Write It Down

In AMC’s award-winning TV series Mad Men, the lead character Don Draper — a man with deep internal conflicts and significant character flaws — starts to write down his thoughts and reflections about people and events in his daily life. During the brief period he was doing this, he stopped drinking and quickly became a better man. Unfortunately for the character (but fortunately for the plot line), the journal-writing and the commitment to change lasted for only a short time, but it’s still a powerful and dramatic point applicable to everyone.

For years, I have recommended that people keep a journal. Not just people in emotional or personal crisis, but everyone. It’s one of the hardest things to motivate somebody to do, and yet once done, one of the most effective.

An online columnist at ririanproject.com sums up the concept: ”Instead of thinking of a journal as a diary ‘ in which you merely relate the day’s events, think of it as a container for self reflection, self-expression and self exploration. Retelling the day’s events is less relevant than the act of expressing your thoughts.  ‘ There’s nothing like putting pen to paper to instill you with a sense of optimism ‘ about your goals or aspirations. The act of writing something down always makes it more real, more concrete than merely thinking it.’ I couldn’t agree more.

It all comes down to living the examined life. We live in an age of acronyms (LOL, OMG, etc.), superficial sound bites, half-baked ideas and not-fully-thought-out emotions. It’s the mental equivalent of eating only fast-food. Everybody is capable of thinking deeper and most everybody has a need to think more self-reflectively. In fact, a lot of the ‘symptoms’ of so-called ‘attention deficit disorder,’ depression, anxiety and substance abuse are a reflection of not living an examined life.

So why not give it a try? Consider these sample questions:

‘What emotions do I feel right now?’

‘What percentage of today (0 to 100) did I experience each of the following emotions: Anger, sadness, irritation, joy, contentment, anxiety, disappointment, frustration?’

‘Which people or situations stand out most about today?’

‘What attitudes did I exhibit within myself (or towards others) today? Was I pessimistic, cautious, gloomy, upbeat, energetic, lethargic? Which of these was I aware of that nobody else was aware of?’

‘What issues did I resolve, even partially, today?’

‘What attitude do I wish to project tomorrow?’

‘Did I feel like a victim today? Could I have made different choices in order to feel less like that?’

‘Would my ideal hero operate like I did today? If not, what would he (or she) do differently? I know that mindset/attitudes are as important as actions.’

Of course, these are only examples to get you started. Use your own experiences to get creative and generate your own personal approach to a journal.

Regular readers of this column know that I always encourage introspection as a way to solve just about any emotional conflict. To introspect means to live the examined life; to apply focus, thought and awareness to the emotions you’re experiencing. By looking at your emotions objectively, you can correct contradictions in your thinking before they lead to more serious problems. Contradictions are sneaky! They can ‘hide out’ in your emotions, and if you’re not in the habit of taking a close look at how you feel, the result can be faulty decision-making and the turmoil that comes with it. Keeping a regular journal can give you that insight. By writing down your feelings without censorship, and then examining them objectively, you can determine if you are, in fact, expecting contradictory things.

I can hear the responses now: ‘I don’t have the time. It’s not worth the effort.’ (People say the same thing about therapy, counseling and self-reflection in general.) Well, at least that’s honest. But is it true? Think about it from this angle: Do you really have the time for unexplained depression, unexpressed anger and frustration? Are you OK with feeling like a victim and whining about how you ‘had a bad day?’ These things take up your valuable time and sap your energy and sense of well-being, slowly and insidiously. It just seems to me that life’s too short to put up with all that unnecessary emotional clutter.

If I’ve learned anything in my 20+ years of counseling people, it’s that most emotional difficulties can be best treated through prevention. Leading an examined life, keeping tabs on your feelings with a journal, and looking objectively at what you write down will surely help to prevent problems that can make your life less enjoyable than it should be. So why not start now?