Toxic journaling

I’m a big promoter of journaling. I see it as a fantastic way to both log your life and as a way to process emotions and events you’re going through. I have for at least thirty years kept some form of journaling going. If I’d saved all my notebooks through the years they would fill a bookshelf.
But today I wanted to talk about the other side of the coin. In one of Curtis McHales weekly newsletters (press here for link) I found a link to a new Ryder Carroll video. He of Bullet Journal fame. In that video Ryder spoke about the risks of toxic journaling. This is something I’ve encountered in my own journaling without having a good name for it.

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Photo by Alina Vilchenko on

What is toxic journaling?

Ryder describes it as journaling that focuses on the bad in your life without any process to solve these problems. This reinforces our already present negativity bias and can make us feel that nothing is going well. In the video he says that

A journal isn’t a reflection of your life as much as it is a reflection of your focus.

We tend to focus on the negative thanks to the before-mentioned negativity bias. When we let this negative focus spin away from us, when we focus on only the bad things that happen or that we fear will happen we place ourselves in a trap of our own doing.
I don’t take Ryders video as him saying “pretend to be happy and stop being sad” but more as a call to balance. Don’t let the pages of your journal trick you into thinking it’s all bad.

What to do instead

So as a more concrete example. You’re feeling stressed out. Maybe you have a lot of things to do at work and you also have some interpersonal issues. Writing just about being stressed isn’t that bad the first time you do it. But when you keep coming back to that topic and ruminating just on being stressed that feeling will not go away just because you put it on paper. You might even start to feel worse.
So instead next time you want to write about your stress try to balance a bit with a tether to better times. Maybe brainstorm some possible strategies to lessen your workload at your job. If you’re focusing on your interpersonal issues try and write from the other persons possible perspective as well. Or maybe just write out a plan for something relaxing to do next time you have some time off.
What I’m telling you is not trying to pretend that you’re not stressed. What I’m talking about is working with that feeling productively. Try to find some balance so you don’t end up with a journal that only focuses on your bad times.

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