My sister Rosemary once told me about a journal she kept during her teen years. It served an important purpose. She could turn to this journal whenever she felt unhappy, and it would always provide a listening ear. Rosemary recalls, “I think that writing the journal became less important when I had a person with whom to share hopes and fears, or maybe when I became happier in my own skin. I remember that during those HS and early college years I was quite lonely.”
Writing in low spirits, telling the journal her woes, helped her to work through a difficult time, and this aspect was appreciated. But I was struck by what Rosemary said next: When she looked back at these journals, the picture of her life was distorted as a result of writing only when her spirits were low. This journal focused on pain: days that were tough to get through, weeks when she felt unsteady or overwhelmed. Rosemary had other memories to assure her that life as a whole hadn’t been grim or despondent—but unfortunately, that’s how it came across in her journal.
She adds, “It’s difficult to reflect back on that time–either I’ve forgotten the specific events or I only see it as one long period of growing up and figuring out how to speak for myself.”
Since then, other friends have relayed a similar story. They’ll acknowledge having kept a journal which, like Rosemary’s, served a helpful role at an important stage. But as they produced (and read over) page after page of sadness and dissatisfaction, the cumulative weight of negative emotion eventually sank the ship of the journal.
Whether or not they discarded the book and its memories, they certainly stopped writing in it. Rosemary has kept her journals, considering them a part of her life, but she continues to mull over the decision of when will be the right time to go back and read them through from beginning to end.
At the far end of the spectrum from this type of journal is the currently popular practice of the gratitude journal. Responding to prompts in a commercially published workbook or writing in a blank book, people are encouraged to make entries every day noting the abundance and joy discovered in their lives. This type of journal, filled with affirmation and positive images, can comfort the writer who looks back through it. The practice offers a reminder of the good things in life, commemorating all that we appreciate and feel thankful for.
But this approach, too, presents a one-sided picture. Instead of recording the current stage in the writer’s life, a gratitude journal tends to omit what’s not going well—unless the problem can be framed as “actually a blessing” or “a challenge that will test me and make me stronger.”
A one-sided journal can serve its purpose, whether to channel negative emotions in a way that helps the writer feel better, or to bank positive thoughts for a needed surge in emotional well-being. In either case, to guard against a misleading later impression for yourself or other potential readers, a simple solution is to label the book with a title page that clarifies—in whatever phrase resonates best for you—whether it’s intended as a storage place for negative or positive energy.
How might a journal-keeper gain the same emotional benefits while building a more balanced picture of the present chapter in their life? Such a challenge may entail less effort than it appears. I remember a stage in my career when I was working so hard that I simply couldn’t find time to write in a journal. Even so, I felt a strong need to check in with my life at least every day or two.
Driven by necessity, I devised a system that would take just a couple of minutes. I abandoned the idea of writing whole pages or even full sentences. Instead, I sketched out two rough columns on the page, one with a “+” sign and the other a “-“ sign. Under the “plus” and “minus” headings, I rapidly jotted brief phrases to summarize what I felt especially good about on that day and what in my life was creating stress, anxiety, or disappointment.
One immediate result was to discover, in clear visual form, that my “plus” list on a given day generally was longer than the “minus” one. Just seeing that pattern already made a difference and helped me get through the upcoming days with their new challenges.
More recently I’ve started reading about the multiplicity of human mental states—more complex dimensions than simply a polarized “good mood” versus “bad mood”—each of which could frame a journal entry in interesting ways. I’ll write a post about these ideas in the future.
Meanwhile, why not take a look at your own journal? Consider whether it leans positive or negative, and weigh the benefits of a journal that concentrates a single type of emotional energy versus one that widens to encompass the full range of your varied states of mind.
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