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Reflective Journaling: A Step-by-Step Guide

The start of a new year can be a time that many people start new traditions or resolutions in order to bolster overall health and well-being. While some people opt for a new gym membership or weekly yoga classes in order to invest in a new physical health regime, others may seek to invest in a positive change for their mental health and well-being, like introducing reflective practices into their daily routine.

​One way this can be achieved is through reflective journaling.

So.. how does reflective journaling differ from regular journaling, you ask? Being reflective is the process of using metacognition, which refers to taking the time to think on a deeper level about one’s own thinking, in order to acquire a different perspective of these thoughts that may have been overlooked at first. Reflection allows an individual to more carefully consider the profound experiences that have impacted on their lives, or become critically aware of how these experiences have shaped them in some way.

Self-reflection is a humbling process. It's essential to find out why you think, say and do certain things... then better yourself.” ~ Sonya Teclai

Some of the positive outcomes or benefits of reflective journaling can include:

  • become more aware of 'the self' or inner thoughts, fears, desires and values

  • explore a previous memory, experience, or event on a deeper, more meaningful level

  • enter into novel situations with an increasingly critical introspect (examination of one's own thoughts or feelings) in order to take an informed decision

  • align future hopes, expectations or goals with current values or beliefs​​

Use caution when uncovering difficult experiences.

​The process of reflecting on one’s metacognitions can be an enlightening and positive experience, but it also has the potential to uncover suppressed and unpleasant emotional experiences that can unknowingly be triggered during this process. Apply caution before exploring any triggering thoughts too quickly or deeply, and seek external support from others as needed.

Next, let's consider the steps to start the process of reflective journaling. You may want to go through the following checklist first in preparation:

  • have a writing tool and place to record your reflections, such as a notepad, online document, or a journal app

  • find a quiet ,comfortable environment to ensure you have time to ponder

  • ensure that you are ready to assume a contemplative & reflective head-space

  • prepare to allow yourself to write in an honest and natural manner (don't hold back - this journal can remain private, for your eyes only)

  • allow for time following your reflections to process any emotional triggers that may happen during or following the journaling process

Now let's go through a step-by-step process that you can use to set up your reflective journal (you can spend more time at a particular step, or alter each step, to suit your needs):

1) Brainstorm ideas

It can help to create a list of possibilities to write about, such as ideas, concepts, beliefs, values, stories, memories, and anything else that may surface in your mind. Having this list nearby can help you to draw inspiration throughout the reflective process.

You may also want to consider using a mind-map, haphazardly jotting down thoughts as they come to your mind, or practice free writing ( prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar or topic). If you have other strategies that have worked for you to generate new ideas, feel free to use them now.

Need some inspiration or prompts to get your reflective juices flowing? Check out this article by Penzu (a completely customizable online journal) on 8 Tips for Writing Journal Entries.

2) Reflect on your current emotional and physical state

Consider your present emotional state in order to prepare yourself to be able to critically reflect on thoughts and feelings at a deeper level. One way of doing this is to consider what words, images, colours or designs would help you to describe your emotions. Take some time to think about your emotions through a microscope.. what do you see?

In a similar fashion, consider your present physical state in terms of how your body feels at this particular moment in time.. are you noticing any tension, stress, soreness? How might you be able to alleviate these discomforts in order to feel more relaxed and settle into the writing process?

3) Start asking yourself critical & profound questions

This step is the heart of the reflective journaling process, and sometimes the most uncomfortable. It's time to get really personal with yourself and start asking bold questions that explore the depth and meaning of who you are as a person. What do you really want to know about yourself (or others, or the universe) but haven't had the chance or forum to ask yet? The goal is to critically challenge your way of thinking to discover a new perspective.

Some examples might be...

  • what do you value most in your life & why?

  • how have you grown as a person so far and what are the moments that helped you to achieve this growth?

  • what kinds of transitions (chosen or mandated) have shaped your life so far? for the good? bad? what would have been different if these experiences did not happen?

  • who has been the biggest influence on your life so far?

  • what do you want to accomplish in 1, 3 and 5 years? what happens if you don't accomplish these goals?

4) Reflect on your journal entries & check-in with emotions

Depending on how deep you were able to go with your reflections, this may have been a difficult process to undertake. Take caution in re-reading your entries if emotional disturbances were present during the reflection process. Reflective journaling can help to make emotional connections with difficult experiences, but it may also take time and patience. Practice self-care strategies as needed, especially if triggered by difficult thoughts or feelings. Seek support from family, friends or professional supports such as a therapist for further help to process reflections.

Authors Bio


Heather LeGuilloux obtained her Master of Counselling from the University of Queensland in Australia in 2010. She is a Registered Clinical Counsellor who holds association membership with the BCACC. Heather works with individuals and couples through the medium of online counselling and shares her knowledge about mental health and wellness through her blog.

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