The Stages of Journaling as Lived by Two Over-thinkers

“Because… even if you’re a philosopher you still need to vacuum. Why? It’s hygiene, man.” 

E.

I believe we all feel the need to write down our feelings at some point or another in our life. Even people you’d never expect this from. I had only ever seen my mother write down grocery lists and receipts in my entire life[1]. One day I stumbled upon a strange trace of writing on one of my notebooks. I pulled the old Sherlock trick[2] and crayoned it lightly, so I could see she had written a heartfelt paragraph about me when we were going through a hard time in our relationship. The words I read were things she could have never expressed to me directly. It was a time when she could confide in no one else, so she chose the cold, quiet piece of paper as her shelter.

As I have been journaling my entire life, I have passed through a few stages of writing, which are mainly distinguished by the role I assign to the paper and how this connection makes me feel. This article will explore these stages through a dialogue between me and my friend Elina, who also chooses journaling to express her feelings. Our paths met as we were starting our lives in Amsterdam and started living together in Halfweg, a green and peaceful village between Amsterdam and Haarlem. Taking long walks through the forest inspired us to debate and discuss for hours about different topics, and writing became one of them. I learned that many of our conclusions were kept safely in her database of memories, thoughts and feelings, which she first referred to as her “bookmarks.” The term stuck with us, so now we refer to the notes she takes on her phone as bookmarks. Now we moved away, there is no forest to walk through and to give us the allure of two Romantic poets, but whenever we meet, we share our experiences by reading our bookmarks to each other. 

I. The Friend

Most of us started journaling sometime in primary or middle school. A Dear Diary… entry would open up an intricate discussion on how you made eye contact with your crush, the secrets you heard at that sleepover or how much you HATE! your parents. Maybe you got a diary for your birthday and with watery eyes you promised the godly object that it would become your best friend, you would confide everything in it because it could say nothing to hurt you! But let me break that idealized image and remind you, if you would climb up into your childhood home attic and find one dusty little book, you’d find that you never actually kept at it and it soon ended up in that clustered drawer with the previous year’s geography notebook that you kept because your hardest to please teacher wrote a compliment about your homework in it. You ended up being that flaky friend towards your new BFF.

The way I used to journal when I was younger was by narrating what happened in reality, which was maybe followed by a dry enumeration of my feelings on that matter. So now looking back, I can see why I could never get into the habit.

II. The Confessional

When you feel like a naked nerve, when you feel like you are vulnerable to touch and sight, and you are not ready to face the world, the paper sits still, quiet, inviting you to mark it with intimacy. 

Your first encounter with the white ocean of nothingness, as inviting as it seems at first, can become frightening. As you have arrived in front of your silent, secular priest, you feel as if the mass of feelings inside of you have desperately retreated to a secluded corner of your soul. Maybe you are afraid of the outcome, of facing your fears. But suppose you take the leap and jump into this ocean. You start writing awkwardly, and every word seems rigid. As you exercise your words, as the pen flows or the keys clap, you get more and more comfortable.

“The reason why I think it feels so frightening at first is that we are often afraid to be honest and open to ourselves. Being a liar in society is punishable, but I think that being dishonest with yourself is much worse, and that it is the root of most problems. The great thing about writing, and especially journaling, is that it helps to confess first of all to your own self and accept yourself. Admitting your truth is the first step to living fully.” 

E.

III. The Therapist

Journaling is well-known as a great way to work towards mindfulness. It’s been months since I wrote down how I am feeling. The more I stay without it, the more it feels like I am not stirring a boat through the ocean, but letting myself be flailed around by the waves. So I end up numb and confused by my feelings. This is a moment I reach every few months, sometimes weeks, so when it comes I know that I need to write. So I look at the paper, I take in the endless void and I take the leap. I start out as the patient, writing down my negative thoughts, my doubts, my unanswered questions. I look at the page and something interesting happens. Something switches in me. My identity splits in two and my voice changes to a supportive, encouraging one, giving me advice and leading me to a better path.

This is an example from my own journal, where I wrote a letter to myself:

I know you are somewhere inside of me but now you are being drowned by mean voices and self-hatred to last you a lifetime. You can’t help but adopt the words you’ve always chosen to believe: the negative and the hurtful ones, which feel painful are real and the pure ones feel like sugar, melting away quickly. I don’t know if it’s me who is causing it but I would like you to stop.

The problem with us is that I run away from you. I hear people talk about anything and their words become my bible. I start believing them and forget about us. That’s when we start arguing because you get sad I fucked you over again and you try to pull me back. You remind me that all we need to do is love each other and work to get to a place where other people’s opinions don’t matter.

– February 2017

This is a passage where I am having a conversation with myself, and you can see through the use of the pronouns how my identity is shaken and broken apart, but then it rebuilds itself as the two selves come together to a “we”.

“I write a lot when I’m angry. My philosophy is that you need to feel every emotion. You don’t need to affect other people with it but in your soul you need to feel it.”                                                                                                    

E.

IV. The Block

Just like writer’s block, I believe some days you can’t pass through to your healthy and happy self. 

When I was 17, I decided to write something everyday, even if it was just one sentence, so I would get into the habit of journaling. Most days I would write something insightful, I would discover something about myself, I would collect beautiful memories, but some days it was just not possible.

16th of June 2017

Some days I don’t feel like writing or painting. I just want to live in the real world. Today I will pass by the post office and send my letters. I remember that movie with the man who sent letters to Love, Time and other things and they came back as people. I should watch that movie.
I have a lot to do today.
Bye.

“I don’t write some things down because in that particular moment I might already feel too much. ‘The essence is in the details, but how do I pick up those details?’ is the last thing I wrote. It sounds vague and too short to explain anything but it’s aimed to touch some specific part of me which no one needs to know about but I am also not ready to drown in this lake. Sometimes the feeling is too overwhelming, writing can act as a trigger for things buried in you and then it’s not the right time to write because I need time to bring the distance needed between me and my feelings. I believe that then we are afraid to feel, we are again afraid to face our real selves.
I usually write in a satirical way, but if I feel very deeply about the thing that I’m writing, satire doesn’t work anymore. I can’t joke and laugh right now. So, let’s wait.”

E.

V. The Transformation

Sometimes I will write something down thinking that it will be a sentence, but it turns into an entire poem, or a lengthy trip through my childhood, or an exploration of various feelings. In this note I wrote on my phone, I started developing a thread that formed randomly in my mind, and I thought I was writing about my own development and how I grew as a person, but as I advanced in the narrative, I realized I was only hitting another wall.

The world is beautiful and I used to see it as that. I used to ignore the pain and seek out the small pleasures. A pale blue sky, a warm hug and the random scent of the perfume my kinder-garden teacher used to wear would be enough for me. That’s because I know that nothing higher is to be attained. But if I looked deeper into the horizon of this bubble world, I could see this tiny dark object. A dull tension would build into the air and I would choose to look the other way. I used to wake myself up from nightmares. But lately I started taking small steps towards that object. Closer and closer, with every blow. I’m forced to step onto the premises and realize it’s a huge haunted house. It still feels distant because I’m paralyzed with fear. It feels like I’m locked out of my own soul. 

-October, 2019

“I grew up with music all around me and it stays my passion still. Any song is a combination of thoughts expressed on a paper and melody playing in unison with your heart. It creates an atmosphere of one feeling, bringing it to life. It transforms you as well, artificially pulling memories and emotions felt before, not always present in the moment of listening. It might be incongruent at the beginning, but the key to the transformation of your mood is your inability to resist.”

E.

I compare the way writing transforms your inner voice to the way music affects my feelings. Each song attaches itself to me and makes me its slave, it brings out everything that is repressed inside of me. This is often what the transformation phase brings about.

In her video called “The Darkness” (minute 2 to 4), Natalie Wynn briefly talks about how music can turn the inner workings of our feelings around. She starts from the premise that when we are sad, we don’t like listening to happy songs because “happy songs make you feel like you are bullshitted.” Next, she analyzes the melodic line of The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel and explains that the song starts off with “the promise of company for misery”, but soon transforms into a more positive sound, thus tricking you into feeling good. I cannot help but relate the experience of listening to The Sound of Silence to the moments when I started writing while really anxious or sad and slowly having my feelings moulded into a much calmer and neutral, sometimes even positive state of mind. Both of these instances have in their foundations the presence of a powerful force taking control. Natalie then relates the experience to a more general statement about art, which “takes the standard disappointments and humiliations of life and cooks them into something worth getting off the floor for.” I feel that no other words could better explain what writing is to me.

VI. The Sharing

After this intensely personal experience with writing, you show it to other people and that moment when you are comfortable enough to have others see this part of you marks the acceptance of your feelings. I used to force myself to share my personal notes with others because it helped me break away from the fear of how others see me.

“If we are talking about sharing personal opinions, I believe it’s better to keep to yourself, especially if your thoughts are toxic or this widespread but annoying habit to change people persists.
Honestly, no one cares about your opinions. Even if we live in liberal times, you don’t need to spread bullshit around. I also have some weird opinions of my own, but I don’t need to affect others with my views or emotions. Sometimes I choose not to express myself to others, so I just write it down.”

E.

This idea brings me back to the beginning of the article and it reflects what I believe my mother was thinking when she chose the paper over hurting my feelings. And while I respect this attitude and the fact that you are protecting the other person, I can’t help but feel that we shouldn’t stop speaking to each other just because we have different views. As a people pleaser, I am being quite hypocritical by taking this stance, but as someone who is trying to change, I believe it’s the right way. 

“I think the real world is the inner one, and that is the one which we first need to improve before sharing in the outer one. My dad always says: ‘You and the world exist in two separate dimensions.’ And I think he is right. Our emotions need to be felt first, processed, and only then let out so you don’t negatively affect the world around you. But in many cases, I’m an impulsive naked nerve. So, self-psychoanalysis constantly exists only in a perfect world.”

E.

I do think that if most people had a journal at home and they reflected on their own emotions more instead of running away from them, the world would be a much more accepting and connected one. Again, I am being a hypocrite, but we can all improve in that aspect, I believe. My goal is to spend more time on introspection in my life, and then try to synchronize the two dimensions of existence: the inner, my journal with my personal writings and the outer, the world who I share these writings with. In a way, I have already started through this article. You’re next!


[1] Having read some of her journals and agendas, I found out that as a teenager my mother expressed herself beautifully by noting down poems she liked next to to do lists and random thoughts.
[2] Indented writing


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