We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience – John Dewey
You don’t think anything of keeping a diary as a teenager, except for the embarrassment when your Dad finds it and reads your darkest secrets. The confession of that thing you did with your friends, the frustration that your crush doesn’t know you exist and the injustice of your parents not giving you money to go to the disco, life is crippling and no-one understands you.
When you’re 12 you’ve probably yet to develop the trust and emotional stability to confide in friends / family about what’s troubling you. “The diary” acts as a therapist, as a way to help process difficult emotions. This activity, is stereotypically practiced more by females. Presumably due to cultural norms and the fact that females aren’t idiots who think ignoring emotions will somehow not fuck them up further down the line. (They can be, just not as much as us men.)
Why do we stop writing in our diary? Do we associate it with being childish? Are we embarrassed to face our dreams? What makes us think that just because we’re older we’re better at regulating our emotions? Do we believe wisdom comes with age not experience? From Anne Frank, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winston Churchill, Sylvia Plath to Marcus Aurelius, they’re all practitioners of daily journalling.
There are countless ways to approach journalling but in its most primitive form; pick a time (morning or evening), open a notebook (or note taking app) and write down what’s going on in your head. There are no rules when it comes to journalling except do it every day. Treat it just like you would have when you were 12. Write down what’s bothering you, what’s exciting you, ideas you have, things you’re proud of, things you’re not proud of. Leave your destructive thoughts on these pages and plant the seeds for the construction of your future. Brainstorm, bulletpoint, idea clouds, whatever works. Use it to prepare in the morning for the day ahead and reflect on what happened in the evening. Use it to get to know yourself better so you can communicate with others.
The act of writing, especially about personal experience is cathartic. It can be confronting but the practice helps you to work through thoughts your brain is fighting with. Some like to write down 3 things they are grateful for as a prompt. Some like to use it to put down goals for the day or as a daily check in for goals they are working on for their future. It can and should include everything that’s going on in your brain. Writer Suleika Jaouad has an amazing project, “The Isolation Journals” that provides prompts that can be of benefit if you struggle with starting.
I’m a fierce advocate for keeping a daily journal (diary if you must). I think it’s a practice where the reward far outweighs the effort. I understand that the concept of keeping a diary as an adult can be embarrassing as it’s something most of us did when we were 12 but why should it be any different now?
Being honest, many adults I know really struggle with truthfully communicating their emotions and this lack of self-awareness is at the root of the majority of their problems. Whether its blubbering out issues they’ve been holding in for months when they’re drunk or flying off the handle in fits of rage over simple annoyances like being stuck in traffic. It comes down to not knowing who you are, what you want or what you stand for.
Journalling is a simple tool to help you self-regulate emotions that can potentially end up being destructive to you and those close to you whilst nurturing the positive thoughts that will help you grow. It will also help you identify patterns of thought over time that you may not have realised existed so prominently.