Why Journaling Is Such a Powerful Personal Growth Tool

I don’t know about you, but I sucked at journaling when I was a kid.

While my sister without fail devoted 30 minutes every, single night to journaling before bed, I only did it occasionally when I was pissed off, sad, SUPER excited, or wanted to gloat privately (because no one likes a bragger).

Whenever I tried to write about my day, I would either start falling asleep or just write some version of “Dear Diary. School was OK. Lots of homework. Ttyl.” I remember being amazed at the shelves of journals my sister amassed over the years while I struggled to finish even one. I figured journaling just wasn’t for me, so I stopped.

I grew up thinking that if I didn’t journal every day there was no point to doing it at all.

That all changed around 10 years ago when the combination of a best friend fall-out, work pressure, and an intense relationship started becoming too much for me to bear. Insecurities and fears spun around in my head incessantly. I had trouble telling reality from fiction. I would sit in a frozen daze sometimes completely swept up by the trains of thought rushing through my mind. Writing helped me break that pattern.

I want to share the story of how I did it. (Scroll down if you’re in a hurry and just want to get to the takeaways.)


My Story

One night instead of sitting in my spinning thoughts, I reached for one my sketchbooks. I knew that drawing helped me think through design problems for work, so I decided to try writing. I tried writing down every thought I was having. I scrawled to keep up with myself. My desk shook. It got messy and intense. I started crying. Then sobbing. It became hard to write, so I stopped and just let myself fall apart.

When the wave subsided, I reread everything I wrote. I could relate to my prior state without being in it.

I saw that so many of my thoughts were insults written in the 2nd person: “You fucked up. You don’t deserve it.” Etc. I saw many thoughts repeat themselves over and over. It sounded like someone who wanted to do just one thing: abuse and destroy.

Wow, I thought. Am I really that bad? What have I done that’s so terrible, really? Sure I have insecurities and act needy sometimes, but mostly that just makes me become overly helpful and conscientious.

I suddenly felt distant from my writing. It was so exaggerated and one-dimensional. So melodramatic. I had trouble taking it seriously. I didn’t “get” where those insults were coming from. I became indignant.

In big, block letters, I wrote: “I AM NOT A BAD PERSON!” I looked at those words. It looked defensive. Like a child yelling back at their parents. I took a breath and continued writing: “I am good. I am alive. I am here.” Those statements felt true. Obvious. I felt more grounded, so I kept going: “I am kind. I am capable. I am me. I am perfect as I am.”

It felt good to read those statements. They were truths no one could argue with.

I kept writing until I had a list of 50 truisms about myself, the gifts I had to offer, and the nature of my existence and inherent value. I felt a fundamental shift in my relationship with my inner critic. I still look back at that list today when I seek affirmation.

From then on I started using journaling as a way to capture and reframe my reality. My technique has gotten better over the years. And now as a coach, I get all my clients to journal, too.


The Takeaways

Here are 3 reasons why I believe journaling is so effective as a tool for growth.

1. Writing by hand uses more of your body.

Often it’s our minds and thoughts that are keeping us stuck. Engaging our bodies in reflection unlocks more access to our intuition and instinct. Sure it mostly only requires one hand to make marks on a page, but when you sit down to write, your entire body from head to toe orients to this one activity. All hands are on deck.

Feel the texture of the page, the weight of the pen, the scratchiness or smoothness of the pen tip against paper, the way the ink spreads out a bit when it soaks in. Thoughts become words then letters then curves, lines and dots drawn bit by bit. The process becomes more than about transcribing information. It becomes a meditation in itself.

Journaling Tip: Write by hand instead of typing on a computer. (If you're like me, touch-typing has become largely unconscious.)


2. Journaling is both an expression and a reflection.

Many people use journaling as a way to document their lives. Rereading entries years later can be a delightful and insightful journey back into one’s personal history. When you journal for growth, however, you want those insights right away.

After outpouring onto the page, your state will shift. The place you were when you sat down is no long where you are now. But it’s still captured, naked, on the page - not just the content but also the energy behind your handwriting. Rereading it exposes rules, assumptions and flaws to a worldview you couldn’t see when you were inside of it.

Journaling Tip: Reread what you wrote from a critical lens. Question everything.


3. Writing forces you to slow down and be concrete.

Our experiences are a complex soup of thoughts, images, sensations, impressions, stories, etc. When we’re activated, that soup can feel more like a tornado. Writing forces you to slow down and look at one thing at a time. It forces you to synthesize the abstract into concrete, specific terms. It requires guessing and distilling in a way that can feel risky and dissatisfying.

But don’t give up.

This struggle is part of a creative process that all artists and writers go through to express their authenticity into the world. Building this capacity for expression not only sheds light on yourself, but also helps you share who you are with the world.

Journaling Tip: Don’t give up trying to capture your experience in as much accuracy and nuance as possible. Boldly write what comes up without flourishing, judging, or editing.


Are you ready to try out journaling as a tool for personal growth?

I pulled together five short journaling exercises I use in common situations to help me learn about myself and get unstuck.

Eddie Shieh, PCC, MFA