THOSE OF US WHO JOURNAL regularly believe in the power and benefits of journaling — how it helps us cope with life’s challenges, relieve stress, increase self-awareness, reach our goals, and analyze and improve just about every aspect of our lives.
BUT — what do you do when it doesn’t? What do you do when journaling about a situation doesn’t help you move through it and, in spite of writing and writing and pouring your thoughts and feelings onto the page, actually makes you feel worse? When you’re accustomed to receiving healing and strength from writing, a situation like this can feel almost like a betrayal by your best friend. The place you’ve always gone to for solace and strength — your journal — is letting you down. Now what?
The first thing to know when this happens is that you’re not alone. There are times when writing about traumatic or angry-making events stirs up emotions rather than calming or comforting. Particularly when fear and anger and loss of control over a situation are involved.
So, when is it better not to write about something?
Journaling can make you feel worse when you brood on the page, when writing is just a method of venting in which you constantly reinforce the story at the core of your reactions and emotions. In this case, indulging your anger only prolongs it — and your suffering. Even worse, it may become a habit that can spiral down to depression.
But there are ways to approach journaling when you have intense negative emotions, such as fear, anger, rage, and feelings of hopelessness. It is possible to write about negative events or emotions and feel calmed and even uplifted afterward. The key is to choose carefully what to write about and how to write about it — structuring your writing to provide ways to constructively process the emotions.
Journaling is best when it leads to greater understanding and changes in behavior. And you can accomplish this when you take a step back to evaluate your thoughts and emotions, and not simply vent them onto the page.
The key is to use your journal as a mechanism to reflect upon your reactions and emotions and find meaning in the event.
Equally important is to approach your journaling as a form of compassionate introspection — special emphasis on the compassionate.
Some tips to help you journal through the hard times:
- Bring curiosity, a non-judgmental attitude, and self-compassion to your writing. When you’re feeling intense and difficult emotions, the typical response is to judge yourself for having them. However, if you allow yourself to sit with your emotions, without judgment, and bring love and compassion to yourself in that state — much as you would to a friend in the same situation — you can begin to shift the emotion to a constructive state.
- Don’t write the story about what happened and why you are so angry or hurt or blame others. Instead, write about what you need — what would make you feel better.
- Write encouraging letters to yourself, just as you would encourage a friend or loved one. Stepping outside yourself and providing comfort and advice to yourself can be incredibly healing. Write what you need to hear from others — to yourself.
- Explore solutions that are within your control. Often, anger and rage spring from a feeling of no control over a situation. Write about what you CAN control, including your emotional state. In what ways can you make this situation less uncomfortable?
- Ask yourself: How can I channel all this intense emotional energy and negative experience into constructive and creative growth? How can I become a better person as a result of this experience?
- Write about things you can do that will help you decrease the need for immediate resolution and increase tolerance for mixed feelings and uncertainty: meditation, exercise, gardening, and volunteer activities are a few that come to mind.
- Write with compassion from the other person’s perspective. No matter how awful someone has treated you, that person is also human. What might be the issues, fears, and emotions driving that person’s behavior? Get inside that person’s head and heart. This can be a difficult task, but it will also be instructive.
- Balance the difficult emotions with writing about life-affirming topics — reminding yourself of all the abundance in your life and all the things and people you have to be grateful for, listing your daily and weekly successes, acknowledging any baby steps you’ve taken forward — all these things can raise your energy and shift to a more positive mindset.
So the next time you’re experiencing intense negative emotions as a result of an undesirable life experience, go ahead and write about them. And use these tips to raise your focus from the negative to the positive, and to shift from helpless passivity to constructive action.