The dark side of journaling

The power of journaling is in the discovery. But what if you don’t like what you find?

Like Luke Skywalker entering the Dark Side Cave, you may find yourself facing a Darth Vader version of yourself. Honest reflection through journaling can reveal our weak and shadowy parts. Therein lies its power. And it’s perhaps why so few engage in it. “Ignorance is bliss,” as someone once put it, “and some live in ecstasy.”

The dark side of journaling


It takes courage to journal honestly, reflectively. In previous posts I’ve written about why I gave journaling another try and my approach to journaling. Over the past two years that I’ve been journaling, I’ve had my share of dark side encounters. I’ve whipped myself for missed deadlines, things I should have said, bad habits, miss opportunities, and selfish motivations. All the while, I noticed recurring patterns of thought—shame-based thinking (“I’m a bad person”)—that I’d been harboring for a long time.

It would have been easy to give endless repetition to this kind of thinking. Day after day I could have written, “Here we go again,” and whined about my hopeless state. And there were days, I admit, that I did just that. Continually doing so, however, would have taken me further into the cave by reinforcing the shame and causing it to trigger more frequently. Neuroscientists refer to this as myelination. Each time a thought is repeated, a insulating material called myelin is layered onto to our neurons causing us to fire that thought more quickly in the future. It’s why the Apostle Paul warned us to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

What you and I think about forms a powerful weapon: our story, the inner story we believe about the world and our role in it. Journaling exposes our inner narrative. We may not like what we see, but we cannot honestly reflect for long without coming face-to-face with our darker selves.

When you uncover things you don’t like about yourself, it’s important to reframe your story so that you don’t get bogged down by a morass of critical introspection. Here’s how:

Observe. Take note of times you’re journaling critically. If there’s repetition around the same area of critique, a narrative is forming. Note what you’re telling yourself.

Project. Ask if what you are writing about yourself is consistent with the person you want to become. Answering this question forms the conviction to reject the recurring and critical narrative and embrace your ability to grow.

Rewrite. Journal about your learnings not your present condition. Counter self-criticism with truth as if you’re the already the person you want to be. Then act on what you’ve learned.

While there were a few times over the last two years when I slid deeper into the cave of my own shame-based thinking, I can confidently say that I’ve learned more about myself in these past two years of reflective journaling than the 20 that preceded it. I’ve become, as Brene’ Brown puts it, more shame resilient. Fortunately, that’s making me more like the person I have in mind.

What are some of the ways you’ve steered clear of the dark side of journaling?

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2 thoughts on “The dark side of journaling

  1. Leary,
    I find the premise you share here about observing when you have a ‘trend’ of sorts in your journaling where you experience and write through a shame-based perspective and how you can embrace your ability to grow and change rather that remain where you are. My favorite point: “Counter self-criticism with truth as if you’re the already the person you want to be. Then act on what you’ve learned.” That is one empowering perspective and approach to using journaling to change your life for the better and love yourself from the inside out.

    I have chosen your post, The Dark Side of Journaling, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 8/27/13 for all things journaling on Twitter; a link will be posted on the social networks, on my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in my weekly Refresh Journal:

    #JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST, for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic this week is Your Journaling: List Love.

    This post gives some food for thought; thank you!

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    Your Refreshment Specialist
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
    Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child

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