There’s a significant body of research, especially that of James Pennebaker, that shows that journaling can support recovery in many different ways. Adults whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood and particularly those who were picked on, marginalized, or effectively shut down by a parent or parents, often have trouble making sense of their experiences, identifying their emotions, and articulating their thoughts; writing can help with all of these. One hallmark of healing and recovery is to be able to create a coherent narrative of your experiences which allows you to understand why you felt as you did; you can then begin to connect the dots so that you can see the effects your childhood had on your development and even your behavior in the present. Once again, the act of writing—especially by hand—can be an extremely useful tool. Finally, research shows that writing down your goals and aspirations supports motivation; seeing your goals in black-and-white on the page can also induce some realism into the process and help you distinguish between wishful thinking and achievable goals.
Research underscores the value of journaling to be sure but many people find it difficult or well-neigh impossible. I actually hear that from readers of my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, with some frequency; let’s look at why and then explore some do’s and don’ts along with some work-arounds.
What may be standing in the way of your journaling
Fear and anxiety pop up as the most common reasons women can’t journal. For many, the blank page feels like a test of sorts and they actually worry that their words won’t sound “right’ or that their writing will be “terrible.” Another woman wrote me that her anxiety was sky-high looking at the blank page to be filled, saying “I was anxious about spilling out thoughts that I’d denied or suppressed and worrying that everything I’d write would be stupid or banal. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head as I picked up the pen, telling me I was making things up.”
My own guess would be is that the blank page becomes a stand-in for other anxieties and worries you’re experiencing as you do the hard work of recovering and reclaiming your life. Try thinking about that yourself and see what you come up with. Do remember that no one will grade your journal and it’s not a test. It also shouldn’t be entirely free-form writing which is likely to make you even more uncomfortable; I will offer some suggestion for exercises, drawn from my book Daughter Detox, as well.
Why cool process is key
How you write about your experiences actually matters a great deal; in fact, one study showed that people who described their emotions in writing during a divorce actually recovered more slowly than those who didn’t; it didn’t matter whether they wrote in a free-form style or first-person or third-person narrative. The difference is cool versus hot processing.
When you write using cool processing, you are focusing on why you felt as you did. Here’s a fictional example of cool processing: “When my mother called me a liar when I was 14, I was angry but I was also in pain and ashamed. It was clear to me in that moment that she had absolutely no idea who I was; I would never lie about something that important.” Note that there are no details of the incident but just a calm recollection that is focused on understanding why the daughter felt as she did.
Here is the same fictional incident, told from a hot process point of view: “My mother picked me up from school and then, in front of everyone, accused me of stealing her password and taking money from her account. She hit me and then my teacher stepped in and my mother threatened to call the police. I was 14. The veins in her forehead were standing out and she was screaming, and calling me a ‘bitch’ and someone who deserved to be dead in a ditch and I was crying and begging her to stop and she wouldn’t. I actually threw up. When I think about this and I see her face as it was, I feel all the old feelings coming up again and the passage of twenty years has changed nothing. She never apologized and still refers to me as ‘the kid who lied.’ Oh, and her co-worker took the money. And, yes, she learned that the next day which changed nothing.”
Whereas as hot processing remembrance puts you back in the emotional moment—you remember the feelings, the gestures, everything—and essentially has you relive it which is not healthy, cool processing lets you see as if from a distance or analytically. We often tell our stories in the hot process mode when we’re in great pain—we just don’t have the energy to filter or deal—but it’s not a position of strength. And it’s actually not good for you. Let’s go back to that divorce study, shall we?
When you shouldn’t journal
Hot processing makes you relive the moment vividly and it’s not good for you; a blow-by-blow recall of your divorce or your fight with your mother or anything thing else that is very upsetting or possibly traumatic will set you back. If you can only summon up images of her or his screaming face and your own feelings, STOP. Take a walk, wash the dishes, watch a movie but do not journal, okay?
How to journal in productive ways
Since this is journaling for healing, and not your teenage diary, you should take it seriously. If you are in therapy, do not journal unless your therapist approves. Please keep in mind that I am neither a therapist nor a psychologist; what follows are suggestions drawn from interviews and research.
- Make time for it
Set aside a time and a place to do your journaling and, yes, turn off your cell. Yes, there is a direct relationship between the effort you put into journaling and the benefits you’ll reap.
- Set goals before you start
If you’re having difficulty writing, set progressive goals for yourself. You can begin with as few as three or four sentences and slowly work your way up to paragraph, a few paragraphs, and then a page.
- Use your journal as a personal tool
Once you get in the habit of journaling on a regular basis, you’ll find that writing will become a tool you can use to analyze and appraise your progress, whether that’s how you handle stress, deal with arguments or discord, or even feel about the progress you’re making.
If you’re still unsure about how to use a journal to its best effect, the last chapter of my book Daughter Detox contains exercises and specific subjects to tackle. And for those of you who want to journal but aren’t ready, you may want to try The Daughter Detox Guided Journal and Workbook which is a fill-in format and can get you started.
Journaling can be a way of sorting through and identifying your emotions, strengthening your emotional intelligence, and supporting your growing self-confidence. It’s worth trying.
Photograph by Hannah Olinger. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.
Pennebaker, James W. and Janel D. Segal, “Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 55 (10), 1243-1254 (1999)
Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions,” Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.
Sbarra, David, Adriel Boas, Ashley E. Mason, Grace M. Larson, and Matthias R. Mehl, “Expressive Writing Can Impede Emotional Recovery Following Marital Separation,” Clinical Psychological Science (2013), xx(x), 1-15.