Another disappointment. Another argument. Another burnout. I know I’m not the only one. Everyone I talk to these days is busy. Everyone has a list of things that needs to get done. I’m right there too. I’ve got a list of things to get done that never gets done. For every item I take off, a new item gets added on.
Notifications dominate my life. Email notifications, reminder notifications, Facebook notifications, and alarms. It’s the only way I stay as productive as I do. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.
In a quiet moment, I realized that my notifications are my path in life at the moment, and I’m living in a reactive and unintentional way as I struggle to juggle my numerous responsibilities. I’m a notification and list crunching machine – and like a machine, I feel far from human at times. I bet if you’re reading this far you can identify with that sentiment.
I’ve (re)discovered something that makes a tremendous difference in my life, something that takes it from unintentional living to intentional living. Something that throws humanity back into the equation. It’s a tool that takes the unknowable or overwhelming and makes them knowable and bite-sized. That something is reflective journaling. Stay with me as I show you what I mean in five straightforward steps.
1. Find a quiet place.
The first critical step is to shut off all notifications and interruptions. Be intentional about finding a space that you can relax in – you might need to explore and compare some options. Bring a warm drink (if you’re in a chilly northern environment at this season). The warmth helps stimulate your nervous system into a relaxed state. This relaxation is important because the next steps will require as much vulnerability as you are comfortable mustering. The more, the merrier.
2. Write down a thought.
Sounds simple, right? I mean, if you’re like me, you have over five thoughts to choose from at any given moment. I’ve found that for this to be effective, though, it needs to be a thought that troubles you. A thought that relates back to you. Most people choose thoughts about important relationships and that’s perfect, although not necessary. The important thing is that this thought is something that you’re invested in. Your first thought doesn’t have to be huge. In fact, keep it bite-sized. It’s the first of many you’ll grapple with.
Write it down in a journal, on a computer, or on a phone.
Hand-writing is better at involving more of your brain, which promotes focus. This isn’t always practical, and it’s not a rule I live by. My computer written notes find their way into a handwritten journal at some point, however, and this enhances the reflection in its own way.
Find a journal that you can dedicate to this ongoing reflection, and keep it for your eyes only. That will further help you to be vulnerable with yourself. Even the thought of someone else potentially reading your writing can stifle you and hijack the effectiveness of this activity.
3. Write down a feeling about that thought.
This is where it gets gritty. This is where it gets human. This is where the change begins. This is also where it can quickly get uncomfortable, as we are all at varying places of vulnerability and familiarity with ourselves. If you’ve read this far, I applaud you for your bravery. Not everyone is ready for this.
Recognizing your feelings about a thought is where we get vulnerable. We’re prone to judge our feelings. I’m going to ask you to set aside your judgment for now – you can bring your judgment back in after you’ve worked on yourself.
Recognizing your feelings about a thought is where we get vulnerable.
Our feelings bring valuable information to us, and in an unintentional life, they will dominate us. An unintentional life is an unexamined life. Our feelings go no further than reactions at this point, and that makes us prone to hurting ourself, others, and prone to being used and manipulated. Sounds ugly? It is. This is why it is critical to be aware of our feelings.
I say feelings in plural, because the more aware of your sense of feeling you become, the more aware you will be of many feelings associated with a single thought. I wager that the conflict that has you as invested in your thought as you are comes from a conflict between two or more feelings. Name them, write them down, and you can begin to own them and the circumstances that create them.
4. Write down a thought about that feeling.
This step is critical too. Why? It brings in balance and keeps you in your adult brain. This is where you can bring in your judgments about your thoughts and your feelings. I encourage that. This will allow you to step back for a moment, and look at yourself like in a mirror. Writing down a thought about a feeling keeps you from getting lost in your feelings and vulnerability, and being left raw by the whole exercise of journaling.
This is also a critical point to choose (willfully) to have compassion on yourself. You don’t get to choose your reactions, and you don’t always get to choose your initial judgments. So when you look at what your emotional reactions have been, and what your critical judgments have been, you can now intentionally choose to see the struggle you’ve been in as a part of your human experience. That experience led you to this point of self-awareness. Honor that experience by accepting where you’ve been, and that you are on your way to intentionally creating a better environment for yourself.
As you become aware of what thoughts trigger what emotional reactions and what emotional reactions trigger certain thoughts and judgments, you become aware of what patterns lead to those thoughts and reactions. When you become aware of those patterns, you can begin to think creatively about what CAN change and what NEEDS to change. Compassion is acknowledging your experience of suffering, recognizing suffering when you see it in yourself and others, and allowing yourself to be emotionally affected by it to make a positive difference about that suffering.
5. Rinse, repeat.
You’re on your way to living more intentionally because you’re becoming more aware of how life is impacting you. That awareness will gift you opportunities to change – take them.
Rinse and repeat is where you dive back into step three and write down a feeling or two about your latest thought. By moving between your thoughts and your feelings continually, you’re integrating them into your lived experience of life, and earning mastery over them. You’re becoming more intentional and less reactionary.
Have patience with yourself. You’re on your own journey here, and you’ll be able to look back in time to see your growth. No one else can do this journey for you.
Be vulnerable, this is where life impacts you. That’s scary and uncomfortable, believe me, I know. You face the ugliness in you, but you also create space for the beauty.
Be vulnerable, this is where life impacts you.
Be honest. You’ll be tempted at times to edit out what you’ve written. Don’t. Your edit comes when you face your internal ugliness, learn from it, and crucify it. You can only deal with what you are aware of; editing out your thoughts allows you to ignore them again.
When things go sideways…
If you face something that threatens to overwhelm you, there is help. While no one can do this journey for you, there are people who dedicate their lives to helping you on your journey. Counsellors, therapists, psychologists, and religious clergy and elders. They’re guides, and each of them can help in their own ways; they’re human, and you may need help from more than one. Don’t give up. It takes bravery to face your demons, and we all can use a hand sometimes.
Don’t let fear keep you from seeking help – your helpers will be impacted by your story, yes, but rest assured that they’ve heard more in their lives than you dare imagine. They’ll connect you with help outside themselves if they don’t have the right skills – it’s their ethical responsibility.
This is the most valuable journey you can be on, and it will pay dividends out in every other area of your life, I promise you.
From a Christian to a Christian, let me encourage you:
We believe that God wants us to submit our whole life to Him. We desire to live moral and righteous lives. We desire to be approved and holy. This journaling is hard, because it brings us to our knees, face first with what we don’t want to see in ourselves.
Paul tells us to present our lives to God as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2). Maybe you’ve struggled with this. You’ve prayerfully submitted your life over and over again to God, and still, you fall for your old vices and sins. I’m going to argue that you can only submit what you are aware of. God honors our prayer of total sacrifice, and He gifts us with a growing awareness of our fallen nature to gift us with a growing capacity to face our darkness and allow Him to replace it with His light.
Do not be afraid of the fallen nature you bear. Jesus has taken it all on Himself already through the scorn of the cross – nothing you discover about yourself will surprise Him. His resurrection from the dead is His declaration of power over the dead bones you are afraid to find. The good news–the Gospel–is that He has come to take your dead bones and heart of stone to replace them with life and a heart of flesh. This is the redemption that is His kingdom come, and you can intentionally take part in it today. I’m cheering you on. This is life beyond salvation, and it’s life abundant.