Understanding ourselves and others: Why we should journal regularly

A drawing of a student journaling.
(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

“I need space,” I said, assessing my critically low phone storage. The main culprit was my photos — nearly 4,000 of them. We’ve all run into this dilemma at one point. The solution for me was copying all of my photos to an external hard drive, a convenient way of storing my photos in one secure place while leaving me with the space I needed. Overall, the process gave me peace of mind.

It was also a process much like one near to my heart: journaling. When we journal, we’re conveying information from one place to another, from the mind to the pen and onto the paper. Like transferring files, journaling frees up crucial space and gives us room to organize our thoughts deliberately and thoughtfully.

I cannot overstate the benefits of journaling. It helps with the most difficult aspects of life. Via journaling, we can harmlessly lean into what we so often try to ignore: our most difficult thoughts, feelings and behaviors. After journaling on these difficult topics, we grow in resiliency and vulnerability. I rely on journaling as a lifelong tool for happiness and health — and you can too.

Imagine that you are a pot of water. Slosh. Now, place yourself on a stove. Clank. Turn on the heat. Tsk-tsk-tsk-WHOOSH! Slowly, your water heats up, and eventually, it comes to a full boil, steam and bubbles galore. Now, turn off the heat and watch your water resettle.

Much like the pot of water, we are affected by our environment all the time. Sometimes, our environment makes us feel good, like when we go outside on a clear, sunny day. Other times, it makes us feel like living is impossible. Ultimately, our environment elicits reactions in our bodies outside of our control, which can be overwhelming — like a pot boiling over. 

Our bodies respond to our environment in three principal ways: our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. In “Trauma Treatment Toolbox for Teens,” Kristina Hallett and Jill Donelan offer an easy way to understand the difference between the three: For thoughts, we say “I tell myself”; for feelings, we say “I feel”; for behaviors, we say “I do.” 

When journaling, try identifying your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors this way — it can help you make sense of an environment that made you boil over.

Journaling makes up for the shortcomings of our limited human abilities, especially our abilities in real time. It’s impossible for us to control our bodies’ reactions. We can’t capture the activity of the pot of boiling water at any given moment, especially when it’s boiling over.

Similarly, the control we can exert over our bodies’ reactions to its environment is limited by our perception. Our brains, no matter how advanced in comparison to those of other species, are limited in their perceptions of our experiences. 

Each time we journal, we expose our minds to a more holistic understanding of our day-to-day. We suddenly remember more and more — where we were, what we did, how we felt, what we learned and what we saw. By writing, we allow ourselves the ability to explore our experiences in different ways. We are forced to think about every aspect of our experiences, and thus, we write better narratives. We practice asking more of ourselves by breaking the shell of complacency. With practice, we get better at journaling and, ultimately, understanding.

Journaling is not a cure-all. It is a private, intimate experience, simultaneously its own purpose and limitation. We cannot practically expect to lean on ourselves all the time: We have to rely on our support network also. This looks different for everyone, and sometimes it means that we have to seek out professional help. 

However, there are some barriers in the way of getting that help, such as limited accessibility — financial or circumstantial — and social stigma. As for the latter, journaling has taught me that exploring emotions is okay, and it is my sincere hope that everyone can reach an understanding of themselves so that we may all be more understanding of each other.

Journaling isn’t supposed to be a perfect, exact science. It’s all about what you make of it, and that is what is most important. By journaling, we write and make our own narratives — the purest form of control one can attain in life. The one rule of journaling you must be held to is summarized in the phrase “honesty is the best policy.” You owe it to yourself to live a narrative that you feel captures your honest truth.

An earlier version of this article, “On Journaling,” was self-published on Medium on Dec. 25, 2020.

Guest writer Alfredo “Fredo” Eladio Moreno PO ’22 recently listened to “Ctrl” by SZA all the way through. He has a dogmatic obsession with Charli XCX and Bad Bunny and is patiently waiting for their collab album to drop.

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