Being Your Own Therapist - How keeping a journal can help you to help yourself
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Deborah Holder MBACP (Reg)
20th January, 2013
While a journal cannot replace a therapist, it can be therapeutic. What a journal can do is help you to notice patterns in your behaviour and emotional responses. It’s an opportunity to reflect on your experiences, feelings, thoughts and behaviour. It can be a way of expressing yourself, especially expressing difficult or deep emotions. It can be a way of thinking about what you would like to change, what is missing from your life or what you would like to do more of. It can be empowering. It can be a release. It can be an alternative to self-harming or destructive behaviour.
So, while it’s not an alternative to therapy, a journal can be very beneficial and may be worth considering before, during or after therapy.
Avoid buying a journal that is already broken into small segments as this may dictate the way you use it. It may work better to buy a book with blank pages and decide on the layout yourself. It helps if you like the look and feel of your journal, if it is an object you enjoy taking off the shelf, opening up and writing in.
Different kinds of journals work well for different people.
A good starting point is to think about why you are considering keeping a journal – to express your feelings, to help feel more motivated, to reflect on experience?
Write when you feel like it but ideally three times a week and return to reread and reflect.
- Write about things you have enjoyed or disliked and why, write about things you have noticed, things that you haven’t understood, things that have thrown you or made you feel good. Write about things that surprised you or made you stop and think.
- If you are stuck, try freewriting – just write anything and everything that comes into your head. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or sense. Just see where it takes you.
- Change your perspective by writing about yourself in the third person eg ‘she couldn’t understand why she felt so angry..’.
- Try some scaling. Rate your mood out of ten each time you make an entry. Alternatively, rate your energy levels or your health. Notice over time how these go up and down or stay steady and whether this in connected to anything else that’s going on. Consider how you might raise your mood if for example it has been a low 3/10 for a few weeks. Ask what it would take to move up to a 4/10 and what you might try to achieve this.
- Write a letter to someone you love, someone you are angry with or someone you miss. Or, write a conversation with yourself, offering support or advice.
- Try using sketches, cut- outs, different coloured pens, diagrams, mind maps – whatever describes your feelings best.
- Make a list of things you feel uneasy about, things you are enjoying, things you would like to do more of, things you want from life.
- Include dreams, noting down the themes and images in the morning and looking back on your notes later.
- Try a positive approach. Start with three things that have gone well that week and why. Or, try EGS – one thing you have enjoyed, one thing you are grateful for and one thing you have felt satisfied with.
A Three Stage Journal
Try splitting your journal into three sections - Experience, Analysis and Actions. Maybe write your day to day journal (experience) on the right hand page, leaving the left hand pages free, then come back and write analysis and actions on the left hand pages.
Write freely about what’s going on for you, what has been happening and how you feel about it.
Example - Argued with my sister Sara again on the phone. Why does she always ring so late and then start up a big, heavy conversation. She always wants to talk about mum. I was really impatient and she ended up hanging up on me. I felt guilty afterwards but angry too. Went to work the next day and was still irritable about it. Couldn’t shake it off. Was quite rude to Martin when he asked me if anything was wrong. Apologised afterwards.
Reread what you have written – maybe when you come to make the next entry a few days later - and think about how you feel about it now. Reflect on the parts that seem more significant, write about how it makes you feel now, whether you have a different or the same perspective. Ask yourself questions – ‘Why did this make me so happy?’ Or ‘Why did this bother me so much?’
Example - I’m left wondering why I react so strongly to Sara’s phone calls. If it was a friend calling so late, would I handle it differently? I might just tell a friend that I can’t talk because it’s too late. I probably wouldn’t feel guilty about it. Or I might find the energy to talk because I make more of an effort than I do with family. Family will always be there. I also notice it was much easier to apologise to Martin than to Sara which doesn’t seem fair.
Maybe it’s more that I don’t want to talk about mum. I find it hard to talk about her illness and I recognise this pattern. I remember that when mum told me about that cancer scare years ago I pretty much ignored it and avoided talking about it. She really needed support but I didn’t want to accept that she was ill.
Sara probably doesn’t have anyone else to talk about mum with. Maybe she’s struggling with the idea of mum being ill just like I am. And I guess 10pm isn’t that late for Sara as she doesn’t have kids and stays up later. Maybe she’s even leaving it later because she thinks it’s better for me.
Think about what you might have done differently and what you would do differently in future. Are there any actions that might help (there aren’t always relevant actions)? Try to be specific.
Example - Arrange to see Sara for coffee on my day off next week. She wants to talk to me but phone calls seem to go badly and are more likely to end in a row, particularly when she calls late and I’m tired. We do need to talk about mum even if that’s difficult. Also, talk to Sara about phoning late. Explain that I do want to talk to her but I tend to be tired and less patient after 9.30. Suggest a better time, maybe 8ish. Better to talk about this when we’re not angry than in the heat of the moment.
Be more prepared to answer honestly if someone notices there is something wrong. I know Martin well and could have told him why I was irritable. He might have offered another perspective.
(There are lots of good books on journal keeping as well as research showing the psychological benefits.)
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