Having lived with depression and then anxiety, I often received advice from peers and mentors, and one of the most common has been to journal. I tried it for a while, but I found every time I put down the pen and closed the book, I felt a little bit worse. I slowly realized this was because when I wrote, I wrote only about my current feelings—that I was depressed, angry, hurt, anxious, ashamed, etc.—and I ended the entry still feeling that way. Realizing this caused more harm than good, I stopped and refused to take it up again, no matter the advice I continued receiving.
One day, when expressing my struggles with anxiety and self-love to a co-worker, she looked at me and issued a challenge—write one love letter to yourself every day. I thought this was absurd but agreed to give it a try. Sure enough, it didn’t last more than a day or two. It made me feel good writing more positive things, but the letters lacked depth and content and felt fake.
My co-worker kept urging me to write the love letters and, desperate for any sort of help to reduce my sometimes-paralyzing anxiety, I purchased a journal and tried something new: what if, I supposed, I were to combine love-letters and journaling? The result has been incredible.
It’s a simple concept: write one journal entry a day (whatever length feels best to you), but write about yourself and your situation positively. This does not mean ignoring your feelings or the fact you struggled throughout the day. It means reframing your current circumstances in a more hopeful, positive, and, ultimately, more realistic light.
For example, I would usually write something like, “I feel hopeless today. I’m stuck in my current job and can’t make enough money to move out of my parent’s house. I feel lazy and worry I’ll never move up in my career or my financial situation—not until I’m at least in my thirties or forties.”
Just writing that and closing the book leaves you feeling pretty shitty because it all it does is reaffirm your present state of mind—there’s no room for evaluation or growth. It accurately captures your emotions and some facts about your situation, but it does nothing to reframe and harness them in a way that is actually helpful. Compare to this entry:
“I feel hopeless today. I feel stuck in my current job and can’t seem to make enough money to move out of my parent’s house. I feel lazy and worry I won’t move up in my career or financial situation until I’m at least in my thirties or forties.” This contains a subtle change—a few switches in word choice—and that change accomplishes two things. First, it softens the blow by using words like “I feel” or “it seems/appears” vs. the definitive and unrealistic “I’m stuck.” Second, it notes that your feelings and current situation are subject to re-interpretation. Below is the full second entry:
“I feel hopeless today. I feel stuck in my current job and can’t seem to make enough money to move out of my parent’s house. I feel lazy and worry I won’t move up in my career or financial situation until I’m at least in my thirties or forties. I know the situation is not really hopeless, but it’s hard to see that sometimes. I’m doing well in my current job, as my peers and managers keep assuring me. I know I work hard and always strive to do my best—I’m far from lazy, and I’m actively keeping an eye open and preparing myself for new opportunities. The situation I’m in isn’t fun, but I know I’m moving forward, even if it doesn’t feel like it. A lot of people my age are going through the same stuck feelings. This generation is very different from the previous, and it’s unfair to myself or others to judge based on a previous standard. Maybe I could try composing a few resumes or job searching for a few minutes every day to get me taking concrete steps in the right direction. I’ll find something soon! In the meantime, I’ll treat myself with the respect I deserve and try to savor this time where I can discover more of who I am, grow in new ways, and build friendships with the coworkers I have.”
Notice a couple things. First, the entry doesn’t shove aside the reality of feeling hopeless and stuck. It acknowledges how you feel and acknowledges your current situation is not ideal and also acknowledges your current situation as fact. However, it also allows room for reframing and ends on a positive. This is vital. Take a step back from your feelings and look at the situation more objectively. Okay, living at home with an entry-level job and a college degree sucks. No one’s arguing with that. However, if you focus on your current situation and how hopeless you feel, how does that benefit you or your future? How do you refocus to move forward? That’s where reframing comes in—taking your feelings and experience and putting it in a more objective light. After that, look at ways you can move forward or acknowledge ways you already are. End on a realistically positive note, so it lingers in your brain.
Doing this every day before bed or just after waking up (or any time in between, really) helps cement new pathways of thinking in your brain. Instead of following the well-eroded negative pathways, you begin to pave new roads. When I journal diligently, I see my attitude toward life, myself, and my situation change. I feel happier, clearer, more focused, more self-respect and self-love. When I stop, my mind begins to revert back to the old pathways, and I feel more depressed, anxious, unhappy, and uncertain.
Like any new habit, this takes time, but it’s well-worth a try if your journaling just isn’t helping the way it should.
Challenge!: Practice positive journaling four days this week, even if all you write are a couple of sentences. Note how you feel before and after each entry, and at the end of the week.