“In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” Susan Sontag
I recently heard an interesting question put forward by a podcast presenter. She asked her guest if she would recognise herself from ten or fifteen years ago. The question drew my attention not only because it was a thought provoking idea, but also because an hour earlier, I’d stumbled across something I’d written ten years ago, to my mentor, during a dark time in my life. Reading my own journal entry, shocked me. I couldn’t believe that I had written those words. If I didn’t see my own handwriting, I could have sworn, it was the work of an imposter. Did I really feel and think like that? How could I not see that I was making things worse by the filters through which I was viewing my world and my situation? Was I blind to my own thought patterns? Clearly I was. I struggled to recognise this younger version of me.
As I read my story of despair and loneliness, I felt sadness for that young version of me, but as I peered down the time tunnel, I could also see with such clarity, how my thoughts and beliefs made a difficult situation, even more difficult. Experience has taught me that rather than judge myself for the choices I made, nowadays, I show compassion for myself, because after all, most mistakes were made due to a lack of awareness. We all do the best we can with the tools we have at any point in time.
In this particular journal entry, I could see how my old myself was swelling with self pity, blocking my ability to view my own thought processes that were compounding an already difficult situation. Yes, I did find myself in a rather pox place. I’d been very sick for almost a year, finally able to go on a holiday with my family, only to come down with the flu the minute we arrived at our beautiful alpine location. While the rest of the family went off skiing, having snowball fights and seeing the sights, I was sick and alone in a hotel room, day after day, and only started to feel better the day before we headed back home.
At the time, all I could see was the injustice of the moment, as though some invisible adjudicator deemed me unworthy of good health and happiness. This of course was just faulty thinking. There is no force, or high power that simply wants to play us like puppets, dishing out positive or negative situations, depending on what mood it’s in. This is simply looking for someone to blame. I do believe in a greater power that is benevolent and the creator of all things, but I don’t believe it is a judgemental force. What I do know is that for the most part, I was the lead player in creating this situation. Getting sick was often the result of being unable to deal with stress. I lacked the skills of resilience when facing adversity. I was a black an white thinker and loved to punish myself for what I saw were dreadful failings. I wasn’t the first, nor will I be the last to get sick on a holiday, but with my blinkered eyes, I couldn’t see that.
It is so hard for us to see the progress that we’ve made over time. As multiple years cross our paths, those changes simply blend into the fabric of daily life. It’s not until we are given an opportunity to time travel and visit a younger version of ourselves, that we can contrast and compare, to see if, and how we have evolved; if our views have altered, our beliefs softened, our wisdom expanded.
It is one of the reasons I have journaled for the past decade and diligently kept each book. Whenever I feel like I’ve made no progress, usually during one of those moments when an old unhelpful belief rears its ugly head, I’ll re-read an old journal entry to remind myself that while some beliefs may still be a work in progress, many others have truly been transformed. While my physical body still presents some challenges, the real “I” has changed for the better, even though it’s often challenging work.
Sometimes, we also find that a part of our life remains stuck in the same difficult situation we once found ourselves in. For example, while my health is better, I’ve never regained the good health I enjoyed before I collided with a mysterious illness. It’s easy to think therefore that little has changed, but this isn’t true. While our physical bodies might not appear to have transformed, our minds on the other hand, are capable of great transformation, so much so, that over time, these changes can then go on to positively affect our bodies. I’m so much better than I was even five years ago, but not the same as ten years ago. But then that is only natural as my body is also ten years older. Occasionally, I still experience physical pain but I don’t suffer from it like I used to. The pain hasn’t changed, but my relationship to it has. The old me suffered deeply because I focussed on the injustice of the situation, whereas now I realise that nothing is fair or unfair, it just is. My pain has also reduced because I’ve dropped my obsession with being pain-free. Through acknowledgement and understanding I now know that it’s not a matter of fairness or justice, I simply experience certain symptoms.
Mindfulness and breathing techniques have also helped deal with physical and emotional pain. When I think I’ve not changed, I can see that I truly have. Our memories can gloss over events, alternating between emphasising the good, and the bad. It is through our journals that we get a clearer understanding about how we were truly thinking and feeling at the time.
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” —William Wordsworth
If you don’t write in a journal, I suggest trying it. Not only is it a record of your own life, but the process of writing often frees us from the endless babble that takes place in our head. People who journal often find that allowing thoughts to flow onto a page helps them gain clarity because seeing their thoughts in writing, often helps them see more clearly what it is they’re thinking. Oftentimes, the mind will rerun thoughts in an endless loop. Putting thoughts into writing, tells the brain that the matter has been recorded, and so there is no longer a need for that particular train of thought, to keep running along the same continuous track, never reaching its destination.
Try keeping a journal and see if it might bring with it a new way of seeing your thoughts and gaining insights into beliefs that may not be serving you. Once you can identify a negative thought, try to delve deeper and see if you can remember a time when you may have heard a carer bring up this viewpoint and how it might have influenced your own thought development. Once you are aware, you can choose to replace a negative thought with a more positive one. If you still struggle with this process, someone like a counsellor can assist with this process.
Happy Writing and Happy Discovery!