My past journals - a huddle of well-worn hard-back books clustered along my cupboard shelf - remind me that long before qualifying as a psychodynamic counsellor, I was practising therapy on myself through personal writing.
Recently I’ve started re-reading these hand-written tomes, realising how much putting words on the page has sustained me through tough times, from teenage relationship angst to the later challenges of infertility treatment. These journals have provided space to express feelings, explore issues, work things out and find direction, as well as preserving significant memories and incidents.
Inside their covers (more colourful now after an early penchant for black!), I discern a mix of recurring themes alongside journeys long completed. I realise how much I’ve moved on life, how much has changed. Yet this narrative thread of personal writing is on a continuum. It tracks my inner story as much as a CV or biographical record might chart my outer progress.
What I wish I’d known then, but have come to value now, is how much more effective a support a journal can be when we draw on a wider range of writing approaches: from reflective to descriptive, cathartic to creative.
It was Socrates who noted that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ Keeping a personal journal is one way of helping us along an intentional path of living for all its worth and releasing our fullest personal potential. When the world around us feels fragile and unpredictable; when we face seasons of change - some chosen, others not - a journal can help anchor our identity and steady our course.
Journal-keeping does not burden us with a diarist’s duty to record something every day, though we benefit from a regular rhythm of writing. We can date the entries as we go. And we make our own decisions about what we include: experiences to remember and moments to treasure; our feelings, observations and perceptions; questions and problems to work through; a quotation or poem that speaks to us; our own poems; our dreams.
Dr. Ira Progoff, a key figure in the growth of journalling for wellbeing, urged writers to include a range of aspects of life in their journals. His Intensive Journal® programme, developed in the 1960’s, suggested filing these separately in colour-coded sections within a loose-leaf binder. I know those who organise their journal-writing in this way, but personally this leaves me feeling fragmented. If I have a dream that seems significant, it feels important to record it in the context of other things going on in my life at the time.
As a counsellor, I’m ready to hear how far my clients may already use writing to support themselves. If it seems appropriate, I may explore with them what writing they do, and suggest exercises. These have ranged from an ‘unsent’ letter to a lost loved one; the tracking of relationship pattern; a dialogue between present and past self. Some clients bring their journals with them, to read out or discuss where their writing has taken them between sessions.
When a client and I have finished work, I often suggest they set up their own wellbeing journal. By attending counselling, a client has already invested regular time in their own welfare. Why not continue this commitment? I have my own ritual of an early morning weekly ‘appointment’ at a nearby coffee shop with my journal, where I write my personal review of the last seven days.
Clients can use their self-awareness and insight to tailor-make a well-being journal focussed on the particular issues and concerns relevant to them. It might be as simple as countering a negative bias with recording the positives. Knowing my own tendency to self-sabotage with perfectionism, my review includes writing down what I have done to make some active inroads into areas I want to work on. This helps to keep me energised. I note how far I’ve come, rather than measuring how far I’ve fallen short.
Though we can draw on various writing techniques, this simple, basic approach can be very fruitful:
Write for a specific amount of time - say ten to fifteen minutes - on what feels most important to you right now. Write freely and continuously, with censoring the content or worrying about correctness. When the time is up, re-read what you have written. Ask yourself What do I notice? Note down or underline whatever catches your attention - particular words or phrases; something surprising; an emerging theme. Finally, jot down a Note to Self that comes to mind from your writing and re-reading. This may be something to do or stop doing; let go of or keep in mind, perhaps to reflect on further later.
Writing something down moves it from our inner world onto the page. This begins a process of change. We have begun to bring words and order to our experience. We may still have our issue, but it no longer has us. As we read over and reflect on our writing, it can become transformational, taking us forward in areas we want to address. Of course, we may find ourselves reading some uncomfortable material. But journalling enables us to pace ourselves. If we are not ready to follow something up at this point, the page will wait patiently till we are.
Our re-reading may be immediate and focussed on one piece, but as we build up our journal entries, we may find themes and patterns emerging as we reflect on our writing over a more extended period of time - or even, as I’m finding, over whole journals.
As we use the writing process for well-being and personal growth, we become our own counsellors. We express ourselves on the non-judgemental space of the page. We listen to ourselves as we re-read, reflect on and respond to what we have written. We can celebrate our strengths whilst being mindful of our vulnerabilities. Although we do this for ourselves, it can be good to have encouragement along the way.
Some may have a journalling partner with whom they can share how they’re getting on. Recently, I’ve started a Way With Words therapeutic journalling group, both as a mutual support and a resource. Together we can explore and discuss different writing activities, though without necessarily sharing the content of what we have written.
In March 2017 I’m running an Introduction to Therapeutic Journal Writing day workshop, a CPD Event for Counsellors and Health Professionals, to help them support clients in gaining the benefits of the writing habit. If you are in the vicinity of Chester/North Wales, why not get in touch and come along?
Julia McGuinness is a Counsellor (MBACP Accred) and Writer. She belongs to Lapidus, the national network of writing for wellbeing practitioners. She runs writing workshops for creativity and wellbeing, including a group at a Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre. Her recent publications include Writing our Faith and her poetry collection Chester City Walls .