Keep  a Journal to make the most of your therapy

While you are attending therapy or counselling, you can get so much more out of it, and save yourself time and money, by keeping a journal.  If you can’t go to see a therapist, you could use these journalling techniques and suggestions to help you feel happier and more fulfilled.

You can attain your desired changes and results in your life much more quickly if you keep a journal. For example, journal about your goals in therapy – and these can change as you move through it – so you and your therapist work together in a co-creative partnership and stay on the same page! Write down any important insights or experiences that emerge during the therapeutic hour, as although they are vivid when you first experience them, you can easily forget them.

One of the key differences in how therapy works much better for some people than others is in how they actively apply the therapy in everyday life from the start.  If you enjoy your discussions in therapy but then forget all about it till next week, you will still learn and change but it will take much longer than if you journal about the positive changes you intend to put into practice. After all, the important work takes place in your life, in how you apply therapy to real life as you live it moment by moment.

Working with your resistance

It may not be helpful to be too analytical in your journal, to become too logical or, or to look at the reasons or causes behind your symptoms or feelings. This kind of analysis does not really help you change and can even reinforce your old ways of thinking even further!   It is one way in which you could become caught up in resistance and defences and slow down your process.  If you find yourself getting tangled up in negative thinking in your journal it is best to leave it and try a different approach.

In therapy you have to tread a line between experiencing your more difficult feelings and symptoms, while offering them kindness, understanding and acceptance, and moving on from them in constructive ways. At some time during this change process, everyone experiences some resistance, as there is in all of us a strong pull to maintain the status quo of what is familiar and known to us and that has kept us “safe” in the past.

When this “stay the same and stay safe” part of you is stimulated and challenged by therapy, you could react in various ways, for example you might regress back to where you started, decide that therapy is pointless, cancel your sessions,  “forget” to apply the changes,  get angry with the therapist, engage in risk-taking behaviour or go back on resolutions you made!  When this more destructive part of you comes forward, it is a good sign that the therapy is reaching you in the right places, even though this is the exact time that many people decide they do not need therapy any more!  It’s very helpful if you can be a little detached from the resistance as it shows up and rely on your journal to help you get some perspective on the strong feelings that may be arising for you. Just write about your resistance in a calm and accepting way. Help yourself see clearly what you are doing, and re-frame your focus. Learning and growth always involve stepping backwards as well as forwards, because change doesn’t happen in a tidy linear way.

Journalling prompts to help you get the most from therapy

Here are some ideas to get you started with therapeutic journal writing.

*Be sure to date your journal entries,  give them subject headings, and highlight the  key points so you can find them again in future.  When writing a therapy journal be sure to include both your feelings and your thoughts, as engaging your authentic feelings is an essential component of real and lasting change. Write from the heart.

*Define your aims and intentions for the changes you want to make. How will your life feel and look when these intended outcomes have been achieved? Ensure that you and your therapist reach agreement on what these outcomes are to be, as they need to stretch you, but be realistic and achievable over time.

*Work on one topic at a time, and don’t mix them up. Even if you feel you have many different things you need to work on, you will be overwhelmed if you try to do them all at once. Work on one topic per week, and don’t go on to the next until you have recorded positive changes that you are happy with.

*How can you help bring the feeling of these desired outcomes forward into your life, perhaps through small daily changes that you can make? Record these changes and the results you experience, for example diarise a situation in which you challenged your habitual anxiety and did something new and different.

*Record what was discussed, any processes you went through, and how it all made you feel, as soon as possible after each session. Note down any questions or concerns you still have so you can bring them back to the therapist next time.  This is important because you need to apply the insights and learning experiences from therapy and identify any places where you feel you are stuck or struggling.

*Summarise the insights, learning, the recognition and the amazing aha-moments  – these arise spontaneously in the therapeutic encounter. They are precious, but they are so easy to forget. 

*Write down a situation, or a few situations, where you will attempt to apply new insights or strategies this week.  Keep an ongoing record of how it goes, and what you learn or what questions come up for you during the week.

*Identify your “Life Statements”.  Life Statements are a kind of decision we make when we are young, usually before the age of 14 or so, when we decide to take a certain approach to situations based upon our life experience. We then apply this, unconsciously, later in life even in situations where the life statement has lost its relevance, but we still cling on to it. They are generally erroneous premises upon which we base a lifetime of behaviour. An example would be if your father spoke to you in a way that made you feel diminished and unvalued. Your life statement might be “Men never respect me and I will never respect them, either”. You then subconsciously believe that the men who are closest to you in your life don’t respect you, and you see their attitude towards you as lacking in respect. In turn, you behave in an angry or defensive way towards them, or are generally prickly or awkward with them. A life statement is a lens that you see through, rather than an objective reality, and it takes careful work to identify your life statements. Once you become aware of them, you can begin to change them, but of course you cannot change anything before you are aware of what it is. A key to identifying your life statements is to look out for any area in life where you have persistent patterns of feelings, thoughts or behaviour that are not productive, that have perhaps repeated over many years, or that make it difficult for people to be around you.

*Record any dreams you are able to remember by writing them down when you wake up. Some of your dreams will be directly relevant, and some not, but you won’t know till later. Often dreams don’t make sense at the time but later on you can see that some of them had an interesting meaning relating to your growth and development.

*Work intensively on patterns that you want to change, by closely recording:

    The event that triggered the unwanted feelings or behaviour

    The thoughts and feelings that led up to or preceded the event, the behaviour and the feelings

    The thoughts and feelings you experienced during and immediately after the event

    Why you had these thoughts and feelings – what was it about this event that triggered them?

    What are the beliefs and assumptions that you need to change in order to set up more positive and constructive situations in future?

*When you gather all of this information together, organised into different segments, you can become much more self aware of the underlying beliefs that cause you to keep unhelpful or outdated patterns running.  Self awareness is in itself a powerful catalyst, and once you become fully informed and aware of all that is going on in your mind, it no longer needs to hold a mysterious power over you – you can see clearly how you are doing it to yourself. Once you see this, you also have the key to changing anything that you want to – one step at a time, with support and guidance when it is scary.

*Write down a list of your negative thoughts and concepts about yourself on one side of the page. Write them down quickly and do not dwell on it. On the other side, write the opposite. Write a statement that is both positive and realistic to correspond with each negative item.  For example your negative item is “everyone thinks I am boring”, your positive statement is “I’m really interested in x and I have lots of amazing ideas to share about it”, or “I’m lonely and no one cares about me” becomes “I am feeling more positive about myself and this is making it much easier to connect with more people”.

*Use your journal to make changes to your mindset by basing your concept and beliefs about yourself on modern positive psychology, and not on outdated, deterministic or fatalistic views that make you feel passive and helpless.

*You can achieve any changes you want by changing your thinking, to make your thinking replicate the qualities you want in your life. The essence of success is believing in yourself, no matter what. This means “be the change that you want to see” or make your thoughts a “vibrational match” to the way you want your life to be, not based on the things you don’t like about yourself. How you write about yourself is very important and helps you  organise, define and redefine who you are and what you can become. So write a list of the qualities and attributes you value about yourself,  and write personal bespoke affirmations, for example “I am happy in my relationship and it is all working out”, “In my work I am becoming more and more confident and productive every day and colleagues are giving me great feedback”.

Further Resources

This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Journalling For Success to be published in September 2019.  If you would like to have news of when it’s available, leave your name and email address here

You can download an illustrated journal format to get you started, available from the shop  – if you are already working with me, you can request a code to download it for free.