Personal journals: a cheaper and more effective alternative to psychotherapy

Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Edison, Virginia Woolf, “Che” Guevara, Anne Frank, Leonardo da Vinci: a list of famous people with a diverse range of interests. What did they all have in common? They maintained personal journals through their lifetimes.

Who’s Got the Time to Write Daily?

First, a popular myth has to be dispelled. Journal writing need not be an unremitting, daily effort. The association of journaling with conventional diaries, segmented by days, is, most likely, the reason for this misconception. Daily journaling quickly becomes a chore that is easy to give up.

Instead, only record what you want to remember. Make it an exercise in capturing and archiving thoughts, emotions and ideas coming from within you. Write about interesting people, conversations, meetings, books, lectures, places — anything that captures your attention. Over time, the collection will become a resource that will act as a secure helmsman to steer you through the turbulence of life.

It’s best to keep it as a private record although, we are so much richer for many of them having been published. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is the most well known example of the power of a journal. There are many more.

Why Should You Keep a Journal?

Journaling should be a collection of ideas rather than a chronological log of quotidian events. Putting your thoughts down on paper (or as digital bits if you prefer) unburdens your memory, a notoriously fallible storehouse. Journal writing is a powerful productivity and self-improvement tool.

There are numerous benefits to keeping a journal.

  • Problem solving: Writing is a tool for thinking clearly. The effort of transforming what’s in our heads as disjointed notions into words clarifies ideas and concepts. Spending fifteen to thirty minutes in this effort allows you to see the problem in distinct, easily grasped pieces. Organising them and making sense out of the puzzle becomes an easier task.
  • Decision diary: Get into the habit of making entries for the more significant decisions you make in your life. Put down brief statements about the following items:

— The nature of the situation that needs a resolution.

— A list of the possible routes of action.

— The pros and cons of each of them.

— Your choice and why you did so.

— What tradeoffs did you have to make?

— What do you expect from this selection?

As the diary grows, review your entries now and then. You will get a good insight into your decision-making process.

  • Stress reduction: Studies have shown that regular writing reduces stress. Anxiety and depression can be alleviated to remarkable degrees by expressive writing and pouring out deep emotions.
  • Physical ailments: The benefits are not limited to behavioural problems. Many common disorders manifesting with pain and limitation of daily activities can respond to a simple recording of symptoms and feelings. Recognising pain and discomfort as something distinct and reportable goes a long way to augment healing processes within yourself.
  • Gratitude journal: Regardless of how bad things look, there are still so many others which are going right for you. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna;there is much to be grateful for. Write them down in your journal. The effects on your overall wellbeing can be substantial.
  • Self-discipline: Regularity in writing is an act of self-discipline and will power. It builds up resilience in all other aspects of your daily life.

Despite its popularity, there’s ample evidence that undergoing therapy with a trained analyst may be no more beneficial than talking to someone, even a friendly bartender. A well-nurtured personal journal is all you need. The list of winners at the head of this article, and many more, is proof.

How Do I Go About It?

The straight answer: Use whichever method or tool works for you.

It’s best to keep the process as simple and handy as you can: from just a notebook (a Moleskin, if you wish) to drawing, sketching, mind-mapping, visual thinking, photos, voice recording or any of the dozens of digital tools that are available for the purpose.

Apps like Evernote or Bear are fantastic for the ways and means by which you can organise and manipulate your entries. There are apps like Journal One which are specifically designed for the purpose.

The trick is consistency. Stick with whatever gives you the most value for the effort.

How Often Should I Review My Journal?

Once again, there is no hard and fast rule. Whenever you do look back, chose a time when you are calm, rested and still. Although there is a huge temptation to look when times are turbulent, you may not get the most out of your writing at these moments. Nevertheless, let your intuition direct you.

You must let your journal be a guiding lamp in your progress through life. No one can know and understand you better than yourself. It’s not unusual to be taken by surprise at the profound nature of your observations.

Stephen King Says

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching … your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Your attention is priceless treasure. Don’t give it away for free.

There was a time, not so long ago, when, if you wanted a book or needed to research a topic, you had to go to a bookshop or library. Watching a movie meant booking tickets at the cinema and clearing your calendar to be there at the right time and date. You couldn’t do anything else at the time. Music came through radio station programmes which you waited for, patiently. At best, you could listen to a few cassettes containing a small mixtape which you made or scrounged off friends.

Fast forward to the present decades. All of this and more is available right in front of you, in an area of a few square inches, anytime, anywhere.

Inundated by this wealth of choices, we want it all, constantly flitting from one activity to another. We are the most distracted humans of all time. The average attention span today is reported in single-digit seconds.

Not to forget, the rabbit hole of social media where you can fritter away hours at a time, ending up feeling depressed, jealous and drowning in low self-esteem. Everyone else seems to be doing fantastic things and enjoying great experiences while your life is a sad story.

Meet Blaise Pascal

Four centuries ago, Blaine Pascal, the French polymath and genius, nailed it when he said:

Four centuries on, nothing has changed. Stillness and silence continues to make us uneasy. We squirm.

The 21st Century Syndrome

In a recent article, the Guardian talked about the “21st-century syndrome” of inattention and distraction. How did we get here? What can we do to get back possession of this vital commodity?

Technology is blithely blamed as the culprit, specifically the internet. It’s true that one of the greatest inventions in history has come with mixed blessings. But technology is only a tool. It’s not inherently good or bad; it’s what we do with it that matters. You can generate electricity or destroy Hiroshima with the same tool.

What’s the buzz?

Taking a nuanced look, it appears that the problem arises from the monkey-mind of our emotions.

We look for activities to divert us from the anxiety of completing tasks at hand. Why are we anxious? We are afraid of failure. So, we postpone and in the process, accumulate even more anxiety.

You can’t tackle this problem, head-on. Trying to abstain from feeling anxiety is guaranteed to make you feel worse.

“Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” ― Corrie Ten Boom

How Do You Eat this Elephant?

Like the much-quoted solution to eating an elephant, you have to progress in small bits. Split the task into small components, each of which might take a few minutes to complete. Like David Allen recommends in Getting Things Done, you carry out a series of “next actions”.

  • Don’t look at the task as a whole. You will be overwhelmed. Split every activity into a series of small steps.
  • Carry out one step at a time. Suddenly, you will find that the task is done. The cloud will lift. You will experience an amazing lightness of spirit.
  • Savour this sensation and go for more. Like getting your clothes clean, “wash, rinse, repeat”. You will get better and better at it.

Don’t Let Them Take Away Your Treasure While You are Looking Elsewhere

We fail to realise that attention is the currency of the day. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok: they are all stealing your most valuable possession and making enormous amounts of money out of it. Don’t let them.

Take back what is yours.

“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”― José Ortega y Gasset


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Yes, there’s an upside to anger. Learn how to put it to work for you.

Like ice cream, anger comes in many flavours: annoyance, resentment, genuine anger, rage and wrath. As the grade goes up, your awareness of the state drops proportionately. When you rage, you are out of control and beside yourself. You want to destroy things at hand.

Anger always gets a bad press. It’s seen as a dark emotional state, best avoided or kept under control. But, it is a tool evolution has built into us for survival. A lot of humankind’s achievements would not have been possible if there was no impetus from an event that provoked anger. Think about Gandhi in the train in South Africa, Martin Luther King and his sense of outrage at the treatment of African Americans. There are very many examples.

The key, though is in being able to recognise anger and work with it, if not immediately, at least while reflecting on the episode. Ask yourself questions. Probe till it hurts. Go into dark spaces. 

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” ― Aristotle

Here’s a list of benefits from anger.

Anger can Motivate Change

We could be working for a particular benefit. Obstacles in the path can make us angry. Harvest this energy as fuel for pushing harder towards the goal.

Anger Invokes Optimism

Funnily, studies show that angry people are, in a way, similar to happy people. They tend to be optimistic about outcomes. The feel that the energy derived from anger can be channelled towards reaching their goal.

Anger can Heal Relationships

People in close relationships tend to suppress or hide anger; this is not good. The other party may be unaware of the problem and continue to do nothing towards mending the situation. Expressing anger can be an effective way of communicating what’s in your mind. Healing of wounded relationships can be a pleasant outcome of outbursts of feeling.

Anger Highlights Injustice

When we reflect on the cause of anger, it is not unusual to see an act of injustice at the root. There are any number of examples in civil society where inequality evokes a sense of indignation and gives us the energy to take action in the direction of correcting this state. The “colour revolutions” of the Middle East were provoked by deep-seated anger at the injustice prevailing in those countries.

Anger is a Useful Negotiating Tool

Exhibiting anger sends signals to the opposite party in a negotiation that you have strong sentiments about some issues. They can sense that you will not budge and may agree to a settlement that respects this position.

Anger can Give Deep Insights into Ourselves

If one has the emotional intelligence to reflect on the episode, we may be able to see aspects of ourselves that we didn’t sense. Reflection can lead to change in our behaviour and improvement of wellbeing.


Dealing with Furious, Raging People

Anger can cross the threshold where people are aware of themselves. Rage is an animal instinct. The emotional state may escalate from shouting and swearing to throwing things and breaking handy articles. Dealing with fury requires an understanding of the mind of the person.

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” ― Anne Carson (Translator), Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides

We could learn some tricks from hostage negotiators who are specifically trained to defuse explosive situations.

1. Accept everything — don’t interrupt

Let the person vent. Allow emotions to pour out without interruption.

Don’t stop them during the flow.

2. Abandon logic and reasoning

Raging people are functioning from primitive centres of the brain. Don’t expect them to be capable of rational thinking. Don’t interrupt them with your comments, questions or recommendations.

3. Refrain from judging and labelling

Passing judgement on their actions will heighten rage. “You should have done this…”; “You shouldn’t have said that …”: won’t work. They will not accept criticism in this highly charged emotional state. It will only serve to worsen rage.

4. Show that you are with them

  • Body language is crucial. Lean forward and let them know you are on their side, receptive to their emotions. Don’t lean back, away from them.
  • Nod and affirm as they are speaking. Show agreement with their emotions.
  • Every now and then, repeat and confirm what they are saying.

5. Let them make an action plan

When a reasonable degree of calm is restored, now draw them into saying what they feel should be the way forward. Let them list the steps. Gently nudge them in positive directions. Establish the feeling that the ideas are coming from them, not you.

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” ― Mark Twain

 

Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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