Keeping a journal has been a significant blessing in my life ever since my mom gave me my first journal for my ninth birthday. Journaling helps me keep my life in order, work out my thoughts, and process the things that happen to me. Over the years, I’ve learned a few things—both about how how to keep a journal and about what all that life experience has taught me. And sometimes, the act of writing a journal itself can provide important lessons for other areas of our lives as well. Here are seven life lessons I’ve learned from keeping a journal.
Consistency Makes Intimidating Things Easier
It’s far easier to stick with the habit of keeping a journal if you do it consistently, and the same can be said about anything that matters to us. If we want to write a book, we have to write regularly and often. If we want to run a marathon, we have to stick to a training schedule. If we want to train our bodies to wake up earlier, we have to consistently get up earlier. Over time, our regular, daily practice will make these things easier for us.
I’ve been trying to take better care of my body lately, but still struggling to find make the time to exercise. Brett recently made the suggestion that since I write in my journal and study my scriptures consistently every morning, I could do my exercising right after that. While I haven’t made it work—yet—I know that he’s right. The better I am about being consistent at exercise, the easier it will become. (At least, I hope so…)
It can be so easy to look at the first blank page in a new journal and dread the thought of messing it up. What if your handwriting doesn’t look nice? What if you make a mistake and have to scribble it out? What if your doodles aren’t pretty? What if you make yourself look like a fool?
I’ve had the opportunity to read the journals of a few of my ancestors, and I can honestly say that I never once paid any attention to their handwriting. Scribbles didn’t bother me. Doodles were a delight, even if they were rudimentary. And I was just so thrilled to be reading the words of my forebears that nothing else really mattered. Holding that tangible record of their lives was precious to me, imperfections and all.
Likewise, worrying ourselves over perfection in our everyday lives is completely unnecessary. Yes, we are taught in scripture to strive for perfection, but that perfection is a completeness that only comes from accepting the Savior’s Atonement and striving to be like Him. When we make mistakes in our journal, we can correct them with white out or cover them with washi tape. When we make mistakes in our lives, we can correct them with repentance and cover them with the Savior’s sacrifice. Daily journal writing can improve our handwriting, and daily practice at the things we struggle with can help us become more Christlike. When we make mistakes, we can learn from them and do better next time.
Only when we let go of toxic perfectionism can we embrace progress and grow into the people we want to become.
How it Actually Happened
Do you ever try to describe the plot of a movie to someone, and then you watch the movie and realize you got some of the details wrong? You were so sure things happened the way you described, but you didn’t have it quite right. Memories of our own lives are often the same. I am always surprised when I read back through my journals and discover that my treasured memories aren’t an accurate portrayal of what really happened. A 2012 study by Northwestern University actually found that every time we recall a memory, our brain can change it.
So next time you’re debating with Uncle Larry about who really won the Great Pie Eating Contest of 2015, don’t be so quick to assume your story is the right one. I’m not saying that we should doubt our memories entirely, but be careful not to give them too much credit and risk alienating others over details that might not be true. If you do, next year’s contest might consist of humble pie. (This is also another great reason to keep a journal—much easier to settle family debates when there’s a written record. 😉 )
It’s also important to remember that our record is only as truthful as we make it. It might be tempting to only write about the perfect things in life, but doing so prevents us from tapping into the incredible processing power journals provide us. Writing about hard truths gives us the opportunity to work though them, release pain and other negative emotions, find healing, and make a plan for a better future.
Honesty in our everyday lives works a similar miracle. When we are honest with ourselves about our shortcomings, we can change for the better. When we’re honest about the things that are holding us back, we can overcome them and make real progress. When we’re compassionately honest with those around us, it strengthens relationships with bonds of trust and helps us find healing together.
That said, it’s also important to be truly honest, and not lean too far toward perfectionism or negativity. President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Your journal should contain your true self rather than a picture of you when you are ‘made up’ for a public performance. There is a temptation to paint one’s virtues in rich color and whitewash the vices, but there is also the opposite pitfall of accentuating the negative… The truth should be told, but we should not emphasize the negative.”
Along those lines, it’s important to recognize when honesty can be hurtful, and to carefully weigh our options for whether the whole truth is worth sharing. If someone does something unkind to you one time, do you really need to record it in your journal for future generations to read? President Kimball also said, “Personally I have little respect for anyone who delves into the ugly phases of the life he is portraying, whether it be his own or another’s…. Even a long life full of inspiring experiences can be brought to the dust by one ugly story. Why dwell on that one ugly truth about someone whose life has been largely circumspect?”
Just as we would want to be remembered for the good parts of our character, we should be careful to emphasize the good things in others, too. What might seem like harmless “venting” to friends when someone has slighted us can actually be hurtful gossip. We don’t always know the circumstances behind someone’s poor behavior. We can learn to forgive quickly and see the best in others. We can—and should—be careful about the way we talk about people when they’re not around. If someone is truly and consistently unkind to you, it’s okay to walk away from a toxic relationship. But the Lord teaches us to “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
Some people use their journal as a place for venting when bad things happen to them. They pull out a notebook when feelings are raw and just scribble down their frantic, angry thoughts while they’re still fresh. They feel a little better when they close the book, but don’t think about the fact that that negative record can sully someone else’s reputation forever. Nor do we often recognize that our feelings in the moment don’t always reflect an accurate portrayal of events and intentions. May I humbly and lovingly suggest that instead of writing when feelings are fresh, that you wait until your temper has cooled and you can look at things a little more objectively? If you really must write things down quickly, consider doing so on a piece of paper that can be destroyed after you’ve gotten the anger out. Be honest in your record, but also be kind, compassionate, and reasonable.
Things Get Better
When I read back over the journals written by a younger me, I’m often amazed at the things that I thought were important to record. I have a good handful of journals that mostly consist of pining over a specific young man who broke my heart (yes, I was that girl…). I feel a little cringy inside when I read these entries now because I can see how silly it was to hold on to the idea of someone who clearly wasn’t meant for me.
But while my lovelorn entries seem laughable to me now, they did teach me an important lesson: what matters to me today may not matter to me tomorrow. Those feelings were so real to me then and I don’t regret writing them out. I think those stories can be just as important to tell as the ones that have a more lasting impact on our lives, as they’re part of the experience that makes us Us. But it just goes to show that nothing is permanent. That boy who broke my heart? I found someone who is a much better match for me. The heartache we feel today will eventually fade. The hard times will end. We will find better opportunities, better jobs, better relationships, and better lives. Given time, everything will be okay.
It’s Your Story. You Decide What Matters.
Sometimes when I write in my journal, I feel a little bit like Buddy the Elf: “So, good news: I saw a dog today.” I literally write about every animal encounter I have. It may sound ridiculous, but the truth is, animals matter to me. A lot. And since my journal is a reflection of me, it’s only right that I infuse its pages with that enthusiasm for all living creatures.
There’s so much in life that tries to tell us what matters and what doesn’t. Our social concepts of cool vs. not cool changes with the wind. Fads come and go, politicians fall in and out of favor with the voting public, billboard charts change. It can be tempting to hide away the things that we really like because they don’t float nicely in the current of societal norms and we worry that people with think we’re weird or behind the times or whatever.
Maybe I’m a bit biased in this regard because I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum, but I say pish posh. If something matters to you—provided it is virtuous and moral—don’t let what anyone else does or thinks or says stop you from enjoying your life. Be unapologetic about the things you get excited about. Give yourself permission to be passionate about things. Other people are not going to embrace the same things you embrace, and that is okay. That variety is part of what makes life and people so interesting. Love what you love, even if no one else loves it.
Your life is yours. You decide what matters.
When was the last time you wrote in your journal about something you’re really passionate about? Next time you feel like you have nothing to write about in your journal, write about a cause you support and why. Or write out the lyrics of your favorite song and describe what it means to you. Write a review of your favorite book. Make a list of things that make you happy, even if it seems silly. Take time to celebrate the things in life that matter to you—even if it’s the random dogs you met at the park. 😉
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 This is also why it’s important to write things down when they’re still fresh.
Featured image by Eastlyn Bright/Adobe Stock. Heart on Window by Song_about_summer/Adobe Stock.