When most of us think of journals or diaries, we picture them with locks on the front, like you might see in a teenager’s bedroom. We understand that this is because journals are private and personal — for the writer’s eye only. Interestingly, when I suggest to patients that they start journaling, more than a few have asked “Should I get one with a lock?” Often, I put the question back to them, like many a therapist might.
I’m going to admit something to you. Some of the first thoughts I journaled, I burnt after. So much was my fear that someone else might read the words, I couldn’t relax until they were destroyed — but it didn’t matter. The important part was that I admitted something to myself. Once the truth was out, there was no denying it. We spend so much of our time saying what we want people to hear and what they want to hear. Honesty is rare and difficult, so much so that many of us can only conceive of doing it behind a big lock.
To begin with, do what you like. Burn it. Lock it. Hide it. If worrying what someone else might think is stopping you from journaling, take whatever measures you need to feel assured it will remain private. Smartphones can be locked and notes apps can often be locked too, offering double security. Do not let shame stop you from being honest with yourself. In fact, if you feel embarrassed about writing something, write why. If you feel ashamed to admit you feel embarrassed, why write about that too. Where did you learn being embarrassed was a bad thing? Probably at home or in school, where a lot of us learn to keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves.
In time, you will find that the desire to hide your journal entries reduces. This is called exposure therapy. You do something that makes you feel anxious until it doesn’t make you feel anxious anymore. More than that, you test your belief that bad things will happen if you do something scary. One day, you may find you want to show someone something you’ve written, because it says something about you or them. This then opens up another level of exposure in which you get to test the belief something bad will happen when you tell someone how you really feel. The benefits are exponential. The most important part of journaling is getting it out. What you do next is up to you. Once you’re able to connect with your inner experience in this way, it has a lot of practical uses.
Journaling can help you have difficult conversations
Write down what you want to say to someone. Now read it back. Do you really want to say all that? Are there parts you’d regret saying or that aren’t really about them, but something or someone else? Cut those out, and then keep cutting until you’re comfortable with it. Don’t feel comfortable saying it out loud? Send it to them instead. Give it to them to read when you’re with them. It doesn’t make you a coward if you don’t address all difficult conversations directly. There are likely good reasons you’re holding back, like wanting to protect the relationship, and journaling can help you say what you want to say without saying what you don’t.
Journaling can help you understand yourself
Feeling weird but not sure why? Write about it. Think out loud on paper. Writing makes you think more mindfully, because it’s harder to be distracted when you’re having to concentrate. Thinking things through, especially alone, doesn’t tend to work, because we don’t think in straight lines. Usually, one thought gets interrupted by the next and the next, but writing forces you to focus on the thought you’re trying to express. It can help you uncover what you’re thinking, whether you know it or not. The result may surprise you.
Journaling can help you learn from your experiences
Overthinking is often an effort to learn all we can from an experience, including trying to stop bad things from ever happening again. That isn’t always something we can control; hence the process never ends. When you put this on paper, it stops you repeating yourself, because you’ve already said it once — it’s right in front of you. Once you have written about something that affected you and why, you may feel more able to let it go, having dissected the matter all you can. You might also start to notice patterns in the things that affect you, highlighting why they affect you and what you could do differently the next time they arise.
Mental health stigma has led us all to believe that talking to yourself is crazy. It’s not. You know what’s crazy? Never admitting what you think or how you feel for fear of how someone might react, even when you’re completely alone. A better relationship with yourself means a better relationship with others. Do yourself a favour and hear yourself out.