#9 Journalers' Corner: Writing to help with Transitions
Journaling is helpful anytime, but most people who write find that journals are indispensable in times of transition.This is when personal writing shines as a medium.Most journalers do not write every day, but almost every journaler I have met or worked with will say that he or she gets the journal out when the going gets rough, when things are changing, when losses and trauma are brewing, or when transitions are shaking the way life feels.At those times, journals do three crucial things:they chart the ups and downs that are inevitable parts of the chaos of change, they provide a base of continuity of the self, and they articulate a new paradigm as it emerges out of the experiences of loss.For this important “Journalers’ Corner”, I will spell out some techniques to enhance these three important functions of journaling through hard transitions.
1.Journaling to Chart the Ups and Downs.
As soon as you are aware of a loss or change happening, grab the journal!As quickly as possible, capture your first thoughts and sensations.Many people I have worked with return to this entry over time as a touchstone and a way to measure progress and feel empathy for the hardship of his/her own experience once it starts to fade. There is a natural process of emotionally moving away from shock, so having it written down in the moment preserves a crucial experience and fights disbelief.This first recording too begins the process of healing because you have not avoided the impact and you give it air to avoid festering from the very beginning.
When life is going through changes, try to write small amounts frequently.Transitions heat up intensity and events can happen quickly and change frequently.Good medical reports bear elation, and then the next lab test feels like doom.The lawyers get you joint custody, but you lose the house.You will feel less like life is a roller coaster if you catch the turns and drops.
Finally, sometimes it helps to actually keep track of something systematically to reinforce this function of journaling.You might pick a variable and rate it from one to ten each day in a notebook, such as how sad, confused or angry you feel, or how much energy you put into something, or you might estimate what percent of the day you spent thinking about the change or loss you are experiencing.Or you can make a short list each day, for example, of ways you coped, ways you wish you had coped, or people you saw who were helpful.
2.Journaling as a Base of Continuity
The flip side of the journal pointing out how quickly and how much things are changing is that the journal points out what doesn’t change.This starts to emerge naturally as you work through your transition.You will start to notice that your perspective is widening and that something about your own self encompasses all that you go through.You may start to hear it naturally in your voice as you write.
To encourage this sense of continuity, you can try a periodic overview entry.If it helps to be structured, you might write this once a month, or whenever it strikes you as a need.In this entry, purposefully try to zoom out of your experience and look at the course of your transition and ask yourself where you think you are in it and how you think it is going.As William James said, “…there never can be a state of facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more enveloping point of view (The Varieties of Religious Experience).”Try to stop periodically and describe where you are on the arc of the change as you perceive it.
Another useful way to emphasize the coherence of the self is to review your journal periodically.You might underline phrasing or sentences that show a particular aspect of yourself, even if it’s every time you sound discouraged.Or you can note different ways you have tried to approach your loss to emphasize your continuous intent to manage the change.(For more ideas on reviewing your journal, look at Journalers’ Corner Exercise #7).Whether you look back formally or not, it helps to feel whole when you see that you are the person whose efforts and reactions can be seen in black and white as you journal through hard times.
3.Journaling to Articulate a New Paradigm
Finally, your writing can be a guide to new models of mastery, acceptance and positive aspects of new situations.As you go through change, even painful loss, new possibilities inevitably arise.You are more likely to catch them and capitalize on them if you are writing and make a point of focusing on them when you can.You probably can not take this focus too early on in a transition experience, but as long as you don’t forestall truly feeling the emotions of your experience, you can stop at times and write about the hope you might feel.Sometimes the hope is just about getting through the transition, but that hope can be reinforced by writing about it.
Two questions are useful to ask in writing about the new paradigms emerging in your life.One is “How do I hope this might turn out?”If you are laid off from your job, you might write about the new career opportunities you wish might open up.If you have received a frightening medical diagnosis, you might write about healthier ways you can live once you have recovered.The other useful question is to ask, “What good can come out of this bad situation?”This is similar to the first question, but with a broader angle.Maybe the illness will cause you to appreciate someone more and maybe the job loss will finally loosen up some driven aspect of your personality.You clearly don’t choose these ways to learn these lessons, but spelling out the lessons brings some relief to balance the hardship.
Clinical and research reports agree that at times it is useful to write about positive aspects even of very hard situations.It is important though, not to let this short-cut expressing and releasing negative feelings and allowing yourself to have compassion for your own suffering.In other words, no Pollyanna or undue stoicism.But when you feel ready, writing can help crystallize the positive possibilities that are latent in every change.
Facing change is always hard and even positive changes bring their own stress.Writing when changes are extreme and that stress is severe is the best way I know to feel less alone, less confused and less thrown by the adaptations we are all forced to make through life.Living singly or not, those adaptations are both the struggles and rewards of our lives.