Goals, Mental Health

How to start journaling and why you should

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If you’ve been reading my blog, you probably know by now that I mention journaling in most, if not all, of my posts. I’m a big fan of journaling!

And yet for 20 years, although I kept telling myself how much I would love to keep a journal and start journaling, it never happened.

I just couldn’t seem to do it. I would buy a nice notebook, try for a few days, and inevitably stop. Eventually, I grew more and more convinced that maybe I didn’t have what it takes or weren’t ‘talented’ enough to start journaling, and keep at it.  

That is, until 3 years ago when things finally took a new turn, and I’ve been able to journal regularly ever since.

I don’t think I would have ever embarked, and found my way, on this incredible journey of self-discovery and self-healing if it weren’t for journaling. So I thought I’d dedicate an entire post to that topic.

So, how do you start journaling when you’ve tried and failed? But most importantly, why should you?

how to start journaling

Why start a journal?

I journal for mental health and self growth. I also keep a journal as a way to record events and track my thoughts and behavior.

Journaling daily allowed me to get to know myself better, which in turn helped me be more successful in building healthy habits (like running everyday and stop smoking weed) and, as a result, build self-respect and self-love.

Journaling for mental health is a great idea. A journal is the cheapest, most effective, and reliable therapist you can find, especially if you are depressed or unhappy, and it’s available to you all day every day.

I am not, in any case, suggesting that you should not seek help from a therapist; you definitely should. But even when you are lucky enough to have a specialist guide you on your journey out of depression, they can only do just that: guide you. That is if you find a good one.

But you are still the one who has to do the work and if you don’t, a therapist is useless. You have to be willing to dig deep in the depths of your soul. And the best tool I have found to do that is a journal.

So, if you are unhappy with your life and who you are, confused or depressed, then I encourage you to grab a pen and paper, face yourself and start journaling!

In any case, that’s what I did and it worked for me.

1. Journaling forces you to slow down your ‘monkey-mind’

For most of us, our thoughts keep racing over and over in our minds, all day, every day. It’s like an old mixtape that’s playing non-stop in our heads.

And that’s not good.

You may think you are ‘intelligently’ cogitating when in fact, what you are doing is mindlessly obsessing over stuff. It’s like a truck tire spinning through a mud hole: you are most likely digging yourself deeper into that hole and making things worse while wasting energy.

However, as soon as you start writing what you are feeling instead of thinking about it, you are forced to slow down your thoughts. There is no way around it: you don’t write as fast as you think.

Writing is a very effective tactic to cut short obsessive thinking.

So, when you feel the monkey-mind taking over, ask yourself: what is bothering me? Then write the answers down in your journal. You will feel better.

2. You gain clarity by writing

From my personal experience, keeping things “in my head” is never a good way to go.

When I do so, I either get carried away (racing thoughts); or I get overwhelmed and start burying my head in the sand (denial); or it eventually comes out in a negative way (anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration, etc.).

Your mind right now (Credit: Canva)

But when you get into the habit of writing things down in your journal, you gain valuable insights into what is happening in your mind.

You may think you know what’s happening up there but I promise you, things look quite different once you actually start to express them. 

Writing also allows me to organize my thoughts, identify patterns and recurring themes, and reflect on them over time. I can even decide to dig deeper by asking myself a new set of more specific questions.

clarity journal

3. Journaling helps you purge negative feelings

Two years ago, I was talking to a new friend and started crying uncontrollably. I kept sobbing like a baby for 3 whole days.

When I apologized for not being able to contain my tears, she said: “it’s normal, it had to come out. You’ll feel better now”.

She was right. After talking to her and someone else, I felt better than I had in years. (It was a little better but still better).

What happened is, for the first time in a very long time I had expressed my feelings. I wasn’t just rationalizing it in my head, or pretending to be fine, or hiding from others; I had told someone my pain.

That day, I had unknowingly begun to purge the negative feelings that had been rotting inside of me for so long, and I felt better.

Journaling does the same thing and is especially helpful if you feel ashamed or have no one to talk to. During the first 6 to 12 months of my recovery, I went through an intense journaling phase, and it’s been the equivalent of an emotional purge.  Putting all my pain, heavy thoughts, worries on paper released me, in some way, of that burden.

It was like an emotional cleansing.

I believe that our feelings and thoughts are energy, and energy must circulate. You can either do it in a healthy manner, or it will find a way out on its own. The sooner you express it, the sooner release comes.

By the way, exercise is another healthy way of releasing negative feelings.

4. When you start journaling consistently, you begin to identify your deep-rooted/limiting beliefs

You probably don’t even realize all the emotional crap you are carrying in your heart, mind, and body at all times. And yes, our emotions do impact our bodies.

We all have unconscious, deep-rooted beliefs about ourselves and the world that influence everything we think and do.

Journaling, combined with the help of a good therapist and/or other appropriate resources (like books or seminars), can help bring all these beliefs to light. But it takes time, patience, and persistence. It also takes faith.

It can also be difficult emotionally but the reward is worth it. But remember, it gets worse before it gets better.

Related post: This is why your life will never change

5. Writing is great for challenging your beliefs

Once you have identified the deep-rooted beliefs that don’t serve you, journaling is a great tool for effectively challenging those beliefs.

Simply knowing that these beliefs exist is not enough, although it is already half the battle.

Why stop there? Why not try and change a behavior that is not serving your best interest?

Just because you believed something in the past, it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to keep believing that. Only fools don’t change their mind.

You may not see it now but you have power over your thoughts too; it doesn’t only go one way and journaling is a fantastic tool for systematically challenging those thoughts.

If you are curious about how to challenge and change your beliefs, I recommend you start learning about Cognitive behavioral therapy.

6. You see how awful you can be to yourself

Like many people, you probably engage in a lot of negative self-talk and probably don’t even realize it. Heck, you might even think it’s ‘normal’ or ‘tough love’.

Well, often it’s nothing less than abuse.

The things we say to ourselves in our minds! We would never dream of saying those things to someone else… and yet we repeatedly say them to ourselves.

When you get into the habit of writing down your thoughts in your journal, it sheds light on the tone of your internal dialog.

Related post: Don’t beat yourself up, do this instead

how to start journaling

7. Journaling consistently helps you understand yourself better

For me, one of the main takeaways of starting to journal, is that I’ve realized how little I knew (and thus, accepted) myself.

We think we know ourselves because we’ve been ‘living in our heads’ for so long, but the truth is most of us don’t.

Just because you see something every day, doesn’t mean you pay attention to it. Well, the same goes for our minds, bodies, or hearts. If we don’t pay attention to them, we won’t know what they are really saying.

We are simply walking around with a distorted picture of who we are; a caricature.

The more you write about what you fear, think, regret, desire, feel, etc. the more you start to understand yourself, what motivates you, saddens or frightens you, triggers your addictions, etc.

When you start to journal everyday, it’s kind of like sitting down every day with a new friend and listening to them. Slowly, you begin to get to know them, understand them, and even love them.

8. You learn honesty

At the beginning of my journey, I desperately sought solitude; I needed to retreat and get away from others. That’s because I had spent so many years hiding my true feelings from other people, faking, lying, pretending… I could no longer tolerate myself. Not only was I suffocating but the self-hatred had become unbearable.

One day I realized I was (almost) 30 and nobody knew me. If I were to die the next day, at my funeral there would not be a single person able to say anything about the real me. The me that I was never showing. 

The worst part is? I had been the one inflicting this on me.

My journal was the first place where I began practicing honesty. It’s a great place to start: what you owe to others, you owe to yourself first. And if I were going to be unapologetically honest with other people, I needed to start first with me.  

Honesty is hard. It takes courage to stop hiding and show yourself to the world. Not only do you risk facing other people’s negative opinions about you, but you also risk facing the opinions you have about yourself. And that can be brutal.

But the reward is also incredible. It’s liberating, to say the least.

Some things that had been weighing me down for years were solved in a matter of days just by finally being honest with myself and facing those issues. It’s not always that quick but it can be.

Related article: Get rig of depression by solving your problems.

9. You learn to express yourself

Journaling, just like painting or poetry, is an art. It’s a form of self-expression.

Self-expression is the expression of one’s own personality; the assertion of one’s individual traits.

start journaling to express yourself
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

I guess we could also call it authenticity. And that’s exactly what journaling helped me achieve at a time where I didn’t know who I was or what I liked.

A few months after I had started journaling, I slowly started to get glimpses of my personality and discover who I was. You know, the “me” that was dying to come out but couldn’t? I was finally able to find her! And that was both exciting and humbling to witness.

But this didn’t happen overnight. Just like every other art form, writing is a skill, and building any new skill takes time and deliberate practice.

Related post: How to become more creative even with no artistic skills?

10. You learn to soothe and comfort yourself

This probably happens later on, after you’ve learned to keep the negative self-talk in check (assuming that was ever a problem for you).

But once you do, journaling is a great way to appease your own worries, especially when there’s no one else around. It’s like a dialog between you and a loving friend: you are talking to yourself in a loving tone.

Don’t underestimate the power your own words can have on you and your well-being; this is why negative self-talk can be so harmful.

And even if you do have people around who can comfort you, I still think it’s important to learn to provide it to yourself instead of relying on external sources.  

So, when you are writing, watch your tone and speak to yourself with kindness.

Related posts:

How do you deal with extreme sadness alone? 7 unique strategies that actually work

How do you break out of negative thinking?

11. You slowly learn to love yourself

how to start journaling for Self-love
Photo by Puwadong Sang-ngern on Pexels

“To understand is to love”.

Everything mentioned above leads to this: self-love.

One of the most incredible benefits of starting to journal is that it led me to love myself more.

The more you understand something, the easier it is to love it. Writing helps you to understand yourself, and eventually love yourself a little more every day.

clarity journal

If, however, you end up learning things about your personality that you dislike and cannot accept, it is up to you to decide to change them, and actually do it. And do you know what I’ve found is the most effective way to change myself? It’s by tracking every little bit of progress I make…. in my journal!

Pfiou! I’m so glad you’re still here ???? Now that I have hopefully shown you how beneficial journaling can be, how exactly do you start a journal and not give up? Especially if you’ve tried and abandoned many, many times as I did.

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How do you start journaling when you’ve tried and failed?

Looking back, I think 2 things got me out of the ditch and to finally start writing.

What finally got me ‘unstuck’

1. I used the ugliest cheapest notebook I could find

Every time I tried journaling in the past, I always picked nice notebooks because I thought they would make me want to write.

Turns out, they didn’t.  

When you are learning a new skill, you need some degree of freedom to make mistakes, to create! Journaling is no different.

Journaling; creative process. The freedom to make a mess.
Photo by Ricardo Viana on Unsplash

Starting a journal can be a messy, emotional, and incoherent process especially if you are depressed or confused. You must allow yourself to use bad grammar, be frustrated, get angry at the pages, cry on them, etc.

But I didn’t understand that.

That is until one day, frustrated and desperate, I grabbed the cheapest notebook I could find (seriously, I think it cost 70 cents) and I just wrote. I just let out all the things that were bothering me.

And I kept going!

After a few days you could find everything in there: budgets, to-do lists, goals, recipes, sketches, quotes… you name it. My life was a mess, my mind was a mess, my journal was a mess. I could not have done that in 30$ notebook.

This is especially true if you are a perfectionist. If you are, forget the cute and fancy notebooks; just grab the cheapest one you can find and just let it all out; write all the things that come to your mind. 

2. I found a reason to journal

Around that time, my relationship was deteriorating (it had been for a while), and there were things about my attitude that were bothering me a lot. I was always doubting myself, and it was becoming apparent that I did this in every relationship after a year or two together. Also, my internal monologue was stuck in a loop that I was seriously beginning to resent and it went something like this:

Step 1: “That’s it, that’s the last straw!”, followed a couple of days later by

Step 2: “Was it really that bad?”, and “aren’t I the one overreacting here?”; followed closely by

Step 3: “He’s just so nice, I probably imagined this or that”; “this is certainly my fault”; “I’m a monster”.

This went on for years. Over. And over. Again.

Until one day I had enough of my brain’s mind fucks and decided I would write everything down. All of it. That way, when in doubt, I would simply go back to my notes and look at the evidence instead of relying on my memory.

I did that for a few months. And then broke up with him.

Yeah, turns out he wasn’t that great. 

Thank you, journal.

And then I started applying this technique to all areas of my life.

More tips to get you started

1. Let go of perfection

You’ve probably guessed it from the previous point, but perfection kills your creativity.

When I look back at my past (failed) attempts at journaling, it is clear: I was trying to keep everything too pretty and neat, using different pen colors, my best handwriting, making perfect paragraphs… Ugh, no wonder I was stifled.

Let go of perfection and just focus on what you are trying to express: your feelings? your political views? Focus on the content, not the envelope.

2. Decide you will journal

Just like everything else in life, you have to make it a priority for it to become a priority.

Every day, at least a dozen things come in the way of me and journaling. Every-single-day. But I still manage to do it, consistently. Why? Because I’ve decided that it is important to me and I just do it, even if it’s just for 5 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t force myself to write if I have nothing to say. But I am also vigilant to not just sit and wait for it to happen magically; it’s a balance.

Do you want to start journaling? Then tell yourself: “I will take 15 minutes after supper to write in my journal” … and do it. It’s as simple as that. 

3. Gradually adapt to your (evolving) needs

It can take time to figure out exactly what you want to journal about (your day-to-day life, your feelings, your neighbors?), as well as your preferences in terms of logistics (do you journal daily? In bed, at the kitchen table?). Do you prefer one big bulky notebook that you replace once every 6 months and leave at home, or would you rather go for something lightweight that you carry with you every day?

All this will determine the type of supply that best suit your needs, and once you find that out, it is important to adapt to those needs.  

The following elements have become non-negotiables for me:

  • High-quality paper;
  • The pencil lead and grade. It affects the darkness of the lines, the smoothness, and the lead’s resistance. Nothing is more frustrating than a lead breaking every 5 seconds! I don’t enjoy writing with pens but I think that’s because I haven’t found the right ones yet.
  • The thickness of the notebook. I need very thin notebooks for optimal comfort. I suffer from Rheumatoid arthritis and also have ganglion cysts in both wrists. Needless to say, writing can be a challenge.
  • Plain blank pages. When it comes to journaling, I need the freedom to use tiny handwriting or huge letters, to draw on the whole page, or to orient my text in whatever direction I see fit. I cannot journal on lined, dotted, or squared notebooks, but I do use them for other ‘types’ of journals (like tracking my food in my Whals journal).
  • Lightweight. I journal a lot and I like to do it wherever inspiration hits, which is often outside. I need something lightweight that fits in my small bag and that I can carry without any frustration.
Moleskin Cahier Journals_Perfect journal
My perfect companion!

My absolute favorite notebooks for journaling are Moleskin Cahier Journals, 5×8.5 inches. Once I started using them, I could not stop writing. They inspire me, they are lightweight and of great quality. This notebook has become my best friend on this journey.

4. Forget the fact that someone else might read you

If I tell myself that someone might find my diaries and read them, it stops me from being honest and writing what I really think. But the whole point of journaling, for me anyway, is to be honest and say the truth.

I cannot do that if I am constantly restraining myself and worrying about other people.

If you feel the same way, find a safe place to keep your journals, buy one with a lock if necessary, or purchase a small case that comes with a lock.

Figure out a way to keep them out of reach but don’t restrain yourself.

Final thoughts

As you can probably tell, I sincerely believe that a journal is one of the best tools for self-discovery and self-healing. It is also a great way to release (negative) energy and learn to express yourself.

But it can do so much more!

If you’ve been thinking about journaling for a while or wondering if you should start, I really hope this post has convinced you to at least try.

Now let me know where you are in your journey: do you keep a journal? If yes, what are your thoughts on it? Or maybe you are struggling to get started?

Please leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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About Steph

I am a personal growth/self-management enthusiast. I was able to completely transform my life using everything I share here. I hope this blog helps you transform yours as well.
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