Just as practicing yoga, weightlifting, or other exercise helps cultivate the body awareness that is so important to recovery, journaling helps with mind awareness.
Thoughts run through our minds constantly. Sometimes these thoughts trigger emotional responses; other times we feel an emotion but don’t know where it’s coming from. While meditation will help us learn to notice thoughts and emotions as they rise, sometimes, when we are too emotionally overwrought or “stuck in our heads” to have the patience for meditation, we can write instead. Journaling can help us make sense of our thoughts and emotions, discover our triggers, explore our motivations, and gain perspective. At its core, journaling helps us release the “junk” in our head, giving us an outlet that is private, free of charge, and portable.
What Do I Write About?
If you’re journaling for emotional awareness, write about your emotions. Describe how you feel about a person, event, situation, piece of advice, rule—whatever sparks an emotional response. Ask yourself why you’re having such a strong reaction—have you always reacted this way to this particular kind of person, event, situation, etc.? If so, what do all of these triggers have in common? If this is a new feeling for you, what feels new about it? If you explore it further, do you find that it connects to a more familiar feeling?
You can also describe the layers of feeling you experience. For example, if you start writing because you feel hurt about what someone said to you, what other emotions are at play? Anger? Insecurity? Self-hatred? Guilt? Write it all out. See if you can find a point of origin.
Just How Much Is Okay to Express?
My advice, as a long-time journaler, is to let yourself go. Whatever you’re feeling—rage, despair, infatuation, joy, excitement—let it rip. If you’re angry and want to write in big black angry letters, do it. If you want to write a page raining down curses on someone, do it. If you want to use words you’d never use in polite company, do it. Your journal isn’t a place for you to be polite or calm or spiritual or good. It’s a place to express all that pent-up crap—if you don’t get it out in this safe way, it will come out in another, potentially more harmful, way.
Caveat: Don’t end on the bad stuff. If you don’t go through a reflection process after the emotional storm, you run the danger of getting stuck in your own drama. Let all the crap out as violently as you want to—but then take the time to gain perspective (see below).
How Do I Close a Journaling Session?
Write until the emotion has calmed. Then, remind yourself that you are not a bad person for feeling this way. Congratulate yourself for taking the time to face your feelings. Ask yourself, “Can I allow myself to feel this way without judgment or guilt, without feeling like I have to fix it?”
Next, try to summarize your emotional reaction and the reason for it in a sentence or two. For example, if I write about a bad reaction to someone, how I don’t like this person, how awful she is, etc., I might end by writing, “The truth? I feel uncomfortable around this person. I feel defensive. I feel like I can’t be myself.”
Finally, ask for guidance. Meditate a few minutes and ask your higher power or higher self for some advice or reassurance. You could ask what to do next, you could ask for perspective, you could ask for peace. Write down the advice you receive.
What If Someone Reads It?
This is a terrifying prospect. If my loved ones ever read some of the things I’ve written about them in fits of anger or hurt, they might be devastated. Nevertheless, my advice is to:
- Write anyway
- Take common sense precautions (don’t leave your journal lying on your loved one’s desk, for example)
- Ask the people you love to not read it
You can also try saying a protection prayer over your journal, asking that it not attract readers or bring harm to anyone.
In the end, if someone reads your journal and is hurt by it, that’s not your fault. You are not responsible for someone else’s reaction to what you say or write about them, especially if they’re violating your boundaries and your trust. Harsh but true. So, have the intention to do no harm and then let go of your fear.
If you can’t let go? If you’re really, really scared about something you’ve written? Burn it. The work you’ve done in writing has had its healing function regardless of whether you save the artifact of that work or destroy it.
When To Seek Outside Help
Journaling is a wonderful release and can be very healing. But it’s a solitary endeavor, and as humans we need to express ourselves to others. Journaling can help us know how to approach a much-needed conversation. In particularly stressful or difficult times, journaling can remind us that we need to get out of our own head and seek feedback from a therapist, mentor, or sponsor. Think of journaling as one tool in your recovery toolbox. Use it, but be open to using other tools as well, such as art therapy.
If you are struggling with addiction and have not yet sought treatment, consider contacting us at Mountain Laurel Recovery Center. Our counselors can help you decide what level of treatment is right for you.