Writing from the Heart: The Journal as a Therapeutic Tool

When you begin a journal, you take your first step on a path of self-discovery. The more you write, the more you uncover about your own thought processes, attitudes, recurring relationship and behavioural patterns. People have, of course, been writing journals for centuries, usually to record life events, but it is only in recent times that journal writing has become recognised as a useful tool for self-inquiry, personal development, and for people in many kinds of therapy.
I have been keeping a journal for nearly twenty years, and my relationship with my ‘friend at the end of my pen’ has deepened and developed. It has helped me to know myself better, to see relationships in a different light, and my journal is my companion on my spiritual path. I think it’s time more people gave some time to this wonderful activity, and to themselves.
Journal writers bravely go where their pens take them, for no audience other than themselves. If they give themselves full permission to write freely, without self-censorship, they can discover what they need to make them happy, understand their needs, accept where they are in life, deal with fear and pilot a path into the future. 
On a physical level, journal writing helps to release tension and express negative emotions in a safe way. A page of paper is not going to be judgemental, shocked or disapproving. Any issue in human experience can be written about. It shows self-care, self-respect and focuses the mind on dealing with the causes of our pain rather than enduring or ignoring it.
Fears are lessened by confronting them in our journals. By writing them down objectively we put them ‘out there’, and this makes them easier to deal with. Reading our entries describing joyful times allows us to relive them, which is why so many people keep special journals while on holidays. Writing about our life experiences leads us to insights because we can see them from a different perspective. It brings to the surface thoughts and opinions we didn’t know we had. We notice if we keep getting into the same situations, the same arguments, the same relationships.
Journal writing provides a conduit or connection with our inner wisdom, helping us to look within for answers. Many people keep journals which are extended dialogues with spiritual teachers, guardian angels or spirit guides. It can also give rise to creative expression, especially in the form of poetry. But perhaps most importantly, a journal is a chronicle of our life’s hopes, dreams, fears, sorrows and achievements. It allows us to catch hold of our lives, which sometimes can seem as if they are slipping through our fingers.
 Some people imagine that you need to be in some way ‘literary’ to write a journal. Not true. If you can’t spell: no problem. If your handwriting is less than calligraphic: so what? No one is going to see it except you. If you find expressing yourself in prose a challenge, try sketches, doodles, designs, cartoons, scribbles and then just jot down a brief comment or reflection on them. There are no rules, except that you should date each entry. Your journal needs to be absolutely honest in order to be authentic and powerful, so don’t edit out things that ‘aren’t nice’, tell it like it is. Honour your experience by being truthful about it. 
 In her book Journal to the Self, Kathleen Adams calls her journal her ’79 cent therapist’, which is always available to take her call. ‘There’s a friend at the end of your pen which you can use to help you solve personal or business problems, get to know all the different parts of yourself, explore your creativity, heal your relationships, develop your intuition and much more.’ In her Center for Journal Therapy in Denver, Adams teaches her students to write brief, structured journal entries, then re-read them and give themselves some reflective feedback on what has come up for them. The Write-Read-Feedback loop makes the process richer and more meaningful, and is also useful where free, unlimited expression may not be helpful to the individual.
For many journal writers, their journal is where they make sense of their lives, and gain empowerment. In her book The New Diary, Tristine Rainer writes ‘I feel there is nothing that can really overwhelm me - not hunger or cruelty, success or poverty, loss or love, illness or disapproval, or even other peoples’ manipulations. As long as I have the power of words to describe my experiences, I have a bastion of personal control.’ While some journal writers are happy to record life experiences  as they occur, there are many strategies available to make the exercise a powerful and useful exercise. These include dialogues, unsent letters, lists, captured moments, time capsules, character studies, changed perspectives etc. Each can contribute towards a deeper understanding of the self. There is no end to the uses of a journal once you get into the habit of writing regularly.
Writing Techniques for Your Journal

An assessment of life balance in major areas of living (health, family, home, work, spiritual/religious, emotional well-being, etc.) Gives a quick picture of which life areas might need attention.

Write the alphabet, A-Z, or any collection of letters, vertically down the side of a page. Then write a poem in which each successive line begins with the next letter.

Unsent Letters:
A metaphoric communication to another that is written with the specific intention that it will not be shared.

A metaphoric conversation written in two voices. Anyone or anything is an appropriate dialogue partner. There is no constriction by time, space, physical reality or literal voice.

The fear of someone else reading one’s personal thoughts and reflections may be enough to put some people off journal writing completely. They harbour irrational terrors that should they happen to be run over by a bus, the first thought on the minds of their friends and family would be the contents of their journal. Perhaps they should remember that the dead can’t be sued. People go to extraordinary lengths to guarantee that no prying eyes will ever violate the sacred space that is their journal. Some write only on laptops protected by passwords. Others carry their journals with them in handbags, briefcases or car boots. A simple statement written on the first page of your journal stating that its contents are private and should not be read without permissions will be respected by most people. Those who ignore it may suffer the well-known fate of eavesdroppers and read only bad things about themselves.
So maybe it’s time to brush the dust off that nice, leather bound notebook someone gave you for Christmas, select a favourite pen and unpack your heart. You may be surprised what you find there.                                                                                
About the author: 

After a career in education, Carmel has developed an interest in creative writing and journal writing as important and useful holistic therapies. She holds a PhD in history and is a Certified Instructor for Kathleen Adams ‘Journal to the Self’ Workshops. She lives in West Wicklow with her husband, two daughters, and five dogs. For workshops dates and to find out more information visit journaltherapyireland.com

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