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Do you journal for self care?

Keeping a journal is an excellent way to take time for yourself, and is ubiquitous in modern self care advice.

I’ve been journaling off and on for my entire life, and I’ve discovered a few things that … aren’t awesome … when I’m journaling specifically for self care. In order to get the most out of me-time or self care journaling, here are a few mistakes I’ve learned to avoid:

Don’t Lie

The Number One thing your self care journal should be is true.

This is a place where you shouldn’t have to pretend. You don’t have to switch among multiple versions of yourself, or conceal any part of your multifaceted life. This place exists entirely for you, and all of you is welcome here

Now, you do sometimes have to be brave to tell the truth. True things can be quite difficult to write openly about. Even truths that are relatively pleasant can get messy and complicated when you dive deeply into them. 

That’s okay. Tell the truth anyway.

Don’t forget, however, that honesty doesn’t have to be brutal. Some truths are hard to hear no matter how kindly they’re put. That’s also okay. Tell the truth as kindly as you can. But still, tell it.

Sorry, Jack. Around here, we can handle the truth. 

Don’t Weaponize

Your journal shouldn’t become an arsenal of grievances against yourself or others. It’s better to use your journal as an exploratory tool rather than a diagnostic one.

The goal of a self care journal is not to lay blame. It’s to gain a better understanding and appreciation of yourself. If you find yourself zooming in on failures and flaws — your own or someone else’s — you might try noticing that, and then deliberately change course. Consider focusing instead on observing the effects that these broader situations or events are having on you right now, or looking for ways to care for, appreciate, and encourage yourself through them.

Don’t Expect Instant Change

While single-epidsode makeovers are satisfyingly dramatic, real changes in our lives are much more often the result of small changes added together over time. 

Journaling can be a powerful tool for tracking change in your life. However, spending your journaling time dwelling on the changes you’re trying to create — and evaluating how close or far away they are — is the opposite of helpful. I’ve found it much more effective to separate progress tracking from progress evaluation

Don’t get hung up on, or journal all that much about, what changes you’re expecting to happen because of journaling or your desired timeframe for them. Instead, consider writing your journal entries as candid, detailed snapshots of your present state.

Then, set aside a specific time — maybe once a month? a quarter? not too often — for evaluation.

Reserve this time to trawl back through your collection of snapshots to evaluate them as a group in light of the changes you’re wanting to see. 

Don’t Feel Obligated

Take stock of how you think and feel about your journal. Your journaling time should feel like catching up with a treasured friend, not like keeping a dentist appointment.

Does thinking of your journal make you feel burdened, guilty, or sheepish? Depending on the way we approach it, journaling can easily become more of a chore than a solace.  Your journal should be an unpleasant obligation. 

If you are feeling bored, try adding variety. Try a new strategy, different prompts, a different time of day. Try journaling online rather than handwriting, or vice versa. (Or — we all knew this was coming — try TextMyJournal!) 

Try writing about yesterday as though you were telling a stranger’s story. Try any new strategy or idea that sounds even a little bit fun or interesting.

On the other hand, if thinking about journaling has you feeling overwhelmed, it might be time to pare back a bit.

Try writing each entry in five words or less. Or try journaling WITHOUT writing — draw a sketch or take a photo or video. Give yourself permission to write less, or less often.

Another thing that can also help combat feeling overwhelmed is cultivating pleasant rituals. Try combining your journaling time with another pleasant routine activity or indulgence, such as a morning cup of well-brewed tea or coffee, a brisk lunch break walk, listening to your favorite song, etc.

If journaling starts feeling like unpleasant work for too long, stop! Do it differently, or do something else altogether. If you just can’t get into it, put your journal down for a while. This exists entirely for you, and if it’s not helping right now, spend your energy elsewhere. Your journal will be there when you’re ready to pick it back up.

Don’t Compare

While comparing yourself with others can actually be useful and healthy, your me-time journal isn’t the place. There’s only one person in the world who can tell your whole story, and that’s you. 

Don’t Force It

Goals are great. However, it can be counterproductive to try to force your journaling into too rigid of a framework. If setting firm goals for yourself — “every day without fail,,” “200 words or more,” etc. — helps you, fantastic! But … that doesn’t help everyone. And that’s okay.

Everyone has their own best balance between firmness and flexibility, and it takes time and experimentation to find it.

What works well for me is to have two sets of goals — the aspirational goal and the sufficient goal. Journaling every day vs. a few times a week, for instance. The key is that which goal I shoot for is up to me and nobody else. It varies based on what I need that week, or month, or day. If I need that feeling of accomplishment, if I need to able to say “I did it! It was hard but I did it!” then I’ll put in the time and effort to go for the aspirational goal. If that’s not what I need to focus on, I don’t. I try to hit the sufficient goal. But my journal is for me. If I need a break, I take one. 

Don’t Edit

Your me-time journal should be as safe and free as possible. It should be the place you can fully speak your mind with no filter. 

The goal of a self care journal is not to create production-quality content, or to say what somebody else in your life — friends, loved ones, therapists — want to hear from you. In fact, the editorial work required to produce content for others actually makes candid journaling much more difficult. Our brains have to do very different types of work for different types of writing activities.

When performing for others, we change what we say and how we say it. We can sing in the shower and at a recital, but they are not the same kind of experience. When it comes to self care, that difference matters. We need to resist the impulse toward writing what we think we “should” in order to please others. Instead, we should write what we need to write for ourselves.

A self care journal isn’t, and shouldn’t be, an anthology of finished works. It’s a collection of snapshots of your unfiltered state of mind. Each entry is an artifact of where — and who — you were at that specific moment in time.

Some journal entries simply can’t be turned into the kind of works you want to formally publish. Others can, but only through extensive revision. Either way, they are no longer the same kind of thing. They’re not finished works, and … they don’t need to be.

Those thoughts off the top of your head are still valuable — and not just because they might be raw materials for later works. They’re valuable as themselves. Those moments matter, and they are worth preserving. 

Their value is not in their completeness or their polish but in their authenticity. 

They’re valuable because you’re valuable. Your real story matters, and telling it is good for you.