A good counselor will tell you to keep a daily journal. There are many articles online that talk about the new data which shows the mental and physical health benefits of the practice, in addition to the sage old advice about the benefits of the discipline. Google puts them right at our fingertips, so I won't spend much time here on that subject.
Keyboard, Pen, or Non-Dominant Hand
Something I don't see discussed all that often concerns the manner in which one seeks to record a journal, whether through a keyboard or a pen and paper to record their thoughts and feelings. I've heard some specialists who are aware of the healing effects of bilateral stimulation and movement of the body (through physical activity and modalities like binaural sound and EMDR), that the keyboard taps into this healing aspect of the brain. I've also heard some respected counselors that I know personally speak of a study that came out of Marsha Means' work which demonstrated some superior benefit to writing with a pen and paper (however, I don't have any documentation, findings that may never have been published). I've also heard several experts suggest that a person try to write with their non-dominant hand to liberate blocked emotions, because the effort stimulates the non-dominant side of the brain (which for most of us is the Left hemisphere). I switch back and forth between keyboard and pen, and I make an effort to write with my non-dominant hand when I do feel like I'm struggling emotionally with something, willing to make the effort in the event that it is helpful.
What to Write?
To encourage the habit and to get the flow of the process going, and from all I've read and been taught on the subject of writing in general, one needs to commit at least 20 minutes to the discipline every day. In my first college class, in good old English 101, the instructor required us to keep a daily journal where we could write about anything we wanted, and we need not worry about spelling or grammar. We were just supposed to be free to write, so long as we wrote every day. These considerations are especially true if you seek to use journaling as a means of emotional growth and healing. Like any skill, the more you write the better at it you will become.
Thinking back to this college class, I wrote about all sorts of things, including a whole month on what I would do and where I would put things if I had my own place to live. It required imagination, and I talked about why I set this up for myself as a goal and a rite of passage. That liberated my emotions about my hopes and dreams and those things that seemed to stand in the way of my ability to achieve them. But I found that I did better at writing and didn't find it intimidating if I had a theme as some type of goal. I needed the structure of the theme or the goal.
I did a great deal of writing about grief in order to move through it, and I continue to do so with the new things that come into my life or the triggered memories of past events. (Having moved through much grief, I tend to write about more happy memories at this point, because I have more room to celebrate the good.) For those who have been through spiritual abuse and for those who grew up in dysfunctional homes, there's much grief to work through and a host of different ways to do it. A person can spend time writing about how they feel about events of the past, but sometimes, some people find it hard to get started. Here are some ideas that can be helpful, providing some structure to the process.
Listing offenses. The first thing a counselor ever asked me to do was to write out all of the hurtful statements that my biggest critic in life had said to me. I also have done the same thing regarding self-talk and the types of unhealthy things that I have dwelt on in the past. Years later, I had another counselor ask me to do the same thing, and I've since read other advice about this practice. One counselor had me keep what I'd written, and one asked me to turn what I'd written into him, and he didn't return it. Another way of releasing past hurts and grief that I've seen recommend involves taking the lists and burning them or shredding them, an act of commitment to forgive so that you don't rehearse the hurts. I've also talked with a therapist who uses something called “flash paper” used in magic shows. These small pieces of paper can be easily burned without much risk of a fire hazard, and it creates the visual memory of the hurt being turned into nothing but fine ash.
Letter writing. Writing letters to people can be a wonderful way to fill up a journal if you feel at a loss about how to start, writing both letters of gratitude for those who have loved and encouraged you as well as letters to people who have hurt you. You can choose to send such letters, but you can also use a journal to express those things that people may not understand and receive. There is a part of your brain that doesn't distinguish between what is real and what is imagined, and just creating and imagining the opportunity to say anything to those who have hurt you liberates a part of you. This type of writing can serve as a pressure valve, allowing you to express emotion that you'd otherwise carry all bottled up inside. It can also help you rehearse what you might write or say to someone at a later time, without the emotions that you can't control and without so much intimidation. You can always go back later to pick out what you want to say and what you decide might be best unsaid. You can also go through to see where your unhealed wounds tend to be and what things you ought to work on. Do you write about being angry or do you throw around guilt and blame as you write the letter? You can go back to see later? Are you expressing things that need to be said, or are you acting out of self-defense. You can use your journal as a “trial run” to make you a better communicator.
Self Help Books and Workbooks
Almost every self improvement book, especially the Christian ones that flooded the market a couple of decades ago have lists of questions to ask yourself about whether or not a certain situation or issue applies to you. You can use these types of books as a guide for your journaling for self-expression. I recently adapted this list from a book on gaslighting, gearing the questions to young women who grew up in the patriarchy movement. If you go through one of these books and put checkmarks by the things that seem to apply to you, if you copy them into your journal, it further deepens your understanding of the material, like taking notes in a class helps you to remember and enhances learning for you. If something seems pertinent, you can expand upon the item and write about the memories you have which cause you to agree with the statement. And in the book that has become one of my favorites, Harriet Braiker's Who's Pulling Your Strings also contains checklists that help you identify your weak points that make you vulnerable to manipulators, but they also encompass much material from many different books about self-improvement.
Spiritual Abuse Recovery. Take Back Your Life: Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Lalich and Tobias is of the best books that helps a person with the practical issues that people face after spiritual abuse. In the book, there are lists and lists of questions that pertain to why a person gets involved, what the group leader or other significant players in the system were like, and there are also lists of symptoms that people tend to have after they leave certain groups. The lists make it easier to think about what to write, giving you structure which directs how you journal. The feelings can be overwhelming, and you can use this book as a guide to help you. You can also use books like Johnson and VanVonderan's The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse to prompt you to write about past experiences and how you feel about them in your journal.
Journaling as (free!) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: My Favorite Christian Titles
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on practical problems through discussion and assumes that problematic emotions and dysfunction are supported by thoughts that are not beneficial, encouraging, or realistic. If you believe that when you get up in the morning to go to your car to find that it's been transformed into a top of the line Lexus, and you drive a 15 year old Chevy, you're likely to be disappointed. Though a silly example, it points out how negative or untrue thoughts set a person up for frustration and depression because of unrealistic expectations that flow from a person's basic beliefs about how the world should work. If you believe that life really is fair, you'll be very disappointed to note how bad you feel when bitter reality rears its ugly side, demonstrating that you've operated under the wrong assumptions. When you adjust your beliefs to make the more realistic, you adapt better and have more satisfaction, because your expectations tend to be met. If your expectations are more realistic, and your emotions balance, your behavior changes in positive ways.
The ABC Method. This is one of the cornerstones of CBT, and it uses a simple, three step acronym for examining how your thoughts determine how you feel, leading to behavior. I list this method first because it is the standard in CBT, and the Christian author David Stoop uses it to describe how to use this method as a type of spiritual warfare, after the fact. If you scroll to page 30 on Google Books which lets you read the first 49 pages of the book, you can see how Dr. Stoop sketches out the process.
A stands for “Activating Event” which triggers you to feel some unpleasant emotion. I would then write about the event and what I felt and believed about the situation.
B stands for “Beliefs,” and with a little thought about the matter, I should be able to come up with the ideas that may have set me up for disappointment. This step gives me a chance to evaluate what happened and what I thought about it, identifying both my irrational and rational beliefs about the situation.
C stands for “Consequences” which gives me an opportunity to reflect upon what happened, particularly concerning my emotions and behaviors.
This page on CBT offers the following examples, along with some typical false beliefs:
Situation One – Negative Perspective
A - Mary is walking down the street, and her friend Sarah walks right on by.
B – Mary thinks, “Oh Sarah is such a jerk.”
C – Next time, Mary ignores Sarah.
The “B” may or may not be true. Here is another possibility.
Situation Two – Positive Perspective
A - Mary is walking down the street, and her friend Sarah walks right on by.
B – Mary thinks, “Oh that Sarah, always distracted.”
C – Mary calls out, Sarah apologizes for missing her, and they go for coffee!
As you can see, the role of the counselor in cognitive behavioral therapy is to challenge false beliefs.
Thurman's Truth Program. This is my favorite method and my favorite book on this subject is one that is no longer in print, Chris Thurman's The Truths We Must Believe, but you can get the same type of information out of the first book, The Lies We Believe. There's also now a workbook that you can get, too. Thurman looks at the most common misconceptions that people tend to hold and writes about how to confront those problems. The first 40 or 50 pages appear on Google Books, so you can get a good idea about his premise. The author uses the acronym of TRUTH as a structure for journaling at the end of the day, identifying strong emotion and then looking at the unrealistic beliefs that caused the emotion, so you can correct it. I've found this practice to be amazingly helpful in understanding my own emotions and behavior, and I return to it often.
T stands for “Trigger,” and I would first identify some experience that triggered an emotional reaction. As a young, zealous, and dysfunctional person my early twenties when I started this discipline,, I never had difficulty identifying an emotional experience. I occasionally use this technique now, and I write down my trigger event, describing it in my journal.
For example lets say that I had a friend who promised to call me to talk about a particular matter, and they didn't call. Not hearing from them and then no response to my call to them triggered anxiety and fear.
R stands for “Reaction,” and I then describe the situation and consider as many things as I can imagine about a situation.
In my example, I immediately started to think all kinds of negative things, primarily that they became angry with me for some unknown reason, or that they were trying to avoid me. I assumed that I did something wrong and that there was true discord between us.
I would write this and all of the details in my journal, explaining the feelings that I had and what I thought things meant.
U stands for “Untrue Belief,” and I would then identify the false idea that I had about the way the world works to determine why I rushed to believe something negative before having more information. My untrue belief might be several things, and it's possible to identify several “lies” in a given situation.
In my example, I made the assumption that I had done something to create discord. My underlying belief would be “I'm at fault for everything,” or “I'm a failure.” A better way of stating this would be “I must be perfect.” Another factor I might notice is my assumption that something negative happened in the relationship. So another false idea related specifically to relationships, perhaps based on previous experience, could be “I'm terrible at relationshps.” I may also have unreasonable expectations of my friend, which could boil down to the idea that “I am not lovable,” or “I'm not worthy of consideration.” I might also expect more of the friend, believing them to be perfect and infallible, leading to a basic belief that “People should be perfect.”
This step forces you to look into your own beliefs and the type of things that you tell yourself in your thoughts when things don't go according to your expectations. This step alone is very helpful in learning about yourself. This took some practice, but The Lies We Believe goes through and explains how to identify what your underlying belief might be. It may also be true that I had realistic beliefs, but someone else didn't respect me, my abilities, or limitations, and I might identify my emotional responses to be a violation of my boundaries, causing me to feel a legitimate threat or disappointment.
T stands for “True Belief,” and I would write down either what I learned to be true about the situation, or after thinking about what the possibilities might be that accounted for the trigger, I'm able to gain some perspective.
In my example, rather than assuming the worst, I would stop to consider all of the possibilities that may account for not hearing back from my friend. They were going to contact me after they learned some new information. What if they didn't learn anything new, and they were still waiting to call me because they didn't have anything new to tell me? What if their phone service was interrupted, and communcations were down? What if there was damage done to their home in a storm, and our phone call became a low priority? What if they or someone in their family became ill? What if I'd dialed the wrong phone number when I called them? What if they were called into work or called out of town unexpectedly? All of these things could be possible, and assuming that they were upset with me and avoidant may have been a false assumption to make. I may have learned later that my friend didn't get any new information and thought she had agreed to call me on a different day.
I would then go on to “apply the truth” to my untrue belief. If I believe that I am a failure, I should write about the reasons why that's not true. The truth is that we do sometimes fail because we are imperfect, but we are not defined as failures by our mistakes. The idea that I'm not skilled at relationships is more likely a reflection of the fact that relationships require work to be good, and we are not perfect communicators. Every relationship has a bit of friction, and it's unreasonable to expect that we will never have conflict with our friends....
Thurman's books have lots of information in them about the truth about basic assumptions. I'm not familiar with this website which was one of the first selection Google provided for “negative beliefs about self,” but it gives a great working list of false beliefs that often fuel our negative emotions.
H stand for “Healthy Response,” and I can actually use the situation to plan and determine that the next time I am faced with a negative situation, I can plan how I can better respond. I can think about how my true belief leads to a response of understanding instead of an emotional reaction. With better beliefs that are more realistic, I can consider how I can refrain from reacting emotionally, following through with a response. I can learn from the mistake, and by writing it down, I've given it the alternative the attention that it deserves instead of replaying the problem, actually rehearsing it. The healthy response part gives me the opportunity to make choices so that I don't feel trapped or threatened, and it affirms that I can change and grow which helps take the sting out of the disappointment in my own behavior, too.
In this example, I might decide that if I don't hear from a friend right away, I might put a 48 hour time limit on when I will start thinking about the problem. I might affirm that I should not jump to the first negative conclusion which requires me to be more considerate of others and less self-centered. I may have spent time getting angry or hurt, when it may have been that my friend was ill and unable to respond. That would only lead to guilt and more disappointment. If the matter was a serious one, I could make a better effort to get additional information, perhaps from a mutual friend before assuming the worst. I might also choose to apologize to someone that I may have vented to about my false assumptions, including my friend.
And each day, spend thirty minutes or so writing out your triggers and reactions, but also take the critical time to think about the underlying beliefs that set you up for disappointment, moving on to accepting the positive beliefs.
Amen's Killing the ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts). In the Christian book, This is Your Brain On Joy, Earl Henslin talks about what Daniel Amen calls “ANT killing,” the acronym for automatic negative thoughts which is just another way of looking at false beliefs and unhealthy expectations, offering people a way of taking control of their thinking. If you link HERE and scroll to page 57 in Amen's book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (where a large section of it appears on Google) you can read some of the section on Automatic Negative Thoughts.
Amen breaks down the process more specifically in the book, most of which you can see online also, but here is an example of some of the material, along the same lines of the other CBT methods also listed here.
And there you have it. Here are plenty of ideas to get you started in journaling, and it's always great to use Scripture to help you elucidate truth. You can use the things you learn about yourself to direct your own Bible study which you may wish to include in your journal as well. If you're not into the whole religion thing, there are all kinds of secular books on positive thinking and affirmation. When you remove the negative, you have to replace and meditate upon positive, or the negative ideas are going to find an easy way making their way back into your head. The healthy response which the TRUTH program and Amen's “ANT extermination” process gives you a good way of directing your journaling toward positive emotional and spiritual growth. Having different alternatives to use for journaling also helps keep the process lively and enjoyable, and you can adapt the process to meet your personal needs.
I wish you healing and joy on your journey.