Journaling as a Tool For Change

I was thinking about how my life has changed thanks to journal writing. In reflecting on this, I was able to break down exactly how that happened.

I don't like to label my beliefs as being in sync with the 'Manifestation/Intention' movement. I don't believe in magical thinking; in putting all my attention on one strategy or way of doing something and expecting to get exactly what I want. I don't believe that if I just think positively, or put my intention out to the universe, everything will work out.

I have known individuals struggling with difficult life issues: trauma, alcoholism, or mental health problems putting all their faith in popular books that tell them that if they believe and set their intentions, they will achieve their goals. Those people have struggled even more if they did not find relief or ended up in more pain. They were now judging themselves more harshly, thinking their faith was not strong enough, that they were not doing it right, that they did not deserve change or worse that they were being punished for some flaw in their personality or behaviour.

I realized that writing for change is a type of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) I have been using unconsciously. I found that when I was writing spontaneously about my day, my thoughts, behaviours and feelings would show up in narrative form.

Example: "Today was a very difficult day. Everything was going wrong. First, my car wouldn't start, then I spilled my coffee all over myself and when I got to work, there was a note on my desk about a meeting with my boss to discuss my performance. It affected my whole day, I couldn't focus on my work. I am feeling very tired, angry and frustrated. I was going to go to the gym tonight but I would rather just sit on the couch and watch tv. Tomorrow better be better!"

In a CBT model, we would look at the thoughts, feelings and behaviours and their interaction with each other. We would start by keeping track of thoughts and replacing them in order to affect feelings and behaviours. There are plenty of thoughts in that journal entry (a difficult day, everything was wrong, it affected my whole day) that seem to directly impact the feelings (tired, angry, frustrated) and the behaviours (not focussing on work, staying home to watch tv).

In an earlier blog post I gave three statements to help go deeper with the writing.

I didn't know that... I realize that... What I need is...

If I explore that same journal entry (in an honest way) I can complete those statements with something like this.

  • I didn't know how easily my mood can be affected by little things that happen to me.
  • I realize that I am hard on myself and I tend to use unhealthy ways to deal with stress (like staying on the couch instead of going to the gym).
  • What I need is to give myself more time in the morning, and perhaps journal or meditate so that I feel less rushed, less stressed and have less chance to spill coffee on myself. I need to let go the little things and focus on what is most important.

This is similar to what is done with CBT...a lot like charting thoughts, feelings and behaviours and asking myself what I could have done differently. How can I change that thought to one that is more supportive of my goals?

And then comes the concrete way I think writing helps change me or my situation. I go back to the Manifestation/Intention comment I made earlier. The difficulty can come when I have not looked at all of my feelings first; or have not expressed the anger or sadness. I need a balanced view of myself before I can move forward. There is no magic wand. In order to know what I want/need, I have to recognize my situation exactly as it is. (This is where those lovely different types of writing exercises can help you).


Once I have done that, I can explore methods of 'manifesting' what I want for myself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a Dream Board, with writing out affirmations or with posting positive thoughts on your wall. I have done all of those; and I really believe they played a big role in helping me improve relationships, change my spending habits, have a new perspective, be healthier and do work that I love. But first, I had to take a look at the challenges, the feelings, the situations that bothered me and the parts of myself I did not love. I've explored this with writing, here are what worked for me:

  • Fears and Hopes: This is where I give myself permission to be afraid, sad, discouraged. I write it all out; as a list, as a brainstorm, as a story or via automatic writing. Then I flip the page and write down what my hopes are. I write out how I would like the person, thing or situation to be different. What would it look like? How would I feel? Where would I be? I focus on my hopes even if I don't quite believe them. Gradually, the fears will take up less space.
  • Handwriting vs. keyboarding: I know using a computer seems simpler and faster; that is exactly my point. You want to slow down and interact with your feelings; interact with your thoughts and take the time to contemplate how you can change some aspect of your behaviour. Having a physical journal you can return to, being able to see how your handwriting changes depending on your mood, being able to draw pictures, use different colours, scribble and be less structured - these will all be helpful. You use a different part of your brain when you use a computer. You want to be fully engaged with the experience, so that you can integrate it.
  • Setting intention for the day: Take some time in the morning to write out how you would like your day to go. Not because it is a magic spell that will change things but because it makes you accountable to yourself. I did this during a very difficult time, and I repeated my intentions to myself; using myself as a cheerleader to help me do what I needed to do. 'I am not buying into that, I am positive, helpful, kind, walk away if I have to...' Think of it as a little challenge.

In the end, surround yourself with what feeds you. Does it help to look at your dream board, or your positive thoughts? Turn off the unnecessary noise that feeds the negativity (this noise can also be visual!). Be kind to yourself and be patient. Good things will happen; not magically but step by step, one little change at a time.