“When suddenly you seem to lose all you thought you had gained, do not despair. Your healing is not a straight line. You must expect setbacks and regressions. Don’t say to yourself, “All is lost. I have to start all over again.” This is not true. What you have gained, you have gained.” Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love
Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest, teacher, writer, spiritual leader, wrote this to himself in his journal during a period of deep depression. Years later he published this journal, which was originally intended to be private, and it has been a source of encouragement for many, both as an affirmation that periods of darkness and despair are a normal part of the spiritual life, and as an example of a tool for walking through those times.
Journaling, as Henri Nouwen practiced during his dark night experience, is a powerful tool during any season of our lives. Writing about our personal lives can help us:
- Slow down racing thoughts
- Gain perspective on problems
- Notice and address feelings and issues that have been quietly bothering us
- Make use of our intuition
- Develop greater compassion for ourselves and others
- Remember and act on what is truly important to us
There are many styles of journaling, and each can suit different personalities or different seasons of our lives. I’d like to share a few and open this up for others to share types of journaling that have been meaningful to them.
Start with questions. Every day, write the answers to three questions: “What do I feel? What do I need? What do I want?” I learned this approach from Renee Trudeau’s book The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal. I journaled using these questions while recovering from depression, and it helped me stay in touch with what would help me move forward.
Set a goal for how much to write. I have been using this approach for about three months thanks to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. She recommends filling three pages with stream of consciousness writing every morning. What I like about this is that it keeps me from quitting when I get bored or distracted or stuck. Sometimes I get the best insights when I think I’ve written all I can, and then I keep pushing through to fill another page.
Write letters to yourself. This is the approach Henri Nouwen took in The Inner Voice of Love. Sometimes we tap into more wisdom and compassion for ourselves when we pretend we are writing to someone else.
Write an imagined conversation. This can be a helpful journaling tool when facing conflict, struggling toward forgiveness, trying to sort out boundaries, resolving feelings toward someone who can’t interact with you, or preparing for a difficult conversation. You write both sides of the conversation, trying to make their words as authentic as possible. You may gain greater insight into your own feelings and grow in empathy for the other person as you take their perspective.
Use images instead of words. Keep an art journal, using sketches, colors, photos, clipped magazine pictures, and anything else you find or create. I totally wish I could do this, but I haven’t made that much progress on my artistic journey.
What’s in your journaling toolbox? Please share your ideas in the comments.