Keeping a journal offers the promise of a deep and rewarding relationship with yourself by writing to enhance your self-acceptance and compassion.

I stood at the door of my office and watched as my last counseling client of the day walked down the steps to his car.

I was more tired than usual, and the day’s work seemed to have taken a lot out of me.

As I reflected back over the day, I felt a nagging sense of unease, without knowing why. I closed the door and went to my desk, where I reached for my journal and pen, took a deep breath, and prepared to sort out my feelings before I left for home.

How to Start Keeping Journal

Journaling has been an emotional and creative anchor for me for as long as I can remember. I got in the habit as a young girl, after coming across my poet-grandmother’s notebooks in the attic of our home, where I found her composition books filled with beautiful copperplate penmanship.

Her entries were a fascinating look into the daily life of a woman I never had the chance to meet, and, perhaps as a way to feel close to her, I was inspired to imitate her practice of keeping a personal notebook.

Since then, my journaling has evolved from passionate outpourings of the daily dramas of childhood, to become a rich canvas where I can untangle my moods, vent complaints, celebrate successes, make endless lists, play with ideas, draw, doodle, compose unsent letters and even conduct imaginary dialogues with people from the past and present.

One of the unfortunate side effects of a busy life and full schedule is the loss of connection to our inner world. As helping professionals, we can be particularly vulnerable to the habit of taking care of everyone else, before tending to our own needs.

By creating even a brief opening in the day to pause, take stock and reflect on thoughts and feelings in a journal, we establish a rich connection with ourselves in ways that can benefit us, our practice, and, by extension, our clients.

For massage therapists, who depend upon highly tuned skills of presence and intuition, journal-writing is a great tool for developing self-awareness and enhancing your intuition, paving the way to deeper connection with clients.

Beneath the Surface

Journaling requires the simplest of tools: a piece of paper and a pen. It can be done at any time and place, and take any number of creative forms.

A common form is the daily diary. Like an explorer’s log, it captures the details of your life’s experience—the thoughts, observations, daydreams, conversations and ideas that mark your daily journey.

The writer Anaïs Nin was passionate about chronicling life in her journals.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection,” she said. Keeping a detailed and vivid account of your life allows you to savor and relive the moments that might otherwise disappear from memory.

Over time, you are able to trace the path of your personal development and see the patterns that emerge in your life.

The real juice of journaling, however, comes from deeper forms of personal writing that facilitate an inner process, rather than a written product.

There are a number of writing techniques to help you to develop more self-understanding, and tap into thoughts and feelings that often lie beneath the surface and outside normal awareness.

The most basic form of process journaling is a loose, unstructured, and fluid form of writing called freewriting. The key to freewriting is to write quickly, recording whatever comes to mind, following the train of your thoughts wherever it leads.

Your goal is to keep the hand and pen moving, without censoring your words or worrying about spelling, grammar or handwriting. In other words, you are absolutely free to ignore all conventions of “good” writing.

Freewriting isn’t about crafting beautiful prose, it’s about being immediate, authentic and uncensored by the critical part of your mind.

“The purpose [of freewriting] is to invite the subconscious and unconscious minds to empty their purses on a table before you so that you may sift through and see what has been forgotten,” said journal therapist Kathleen Adams.

Freewriting is also a great way to “warm up the tissues” at the beginning of a journaling session, in order to loosen the flow of thoughts and clear a path for deeper work.

How to start keeping a journal that involves freewriting:  Take a notebook and pen, settle into a comfortable spot and give yourself a few minutes of uninterrupted time. Begin by writing down whatever words come into your mind. If it helps, you can start out by describing the details you notice in your immediate environment, through all of your senses:

What do you see, hear, smell, taste and feel? What captures your attention?

Perhaps it is the pattern of light and shadow on the wall, the sound of the traffic outside, the scent of your tea, or the texture of a cat’s fur.

Using observations to prime the writing pump, continue to record your thoughts as they arise, without regard for order or clarity.

Your entries may sound completely nonsensical, fragmented and disorganized. That’s fine. Keep going. If you seem to run out of thoughts, then write about that: “I can’t think of anything to say … this is going nowhere ….”

Keep your hand moving until the process starts flowing again, or a new direction arises. By writing quickly and freely, you keep a few steps ahead of the conscious, rational mind, out of reach of its critical and self-defeating commentary.

This form of journaling can be liberating. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, recommends a daily freewrite she calls morning pages as a tool for her creative recovery process.

“These daily morning meanderings are not meant to be art. Or even writing,” Cameron said. “Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included.”

Welcome the Critic

Eventually, you may bump squarely into a formidable enemy of honest and authentic journaling: the inner critic.

The critic’s negative inner commentary can show up in hidden ways: as confusion, procrastination, depression or creative blocks. It can come right out with cruel words that pop into your head when you make a mistake, or contemplate making a change or taking a creative risk.

The inner critic is there, ready to stop you in your tracks and keep you safely in your comfort zone.

How to start keeping a journal to make peace with the inner critic: Journaling is one of the best ways I know to become acquainted with the inner critic—and disarm it. Despite its hurtful and discouraging messages, the most effective way to engage with the critic is to bring it out of hiding, onto the page, with the intention of befriending it.

By working to understand the purpose it is trying to serve, you can turn it into an valuable ally in your personal development.

As a massage therapist, you know that the best way to work with a resistant muscle is not to add more resistance, but to approach it gently and compassionately—the same goes for working with your critical inner voices. Attacking them seems to have a way of turning up the volume and getting into a no-win battle.

To work with the inner critic in your journal, begin by getting to know it better. Pay attention when you hear its harsh and discouraging voice, and write down what you hear.

One massage therapist noticed that his inner critic showed up when he tried using new techniques with his clients, challenging his competence with comments like, “Don’t risk it, you don’t know what you’re doing, they may not like it.”

Another beginning therapist felt her confidence lapse around setting boundaries, when the inner critic tried to convince her, “You haven’t done enough, you’re shortchanging your client, you’ll never succeed at this.”

Keep an ear tuned to hear the voice of the inner critic, and expose all of its self-defeating words on the pages of your journal.

Most often, the inner critic is an amalgam of voices from the past: parents, teachers, childhood friends and authority figures whose outdated rules and limits we have internalized and kept alive for decades, often with the goal of protecting us from shame, rejection or alienation.

Dialogue with Your Critic

The next step, once you’ve recognized and become familiar with the critic’s habits, is to learn what its purpose is. To do this, try another journal-writing technique called dialoguing.

Dialoguing is an imaginary conversation between you and another element in your life—it could be a person, a part of your psyche, or even a body part that you want to understand—written in the form of a script.

Start by posing a few questions in your journal: “What is your positive intention? What are you trying, in your own misguided way, to protect me from? What would happen if I chose not to listen to you?” Pause and listen for an answer. Here’s a sample from my journal:

Me: Dear inner critic, I’ve noticed how hard you come down on me just when I am starting to feel successful and optimistic. Your criticism makes me feel so discouraged and sad and prevents me from really allowing happiness into my life. Why would you do this? What are you trying to protect me from?

Inner critic: Remember the time when you got that award in third grade, and you felt so proud?

Later that day, one of your classmates laughed at you in front of everyone and said that you were selfish and a bragger. Well, you may have forgotten that, but I haven’t. I don’t ever want you to feel that pain again, so I’m going to remind you not to get too proud or full of yourself.

Me: Well,I understand that you want to protect me from pain, but I really don’t need that kind of help from you anymore. How about working together?

I am an adult now, and I can handle it when other people try to rain on my parade. You can help me by being my cheerleader, and remind me to savor the good times.

The inner critic often responds, as do many frightened and neglected creatures, to a little attention, understanding and validation. Give dialoguing with your critical voices a try, and relieve the critic of its long worn-out duties. Life is just too short to harbor an inner saboteur.

More Ease

Keeping a journal offers the promise of a deep and rewarding relationship with the most important person in your life: yourself.

By writing to enhance your self-acceptance and compassion, you can build more ease in your emotional center, in your mind, and in the work you share with your hands.

About the Author:

Ann Hawkins, MFT, is a marriage and family therapist and a former massage therapist for 13 years. She uses personal writing with clients in her psychotherapy practice, and teaches journal-writing classes through her company, The Journal Workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area.