“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh
Our psyche tends to focus on the familiar and to obscure the unfamiliar. Like forgetting a dream a few minutes after you wake, we can forget key insights in therapy shortly after the session. Keeping a notebook in which you record your insights, memories, dreams, things you want to focus on, questions that come up, new ideas, feelings or ways of seeing things can also be very useful and contributes to the experience of actively participating in a project of self-exploration. Applying this learning process from your sessions to everyday life is essential for new ideas and experiences to translate into greater awareness and real change.
Change isn’t merely thinking differently. It’s about doing things differently and a therapy journal is a place to help catalyse new ways of doing things. Often people begin to change with therapy without fully realising how or why. They can then assume that their changes are coincidental or unconnected to the therapy sessions they have engaged in, for example, attributing change in mood to their medication ‘starting to kick in’, to recent luck, or circumstantial change, or even improvements in the weather. A notebook can help you connect the dots and begin to value the work you are doing that is bringing about change instead of attributing it to some obscure force acting upon you by chance. By taking responsibility for your change process, instead of putting it down to a pill or the sun coming out, you actively empower yourself.
“If you take responsibility for what you are doing to yourself, how you produce your symptoms, how you produce your illness, how you produce your existence – the very moment you get in touch with yourself – growth begins, integration begins.”
A handwritten journal has more benefits therapeutically than one done on your computer.
- Firstly, you can have it available anywhere (including your sessions) and write in it immediately, jotting down ideas quickly without having to start up a device.
- There is also some benefit in the actual act of writing out your experiences as a form of physical expression.
- A paper journal also allows you to draw quickly, use shapes and colours quickly, and connect ideas in a shorthand way that would be more time-consuming and less spontaneous on a device.
- Getting away from the computer or phone can be therapeutic in itself.
- Having a specific, separate place dedicated to your therapeutic journey is very important. It is a place free from distractions that are inherent in electronic devices: text message alerts, phone calls, emails, internet and social media. This allows you to focus and go into your experiences with depth and clarity, making the therapy process special and important, and distinct from ordinary routine.
Formatting your Notebook or Journal
Keeping a therapy journal or notebook is a little like combining a travel journal with a course of study and a meditation session. Your notebook can become an extension of the space you have created in your life called ‘therapy’. It can become the portable version of your therapy sessions and is your opportunity to record your process of personal discovery and change; a place where you can relieve some of the emotional and psychological pressure inside, by putting it outside and onto the pages of a private space you create that is unique to you.
You can format your therapy journal any way that suits you. However, here are some key points to consider:
- Choose a notebook of a reasonable size up to A4 to give you plenty of space
- Keep things organised, simple and clear so that you can quickly and easily understand what you are reading without having to work it out again in your head or search a long time for something important
- If you sometimes have chaotic or volatile experiences, you can reserve a section in your notebook specifically for those kinds of experiences, which may, for example, require you to scribble, shade, draw etc as a means of immediate expression of those states. Later, you might want to reflect on these more chaotic areas of your notes to begin to identify what may have caused them, to bring words, sentences, understanding and order to them.
- Consider using different colours, shapes, patterns, objects, pictures to help you mentally separate themes from one another
- Consider sections such as:
- Past, Present and Future
- Individuals who have influenced you (positively or negatively) and the messages you have taken from them
- You as a child at various ages: there is specific work we can do in this area
- Daily Appreciations of small things you observe each day about:
- yourself, others, and the world
- Daily Gratitude: things that you are grateful for, however small, about:
- yourself, others and the world
- Strong unexpressed feelings: Anger, Sadness, Resentment, Joy, Fear, Anxiety, Insecurity, Hope, etc
- As you develop emotional awareness: subtle emotions
- Therapeutic Goals: what you’re aiming to achieve
- Your strengths, values, talents, skills, achievements
- Insights that occur to you in or outside sessions
- Questions and things you want to address in therapy
- Affirmations: clear life-enhancing statements repeated each day
- Drawing: as mentioned above, create pages for drawing or scribbling your feelings, frustrations and thoughts
- Dreams: a place for recording dreams you may want to explore in therapy
- Painful or traumatic things that are difficult to talk about: putting these things down on paper can be the first steps towards being able to talk about them in therapy
- Observations: how and when emotions, thoughts and behaviours occur according to changes in time, place, people, mood, diet, energy etc
You can carry your notebook with you, bring it to your sessions and keep it as a companion reference throughout your therapeutic journey. It can help you map your progress, expand your understanding, jot down ideas, and keep you focussed on what matters.
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