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September 3, 2021 — 11:08 AM
Sometimes, the only thing that’s harder than writing in your journal is reading your journal. While scanning previous writing can be cringey, especially if you were going through a hard time, Elena Welsh, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of the Getting to Good guided journal, says it can also be super therapeutic. Here’s how Welsh recommends reflecting for maximum personal insights.
How to read through your old journal entries with a critical eye.
Before getting started with this exercise, you’ll want to grab a pen or highlighter, as you’ll be marking up the text.
As you read back over your old entries, Welsh recommends circling, underlining, or highlighting any time you exaggerated, put yourself down, or got caught in a negative thought loop.
You can do this as frequently or infrequently as you like. Some might find value in doing it weekly or monthly, while others might choose to wait until they’re further removed from the subject matter. If you find that the practice makes it harder for you to write freely and openly, you might want to do it less frequently or stop altogether.
Whenever and whatever you’re reviewing—be it a gratitude journal, mindfulness journal, or even a dream journal—you’ll probably notice certain themes starting to come up. Keep a close eye out for ruminative thoughts—those sticky ones that you keep repeating without getting anywhere. For example, you might spend multiple entries beating yourself up for the same mistake or wishing a certain experience wasn’t happening.
These are the entries that could use some more probing. But once you see them written plainly on the page, you might find it easier to untangle them, challenge them, and start to move on from them. “In order to get yourself somewhere, you can think about what questions a therapist would ask to help you explore these things,” Welsh says, suggesting the following:
- Why was/is this bothering me so much? What else is it bringing up for me?
- When was a time that I’ve felt this before? What helped me start to feel better?
- What’s an emotion that I want to feel that I wasn’t feeling in these entries?
- When’s a time that I was doing really well? What was I doing differently?
Since exaggerated and repetitive emotions are often rooted in something else, any question that helps you uncover their deeper meaning will be helpful. “It’s less about what the question is and more about considering how you can move forward past this circular process and understand it better,” she says.
If you’re curious to take this exercise even further, you can also use these questions as jumping-off points for future journal entries. Or, if unpacking them alone feels too daunting, they can also be things to raise with a therapist or mental health professional.
Welsh says this unique process can help you “notice, and thus start to shift, unhelpful habits you might have.” It can also serve as a valuable reminder that all thoughts and experiences—even the ones that feel monumental at the time—will eventually pass and make way for something new.
And even if you don’t feel like you’re getting any helpful nuggets out of this practice, remember that setting aside time for self-reflection is always valuable. Welsh says that this is part of what makes therapy so impactful: It’s a commitment to checking in with yourself and processing what’s been going on in your life.
“Part of what is happening when someone is in therapy is not only that they’re getting professional support, but they’re setting an hour aside each week or biweekly to check in with themselves and take time for their mental health,” she says. “You can think about journaling in the same way.”
Set yourself up for success with a good night’s sleep.*
While you certainly don’t have to read through old entries to reap the benefits of journaling, doing so can add another layer to the process. Asking yourself questions about negative thought patterns that emerge, or working through them with a therapist, may help you start to close the (literal) book on them and start fresh.