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?

How to start an effective journaling practice – The Basics

I’ve been a compulsive journaler my entire life, filling countless lined pages with outpourings of inspirations, frustrations, hopes, heartbreaks, and extensive overanalysis. I wrote to understand myself, others and situations. I’ve also learned how to quiet my mind and simply let my pen move across the paper, channeling insights and messages that come from either my wiser subconscious or what you might call God, Spirit, or All That Is.

Journaling was a bit like my compulsive yet sporadic meditation practice; I did copious amounts of both before I figured out the reason why neither of them had been effective. When I made one small but significant change, I began to see real progress in my levels of mental peace and personal growth. I’ll get to that change after we first cover some basics.

Why to journal

A lot has been written about the benefits of journaling, including improved creativity, mental well-being, communication skills, mindfulness, and even IQ. You can click here for a top 10 list of benefits.

But there are many reasons why people journal, and knowing your why will help you stay committed to the practice. Do you want to figure yourself out? Enjoy some me time? Gain clarity? Solve problems? Find your voice? Learn how to stop censoring yourself? Grow as a human being? Express your emotions and feel heard, even if only by yourself? Develop your writing skills? Deepen your spirituality?

If you’re ready to start a journaling practice, spend some time here on your why.

When and where to journal

Keep your journal and a good pen wherever you consistently spend time. My journal is a permanent fixture on my nightstand, but you might have a favorite chair or desk that you use often. Or you can carry it with you so that you can write whenever inspiration strikes.

  • Before bed: At night you can have a bit more time to relax and reflect without the pressure of “gotta get to work.” You can also write down questions you want to solve and let your mind work on it while you sleep. And committing any problems or frustrations to paper can also settle your mind so that you’re able to fall sleep faster.
  • Waking up: In the morning your mind is fresh, clear and unburdened, which makes it an ideal time for free-flow writing, creativity and spiritual practice.
  • Bookends (morning and night). Set your daily intentions in the morning, and assess your day before you go to bed.
  • During the day: If your journal is on your desk, it’s an easy way to experience some self-care: step away from your computer, go for a walk with your journal, and download to paper any ideas, insights, frustrations, or solutions that want to be heard before you get back to the grind.
  • Weekends. I love marathon journaling sessions on lazy weekend mornings in my PJs while sipping my soy latte. I’ll combine it with a thought-provoking book that stimulates my creative juices, picking up my journal and pen when my reading sparks an idea.

What to journal

This, of course, depends on your why. Once I succeeded in figuring myself out and stopped overanalyzing, my focus has shifted to writing poetry, aligning myself with something bigger than myself, and ideating on my new venture (a guided journaling program, go figure!). The important thing to know is, there are no rules. Write whatever you feel like writing. This is a 2-way conversation with yourself and/or the Universe (or whatever you call Her), so you’re in charge.

How to journal

Ahh, now we’re at the heart of the matter. In order to reap all those benefits up in the Why section, there are a couple guiding principles to follow. It’s so important that I’m going to cover it a separate post. Click here to read about the how.