journaling for healing: 15 tips

anyone who uses writing for therapeutic purposes should read louise de salvo’s writing as a way of healing. quite a bit of what she writes is based on james w. pennebaker’s research on writing and health (do go to his web site, he has all kinds of neat little tests on it).

one of the main ideas behind de salvo’s and pennebaker’s work is that in order for writing to be therapeutic, it needs to both describe events and the feelings connected with them. de salvo offers a helpful list of do’s and don’ts, which i’ve reproduced here, with only a few changes:

do’s

  1. write twenty minutes a day over a period of four days. do this periodically. this way you won’t feel overwhelmed.
  2. write in a private, safe, comfortable environment.
  3. write about issues you’re currently living with, something you’re thinking or dreaming about constantly, a trauma you’ve never disclosed or discussed or resolved.
  4. write about joys and pleasures, too.
  5. write about what happened. write, too, about feelings about what happened. what do you feel? why do you feel this way?
  6. link events with feelings.
  7. try to write in a detailed, vivid, emotionally compelling way. don’t worry about correctness, about grammar or punctuation.
  8. beneficial effects will occur even if no one reads your writing. if you choose to keep your writing and not discard it, make sure to safeguard it.
  9. expect, initially, that in writing in this way you will have complex and perhaps difficult feelings. make sure you get support if you need to.

don’ts

  1. don’t use writing as a substitute for taking action.
  2. don’t become overly intellectual.
  3. don’t use writing as a way of complaining (isabella’s comment: although there can be usefulness in that, too, if you do it in a structured way – stay tuned for a follow-up post on that).
  4. don’t use your writing to discover how and why you feel as you do.
  5. don’t use your writing to become overly self-absorbed. overanalyzing everything is counterproductive.
  6. don’t use writing as a substitute for therapy or medical care.

if journaling is something that you’d like to do but haven’t been able to start or keep up, drop me a line, and we can arrange for a free 30-minute talk, face-to-face, online or via telephone.

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

17 thoughts on “journaling for healing: 15 tips

  1. sziilvia nyari

    Find your website very helpfull, especially about journaling the feelings. It worked out for me today! Being in relationship with bipolar is sometimes hard, making me feeling very lonely. Anyway, as some people say, paper can take (bear) a lot and writing is helpfull in sorting out thoughts and emotions.

  2. isabella mori

    i’m glad to hear it worked out for you! love the idea of “paper can take a lot of writing”. actually, it reminds me, when i was young, there was often a saying that a diary is one’s best friend.

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  6. Gareth

    I would very much like to see an expansion of the “Don’ts… #4 use your writing to discover how and why you feel as you do.”

    My journal is often a interogatory tool for me.

    Thank you,
    Gareth

  7. Scott

    Gotta say that I disagree with all of the don’ts and most of the do’s. The thing about journalling is that it needs to be free. There is a lot of value in just writing what comes into your head, without worrying about a list of “dos and don’ts.”

    I’m a writer, and there are times when I am self-absorbed and overly intellectual, when I complain loudly and bitterly, when I explore my feelings and thoughts and when I use my writing for therapy.

    I think the best advice about writing can be summed up as: “Just write.” There is no right way or wrong way to write, especially when writing something as personal and important as a journal. Just get a pen and some paper and write 3 pages a day of whatever comes into your head.

  8. kristen

    Dear Isabelle, I just finsihed reading Louise’s book and it was life-chaninging. So supportive and so logical. I just finished a memoir of time I spent in a religious cult in which I was sexually, physically and spiritually abused. Writing was an integral part of my healing. The book si called “Losing the Way” and will be out in June. (I hope you’ll check out my website. ) I’m giving a talk in June about this very subject at the International Cultic Studies Association annual conference.I really appreciate your website and all the valuable information you have here. It’s daunting but it’s great! keep up the good work. I look forward to reading more! kristen

  9. John D

    Thanks for reprinting this. It’s a subject close to my heart. For a long time, writing in journals was the only thing that helped me deal with my feelings, esp depression and the only way I could keep going as a writer. I couldn’t agree more that writing about feelings is especially powerful – but for me that writing comes in the midst of a lot that doesn’t go that deeply. I tend to agree with Scott’s comment that writers write and can’t follow rules. (By writer I mean someone who by temperament writes about experience or anything else for that matter because that’s their natural bent. It has nothing to do with the profession or publication.) As I’ve mentioned before, there is a state of mind/feeling I get into while writing that in itself is healing – that’s part of my process. For a long time, however, I was seriously blocked in trying to express some of the deepest emotional turmoil. Blogging helped to get me past that last inner barrier. Also, at one point, Julia Cameron’s idea of morning pages was quite helpful – she emphasizes just doing the writing every day, not worrying about what its content is. I think the do’s and don’ts might work as guidance for those who are not so used to writing – that could be true also of the structured exercises I often see in the context of therapeutic writing. I need to learn more about the experimental studies to compare that data with my own experience. Thanks for reprinting this – it’s got me thinking – as your blog always does.

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  12. Anne Milner

    I found your “dos” and your first “don’t “helpful and supportive but then anxiety kicked in. Now I’ll be editing what I’m journalling as I go along. No whining or complaining. I’ll feel guilty if I do. The whole purpose of the journalling will be annulled. What are you thinking of?

  13. isabella mori (@moritherapy)

    hi anne – thanks for leaving a comment. let’s make this clear: these are just suggestions! if journaling has worked for you so far, please don’t mess with it. please take what you like and leave the rest.

    here’s a question that you might find interesting: what do you find useful in letting a few “experts” stimulate your guilt?

    this is not a rhetorical question, by the way. it’s possible that in answering it, you might gain some insights.

    now it’s my turn to ask, “what do you think?”

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