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?
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.
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.
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.
It’s not easy for me to admit this to anyone, especially since it was hard for me to admit it to myself for a long time, but I have what’s called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The symptoms beyond inattentiveness include difficulty multitasking, low impulse control, and emotional dysregulation among many others. While I won’t go into great detail of which symptoms I have and don’t have, suffice it to say this mental illness of mine has held me back in life for as long as I can remember—and for a lot longer than I care to admit.
One of the things that helped me to get my scatterbrain into order, though, is journaling. Because of the hyperactivity in my brain, it’s difficult to maintain a linear form of speech, let alone thought, and it can be quite the Hell to go through when I am presented with a task I need to concentrate on. As a result, my inattentiveness to the present moment has cost me better grades in school, concentration at the various jobs I’ve had, and most especially overall motivation to do anything in life—even the things that I love like writing, composing music, and even playing video games at times.
While my brain still fires at 1000mph making me think of everything and anything across all space and time, I have managed to slow it down a bit through journaling. Even if you are neurotypical and do not suffer from ADHD, you might still have some times in your life where you can’t stop your thoughts from racing because you have found yourself in a stressful situation in life.
For us ADHDers, though, that’s basically our default mode of being; constantly overthinking things and having branching thought patterns that lead in seemingly unrelated directions.
However, it is through journaling where I’ve come to understand where some of these branches actually intersect. There are certain things I often think about that if I were to convey them to you, you might not see how they’re even connected at first, but let my motormouth fly and maybe you’ll see how I associate one trivial thing to a more significant thing.
ADHD Tangent Alert!
For instance, I’ve gotten a lot strange glares whenever I’ve said that you can develop self-knowledge through video games. People often dismiss video games as mere leisure and possibly a waste of time, but I’ve put a lot of thought into it and I can confidently say that they are more than what meets the eye. Ask any gamer, myself included, what a certain game means to them, and more often than not, they are more than happy to talk your ear off about all the things they love about it. They might not know it, but I am hyperaware of those reasons being reflections of what we value in art and in life.
After all, art is what we are when we’re paying attention, and video games are an amalgamation of different artforms condensed into one interactive experience. The visual arts of graphics, the sound effects created to go along with well crafted animations, along with the music they have to heighten the feel of a level. Video games are interactive experiences where you learn how to master yourself in a given environment, all with its own set of rules, boundaries, and possibilities.
And much like a video game, journaling also allows for the freedom of expression the way an open world sandbox game could, as well as provide a clear and concise experience when constrained by linear level structure more commonly found in the games of yesteryear. The former kind of game makes it hard for me to find much value because too much freedom can feel aimless, whereas the latter is just what I need to make some order out of my disorder.
Let me explain!
While you can type a journal entry in a word processor, I highly suggest you handwrite your journals because there is no way your hand can keep up with your brain, ADHD brain or not. Whereas typing you might write everything off the cuff at the speed of light, and sure your output will be plentiful, but it might not be as bountiful as I’ve found handwritten journals to be in the past decade.
The reason being, of course, that handwriting forces me to slow down my thought process and choose my words carefully. Typing out a journal could lead to too much randomness and a lack of structure the way an open world game can, but ultimately it’s really choose your own adventure at this point.
But for me personally, I prefer the linearity of older gamers as it provided a structure for me to follow so I don’t get lost doing one pointless side mission after the other, constantly getting sidetracked from experiencing the main story, but anyways.
How I Strive For High Scores in Journaling
I write with a fountain pen and the ink for it runs out faster than your typical ball pen. The ink can also become quite expensive if I’m zipping through ink capsules and refillable ink bottles when I’ve got lots to journal about as I have the past few months. My 2021 was quite eventful and there is a lot to process, so I’m going through ink as fast as I go through underwear.
So because of this, I come at every session with the sole intention to at least try to stick to one topic so that no blot of ink is wasted. My entries aren’t always perfectly linear and on point with one track of mind, but at the very least, the past 10 or so years of this habit have helped me improve my capacity to reach near perfect linearity in my entries in ways I never thought possible before.
When I first started journaling in my early twenties, my entries started off as blatant rip offs of the New Age Spirituality and Self Help books I was reading at the time. They served as reminders of how I should approach life with a positive attitude as to not get crushed by the weight of cynicism and nihilism.
It wasn’t until the second volume where I started actually writing about my life at the most local sense rather than the universal and woo-woo sense. Simply put, I started becoming more honest and vulnerable, not to mention specific about my life, writing about things that I’ve gone through and trying to extrapolate lessons from them. All this, though, unfortunately brought out some cynicism and nihilism in me, but they were attitudes I was willing to challenge and improve from.
When this more open and honest approach to journaling began for me, it was an ADHD hell-scape because my thoughts were so much more scattered than they are now. I had almost no idea what to write about consistently because awakening to my own self-consciousness, it made me realize just how much I’ve repressed throughout my life and haven’t put much thought into.
This is why, even to this day, I’m still an avid advocate for self-knowledge. I surprised myself so many times in my journals admitting to so many faults I’ve had to correct, obstacles I’ve had to overcome, as well as realizing how fortunate I actually am as a human being despite how hyper-focused I might have been on negative emotions.
And that’s another symptom of ADHD that causes emotional dysregulation. While hyper-focus can give rise to creative and productive hyper-fixations—like I once had with studying Korean and playing video games, and that I now have with music production writing—it can also make me obsess over my negative emotions and get me lost in my own thoughts. Journaling about these thoughts and emotions have allowed me to take a step back and look at life in a broader picture. Reading back to a lot of my entries, I often scoff and chuckle at how seriously I took something that now feels trivial in hindsight.
Reason #873 For Journaling
So whether you’re an ADHDer like me, have some other mental illness, or are simply neurotypical, I highly suggest journaling for the same reason. To create an honest narrative of your life and discover what you truly. It is in journaling where you begin to notice certain thought patterns and what kinds of things you busy your mind with on a constant basis.
You may not even be aware of a lot of them, and that can be scary, but that’s the beauty of journaling. You can surprise yourself with not only how much you can remember or how much you actually desire in life, but also with the amount of strength you might actually have in tackling the challenges of life. Especially when you’ve verbalized what those challenges, what you think about them, how you feel about them, and what you choose to do about them.
Journaling, after all, in my eyes, is kind of like writing our own personal instruction manuals to this game called life. As we discover new rules and boundaries in life, jotting them down gives us a clearer picture of what’s possible for us and what isn’t. Then, and only then, is it up to us how much of personal agency will be spent toward the things we can control, and how much we are willing to let go of the things we can’t.
One of the most useful journaling methods that have helped me is loosely based on Internal Family Systems. It’s the concept that within every individual is a plethora of different personalities all warring for dominance over their directing mind. You might be thinking about people with split personality disorder and how you would be so far removed from them, but actually what they suffer from is a very drastic disintegration of the self.
For those of us fortunate enough to not be clinically diagnosed with that mental illness, we still contain a variety of competing personalities within ourselves, which would explain why our thoughts and emotions are so complex. There are different versions of ourselves living within us that comprise of our entire being as a whole. It doesn’t make you crazy or anything, just human.
Due to varying factors such as culture, upbringing, and social circles, we all internalize different thoughts and opinions from our environment and all these ideas become a huge part of our personalities. Some ideas are stronger than others, while some are strong enough to contend with each other, and the goal of Internal Family Systems style journaling is to integrate these personalities, not disperse them.
I talk a lot about contending with your shadow on here and this is a more detailed and nuanced form of that. There are parts of you that you might be ashamed or even afraid of, and perhaps it is your resistance to their existence that creates their persistence.
(I totally didn’t mean to rhyme, I’ll try not to do that all the time 😉
What you resist persists, though. According to Freud’s theory of repression, the more we stuff down things in our psyche, the stronger they actually become in trying to take the center stage of our minds. This is possibly how split personality disorder can occur aside from the unfortunate randomness of neurological development in the brain.
So instead of trying to completely cast out certain parts of yourself, you befriend them and finds ways to make them work in your favour. Most especially if they run counter to another personality of yours that seems to be its complete opposite. In actuality, these two warring personalities are two sides of the same coin, and sometimes one side wins over the other causing discord within our lives.
By allowing these varying parts of ourselves to have an open dialogue with each other, our directing mind can have a better time at getting a clearer picture of who is saying what, and why they are saying it. Imagine your consciousness as the director of a play and all these different aspects of your personality as individual actors who you need to assign roles to. Then as the playwright, give them their lines and let them put a play on for you to get a better grasp of yourself.
What I am about to teach you is definitely useful in understanding yourself better through Therapeutic Journaling, but also your fiction, and you’ll start to see how and why as you read along. I’ll even go into further details afterwards, but without further adieu…
Assigning Roles to Your Personalities
Think of the most prominent thought patterns you have about yourself, your relationships, and the world. For simplicity’s sake you can call them protagonists. Then think about if you ever have other thought patterns that contradict your protagonist’s patterns. Consider those contradictory thought patterns as antagonists. In actuality, there is a little good and bad in each of them, but whichever way you slice it, what you want to do is give each pattern a distinctive name as to give them some character.
In turning these thought patterns into characters, having a distinctive name and visual representation of them in your mind will allow you to get a clearer picture of how and what they manifest in your life. Sometimes writing out your thoughts, contradictory as they may be to each other, is not enough, and so the more divided you are, the more important it is to try out IFS Journaling so that you can better manage the contradictions within yourself.
Drawing from my own experience, I’ll give a couple examples of some of the characters living within my Internal Family System and how I integrated them into my being in a healthier way than just resisting what I thought needed to be discarded.
Becoming Your Own Inner Parent
Little Marlon is the wounded inner child. He just wants to be loved, taken care of, and allowed to enjoy his hobbies without judgement and without the pressure of turning them into careers. He just wants to enjoy these things for their own sake. He’s also very shy around people, but also wants to befriend them anyway because he likes to talk.
Papa Marlon is the kind of father I wish I had growing up, and the kind of father I wanted to become when I grew up. He works in tandem with Little Marlon to give him compassion, leniency, and empathy. He comforts Little Marlon and knows how to talk to him so he can feel better, thus helping him develop his social skills and become more confident with other people. However, sometimes Papa Marlon is too soft on Little Marlon and lets him get away with too much when he needs discipline.
Inner Father is the internalized version of my actual father. Although my actual father could be loud, aggressive, and sometimes physically abusive, much to Little Marlon’s and Papa Marlon’s dismay, he is not wrong in asserting that children need to be disciplined. They need to know between right and wrong or they’ll go about life disrupting the order of things.
I originally saw Little Marlon is a weakling who I needed to forget all about and become infinitely better than. I also saw my Inner Father is a nuisance because he was the one bringing up shame in for me simply being vulnerable and sensitive. For so long I wish I could get rid of this weak and sensitive part of me as well as the one who was so judgmental about his very existence to begin with.
This is where Papa Marlon had to come in to empathize with Little Marlon to let him know he belongs in the Internal Family System because reconciling his sensitivity is actually what allows me to understand the sensitivity of others and treat it kindly. Papa Marlon also went head to head with my Inner Father during the years I studied psychology and childhood development, thus developing some resentment toward my actual father for some of the ways in which he failed me growing up.
Papa Marlon represented the moral stand I took in that if and when I have kids, I will never hit them or yell at them, mishandle their vulnerability, and outright ignore them throughout their lives. He is also how and why I was able to raise my God-daughter without raising my voice or laying a hand on her, and that was a great exercise in self restraint and learning to break the cycle of violence in my family.
However, I did get over zealous with peaceful parenting and at times had been too lenient with my God-daughter, who in many ways was the physical and present manifestation of Little Marlon; another fresh new child brought into the world who just needs some love and guidance to survive it so they can feel safe and sound. But at the same time can bring danger upon themselves and even us adults sometimes.
My Inner Father was right, you really can’t let kids step all over you, which is what I allowed to happen at times with my God-daughter and Little Marlon.
Papa Marlon and my Inner Father had to duke it out in what was one the most fundamental journal entries I’ve ever written in my life. What it all amalgamated to was knowing that you must be gentle and patient with children in order to foster a safe environment for them to grow in, but you also need to discipline them whenever they act out in unruly ways.
For a long time it was either/or for me. You either be kind to them or you beat them into submission. But thanks to the dialogue I wrote out between Papa Marlon and my Inner Father, the two were able to meet in the middle and teach me that you can discipline children without having to hit or punish them in any other way.
It took some time, but alongside raising my God-daughter like she was my own, while concurrently parenting Little Marlon, I discovered ways in which I can teach these children how to behave properly without having to resort to any aggressive means of discipline. A lot of the times, I learned that some of the things parents allow their kids to do was more of the fault of proper supervision, while at other times, it was just kids exploring the world and not knowing how to do so safely.
So for instance, to teach my God-daughter why it’s important to not run into the street, I comically simulated one of her Barbie dolls getting run over by a car and voice acting how in massive pain she was in. My God-daughter laughed at this depiction, which was a relief because in hindsight it sounds like I could have easily traumatized her instead.
But she understood even at the age of two what I was trying to teach her. So any time we went out for a walk, yes I mostly held her hand to keep her close, but there were times I’d let her go and she just knew to stay on the sidewalk.
The Internal Interpersonal Tournament
So to do an Internal Family Systems journal, you assign characters to certain thought patterns of yours and like a movie script, write our their dialogue and see in what ways they can resolve their conflicts with each other so that they can live in harmony within you, as opposed to discord.
After all, this is kind of what we do, as writers, when we write novels. All the characters we write about may be amalgamations of other people we know in our lives, but ultimately their words and actions are being born out of our very own hands. If that isn’t a more creative and emotionally distant form of Internal Family Systems journaling, then I don’t know what is!
But I digress.
Writing an Internal Family Systems journal can be a more direct, dark, and gritty form of getting the kind of self-knowledge you get from writing a novel with characters who all represent different sides of you. With an IFS journal, you remove the creative filter and write something raw, unhinged, and uninhibited. Just like the Shadow Journal, you will want to proceed with caution because the more honest and vulnerable you are, the scarier this kind of journaling actually is.
Though the good news is that if you can survive it, you will become a much smarter and stronger version of yourself that you may not have imagined possible before.