The Free, Daily Habit I've Kept For 6 Years That Makes Me Mentally & Emotionally Strong
I started journaling when I was in college. As an introvert who absolutely delights in uninterrupted, early mornings and empty nights of canceled plans, I am happy to spend an hour or so curled somewhere quiet, writing. Most of what I write about has included interesting conversations I had during the day, thoughts on a recently finished book or article I just read, pains and disappointments from the past, something new I learned that blew my mind, a list of random thoughts that loosely fall under a category, and sometimes a sporadic burst of all my hopes, goals, and dreams.
Journaling carries the essential idea of privacy — and that helps me write without restraint or filter. There is no one to please (except for my future self). My journals eventually became home, and writing in them with no reservation became a habit. As years flew by, I found myself happy to have a personal record of a real-time, honest version of my life story.
The more I read my past writings, the more I realize that my most favorite parts are usually the grossly honest ones — those raw with pain and disappointment and those with fervent, unabashed hope. With that, I am happy to share some of the favorite things I learned from journaling every day for six years.
Having a written record of all the lessons I learned helps me to be more realistic in approaching my past.
It is so easy for me to fall into the trap of romanticising the past as if it was some distant land with no disappointments or pain. I am aware of how a slight change in my comfortable, well-established routine can cause me to have a false memory that “what used to be is so much better.”
I used to subconsciously think that life resembles that line in algebra with a steady, upward slope — gradually getting better. But the more I read my previous journal entries, the more I understand that life, for the most part, doesn’t actually get consistently better or easier. You get tougher; but sometimes, you just move on. I look back at those specific times (like when I was still in my sales job), and I am astonished at how I had survived that. I cannot imagine ever going back there. It was (it still is and will always be) a stretch for me and my introverted personality that I am just relieved to pass that particular season of my life. I have gleaned what life lesson I can, and it is time to move on. Looking back in retrospect is always a humbling experience: you are able to identify which of the things that helped you succeed are from hard work, and which of them are just a fortunate stroke of serendipity.
Re-reading my old journals helps me deal with my present challenges wisely.
In this astonishing age of content overload, I know that in order for me to stay sane, there has to be a way to think about what goes in my head critically and filter what stays in there. Sometimes, after paying a little more attention to the content I consume, I see a pattern. When I journal, I discover how much I know about a certain topic, all coming from different interactions or conversations.
I have encountered people who would take credit for the work I did which, to my horror, apparently happens more times than you’d think. But instead of the knee-jerk response to be upset or confused, I can calmly remind myself that I did the work — and I have written records of me obsessing over it in my journal to prove it!
Writing with my future self in mind gives me the ability to be honest about my biases and confront my weaknesses.
There is something so simple and beautiful that gets sent to my brain’s motivation center every time I flip to a blank new page. It’s so delightful to see that divide between that last page that has been written on and the next blank page, empty and waiting for new words. Cliché or not, blank pages for me represents hope, more than uncertainty.
I love how I can look back at some of my personal thoughts while working on a project or going through a transition. Like when I had to replicate an event I organized a few months ago, it was almost like being able to access my past self and get to re-live my previous struggles, and at the same time, take comfort that I have gone through them before and survived them — and I can do that again. I also love the time I wrote about my thoughts and feelings when I transitioned jobs. I know that should I switch jobs, no matter how difficult the process is, and I already have a source of empathy and encouragement I can draw from.
It sounds weird, but because you know yourself the most, reliving your past experiences is the best way to convince yourself to make a better decision now. Whenever I write in my journal, I am not afraid to write honestly why I am choosing to quit my job or to spend a lot of money on a pair of shoes or a big trip. Not only did it help me arrive at a decision when I made it, but I have also benefited from my previous choices years after by learning from my mistakes, because I had written them down.
Also, my old journals are honestly free entertainment for me. I cannot count how many times I laughed at myself for all the drama and petty things I invested so much of my emotions in years ago. After enough time has passed, it may be healthy to get a good laugh at some of the epic mistakes our past selves have done. Not being riled by the same small things now as when we were in college freshman is a pretty cool reminder that we have matured (even if only a little bit).
Awareness of my emotional and mental state helped me survive a brush of depression.
When I was in college, when I was sure I was going through a phase of depression, I remember writing down that I did not want to wake up the next day. If it would not get any better, I would rather not wake up. By end of the semester, one of my favorite professors in one of my morning classes casually told me that he was happy to see me every morning, and that he appreciated that I never missed his morning classes. I remember pondering his thoughtful words until I got home and I chanced upon the entry in my journal where I had specifically written: I would rather not wake up tomorrow. The next morning (conspicuously upset that I had woken up), I had written: I don’t want to get up.
Having been reminded of how I felt, my professor’s words were like a warm reminder and assurance that people are more thoughtful and more caring than we give them credit for. That moment to me was a reminder that someone somehow pays attention to me, sees my struggles, and recognizes the strength in simply getting up in the morning.