Journaling: The Cheapest and Most Powerful Form of Self-Care

Sometimes I feel like I live in a self-care sea of pricey products and services all promising a vast array of niche benefits in wellness. I’ve invested countless dollars and hours on coaches, workshops, facials, salt rooms, saunas, float tanks, tonics, books, and bodyworkers. I even spent thousands of dollars once to go on a retreat in Hawaii with one of the most famous gurus living today. I left that retreat with a new group of friends, but not the spiritual enlightenment that had initially enticed me to buy the ticket.

My wellness, self-help, and spiritual quest started the year I graduated from college. With my career and life in such a malleable place I wanted to turn to anyone other than myself for the answers to my plethora of conundrums of how to be a person in the world.

I found myself eagerly reading every self-help book, hoping to find the answers I was yearning for in someone else’s story.

I didn’t know how to feed myself, much less express myself creatively, move to a new city, or find a fulfilling career. Luckily, I was in therapy, which helped me realize I lacked the self-awareness to even know what I was yearning for.

One day, soon after graduation, I found myself standing in the self-help section of a bookstore with a gift card trying to choose the next diet, spiritual, or personal growth book that would give me the answers I was seeking. As I stood there staring at the walls of options I realized that these prescriptive books were simply well-meaning accounts of what had worked for the author and didn’t necessarily mean it was going to be a surefire formula for me. The problem with self-help is that humans are so unique — we don’t all fit into a formula. In that moment I knew the answers I was seeking couldn’t be found by forcing myself into someone else’s story — I had to write myself a formula for how to be a person and more accurately… how to be me.

I took my gift card and wandered out of the self-help section into the stationary section where I bought a colorful journal. No one told me how to journal, I was just intuitively drawn to it and kept it up because it felt cathartic every time I wrote my thoughts down.

I didn’t know why or what I was doing but that summer felt therapeutic to spend my days sitting outside vulnerably writing down my raw, true, and sometimes dark thoughts and feelings. As the summer went on I realized that why it felt so good was because I was actually being myself unfiltered for the first time in years — and maybe ever.

Journaling became my very first tool for wellness and spiritual growth, and it turns out, after seven years, it’s the most potent of all the wacky trends I’ve tried and the one I continue to return to most often.

I feel lost unless I’m writing. Journaling feels like my free on-the-go solo therapy — one I can do any time. Since I constantly wear masks in the world to protect myself, journaling is the place I can remove all the masks and be my truly authentic self without fear of judgment.

Journaling was my training ground to practice being real with myself before I could bring this vulnerability and authenticity into my relationships with others. Eventually, this newfound self-awareness gained from journaling gave me the confidence to be myself with other people and made my entire life feel better and more full. It made my therapy and all other healing modalities deeper because I actually had awareness on where I wanted to focus my intention.

Soon after I stumbled upon how useful a tool it was for me, I started recommending it to friends and listeners of my podcast. I created tips for starting a journaling practice that specifically works for you.

Here are some of those tools to get you started on this completely free and underrated wellness routine:

Just start —

Like with anything else you learn best by doing, and the more you do it the easier it will become. Journaling is impossible to do wrong. No one has to see it and it doesn’t have to be done any single way. Not trying is literally the only way to fail.

Get curious —

Approach journaling like a scavenger hunt that will lead you to your innermost feelings. The journey ahead is thrilling, but it’s new territory. Get curious about what you’ll find, but don’t rush.

Don’t worry about editing —

We’re taught in English classes to analyze our words, sentence structure, and to pay close attention to punctuation, spelling, and grammar… but none of that matters when journaling for yourself.

Dance with resistance —

Resistance will inevitably arise while you’re journaling because you’ll start feeling emotions you don’t want to feel. We often numb those feelings with food, sex, drugs, TV, etc., but leaning into discomfort is the only way to truly change.

Befriend yourself —

For many years, I didn’t allow myself to authentically express who I was, so I lost touch with myself. To heal and come into my own, I had to get to know myself again. By letting out my real thoughts onto the page, I could see the real me, not the watered-down chameleon I showed the world. A deep sense of self-awareness is one of the true keys to happiness and fulfillment. Always bring your real self to your journal.

Cultivate awareness —

Journaling gives you tools to shorten the time between coming out-of-the-flow and going back into it  —  flow being the state where everything seems to move effortlessly. Choosing different thoughts in unpleasant situations enables you to shift from out to back more quickly. When you feel out of alignment, bring your attention to your feet (because they are the farthest from your brain), and notice the present moment. Awareness is a muscle, and  journaling strengthens it.

Be radically authentic and honest —

Dig up secrets you’ve buried and hidden. If you’re lying to yourself or writing what you think you should be writing, stop, return to the present, and write what’s true for you. If you’re not being fully honest with yourself on the page, journaling is a waste of your time. If you’re writing for someone else or “in case someone sees” it’s not real journaling. By being vulnerable and acknowledging what we’re ashamed of, we let go of any guilt we’re holding on to. As Brené Brown teaches: shame cannot survive being shared, and admitting our shame to ourselves is the first step.

Fake it till you make it —

In Mother Night Kurt Vonnegut says: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” If journaling is new for you, going this deep might cause some strong reactions of wanting to quit, feeling like a fraud, thinking you’re wasting time, or turning to comfortable habits to avoid what you’re feeling. The key is not to stop. Journaling shows what’s going on at a deeper level when you allow yourself to examine your authentic feelings. With time, the routine will become ingrained, and before you know it, you’ll no longer be pretending to be a writer… you’ll be a writer.

Katie Dalebout is a writer, host, and the founder of Let [a podcast] Out, a workshop that helps people DIY podcast. Since 2013 she has interviewed over 250 people on her long-form interview show, Let It Out. Her first book, Let It Out: A Journey Through Journaling (2016) is a collection of personal essays and journaling prompts. Read more of her musings and feelings in her monthly Let It Out Letter. Katie, her feelings, and all of her plants live together in Manhattan.

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