come up with that idea had I not had this dream where I was in my washroom looking into the mirror, and instead of seeing my adult self in the reflection, it was my child self in the mirror. He was dressed in shrunken versions of my adult clothes, the very same clothes I’d often wear to to get drunk at parties and get high with friends outside all throughout the night.

I tried to look away from him because seeing him cry was painful to look at, but only his eyes shifted to the side while my adult dream self’s eyes were still fixed to the mirror. I woke up gasping for air because of this dream because of how much anxiety it provoked in me. It made me think about how I was betraying and suppressing my wounded inner child with all this substance abuse and hanging around the wrong crowd in my twenties.

I was a straight edge teen all throughout high school, but when I graduated, I got pretty addicted to the partying life because I felt lost and had no idea what to do. I had been so haggard and resigned from trying to graduate high school because I was held a back a little and needed to go to summer school for two years in order to catch up. I inevitably burned out after having put my all into my school work which is just absolute agony for the ADHD brain.

That dream alone saved my life because it forced me to confront myself not only in my journals, but also through the novel I wrote that year. The idea of your mirror reflection talking to you, pointing out to you and shaming you for how you can be better…I needed to experience that journey along with the protagonist Parker Davis in order to create some sense of resolution in my soul.

So you too, can probably some have deeply personal dreams that you can gain some personal insights from and/or get some inspiration for story ideas. Whichever way you slice it, Dream Journals and Idea Journals are another beautiful way to feel the therapeutic benefits of journaling.

See you next week for Parts 9 and 10!

Therapeutic Journaling Part 7: Pre and Post Meditation

As I mentioned in Part 5 of this blog series, I have learned to manage some of my ADHD symptoms through journaling. In addition to that, I also like to meditate before and after I do any kind of writing, whether it’s journaling or creative writing.

In today’s Meaningful Monday post we will explore what meditation is, how you do it, and why you should add it to your writing routine.

What is Meditation and How Do I Do It?

Meditation is a formal practice of mindfulness. Where meditation requires you to sit or lay still, mindfulness can be practiced in motion like when you’re doing yoga, going for a walk, or even cooking a meal. It’s the practice of being aware of your thoughts and either accepting them as they pass you by, without judgement or attachment, or by trying to keep your mind clear of thoughts entirely especially when you need to focus on something.

Meditation is mindfulness to the max where you set a certain amount of time to simply sit, breathe, and observe your mind. For each inhale and exhale, you bring your mental focus more and more toward the flow of your breath and recognizing all the sensations that are occurring in your body, as well as becoming aware of the thoughts passing through your mind.

Once again, without judgement or attachment to your thoughts. Just let them be.

A common misconception about meditation is that you are supposed to sit still and have an empty mind, which can be achieved and quite liberating, but you cannot expect yourself to do that the first time. Let alone the first 100 times because meditation is actually difficult to do if your mind races like mine. ADHD or not.

Because of this, people think that they’re “no good” at it and will just fail because of how much they think, but that’s the point! To get some control of your mind, you need to let it do its thing while you observe from a bit of a bird’s eye view rather than being honed in on ground level. Let your thoughts pass like the wind, and not that gaseous kind of wind, but an actual gust of wind.

Why Should I Meditate Before Journaling?

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s preferable that you handwrite your journals so that it forces your mind to slow down, focus on one pattern of thought, and create some sense of order of the chaos that may be occurring in your mind. While putting your thoughts down on paper is one good way to slow your mind down and free up your mental real estate for better thoughts, meditation is the perfect aid to it.

Meditating allows you to slow your mind down even more, especially if you’ve gotten good at focusing on your breath. You should be inhaling slowly until you ca no longer inhale any further, and then exhale slowly until you can no longer exhale any further. You might notice that your breath is shallow throughout the day and this lack of oxygen to your brain is what causes it to think anxious thoughts. Without a proper air supply, your brain’s ability to breathe is obstructed.

Meditation will help you lift as many obstructions as possible.

As you meditate before you journal, what you can do is start setting intentions for what you want to write about. Think about the order in which you’ll convey your thoughts, what kind of entry you’ll be writing, and what the purpose of that entry will be. Maybe you want to gain some insights on how to resolve a relational conflict, work out the pros and cons of life decisions you need to make, or maybe you just want to make sure you get the most of your writing time.

You are definitely free to sit down and write whatever comes to your mind (which is all writing anyway, fundamentally), but for journaling in particular, it’s good to construct a game plan of what you will be writing about it in particular. This will allow you to increase the chances of making sure most, if not all, you write ends up being beneficial for you at the end of the session.

I Already Meditated Before Journaling, Why Should I Do it Again Afterward?

It’s important to also meditate after journaling because putting an abrupt stop to your self reflection might make you forget all the lessons you just taught yourself within your writing practice. If you drive a manual transmission car, it’s the difference between stalling in a parking spot vs slowly shifting gears down and turning off the car properly.

Meditating after journaling will help you ease out of that mindful mode you might find yourself, especially when whatever you’re writing happens to grip all your attention and you allow your mind to truly spiral toward every conceivable thought and feeling you happen to recognize in yourself during that session. For some, myself most especially included, journaling can be a very intense process where it brings up a lot of discomfort, and tackling all that discomfort by bleeding it out of the pen can leave you mentally and emotionally wiped.

Sometimes even physically.

All the more reason to meditate because you might feel a sense of adrenaline reaching certain insights about yourself, and you need to breathe and contain that adrenaline so it can be expended in a healthy way afterward. Plus, meditating after journaling can literally allow you to meditate on everything you just learned about yourself so your mind makes the distinction between what you took out of it and what you’re putting into it in return.

Catch you all in the following parts of Therapeutic Journaling!

Therapeutic Journaling Part 6: The Progress Journal

So we’ve been digging in pretty deep into our psyches with the last few posts on journaling. From part two’s focus on chronological journaling and part four’s focus on your Internal Family System, and not to mention a surprise hit entry on Shadow Journaling—I think it’s time to take it a little easier on ourselves today and focus on goal setting.

While I do think it’s important for us to contend with our shadow side and work out the worries of the day in a journal, we can’t always be digging that deep and getting that emotional because that could be very taxing. In fact, although I am a big proponent to expressing your darkest deepest feelings as earnestly as possible, there can be a point where it can be a bit excessive and you can become too identified with your problems as opposed to having them shed on the page.

To reverse that, we also need to learn how to write Progress Journals to keep track of our goals and ambitions. This can range from your progress in therapy, your progress in your novel, or anything else that you’re working on in life to give yourself a moment to take stock of your life thus far, especially when you feel stuck.

Even if you’re not feeling stuck, it’s even more beneficial to focus on your progress because if you’re not inhibited by any emotional weight holding you down, you can propel that much further in your goals by continuing to take stock anyway.

So why should you write a progress journal and how do you even do it?

What You Measure Grows

If you approach your life like it’s a game you start to notice just how much the quality of our lives are based on “high scores” in different aspects of our lives. How much money do we have in the bank? How many reps can we lift x amount of lbs of a dumbbell? How many words can we write a day?

It is important to jot down these numbers because then you could compare and contrast them throughout the weeks to see how you’re faring in a specific goal. So let’s take writing for instance. Say your goal is to write somewhere between 500-2000 words a day. If you have a word count tracker where you mark each date and total word count for that day, you can keep a tally of how well you do throughout the week.

(Keep your eyes peeled for a future post on Word Count Goals as I will share my own Word Count Tracker and how I use it.)

Some days you’ll be under par and some days you’ll be over par, and in a different section of your Word Count Tracker, you can even briefly mention how and why your word count was a certain way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that being under the word count is bad, rather maybe other things came up that day, and that is something you can mention in a Progress Journal

The whole point of a Progress Journal is to have an open, honest, and earnest conversation with yourself about how far you’ve come in the project, and what you have left to do. It even doubles as a perfect pre-writing warm up exercise because you get yourself thinking about your novel at the bird’s eye view rather than being honed in on the story at ground level. Sometimes it helps to get that broader perspective before you pan the camera down to where the novel focuses.

So keep track of your scores for everything in your life and write entries about how and why you were able to achieve so much or so little in the day. If you score low, it’s not about blaming external circumstances for getting in the way of your goals, rather it’s taking accountability over how you allowed external circumstances for getting in the way of your goals.

I get that a lot of us lead busy lives, but if writing truly is our lifestyle as we believe it is here at Your Write to Live, then we should always make the time to write. Much like anything else in life, it’s not that we don’t have time for certain things, rather we don’t make time for them unless we find them all that more important above everything else. And when it comes to self care and mental health, they damn well better be more important above everything else or everything else begins to fall apart if we’re not well taken care of.

But I digress!

The Progress Journal Manual

My Progress Journals before every writing session were always recapping what I’ve written the day before, or the session before if I have more than one that day, and meditating on what I have left yet to write. Sometimes I’d be focused on shifting my mindset toward being positive, and if I had that inherently intact for a day, then the fun begins where I’ve focused a lot on working out my ideas. This same approach can apply to other things too aside from writing. Even something like weight lifting or any other form of exercise you want to do on a daily basis, you can reflect on what kinds of thoughts and feelings arise as you’ve approached your goal for that day.

Sticking to the example of writing, though—since this is Your Write to Live, not Your Write to…Lift?—you could just as easily write about your perceived Writer’s Block. Doing so is what made me come up with the Shadow Journal in the first place, actually. I would get so deep into my head about why I have all this resistance toward doing something I know that I love, but can’t bring myself to do. It was no longer about the book itself, but myself, and how I have to contend with my own shadow almost every time only to realize that after each session, I come out stronger and smarter than I ever thought possible.

While it is best that you know how to regulate your own motivation for writing, there is no shame in asking for help and that’s why I’m happy to announce that I will be offering Writing Coaching services later in the year so I can help other writers cultivate healthy writing habits of their own that suit them, as well as provide a sounding board for their ideas.

Whether you can’t afford writing coaching services or simply want to do it alone, though, Progress Journaling is the next best alternative to keeping yourself in check and bouncing your ideas around to see if they are sound. You can even join writing forums online or a critique group in person, but I believe that the less people there are and the more intimate the experience is, the more value you can get from reflecting on your progress.

So if you’ve got a grip on the whole mental and emotional aspect of writing, then you get to have a whole lot of fun simply writing about your ideas for your current chapter. Progress Journaling is also a less structured way of outlining, though outlining chapter and GMC graphs are still important, and can lend you more freedom to write and retract some of your ideas as you write them.

Often times you will find yourself writing about a particular idea and realizing it sounds dumb out loud or doesn’t even getting used in the end anyway. Which then makes room for the good ideas you’ve been waiting for, and that’s the thing about ideas which I’ll write about next week: the fact that generating ideas is a muscle you need to exercise. The more you do it, the better you get at them.