Tucked into a folder on my laptop is a half-finished manuscript about how reflective writing informs leadership development; and, therefore, how leaders can approach journaling as a developmental tool. It’s waiting for a day when I have the space to look at it with fresh eyes, magically see how to reframe the content, and then put in the elbow grease to get it out the door.
I don’t have that time or insight right now. Like many of you, I have a full-time job, two kids (under four), no childcare, a wife who is similarly busy, and a ‘shelter-in-place’ order. On a daily basis, I wouldn’t say that I feel stressed. Instead, I would say that I run the gamut from feeling completely overwhelmed by my obligations, despondent about our future, contemplative about what it all means, bitter about our government, motivated to follow my purpose, delighted to spend so much time with my family, and stressed as all get-out. And, that’s just today.
The current coronavirus epidemic, however miserable, forces self-evolution, whether we like it or not. We are living through a completely new set of events that none of us experienced before. We are forced to renegotiate our way of being with ourselves, our way of being with other people, and our way of living in the world. We are experiencing so many emotions. We are making hard decisions. We are re-examining our lives and reconsidering our institutions. Bottom line: we will all be different — as individuals and as a human race — after this collective experience.
So, that’s a lot. What do we do now? And, how do we make the most of this moment?
Enter: journaling. This is a time when journaling is needed more than ever. Journaling is the practice of dumping your head out on a sheet of paper; and, thereby, helping yourself sort through the mess more effectively. Now, I know you might think that journaling is either 1) lame and best left to six-year olds with unicorn diaries or 2) strange and best left to middle-aged hippies with so many emotions. But, I am not talking about recording all the mundane details of your day in a painful “Dear Diary” situation. No, I’m telling you to use journaling as a mechanism to uncover what’s going on within you and better deal with that.
In a time of change and ambiguity, writing brings clarity. As Natalie Goldberg writes, “writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind”. What you hazily perceived before, you now know more crisply. Suddenly, you see that you should not go to your friend’s birthday (even if there are fewer than ten people there), that you underestimated how extroverted you actually are, and that you need to find a job more aligned with your life’s purpose. You see yourself more clearly and understand yourself more deeply. You are also able to take better action — action that is aligned with who you are and what you want. In a time of craziness and confusion, journaling will help you consciously drive forward to what you want, instead of being thrashed about by your situation.
Happily, journaling is perfectly adapted to a quarantined lifestyle. First and most importantly, it’s individual; you don’t need anyone else to do it with you. Like Netflix and Hulu, you can enjoy it on-demand. And better than those television options, it’s accessible and flexible. No subscription needed. No minimal amount of time required. No issues streaming as you access Wi-Fi at the same time as the rest of the world. And finally, in a time of economic uncertainty, journaling is free. I would tell you that journaling is portable too; but, let’s be honest, you’re not going anywhere.
You have to keep yourself company anyway, so you might as well evolve into the person you want to be along the way. It will make spending time with yourself through these weeks and months far more pleasant.
And so, instead of waiting around to polish off that manuscript, I’ve consolidated a short guide of “How to Become Your Best Self from Your Couch”. Between rearranging the pantry and your next Netflix binge, here’s what you need to start journaling now.
HOW TO BECOME YOUR BEST SELF FROM YOUR COUCH
“Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find
a thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
Expert in Home-cosmography.”
-Henry David Thoreau
WHAT MATTERS IN JOURNALING
How frequently you journal, how long you journal, where you journal, when in the day you journal, what your journal looks like: none of it matters. You can certainly have your own preferences and get into your own beautiful routines, but I don’t want you to get hung up on thinking any of those factors are required for good journaling. Instead, only three things really matter in journaling:
1. You must feel safe to share your true thoughts: You must feel a deep and certain sense of safety when you approach your journal. This safety is required so that you can be completely honest with yourself. Lying to yourself — or simply failing to share the deepest version of your truth — will stunt your personal growth. Most often, this sense of safety is rooted in privacy — and the confidence that whatever you write will be kept confidential from others. Do what you need to do to be certain of this (e.g., hide your journal, have a serious discussion with your family rip it up and throw it away immediately, etc.).
2. You must suspend judgment of content and format: You have to write without fear of looking stupid or silly. Avoid self-editing as you go. Instead, let the words flow. Just because you wrote something down doesn’t mean you believe it. Just because you put words on the page doesn’t mean it has to be of publishable quality. Do not judge content. Ignore spelling, punctuation, grammar, and penmanship. Do not self-censor.
3. You must write without ego or audience: Per the Miriam-Webster definition of “journal”, this is writing intended “for private use.” Unlike other forms of reflective writing, journaling is for you and you alone. When you are conscious of an audience beyond your current self, your tone changes. You are, consciously or unconsciously, less in service of your own development and more in pursuit of the engagement of others. Your truth is tempered and contorted in all sorts of unexpected ways. So, don’t write this as a coronavirus memoir for your grandkids; write it for the sake of your own evolution.
HOW TO JOURNAL
Just begin: Do not presume that you need a path and a direction as you begin to write. Simply begin. If you don’t know where to start, the easiest and most obvious place to start is with your current experience. Start with “What is happening now?” Don’t try to answer it clearly or pithily. Just use it as a starting point. Even if the first line is “I don’t know what to write about”, just get going. If you’re still stuck and want me to fix this for you, that’s interesting; you can check out the prompts below (Appendix).
Get curious about everything: You started the page writing about the effects of quarantine on your pet ferret or considering whether you’ll lose your job. Now get curious about it. Go deeper. Ask why. And then ask why again. And again and again. And then look at other dimensions of your experience: How do you feel? What else does that make you think about? What does that tell you about yourself? Per Emerson’s quote, “your self is a place to be discovered. Look for the new horizons within yourself”.
Follow the energy: Is the topic changing? Is something else coming up? Good, write about that now. Don’t hesitate to abandon a thread or quickly change topic.
Notice how you feel: As you write, notice what comes up. Are you judging the quality of your writing? Are you judging the content of your thoughts? Do you reject or embrace an image that came to mind? And why? Note not only what you write, but also notice how you feel as you write. This too becomes fodder for your reflection.
Stop when you’re done…: Write until you are done. Like a train running out of momentum, you will likely be going, going, going until suddenly you are slowing, slowing, slowing. You may write for five minutes or for fifty minutes; you will be done when you have done a serious look around your internal world and there is nothing more to express.
…But Keep Going: You will get the most out of journaling if you come back to the page over and over again. Give yourself a break — a minute, a day, a week — then come back and keep going.
WHAT JOURNALING WILL BE LIKE
Before you move forward, I want to set your expectations of what it will feel like to journal. Here is what you need to know and make your peace with before starting the work of journaling:
You will feel self-conscious: It can feel weird to write down a bunch of your thoughts and feelings, especially when you haven’t done it before. That’s okay. Let it be weird. As Anne Frank wrote: “It’s an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I — nor for that matter anyone else — will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl.” Even Anne Frank felt strange writing things down. Whatever.
You will not produce beautiful writing: To be clear, your writing may be beautiful or poignant. But you are not sitting down to write the great American novel. If you are thinking a lot about the mechanics of writing, the correctness of your grammar, or the beauty of your craft, your attention is taken away from the developmental task at hand.
You will feel uncomfortable: Go straight at what is hard, what is scary, and what is embarrassing. What do you suspect is true deep down? What are you afraid of? If you are uncomfortable, you are likely onto something productive. Those are the places to investigate.
You will contradict yourself: Your journal is a place where you work out what you think, what you want, and how you feel before sharing it elsewhere. It will be messy. You will play with different possibilities. Do not expect that every sentence you write will be true. You are experimenting with different ideas. You are figuring it all out through the process of journaling. Clarity will come, but likely not until you have spent some time wading through the messiness.
You will resist the process: At some point, you will resist journaling. You will not want to do it. You will avoid it. This resistance is born of fear. The list of potential fears is nearly endless: You are afraid that someone will find what you have written. You are afraid that putting your thoughts down in writing will make them real. You are afraid of facing uncomfortable emotions. Whether you consciously sort through your thoughts or not, they still drive you. And, they are likely bigger determinants of your path and your success than you know. When you feel resistance, lean in and do the journaling work to see yourself and your situation more clearly.
You will live your life with more awareness: As you write out your experiences, you will start to pick them apart. You will see deeper drivers and motives. You will come to know yourself better. You will come to see more clearly. This will not only be true while you are journaling, but in your day-to-day life as you live it.
You will deal with this coronavirus challenge more effectively: Journaling is a precious support in times of challenge. No one writes better about how precious journaling can be in traumatic times than author Elizabeth Gilbert. She writes about journaling in the midst of divorce:
“So tonight I reach for my journal again. This is the first time I’ve done this since I came to Italy. What I write in my journal is that I am weak and full of fear. I explain that Depression and Loneliness have shown up, and I’m scared they will never leave. I say that I don’t want to take the drugs anymore, but I’m frightened I will have to. I am terrified that I will never really pull my life together.
In response, somewhere from within me, rises a now-familiar presence, offering me all the certainties I have always wished another person would say to me when I was troubled. This is what I find myself writing on the page:
I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long. I will stay with you. If you need the medication again, go ahead and take it — I will love you through that, as well. If you don’t need the medication, I will love you, too. There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and Braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.
Tonight, this strange interior gesture of friendship — the lending of a hand from me to myself when nobody else is around to offer solace — reminds me of something that happened to me once in New York City. I walked into an office building one afternoon in a hurry, dashed into the waiting elevator. As I rushed in, I caught an unexpected glance of myself in a security mirror’s reflection. In that moment, my brain did an odd thing — it fired off this split-second message: “Hey! You know her! That’s a friend of yours!” And I actually ran forward toward my own reflection with a smile, ready to welcome that girl whose name I had lost but whose face was so familiar. In a flash instant of course, I realized my mistake and laughed in embarrassment at my almost doglike confusion over how a mirror works. But for some reason that incident comes to mind again tonight during my sadness in Rome, and I find myself writing this comforting reminder at the bottom of the page.
Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a FRIEND…
I fell asleep holding my notebook pressed against my chest, open to this most recent assurance. In the morning when I wake up, I can still smell a faint trace of depression’s lingering smoke, but he himself is nowhere to be seen. Somewhere during the night, he got up and left. And his buddy loneliness beat it, too.”
We need to show up for each other, but, with the help of journaling, you will help yourself get through this crisis.
And finally, you will become more of who you want to be: Ultimately, it is an act of both radical self-care and radical self-development to take time to journal. If you invest in reflecting on yourself and your situation, and in directing your action through these uncertain times, you will consciously evolve more into the person you want to be. You know, the version of yourself who has learned the lessons of this moment and who will thrive on the other side of this coronavirus challenge.
Start small. Start today. Pull out a piece of paper or a notebook or a computer, and just go. Your fellow shut-ins and your future self will thank you for it.