Journaling has become a term thrown around in the self-care world for a while now. It’s become associated with aesthetic notebooks and morning “quiet time” and gratitude. Even the words gratitude and affirmations have become trendy, for better or for worse. It’s great that these practices are starting to gain more awareness and traction in the mainstream, but their meaning can get sucked out as they grow bigger. People will Instagram themselves journaling to somehow prove their mindfulness, but the intention is lost along the way (not to call anyone out). For me, I’ve had somewhat of a love-hate relationship with journaling, and at the risk of looking hypocritical, I’ve always been extremely inconsistent with it. It wasn’t until recently that I found out why and also have really felt the benefits of it when I let it (spoiler alert: it’s all about your mindset going into it).
A few months ago, my roommate got a gratitude journal and she turned to me and asked, “So, how do you do this?” It was funny to me in the moment because journaling has always come so naturally to me, whether it was keeping a diary of my daily activities when I was younger or word vomiting my feelings onto a Google doc now, but I realized that it doesn’t look that way for everyone. Journaling can be incredibly uncomfortable when you first start, because what journaling really is is having a conversation with yourself, something that many people are averse to in the first place. Again, the more introspective you are, the easier it may be, but I’m here to tell you that literally ANYONE can start journaling, and there are some actually tangible ways to do it.
Establish your journaling goals
If you are new to journaling, one of the first steps towards self-reflection you can make is understanding how journaling will serve you. Being intentional about something involves starting with the basics, like establishing why you are doing it. Are you journaling to process/reflect on your life or a certain event? Is it to boost your confidence? To gain a deeper understanding of yourself or show gratitude? It could be none of these things or all of these things, but gaining a sense of why is the first step to approaching anything with intention.
The “how”: Finding a journaling structure that works for you
The cool thing about journaling is it’s just words. It’s a time for you to be 100% with yourself and express what you need to through words. One approach is to “word vomit.” The word vomit approach is like a stream of consciousness—you open a journal or blank document on a computer and just organically write whatever comes to your mind about what you’re going through, thinking, or feeling. If this sounds intimidating or unattainable, start by creating prompts for yourself. Prompts can look like “What made me feel good today?,” “What grew or drained my energy?,” or “How have I been feeling lately?” Use these prompts as a way to check in with yourself so that you’re not mindlessly gliding through your life. With this structure, you can start small or big. You can ask yourself the small questions like “What did I do today?”, gradually leading to bigger questions like “Do I feel fulfilled?” or vice versa. Remember, journaling can take whatever form you want, and once you establish your goals, you may realize hidden issues in your life within your daily routines or the bigger picture.
Write down any thoughts/quotes you’ve seen that have resonated with you
Journaling is a time of reflection in order to gain inspiration and insight into your life, but it doesn’t have to just come from your mind. Being mindful of the world around you and really exploring what different messages mean to you can be a really cool outcome of journaling. If someone has said something interesting to you lately or you’ve seen a really cool quote or have made any observations about the world around you, write about that. I like to write about certain quotes that are guiding me lately or little reminders for myself at the end that act like affirmations. Thinking through these things is a way to get more in tune with what challenges you or inspires you and may be opportunities to reach a new mindset.
End with gratitude and/or affirmations
Now, this is the difficult part—for me, at least. As an already naturally introspective person, releasing all my thoughts onto a page comes easily. Yet when journaling acts as an outlet for my negative mindset or experiences, ending on a positive note can be difficult. Coming up with gratitude has always been a little bit difficult for me, and I realized lately that it’s not because I have nothing to be grateful for (there’s always something to be grateful for). It’s because validating yourself or your life while being in a negative headspace through gratitude and affirmations takes mustering up a different kind of energy. It takes giving yourself the space to change your negative thoughts or distortions, and this takes a lot of energy to do. Yet, it is crucial in building up a narrative in your mind that fights intrusive thoughts (if these are coming out while journaling or building up throughout your life), and consistency with gratitude and affirmations is one tool in learning control over your mind.
Gratitude: Gratitude can seem daunting. Or in my case, monotonous. I understood the importance of it, but eventually expressing gratitude for the same things every day became meaningless. One practice I took away from therapy was changing gratitude into “little wins”—little things that happened or I did throughout the day that added to my life in some way. Whether it’s good weather that day or I made a good sandwich, did some homework, watched a good show, or texted a friend, counting little wins can be more attainable and can make you realize what your days consisted of rather than lacked.
Affirmations: Affirmations are another great way to reject negative thought patterns. One thing to remember with affirmations is that “cookie-cutter” affirmations may not fit everyone. You can create affirmations that are specific to you, and they can be writing down qualities about yourself that help you reconnect to your identity. My favorite way to start affirmations is by using “it’s okay…” statements. These validate what I’m feeling and relieve me from the pressure I put on myself throughout the day. By saying it’s okay, you’re giving yourself permission to grow, make mistakes, and let things go. Keep these intentional, but don’t worry if you don’t believe them in the moment. You will eventually.
Hopefully you will start to cultivate your own personal connection to journaling, one that is without standards, expectations, or comparisons. Recognize that journaling could literally be anything—structured, unstructured, short, or long, and it is simply a way to get in touch with yourself and become more mindful about your life. And finally, remember that there is no wrong way to journal. Give yourself the freedom to explore it and let it work for you.