We often can’t explain our own feelings. We may see ourselves act or respond or feel a certain way, but we don’t really know why. While certain mental illnesses are chemical in nature and should be treated with medications and therapy, one key to better mental health in general is simply to get to know ourselves better—to learn why we feel a certain way, or why we react as we do in certain situations. Regular journaling can be a powerful tool to generate better self-awareness.
The benefits of journaling on mental health are well documented. We know, for example, that journaling can:
- Reduce stress;
- Improve mood and help regulate emotions;
- Improve memory;
- Improve mental discipline; and
- Reduce the effects of anxiety and depression.
There is even research to suggest that regular journaling can boost the immune system and reduce the effects of autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. But one of the most powerful effects of journaling is an improvement in mindfulness, including self-awareness. By putting your thoughts on paper regularly, you can process feelings, trigger memories and unlock motivations you didn’t realize you had.
With these thoughts in mind, let’s explore five specific journaling exercises or techniques that can help you know yourself better.
1. Free Association Writing
This technique is perhaps the easiest because there are simply no rules—you write whatever is in your mind, good or bad, cohesive or fragmented. One thought can lead to another, and nothing is off limits. For some, this process may be immediately therapeutic; for others who crave structure, it can be challenging at first. But free writing can help you uncover buried memories, dusty corners of your mind, or emotions you haven’t visited in some time. Over time, you’ll become more familiar with how your own mind works.
2. Mind Mapping
Mind mapping also encourages free association, but with (a little) more structure than free writing. With this technique, start with a word, phrase or topic, write it in the center of the page and circle it. As that word or phrase triggers other thoughts, write those words/phrases around the first word, circle them and use lines to connect them. Continue to create new branches as new words trigger new associations, and watch your page fill with ideas that might otherwise seem random, but are connected by association. This technique is especially useful for creatives or right-brained people who struggle to wordsmith their thoughts into sentence form.
3. Write About a Photograph
With this exercise, you select a photograph (any photo will do) and begin journaling your thoughts about that photograph. If you don’t know what to write, start by describing the photo and branch out into thoughts and feelings. Why did you select that picture? Are there people in the picture? What are they doing? What feelings or memories does the photo evoke? We tend to respond viscerally to images, which means you can learn a lot about yourself by journaling your responses to one.
4. Write a Letter
In this journaling exercise, you’ll write a letter that supposedly you will never send. You can write the letter to yourself, to a friend, to a relative, to someone in your past, or to any significant person in your life. Say whatever you want to say to that person, without judging your own words or thoughts. This exercise can be very cathartic because our mental health habits are not formed in a vacuum but in relations to others. Writing the letter can also uncover triggering mechanisms that explain why you might react a certain way.
5. Use Sentence Starters for Self-Discovery
A fifth useful journaling technique that encourages self-exploration is to begin with a sentence stem, sentence starter or self-reflective question. Here are a few examples that might get you started:
- What makes me madder than anything?
- If I could visit my five-year-old self, what would I say?
- When do I feel most content or at peace?
- A perfect day for me would be…
These starters can be quite useful because they help you start a line of thinking that can help you uncover some interesting truths about yourself and how you feel about things. This article offers a helpful list of thirty other starters.
The better you know yourself and what makes you tick, the easier it becomes to process negative thoughts and feelings in a productive way. For most of us, that challenge is half the battle.