A short reflection on journal keeping
Writing in a journal relatively frequently has become a bit of a lifeline for me. There’s lots of science out there to tell you how good writing about your emotions or your goals or your thoughts can be for you, but today I wanted to describe one very specific thing that keeping a journal has done for me. Which is that at its best (and perhaps paradoxically), writing about my life has allowed me to psychologically distance myself from my life. Being able to psychologically distance myself from my life, especially in periods of high emotion, has:
Given me perspective, which has been especially important when I’m feeling all the overwhelming negative feelings (my big ones are anxiety, fear, and caverns of sadness).
Given me appreciation for the star that I am in my own story, and that it is a story worth telling.
Given me hope and faith in myself.
I started keeping a journal when I was maybe 6 years old. It’s difficult to even call the first few “journals” because at that age, I was still learning to write and so the books would mostly consist of giant words or short phrases scrawled way outside the lines of a ruled page, like “I PET A CAT TODAY” or “I LOVE MY SISTER” or, more frequently, “SARAH” (my name) over and over again. And of course, I would only ever write on the first ten pages or so, just enough to cover the first few days when a shiny new journal (most of them did have some form of sparkle or glitter on their cover) was novel enough to hold my attention.
When I was 10 or 11, I started reading the Abby Hayes books and that’s when I started writing in earnest. I got myself a purple pen just like Abby had and would write down when I woke up, what I ate, who I spoke to, exactly what I did, and, most frequently, exactly what my crush did that day. I was apparently a very paranoid child who wrote about her crush a lot, as every other page of those books (three of them) has their name blacked out in furious sharpie. No one will ever know who held my pre-teen heart!
I stopped writing during high school, when life started to get a bit more real, I guess. Ironically, what brought me back was, at the time, the realest experience I had ever had. Every part of my first time falling in love built me up and broke me down and completely transformed me. My feelings dominated every facet of my being; I was completely controlled by the emotional turmoil raging inside of me that was inexorably tied to something I couldn’t control or change.
So I started writing again in order to put all of those feelings somewhere because cooped up in my head, they were destroying me. For 168 days of trying to move on, I wrote down what I felt I couldn’t say in person.
Somewhere around day 150 or so, I was cleaning out my childhood bedroom and found my old journals. And I realized that while I had been writing again for the past 5 months, my current journal read a lot differently than my old ones. I wasn’t writing for myself, or about my life — I was exclusively writing to the person I could no longer speak to. Everything revolved around what I wanted to say to them, how I wondered what they were doing, how I hoped they were doing well, how I was having some good days despite what we had gone through; my thoughts about them, my feelings about them. Where through my writing I had been engaging and processing and living my own story as a child and teenager, as an adult, I had simply written 150 letters to someone else.
Okay, so what is the point of all this backstory about my journal-keeping that no one will ever read? (not even the object of my heartbreak-journal, although my dramatic 20-year old self did at one point want to send them the “letters” once I was “so over them” and “living my best life”.) For me, the revelation was that I had once devoted all this energy to my own life, the same energy that was wrapped up in someone else today. I hadn’t put myself on the backburner — I had taken myself off the stove entirely. Reading my old journal entries, I was entranced. My heart leapt for the little girl who was over the moon that her crush would be seated in her group for the next seating arrangement. I laughed at the “scripts” she had written out of exaggerated scenarios with her cousins and sister (in true Abby Hayes fashion). I felt her grief when she questioned her worthiness of love and struggled with her self-image. Most significantly, I felt amazement at how alive she had been, even when the most benign things were going on in her life. And then I wondered how she would react if I could go back and tell her where we were today.
On day 169, I bought a new journal. I introduced myself (“Hi, I’m Sarah. I’m 21 years old and still obsessed with Taylor Swift”). I figuratively and literally started a brand-new chapter. And sometime not long after that, I realized that my writing had evolved once again. I was still writing for someone, but this time, it was my future self. Where once I had solely been addressing someone else, I was now writing “Sarah, I hope you’re proud of me” and “I know you’re looking back reading this, thinking how much I have going for me right now.”
Maybe that sounds cheesy to you. But the nice thing about keeping your own journal is that the contents can be as cheesy as you need them to be. Whatever you write, it’s never wrong. And my future self is never a judgmental audience. In fact, she was a woman who I envisioned as the person I wanted to be when I grew up. She was ever evolving and beautiful and strong and so accomplished, but most importantly, she was compassionate. Much more compassionate than I was. When I doubted myself and poured my anxiety and sadness and frustration onto the pages, she held me in the certainty that I would get through it. When I mourned the end of my university life and lamented the fear of the unknown, she smiled at the amazing things I couldn’t even fathom yet that were to come. I was me and not me, completely one with and distinctly separate from my emotions and my external circumstances.
And the more I wrote, the more of a tangible narrative I had to look back on as that future self. I would write from the present-day perspective of me, and then 6 months down the road, look back on what I had written with the perspective of who I had been writing to at the time. Which is why my future self feels so real to me (because she is — I always grow into her, no matter my present day doubts) and why this separation of Self works so well in helping me navigate the challenges I’ve faced, am facing, and have yet to confront.
Even as I’m in the middle of a tough time, I’ll write what I need to with the psychological distance of having faith in my future self, and then when I’ve put temporal distance between me and that tough time, I always get the evidence I need to believe in my future self for the next time around. Through the process of creating her with an end vision of who this woman is in mind, she always comes through. It’s a beautiful self-reinforcing cycle; blind faith that isn’t so blind after all. And without a doubt, it’s the best form of time travel I’ll get in my lifetime.
I’ve grown up quite a bit since age 19, and it would be fruitless and irresponsible to send the letters I wrote recovering from heartbreak. But the more I live, and the more I take the time to process in writing, the more I become the woman I envision I am writing to. And maybe someday, I’ll share the journals I’m keeping now with my own kid. Regardless, this is one story I know I will be proud to share, because every time I read old journal entries as my future self, I already am.