If you’ve ever seen a psychotherapist, they may have suggested you keep a journal. Perhaps you’re already doing so – left over from your diary-keeping days of youth. Or maybe it’s a new idea you’d never considered. But what good is journaling about thoughts, feelings, or events in our lives? What good does it do to talk to your self? When I suggest it to clients, some refuse, saying “Writing is not my thing”. Some dismiss the idea in response to childhood memories of bad grades in grammar class. They see it as equivalent to diaries kept by love-struck teenage girls. Many claim they have no time. Some can’t imagine how it would help. Frankly, for certain life issues and for some people, it might not be helpful. But for some, it’s a journey that can be the best trip ever taken.
Journaling doesn’t have to be an exercise in penning narrative of horrible memories or thoughts you wish to escape. It might be the simple notation of a mood to help you recognize a pattern that needs changing or perhaps a significant thought that floats through your mind – one you want to remember and not have swept away by the busy day. At times, it may be an exercise of diving into the deep pool of emotions and spending time with yourself – uncensored, uninterrupted, without judgment. In this way, you may discover you will not actually drown in those emotions. You can come up for air and feel empowered that you survived an honest, in-depth look at your most raw self. When we devote time and energy to writing, to be effective we must step into ourselves honestly. What we may not count on is the difficulty of such a journey.
Recently, I restarted my own journaling, though didn’t count on the ‘writer’s block’ I would face. Then, I realized it wasn’t a ‘block’ in my writer’s brain (the part that needs to think about putting words on a screen), but a ‘block’ to my emotional brain (the part of me that is raw, that fuels my whole self – fears, sorrows, dreams, needs – my soul). To be honest, I had been struggling with some fairly strong feelings surrounding several significant losses in my life. I’d been playing tug-of-war with facing my own emotions head-on for some time and found myself on the avoidance end of the rope. As a psychotherapist I’m accustomed to swimming amidst emotion – those of others and my own. But, in recent months I’d been hit with more than enough hardship and psychological burden than I’d faced in quite some time and found myself packing it all away so I could carry on with the more routine parts of living. To avoid drowning, I had been holding my breath and not allowing my deepest feelings and thoughts to surface. My soul had stopped breathing.
Then, I decided to write. In part, it was under the guise of blogging for the purpose of offering help beyond the couch in my therapy office. I also needed to flush the stories of war I’d heard while working for 5 years with warriors who’d been traumatized in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wondered if journaling might be the key to unblocking the threshold between my own wounded soul and my best self – so that I could move toward solutions and growth in my life – so I could feel whole again. Regardless the prompt, here I was – in front of a blank screen, fingers prepped to type profound words of reflection and wisdom. Stuck. It’s as if the words were sitting on my fingertips like words on the tip of my tongue.
I needed to begin flushing, purging – my own pain and the pain of so many others who’d crossed my path in recent years. And for a time, the words wouldn’t come. It was like the story, my story, their stories, refused to move through me. Contrary to what some might believe, in the world of a psychotherapist, having insight into the psyche of oneself doesn’t always lead to easy healing. In part, that’s because the part of our brain we use to process the pain of others isn’t the same holding place for our own wounds. And sometimes the pain of others that we’ve agreed to hold mixes with our own personal burdens, compounding our efforts to let our soul breathe. Hopefully, we can process our pain from a conscious ‘front brain’ place because this can lead to greater understanding. But, the initial holding space for emotional pain is somewhere in the deeper parts of our brain – “the back of our minds” (and sometimes even throughout our entire bodies). In part, that’s what psychotherapy is about – bridging the ‘back’ of our minds with the ‘front’ – making sure the two are in accord, in one awareness. So, setting aside times to journal can be a safer opportunity to venture into that deep conversation with our self. Our soul needs that time, that space to breathe. Holding on to emotional pain can be as damaging as any physical illness we’ve ever had.
But pain is, well…..painful. We don’t readily invite emotional discomfort into our daily awareness. Most people are good at suppressing their deepest thoughts and feelings from others and themselves. On a day-to-day basis that ability to compartmentalize is necessary so the grocery store clerk doesn’t get the brunt of discontent we’re feeling for our teenager or spouse. Or so that our loved ones aren’t flooded with the frustration we feel from dealing with a difficult colleague. That ability to partition emotional pain (fear, sorrow, rage) is what helps a warrior in combat focus on safety first rather than enter an untimely lamentation about loved ones on the home front or the death of a battle buddy. What we don’t count on is separating the parts of ourselves so well that we lose our sense of feeling whole. We get so locked into suppression as a way of coping that we forget to let our emotional self communicate at all. Before you know it, we’re suffering from a broken (silenced) soul which leads to a broken (fragmented) self. This is when the bridge between our two selves has collapsed. To live an authentic life as our healthiest self we need to feel whole and integrated, not broken into pieces. When I sat down to begin journaling this year, I realized I was in that state – broken in two.
So for me, writing is one way I can begin to rebuild the bridge between my thinking self and my feeling self – between the broken self deep inside and the me the world sees from day to day. To disallow this type of healing creates a fraudulent me. The world then only receives a portion of me – the harsher, somewhat disconnected me. If we’re fortunate, we may have also found other paths to healing (exercise, laughter, connecting to others with whom we feel safe, psychotherapy) and can rely on these when the words don’t flow as we’d want. But there are those times when our soul needs to breathe, to have a voice and be heard.
When you find yourself in those moments needing or wanting to speak for yourself and on behalf of your self, you can write. If you begin journaling at the suggestion of a counselor or therapist, they can offer guidance or prompts for your writing. The content can be secondary to the process. The important pieces to remember – – no judgment, complete openness.
Go ahead – talk to yourself today. Use your words. Let your soul speak. Listen to what it has to say.