23. Tools for Change #I: Journaling

There are four main tools you can use to help you defeat your fears and spur personal growth: Journaling, Therapy, Self-Care and a Created Community. I discuss these in this and the next two chapters.

Journaling would seem like the easiest thing in the world—and it is! Journaling is just the writing down of your thoughts and feelings at any given moment in as much detail, and with as little inhibition or censorship, as possible. The kind of journaling I mean is sometimes called “free writing,” “automatic writing,” or “stream-of-consciousness” writing. All of these terms are fine by me. What I don’t mean by journaling is keeping a chronological calendar detailing the events in your life. In other words, I don’t care about the events themselves, so much as your thoughts, and especially your feelings, surrounding them.

The Journaling Arc

You’ll recall how, in the last chapter, I said that journaling calms you mentally and physically. That’s definitely the way it is for me. When I start journaling, especially when I’m upset or angry, I tend to type like a demon, and my sentences are short, almost fragmentary, as in this hypothetical example:

Damn I’m upset! I can’t stand it! I don’t know what to do! I want to kill Frank. I hate him. I can’t believe he stood me up for this meeting. What an asshole. What a jerk. And I guess I’m a jerk, too. . . .

My sentences are short because my anger and fear prevent me from holding a thought for very long. (Your journaling really is a window into your emotional state.) By the end of the half-hour, or hour, or three hours, of journaling, however, I’m feeling much more relaxed and in control, and it shows in my sentences:

Well, something obviously happened to Frank. As soon as I finish this, I’ll give him a call to make sure he’s OK. It’s not like he’s always unreliable—although, the truth be told, he’s not the most dependable of guys. Still, it’s not a sin to be a little unreliable, and in other ways, he’s a terrific colleague. He really sticks up for me when Liz gets on my case, and he was really terrific during that project we worked on last summer. And I guess he’s going through a difficult time with his girlfriend—he told me that. In fact, now that I think about it, he did ask me to cut him some slack. That’s no excuse for being a no-show, of course—but maybe in the future, I’ll call him to remind him of meetings ahead of time. . . .

Note not just the calmness and longer sentences, but the more contextualized, compassionate, accurate view of Frank and his situation.

I call the path one travels in one’s journal—from fear, anger and blaming, to calmness, control and compassion—the “journaling arc.” You will probably notice a similar arc in your own journal entries. Look for it, and use it to track your emotional growth during each journaling session, and throughout your activism career.

Tips for Effective Journaling

Here are some tips to help you journal:

1. Speed is key.

The faster you write, the better, because fast writing leaves little time for self-censorship and rationalizations. Just get your feelings and thoughts down on paper, and don’t stop to think or ponder for more than a few seconds. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, and, for goodness’ sake, don’t censor yourself. Listen for that little “heart” voice inside you that you may be habitually drowning out, and get it down on paper. Get everything down on paper. Honesty is the most important thing in journaling.

2. Any medium and format are fine.

A computer, a sheet of paper, a dinner napkin—they’re all OK. If you don’t like to write, try talking into a tape recorder. Also, paragraphs, lists or any other format is also fine, so long as the format doesn’t interfere with your primary goal of writing honestly and quickly.

3. The more the merrier.

As discussed in the last chapter, you want to start journaling at the moment you catch yourself procrastinating, because that will help you characterize the precise problem. But you can journal at other times, as well. Some people journal first thing every morning, or last thing every night, as a form of meditation and reflection. Others journal at odd times whenever the mood strikes them, and still others set aside a few hours every week or month. Whatever works for you is fine.

4. It’s OK to become emotional.

Sometimes the process of journaling can cause you to uncover painful memories or tap into feelings of sadness, hurt or shame. These can be tough to experience, but it’s great that you are doing so, as it is a step toward healing. Give yourself permission to experience these memories and emotions and, as mentioned earlier, if you are having trouble coping, see a therapist or other professional.

5. Guys can journal, too.

In my classes, there are usually plenty of men receptive to the idea of journaling, but also plenty of others who think it’s a sissy way to spend their time. If you are a guy (or gal, for that matter) with that prejudice, I urge you to get over it. Many of history’s most famous male scholars, statesmen, scientists and activists, among others, saw keeping a journal or maintaining extensive self-reflective correspondence, as an essential part of their quest to lead a civilized and accomplished life. You should, too. Journaling may, in fact, be the single most efficient route to the Socratic goal mentioned at the beginning of The Lifelong Activist, to live an examined life.

6. Don’t show your journal to anyone.

To ensure that you tell the whole, unvarnished, often embarrassing and/or painful truth, make sure you keep your journal private.

7. Don’t rush it: when you’re done, you’re done.

Write until you’re “written out” and can think of nothing further to say. This may take a few minutes, a few hours or an entire day or weekend. However long it takes, don’t rush it: if you’ve got a lot to write, it means you’ve got a lot to say.

That’s it for journaling! Try it out!