Some people might think that writing is writing is writing. However, while writing fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter) gives voice to the creative spirit inside of us, journaling fulfills an entirely different function. Some might view journaling as simply diary-writing; jotting down the events of the day with a bit of interpretation and/or reaction thrown in for good measure. And for some, that might be useful enough. I use journaling more as a self-help psychotherapy.
I am probably pre-disposed to journaling, since I love to write anyway. What might have pushed me further along that path was the fact that I grew up an introvert in a family of introverts and had an older sister who tended to bully me. Like most situations of this kind of sibling dominance, if I told my parents that my sister had hit me, I got it worse the next time we were alone, so I learned early on that “telling” was not productive. Instead I turned my voice inward, writing on paper the things that I did not feel able to say out loud.
I now journal for several different reasons.
I journal when I do not want to forget about an incident or the way I’m feeling. Ten years ago when my parents died (both within a 2 week period), I journaled extensively about their process and mine. I knew time would fade the memories and I did not want to forget how their world shrank down smaller and smaller, how everything fell away except the here and now, feeling, seeing, hearing and smelling. I did not want to forget how the changes in their bodies and minds affected me and my life as I worked to respond to their changing needs. I did not want to forget the medical concessions we made and why, deciding to wait it out when my mother refused to go to the hospital, agreeing to honor her decision when she began refusing food. On paper I could express the dread that I felt when my father quit painting, since being creative was his reason for living. Depressing as this might sound, it was important to me to remember the entire process, watching them become less and less able, trying to keep them comfortable, coming to terms with the introduction of Hospice, accepting the inevitable. The process was at once heart-breaking, educational, insightful and liberating. I wanted to remember every bit of it, not only because I experienced so much and learned so much, but also as a reference for the day when I reach a similar point.
I journal when I have a conflict I can’t seem to resolve. I have found that often when I’m having a conflict with another person, if I keep it all inside my head, I end up on a hamster wheel just going round and round and getting nowhere. In order to tease out the points of contention, I write about it, detailing the evolution of the process from start to finish, and then I can begin to understand it and resolve it. At one time I was president of a small non-profit organization and one of the board members came to me with a complaint regarding other board members. Her complaint was valid and I agreed that I would support her in whatever way she chose to resolve it. What I didn’t count on was that the method she chose involved deceiving and manipulating the other board members. When she told me her plan, I realized there was no way I could condone it.
She was surprisingly upset. I had trouble understanding her anger, as her plan was so obviously dishonest, but I had promised her my support and now I was going back on my word. We were both locked into our positions and could not find a common ground. Each of us thought the other was out of line; each of us thought our own position trumped the other’s, and we could find no compromise.
I began to journal. I kept going over and over the fact that she was asking me to do something that was blatantly against my better judgment, and as president I needed to act with the utmost integrity. I could not fathom how she could possibly see this disrespectful entrapment as a viable, healthy solution. I seemed stuck on this point, but kept writing, kept looking at it from different angles, kept trying to find the key.
Then it struck me. I put myself in her position and I remembered someone else who had promised me unconditional support and then had not delivered on it. This was a relationship that had colored my life from very early on, but over the years I had finally come to terms with the fact that the other person simply did not have the strength of will to keep his promise. I realized that if I had been like the board member and had insisted on that support at all costs, I would have been asking him to act completely out of character and beyond his limits. I also realized that people who care about each other do not demand that others try to be what they are not.
Now it became clear to me. The problem was not that I could not support the devious method she had devised. The problem was that I had given her my unconditional support in the first place. I had no business giving her such a blanket approval as I had no idea what she would come up with. I had (incorrectly) believed that she would devise a plan that would be honest and honorable. It never occurred to me that she would not. But that was where I made my mistake. I gave her my unconditional support without knowing what she would plan.
We had already arranged to meet again to see if we could resolve the issue, and I went to the meeting with a surprisingly clear conscious and light heart. Although I still could not support her plan as I’m sure she would have liked, I had a clear sense of my own error and readily admitted my mistake. Just making amends for my part in the conflict and being totally honest about it seemed to clear the air. She may have been disappointed, but she did agree to rethink the plan. That was all I could ask for.
Writing about conflict like this can be difficult and cast a harsh light on unflattering behaviors, but can also be intensely liberating. Sometimes journaling reveals the other person’s mistaken ideas; sometimes it reveals my own. There are times when I may discover that the other person’s view and mine are both valid, yet at odds, and there is a form of resolution in agreeing to disagree. If I can tease out my part in the problem, correct my position if I’m wrong, validate my position if I’m right, then I can be at peace with the conflict, even if the other person sees it differently. Journaling does not mean that every conflict is resolved to the satisfaction of both people, but my own journaling can bring me to closure on my part of it, which is all I have any control over anyway.
I journal when life throws me for a loop. When something happens in my life that body-slams me, I write about it. I write to understand the event, where it came from and why I didn’t see it coming, why it hit me so hard, what it means to me. When I was called by a doctor’s office and told I had a lump in my breast and needed to have a lumpectomy and a biopsy, that was a major body-slam. Although my family had breast cancer in past generations, I had done all the “right” things to counteract it; I ate a healthy diet, I exercised, I did therapeutic work to value and nurture the feminine, and yet here I was faced with this dreaded thing anyway. I felt betrayed, cheated, and I journaled through a flurry of pages, ranting and raving and crying about the injustice of it all. When I had written myself out, vented out all my whining and crying and arguing, I was left with only one thing—I still had this procedure to go through. Yes, I had taken care of myself—and I still had this procedure to go through. I had done all the right things—and I still had this procedure to go through. I shouldn’t have to do this—and I still had this procedure to go through. I had vented everything I was thinking and feeling through my journaling and when all was said and done, I had come down to this final realization … and acceptance. It was as powerful a therapy session as I could have had with any facilitator.
Journaling is instructive; it’s fun (unless you hate to write); it’s insightful. It captures the moment; it distills the experience. It clarifies and untangles. It can tell us where we’ve been and where we’re going. While writing fiction is story-telling at its best, journaling is telling our story, uniquely personal and supremely satisfying.