Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Words on the Page

As soon as I learned how to write, I had things to say.

Thoughts that needed a page.
Feelings that needed some privacy.
Ideas that needed a home.

When I was six years-old, I remember our little private elementary school bribing us with a catalog of prizes if we would just pester every aunt, grandma, and church member to buy wrapping paper or donuts or some other school fundraising ponzi-scheme. I was an eager and willing participant.

I had my eye on the prize:

A pink and purple, heart-spotted diary 
that came in a pink and purple, heart-spotted cardboard box 
that came with a lock and a key
You know, to "lock" the cardboard box. 

I remember unwrapping the thing.
I remember gazing at the thing. 
I remember imagining all the cool and secretive things I would say. 

Things like entry #1:

(Levi was the first boy I "loved" in the first grade. A big secret, apparently: "So keep quwiyit!")

I just had so many things to say. 

My six year-old self would like to remind my thirty year-old self 
that I am grossly underutilizing the privileges of owning a car. 

I thought about all of this recently because last month, I started my 15th journal

In 30 years, that's about a journal every other year. 
To say that I find writing "helpful" would be an understatement. 
To say I find writing "life-giving" would be about right.

I've been a regular journaler throughout my life for various reasons:
I wrote to chronicle all the annoyances of being the youngest child
I wrote prayers to a type of God that I'm pretty sure I no longer believe in
I wrote to try to understand my own mental illness
I wrote lists of gratitude to get me through hard times
I wrote to flirt with the idea that God was more than just a religion
Now, I'd say I write mostly to remember
Who I am.
What I value.
And where I'm going.

Someday, a great-great-grandchild will be so bummed to find out that in all those journals I didn't really write about the events of my day or people I was really upset at or gossip. I mostly write--repeatedly and diligently--long lists of remembering

To me, journaling is how we re-align ourselves on a regular basis with what matters most to us.
About what we're doing.
About why it matters.
It's a way of checking in with ourselves and asking:
"Is this life I'm living, the life I want?"

Sometimes when I suggest journaling to a friend or a client, I hear something like:

"Yeah, I tried that. I never kept up with it."
To which I say: Well, try again.
Would you say the same about exercise? Or eating vegetables? 
"I tried it. It was hard to keep up with. So I quit"? 

There is no journaling "type." Just like there is no such thing as people who are creative and people who are not (thanks, Brene Brown). There are just people who flex that muscle and develop that skill and people who don't.

I think it can take some time before the benefits of writing are felt. I also think people imagine that if they don't do it every single day at 6am over a flickering candle and chamomile tea, then it's not worth it. Essentially, all-or-nothing. So I often recommend that people lower the bar. Start by writing once a month. Maybe. About whatever you want. Then, maybe increase. Or maybe not. Take a year off and then, start again because the point isn't perfection. The point is process. 

And we've all got stuff inside of us that is not always said out loud. And that stuff's gotta go somewhere. Why not on a page?

Another thing I hear people say about journaling is:

"But I don't know what to say."

Okay, fine. Not everyone is just bursting at the seams with words that need a home (like my 6 year-old self). That's fine. So I'm going to share some prompts and themes that I often refer to on mornings when nothing comes easily. 

I tend to think about journaling as a prescription that I'm writing for myself. 
I often check in and think,
"What do I need today?"
"What do I want more/less of?"

Here are 11 strategies that work for me.

When you need to feel grounded that you're making the right decision:
"What I know for sure is..." I stole this from Oprah, but I don't think she'd mind.

When you're stuck in a negative self-talk cycle:
start here "The story I'm telling myself is..."

This comes from Brene Brown's work on how we can be more authentic in our experience instead of just reacting to and blaming other people. This is an opportunity to say: "The story I'm telling myself is that I don't belong here. I'm not good enough. But what I know to be true is, I'm doing the best that I can."

When you need a quick, little confidence boost:
finish "I can..." with as many statements as you can. 

When I was in Cambodia in 2007, a kind friend sent the "I Can..." Can which was a can of cards and each card had an "I can..." statement written on it. If you ever underestimate the power of a declarative statement about what is true, think about how how we (usually women) make "statements" with a question mark at the end. This is something I'm working on. 

     I also really dig some "I am..." statements, too. So, I just go with whatever I need that day.

When you've got a lot of worries on your mind:
title the page: "List of things I don't need to worry about today" and put it all out there.

Except for the essentials of what must happen today. Not tomorrow. Because what you do need to worry about do today is usually, just like: brush teeth, finish project, pick up dinner. This is a way of re-focusing on what's right in front of you and nothing else.

When you're mind is buzzing with too much stuff 
and you don't know what to do with it all:
just do a Brain Dump of all the things. 

Artists and writers often use this trick as away of clearing out the surface-level stuff and sifting the important stuff that's usually just below the muck of daily thinking (this is based on Julia Cameron's "Morning Pages")

When you need some hope for the future:
write a list of manifestations or statements that are not currently true, but things you are hoping for.

But instead of writing, "I will graduate with my masters in social work" (future tense) write "I am a master of social work" (present tense). The repetition. The speaking into existence. There's real power there and that comes straight from The Law of Attraction.

When you need some good ol' fashion prayer:
I start with "God, please..." and make a list.
Then, "God, thank you..." and make a list. 
Simple as that.

When you need to hear from 
God/Spirit/Jesus Christ/The Universe/Life Force:
write a letter as you would imagine God writing it to you.

I find that in my letters God is a big fan of me and much kinder than I am to myself. I usually start these letters with "Dear Child..." and end with "Sincerely, Truth"

When you can't stop thinking about a troublesome person 
or thing:
write a letter to that person or thing. This is the idea of Unsent Letters. Just as a vehicle for putting things out there that probably will never be said directly. I rarely write unsent letters to people, but I've written letters to: my tummy, my thighs, my overstimulated brain, my own spirit. 

When you need grounding:
finish these sentences
-I'm proud of you for...
-I'm giving you grace for...
-I commit to...

This is an adaptation of Lisa Nichol's method and she recommends saying them out loud in the mirror, but that's never been as helpful for me. So I write them from the truest part of me that has no form or edges. Just my own being speaking to my physical self. 

When you need some framing or structure to your day:
#1. If I could live this day again, I would...
#2. Today, I get to enjoy...
#3. My life theme is...

These three questions are posed in Donald Miller's Life Plan format. The trick is to answer these questions at the beginning of the day to look ahead and ask if you could live it again what you would do differently, because most of us know our common pitfalls. We know that co-worker who tends to drive us mad. We know that we often get to the end of the day with a headache, because we don't drink enough water. So think about them ahead of time and commit to make different choices.

My identified life theme is: 

Basically, I don't have any journaling recommendations for people who are naturally calm.
I don't get that.

I journal for the same reason I go to therapy. I have lived with a fairly ruthless and critical inner-voice for as long as I can remember, and I need a lot of reassurance and reminders. Maybe you'll find different things that are more valuable for you. Cause when I look around me and wonder what would make our world a little better (and kinder), I think that more self-reflection would go a long way.
A little more self-awareness.
A little more time spent in contemplation.
A little more thoughtfulness.

Like, instead of re-perpetuating our own self-hatred, by way of self-harm, addiction, crime, road rage, racism, sexism (pick your poison), we could realize it's actually not about something out there, it's about something in here.

Am I right?
Or am I right?

Some days, my journaling practice is all flowy and meaningful, but most of the time, it's like:

Not perfect.
Not articulate.
Not publish-worthy.
But mine.
And true.
And everything I need to take responsibility for what I can and let go of the rest.
Every. Damn. Day.

Happy travels to you.