Journaling without spiraling
May 16, 2018 1:54 AM   Subscribe

How can I start journaling again without it turning into tedious self-berating?

This question was me a few months ago, and as I still feel like I’m wading through mud, I’d wondered if journaling might help as a way of doing something more productive than dicking about on Twitter.

However, I kept a diary/journal on and off for about twenty-five years and stopped a couple of years ago because rather than being helpful, it seemed to reinforce my self-criticism; I’d wind up just writing down, over and over again, all the reasons why I suck, dammit, and will keep on sucking forever. I’d prefer not to do that. Are there any useful ways of trying for insight and understanding without it spiraling down every time into a litany of all my faults? (NB have read “Feeling Good”, did not get on with it at all.)
posted by cardinalandcrow to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
You know, I totally know what you mean. Something that helped me was Lynda Barry's What It Is and the writing method she describes in which you focus your attention on the power of images. I felt like it was a really good starting point for getting away from 'wah wah wah this happened and this sucks.' It makes you more of a camera. Images and stories. The insights will follow.
posted by johngoren at 2:18 AM on May 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Some people are really helped by journaling. For others, all it does is reinforce the tendency to live inside their own heads that got them into difficulty in the first place. Those of us in the second group often find benefit in doing something physical and moderately productive as an alternative to dicking around with digital media. Getting my hands on and into a bit of topsoil and helping plants grow in it has been good for me.
posted by flabdablet at 2:32 AM on May 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

You may want to check out Bullet Journalling.

It’s a very flexible system that can be a full fledged todo management thing or just a journal that also doubles as a planning tool.

The reason I suggest it is that if you can note something you want to improve in your life, then plan the tiny incremental steps to make that change, you will start to see the before/after effects that can be absent in a ‘here is what happened today’ journal.

Also, you don’t have To keep a journal. I love my daily journal and it has become a core part of my life, but that’s because it is a place to vent and plan and think out loud, not a stick to beat myself with. If I have written ‘I need to do X or stop doing Y’ more than a dozen or so times, that’s a sign to me that I need to make a plan to address it, not just keep recording that I’m fretting over it.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:23 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm going to give you something to journal about each and every day, and I promise it will change your outlook on life. You're going to keep a gratitude journal, and I'm going to give you an acronym to remember exactly what you will be journaling about: POET.

P is for People: Write down someone you are grateful for and why. It can be a friend, a relative, a lover, a complete stranger who showed you kindness.

O is for Opportunities: Think about yesterday. Write down at least one opportunity that you were given to be kind to someone. Did you? Write down how good that made you feel. Did you not? Write down something loving that will tell you it's okay to be kind to others, to not be afraid, and you should take advantage of that opportunity each day, when it presents itself. This is about how we interact with the world.

E is for Experiences: Think about yesterday. Think about a kindness that someone did for you. Express gratitude for that kindness, no matter how small or insignificant you think it was. This is about how the world interacts with us. As we become more grateful for others kindness to us, we bring more of it into our life.

T is for Things: Think about the things in your life. Be grateful that your crappy car runs or your favorite fountain pen and how smooth it writes on paper. Be grateful for that yummy omelet or that great workout. Be grateful for your spiteful old cat or your goofy dog. It's okay to be grateful for things, because we all need something to get through this life.

When you have written about these four things, STOP. CLOSE THE JOURNAL. End on a high note. Take that good feeling with you, out into the world.

Right now, your journaling isn't structured and doesn't have any limitations, so you go all over the place and you should on yourself, to borrow a phrase from Albert Ellis. I believe that bringing structure to your journaling will help you focus on what's right with you and the world, as opposed to what's wrong with you and the world.
Try it for 90 days and see if I'm right.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 4:57 AM on May 16, 2018 [39 favorites]

I think the above suggestion from Major Matt Mason Dixon is absolutely excellent.

Another method I would suggest when journaling is to force yourself to write the opposite of what you're currently writing, just to allow it some existence. So, for instance, if you're spiralling around 'I'm useless, everything goes wrong for me', at some point make yourself STOP writing about that and instead force yourself to write something along the lines of 'I'm kind of cool, and some things really have gone right for me'. And then expand on that if you possibly can.

Yes, it might feel fraudulent compared to the ostensible 'honesty' of self-berating, but it's actually not. If you have critical voices in your head they'll seem so intensely real that kinder voices will seem unlikely and suspect, to the extent that they don't even appear. But they should. Balance the self-berating out. Force yourself to. Just as an exercise – let that kindness to yourself exist. And, of course, it needs to be repeated, like a practice. Again and again. It's just one way of letting self-compassion live and breathe, and that's so important.

I also second the getting outside and doing some gardening – digging your hands into topsoil. That's a fantastic idea, too.
posted by considerthelilies at 5:26 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have been thinking on and off about starting a journal using stoicism as an approach. Although you would first need to be on board with that vein of philosophy. Here is an old Mefi thread on the topic. I've also gotten a lot of info from The Daily Stoic.

There is a journal with pre-written exercises that is available to purchase. Here is a Reddit thread with some interesting prompts in the top voted comment.

There is a lot of overlap to the POET structure posted above but just has a specific school of philosophy behind it.
posted by like_neon at 5:49 AM on May 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

What Major Matt Mason Dixon offers is in essence a prompt. If you use journaling prompts, you won't be as tempted to wander off into the unstructured recrimination, and it will force your thoughts in new directions and yield surprising insights. Here is a set of 30 prompts, but you can google for many more.
posted by Miko at 5:56 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

If prompts seem up your alley, the free (iPhone, unsure if also android) app GridDiary is a godsend. There are tons of pre-loaded prompts from all sorts of constructive categories, and you can edit them all too if you want to create your own or tweak the template settings.
posted by seemoorglass at 6:00 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

The guys who make the Mortified podcast said that the best journals cover two things:
- what happened
- how you felt

It sounds like you write about the second mostly. Maybe focus on he first, using The Who, What, Where, When, Why approach.
posted by CMcG at 7:10 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Setting-a-timer-and-just-keep-the-pen-moving is a classic answer to this. Yes, you may still end up with some self-berating, but if you keep writing without stopping to think your inner critic may just run out of steam after a while, and you'll get to other things to say.

Or, try playing different writing games with yourself. I once had a surprisingly insightful journal entry (starting wtih the don't-stop-for-20-minutes rule first) by challenging myself to start each and every sentence I wrote with "The problem is...." I went from a bunch of my usual complaints about my life ("the problem is I'm single, the problem is I'm broke....") to silly complaints that I wrote down just to keep writing ("the problem is this pen is starting to leak on my fingers, the problem is my cat is bugging me") all the way through to forgiving myself in a weird way ("the problem is that I think I'm supposed to know everything when no one is expecting me to anyway" or something like that). Try starting every sentence with the same phrase: "The problem is..." or "I wish I...." or "If only...." or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:26 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I heard recently about a study showing that for people who tend to ruminate, open-ended journaling can actually make rumination worse, which seems to be the case for you. I wish I could remember where I heard this (I think it was a podcast?) but they said that for people who tend towards rumination, the study showed that event/fact-based journaling was more effective. ie, "today I went to this place and did this thing and talked to this person." I think it's natural that emotions would end up coming out, but the gist was that if you focus more on the events than the feelings, journaling can be helpful.
posted by lunasol at 10:31 AM on May 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

I always try to end my entries with a list of good things I did that day, or recently. Like, my entry might be a rant against myself, but I end by recognizing that today I got out of bed, made a healthy lunch, called my mom, paid that bill, etc.
posted by Grandysaur at 10:32 AM on May 16, 2018

Have you ever tried an art journal? Perhaps the act of creating something instead of writing will help jar you out of your established spiral patterns.

Here's a really nice blog post about starting from scratch on an art journal.
posted by itsamermaid at 2:23 PM on May 16, 2018

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