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Therapy? Try journaling

two people together looking at a laptop

A great friend mentioned to me recently that he had been considering seeing a therapist and, knowing that he would be asked to talk about his concerns, wrote them down.

His list grew long, however, which heightened his anxiety, initially. But then he found that in writing out his concerns, he gained perspective on them to the extent that he realised he didn’t need a therapist after all.

He then tried to excuse himself to me, almost, for even considering needing to see one. As he is an able young man who has achieved much in his life of which he can be proud, it is not he who needs to excuse himself. Rather, it is we who should, having allowed our society with its relentless goals and targets, to evolve in such a way that people feel guilty starting their day naturally with grounding practices such as meditation, contemplation, and journaling.

Don't just sit there . . .

We have created a culture in which 'Don't just sit there, do something’ and ‘Lunch is for wimps' are the norm and which pander to our mind’s survival tactic of involving us in perennial busyness and guilt should we wish to do nothing.

Don't just do something, sit there!

Actually, as a leader, to be effective under duress, it is imperative that you know yourself and your purpose and principles. Grounding, that is: Alone time + Contemplation, is the way.

And journal

My friend wondered whether he should take up regular journaling as he had heard and had now experienced that it could be beneficial.

If there were one practice I wish I had begun sooner in life, it is journaling. As he found, writing down one's concerns particularly at the end of a stressful day puts situations and concerns in perspective. It is a therapy in itself. And I have found other benefits from it too:

  • Thought exploration: when a topic comes into my awareness and I don’t have a view about it, just writing about it brings insights, clarity and perspective;

  • Guidance: when I want to get guidance on a situation, writing what thoughts I have about it brings further insights, clarity and often, resolve;

  • Despair: when I awaken to the slough of despond - my mind’s perception that my life’s course is hopeless - writing down the situation and my mind’s negative perspective has the effect of neutralising and dissipating it;

  • Cataloguing insights: writing up insights that come to me out of the blue clarifies them and brings them into my day-to-day awareness.

Also, writing to those who have passed, particularly when situations concerning them were left incomplete, can bring completion and peace.

How to start regular journaling

But how to start?

The great classic on journaling is Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ in which she lists a number of practices for aspiring creatives but principal among them is her Morning Pages. Morning Pages is where you simply sit and write out three sides of A4 on whatever topic you like. The practice is designed to get you used to writing freely which it does perfectly. She just tells you, “Put your pen on the paper and push it”. And it works.

But, getting a new intention to be habitual can be difficult, and as with New Year’s resolutions, willpower will take you only so far. It got me to sit down on my first day's journaling and write three pages. Great! Second day, ditto! But by the third day, duties began to pile up and I could really use the writing time to deal with them. I was sitting down attempting to write while my mind was saying: “You don’t have to do this today. You’ve got other more important things to do. You could just miss it today.”

In other words, my mind was working against me. I was expending (finite) willpower to stay on my writing. Sooner or later willpower loses against tiredness, other deadlines or more enticing distractions. Which is where the practice of habit formation comes in.

Or how to start any habit

The three great books on habit formation are Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit’, B J Fogg’s ‘Tiny Habits’ and James Clear’s ‘Atomic Habits’. The Audible versions of each are at least as good as their written counterparts. The key to establishing any habit successfully, they say, is to start small.

So on my second attempt at morning pages, I sat down and wrote just three sentences. By the third morning doing this, my mind was saying to me, “Well, as you’re here you may as well just write three paragraphs, which I did. Now my mind was encouraging me. It was working with me. After about three days of three paragraphs my mind began to say “Actually, you could do three half pages.” which I did, little willpower needed.

And I chose to stick at that. So my morning pages regimen is to do about one and a half sides of A4 each day. But one and a half is my minimum and I often do more. Once my habit was established I pursued it almost perfectly for a year but not mechanistically. If it worked for me to miss a day that was fine, I wouldn’t beat myself up about it. I was sufficiently enrolled in the project that if I had to miss a day, I wanted to come back to it the next.

I stopped my daily adherence to morning pages after about a year as I started to do other writing and I ‘allowed’ myself to forgo morning pages if I were writing elsewhere. But now I regularly go back to them, particularly at weekends, when I want to ground myself or clarify my thinking.

So if my friend starts small, he will establish a beautiful habit of journaling that will ground or centre him; enable him to identify and be guided by his purpose, and with situations that seem difficult initially, give him resolve.

Christopher Jones-Warner

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