Discover, understand, heal: Why it’s good to keep a journal

The intimate practice of journaling and therapeutic writing forces us to go within the land of our desires, fears and tragedies, providing space for emotional release

Cuando escribimos un diario íntimo en la edad adulta solemos entrar más en profundidad en nuestros pensamientos y nos suele servir como desahogo emocional.
When we write in a personal journal as an adult, we’re able to enter into our thoughts more deeply, and it can serve as emotional release.Oksana Nazarchuk M (Getty Images)

In a 1976 article published by The New York Times entitled Why I Write, U.S. author Joan Didion states: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” The writer summed up thus, in just a few words, expressed in her well-known style so direct and frugal, what many people feel when they pick up pencil and paper, or sit down at their computer or open the Notes application on their cell phone, and simply write. They use this time to scribble thoughts, just as the California author did, about the things that happen to them and their thoughts; about their desires, their fears and their tragedies.

They’re not thinking about publishing these texts, or even that another person will read them (in fact, they would probably prefer that no one else read them). What they write often takes the form of personal journals and therapeutic texts. Probably, on a personal level, the writing of these texts serves the same function as it did for the woman behind The Year of Magical Thinking: to discover, understand and heal oneself.

Personal journal versus therapeutic writing

Nearly all of us know what a journal is, and many of us have kept one, especially when we were children and teenagers. Going back to those pages is often a tender, amusing experience. Sometimes, it’s sad. Sometimes, surprising since, among those lines, usually poorly written, smudged and somewhat crooked, we recognize some of the pieces of our character that continue to define us today.

When we write in a journal as adults, we tend to go more deeply into our thoughts. Often, it serves us as an emotional outlet. Through it, we reflect on the things that have happened to us. Writing in a journal is often a moment of tranquility and recollection.

According to Dr. Teresa Martín, a psychotherapist who, among other things, teaches therapeutic writing workshops, personal journals and therapeutic writing are not noticeably different. “Their starting point is identical,” she says. “To start to become intimate with oneself and from that act of listening, achieve greater, fuller, fairer and more adequate self-knowledge.” Therapeutic writing usually takes an approach more decidedly aimed at achieving a person’s well-being and self-knowledge, and is usually directed and guided by a mental health professional. According to Adrián Montesano, professor in the department of personality, evaluation and psychological treatments at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, who runs an online seminar for therapeutic narrative practices, “therapeutic writing can be useful in any therapeutic process. For example, letter writing always marks a before and after in the treatment of a patient. No conversation has the power of the written word.”

A form of mental re-elaboration

“Writing contributes to the process of ordering thought and improving self-knowledge,” says Montesano. “At the level of basic psychological processes, information is processed in a completely different way when one writes than when one thinks or even when one speaks. Let’s say that, at the level of narrative production, we can make a false ranking: thinking would be the simplest form. When we speak, interacting with another person, there is a little more elaborate discourse. But writing forces us to order and structure thought in a different way. We connect more areas of the brain and process information in a more complex way.”

Experts say writing contributes to the process of ordering thought and improving self-knowledge.
Experts say writing contributes to the process of ordering thought and improving self-knowledge.lechatnoir (Getty Images)

However, Montesano points out that not all journal writing has the same effects. “One can write a journal with practically no effect on their psychological well-being if it is a simple journal, talking about where they have been, with whom, etc., but not reflecting deeper thoughts, emotions, feelings, reflections or characterizations that help maximize or obtain the benefits of writing.” “A therapeutic journal focuses on the question ‘Who am I?’” explains Martín. “But the result is not automatic. It’s a surprising and unexpected process.” The doctor explains that, thanks to this kind of texts, one can discover oneself, as much as in writing a journal as re-reading it. She adds: “It gives us the opportunity to decide, with certainty, honesty and renewed strength, on the possibility of changing course, the drift of our current life.”

Therefore, according to Martín, a journal can be a powerful source of transformation. “We all carry experiences with us. Badly lived plots that follow us,” she says. “We may not even know of their existence. They are silenced by force of habit, or obedience until writing makes you come across them.” According to the doctor, once you discover these kinds of burdens, these kinds of inconsistencies, nothing is the same, there’s no going back.

Montesano cites a technique used in the field of therapeutic writing called the expressive writing paradigm, which consists of having the person write without stopping for 15 to 20 minutes every day, over three to four days, about a traumatic event or something that has deeply affected them. “It can be anything, an accident, an illness, a loss, anything related to trauma,” explains the doctor. “The writing must be totally private and, above all, it has to focus on the effects it has had on the writer’s life, on their deepest thoughts and feelings related to that trauma or to that event.” On the last day, the patient is asked to make a general evaluation, indicating lessons learned and any pending issues. “The people who achieve the best results are those who are able to better identify both positive and negative emotions in their writings, those who have the ability to see the story from different points of view,” he says. “People who have never talked about a traumatic event they went through benefit greatly from this paradigm of expressive writing,” says the specialist. “These people increase their ability to organize the emotionality and complexity of their traumas by subjectivizing the experience, multiplying perspectives and giving coherence to their story.”

How to maximize the benefits of a journal

Despite all the benefits it can bring, many people find it difficult to start writing a journal or therapeutic text. Dr. Martín acknowledges that it is true that some people are afraid or reluctant to take the plunge. “We are terrified of freedom,” she says.

A journal is a powerful source of transformation.
A journal is a powerful source of transformation.Luis Alvarez (Getty Images)

“To anyone who wants to journal, I suggest that you recognize any impatience you may have for results and accomplishments,” she continues. “And, like someone who monitors their blood pressure, you must monitor that weakness and its tendency to tyranny with infinite doses of empathy. An antidote to the craving for power and glory: set yourself a specific time, seven or ten minutes on the clock. When the alarm goes off, you’re done for the day. Don’t be in a hurry to increase the sit-ups: if we rush, we risk going into the cage. When we see that we are stuck, that we are overwhelmed by our mental knots, seek help. Therapeutic writing workshops really help to observe your story in a protected way, they invite you to gain perspective and to de-dramatize the excess of intensity that paralyzes your story.”

“It’s obvious that writing is like a gymnasium,” says Montesano. “Besides — and this is important to emphasize — to practice this type of writing, it is not necessary to know how to write well, with literary quality. In this case, writing is a means of personal expression and everyone has that. In my experience, everyone can benefit a lot from writing, and the more they practice, the more things they can discover about themselves. But it is a labor that has to be maintained over a certain period of time to be able to experience the benefits, even though they can be felt from the very beginning.”

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