How to journal to achieve real breakthroughs

In my last post I discussed the basics: why, when, where, and what to journal. Today’s post covers how to journal to achieve real breakthroughs in self-knowledge, emotional mastery, spiritual connection, and even writing skill improvements. The key is to relax your thinking mind’s tight grip, and dive into the murky realm of emotion.

Write from the heart

Yeah, you’ve probably seen this phrase before. “Write from the heart” appears soft and squishy and rather meaningless… but I’d like to break it down into why it’s important and how to do it.

Pretty much everything in life comes down to how we feel. We like to think that we make rational, logical decisions… but the deep underground rivers of emotion (both positive and negative) are the true shot callers. So why did we never receive training on how to identify what we’re feeling?

Because emotions can be scary. Negative emotions are processed in a part of our brain that doesn’t have words to describe what’s going on… and what we don’t comprehend gets shut down and stored in our bodies. This emotional numbing comes at a cost; if emotions call the shots, and we don’t know how to listen, then we’ve cut ourselves off from our inner compass.

It’s easier to know when we feel happy or loved, but our emotional vocabulary doesn’t come close to describing the 34,000 emotions experienced by human beings. And when we don’t have the vocabulary, we are unaware of even the positive emotions that motivate us and define us as individuals. We simply don’t know ourselves.

Feel it, label it, and release it.

Journaling can borrow an incredibly effective practice from meditation called labeling. The task is to pay attention to the lived experience and label what’s happening without holding on or rejecting it. We can avoid getting caught up in our own stories by simply getting a better vantage point.

Labeling in meditation typically focuses on seeing our thoughts for what they are instead of getting caught up in them, and then labeling them accordingly, like “thinking,” “judging,” “analyzing.” This technique can also be used to more deeply examine what we’re feeling, as if we’re scientists peering at a new type of bug: “Stomach tense… feels like a ball of twine… shallow breaths… oh, this is what ‘anxious’ feels like. Open and spacious in my chest area, warm and tingly… ah, this is what ‘loved’ feels like. Oh… really open, almost like my energy is in front of me, radiating outward: this is what “freedom” feels like.”

We can combine the meditation technique of labeling with the practice of journaling to fully translate a sensory experience into language and understanding. If you’re only journaling with your analytical mind without feeling deep down into what is really going on, then nothing transformational can occur. We just spin and spin and spin, creating the illusion of progress with no real traction.

Conversely, when we start intentionally witnessing what we’re feeling — in real time or recreated through memory — and translating those feelings into words (especially words on a page), that’s when magic happens. Emotions hold power in darkness, but the light of awareness diminishes that power. We are in control… we are liberated. We have access to inner wisdom, boosting self awareness and assurance.

The practice

We can use the power of memory to explore positive emotions without repercussion. Settle into a comfortable chair, breathe deeply, feeling the air flow into your chest, and then go even deeper — imagine it going down your spine, into your seat, your legs, your toes. Really feel yourself sitting in your body, grounded… not floating up in your head.

Now imagine a time when you felt joy, safe, peaceful, included, free, or valued. Relive that experience. What does this emotion feel like? Where do you feel it in your body? Create the “tasting notes” for your own vintages of emotions. Label them and write them down.

In your journal, explore: How meaningful is this emotion to you? Does it define you or motivate you? Some of us are driven by the need to feel safe, others by freedom, others by purpose or belonging. These “defining emotions” that go hand-in-hand with humanity’s core needs (think Maslow’s hierarchy) help us understand who we are and why we do what we do. They can be used to guide future decisions.

Cool processing

Whether we work with negative or positive emotions, the same caveat holds: don’t drown in the emotion. While it’s important to access and acknowledge negative emotions (shame, rejection, etc), there’s a difference between being an observer of the memory and stepping into the memory. This post does a good job describing “cool” versus “hot” processing; cool processing is being an observer, labeling the emotion and what is happening. Hot processing involves stepping back into the memory and allowing it to re-trigger pain and trauma.

Practice first with positive emotions — accessing, feeling and labeling emotions without getting lost in daydreams — before venturing into negative emotions. Then work with easier negative emotions, like those more distant in your memory (like that time I fell down the stairs on the first day of a new school when I was 11); save the traumatic ones for last.

While it’s much easier and more desirable to “swim around in” positive emotions, we run the risk of drifting off into fantasy land. Our goal is to understand ourselves better, not to self-medicate… so again, labeling is key. Feel it, label it, and release it.

Dear reader, what do you think? Are you ready to try your hand at this?

The three life-clarity skills

Stuck… swimming upstream… expending more energy than I’m receiving… elusive joy. This is how I felt for years. What I finally discovered after years (decades) of trial and error is that joy and “being in the flow” are outcomes of three life-clarity skills:

  1. Ability to know and act on your YES. If you’ve felt it, you know what I’m talking about. It’s not a rational answer or decision; it’s the way your entire body expands and lights up when presented with something in full alignment with your authentic self. The more clarity you have on your YESSES and the more frequently you embrace them, the happier and more joy-filled your life becomes.
  2. Ability to hear and act on your NO. NO feels the opposite of YES: tight and constricting, contracting like a turtle into a shell. But how often do we accept NOs in our lives out of obligations, expectations, or worrying about what others might think? All these NOs are using space that could be occupied by a YES, and it’s time to clear it out. Clutter can include stuff, being in the wrong job, surrounding ourselves with people who don’t light us up, or living in a place that isn’t aligned with who we are. Like an elimination diet, we first need to release the NOs in order to really hear and embrace our YES.
  3. Using our core needs as a guide. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from your school days? Well, these needs (plus several others that have surfaced in my research like Control) are the ‘programming’ that motivates our decisions… and the primary ones are all unique to every individual. Personally, I need Freedom, Purpose and Aesthetics to have a joy-filled life, whereas you might be driven by Security and Belonging or something else. Our core needs can serve as a Life Compass to help us consistently make better decisions for ourselves. We know when we’re on the right track based on how often we feel like these needs are met. Which means decision-making that places as much weight (or more) on emotions than on rational pros and cons.

So how do we get clear on our YES, NO, and Needs? The answer is to stop searching out there, and simply remember who you’ve always been since childhood. Popular self-help books want you to believe that your choices are infinite, and that we can be and do anything. But that belief creates an overwhelming amount of choice, and it’s misleading. Each of us was born with a unique set of wiring: we have innate interests, talents and preferences that have always brought us joy.

You may really want to be a lion… but you’d be a lot happier as a swan if you’re covered in feathers and love the water.

This doesn’t negate the opportunity to develop specific skills, but it certainly helps eliminate overwhelm by taking options off the table. The more we can say NO, the faster we can get aligned with YES. The breadcrumbs along the path: remembering what lit us up as kids. These are the clues for where to begin the excavation and find ourselves under the rubble of shoulds, expectations, conformity or self-abandonment.

A couple more principles to keep in mind…

  • Love and trust the process. Daily journaling and meditation are transformative practices that take time but pay off big (I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s really true)
  • Experiment, experiment, experiment. How do you know your YESSES and NOs unless you get out of your comfort zone and try some new things?

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash