Writing has a way of condensing and clarifying your thoughts, making it a very useful practice for awareness building. Personally, I don’t keep a regular journal, but rather I use it more like a forensic tool. This way, it’s far less time-consuming, and I can reap the maximum benefits from the practice.
Here’s what to do:
- Find some way that enables you to take notes at all times during your day. Pen and paper works nicely, as do smartphone note-taking apps. I like to use Evernote for this. It syncs the notes to your computer for more intensive examination later.
- Any time you notice yourself having an emotional reaction, stop, and note it down. Note down the situation that triggered the emotion and what you felt in response.
Later on, when you have calmed down and have some time, you can go back to the situation and scrutinize it more closely. Try to understand why you reacted the way you did. It’s often helpful to close your eyes and imagine yourself going through the situation again. This should bring up the same feelings and give you more clarity.
Probe deeper by asking yourself questions like these:
- What exactly was it about the situation that triggered my reaction?
- What would happen if I didn’t react this way?
- What’s so bad about this? (You’ll be surprised how often you can follow this one up with “So what?”)
- What does this mean about me?
- Why is this so important to me?
- What do I believe that causes me to feel this way?
- When have I felt this way before? (This may bring up similar memories from your past, which can help you to establish a pattern and gain a better understanding of your reactions.)
It’s important to do this in writing or to somehow record it for later review. Just thinking about these questions doesn’t bring about the type of insights a thorough examination can. Not writing these incidents down means that you will probably forget important details.
If it still feels like you are not getting anything useful out of this, try the 3-2-1 exercise described on another page. For me, it always brings up surprising answers and often provides a deeper clarity when other exercises leave me disappointed.
One problem with the journaling technique is that you often simply forget to do it. The reason strong emotions can get you into hot water is because they make it harder to think rationally about what you are doing and how you are reacting. If you aren’t thinking clearly, then you probably also aren’t writing down your emotional responses. Breaking this habit and giving yourself a chance to stop this vicious cycle takes some practice.
That’s why it can be a good idea to take five minutes in the evening to review your day; for example, after you fill in your Five Minute Journal evening entry.
Just think back and see if you missed some emotional responses and note them down at the end of the day. This teaches your brain that these things are important to notice, so the next time it happens you are more likely to catch yourself. This goes back to consciously reprogramming your brain so that subconscious responses will become more in line with the desired outcome—in this case, mindfulness and self-awareness.
Doing this in the evening also gives you some distance from the emotions. This somewhat detached perspective makes it easier to probe deeper into the emotional responses using the questions listed above.