I once knew a man who, in my opinion, needed journaling like flowers need the rain. I’m a big advocate of journaling as a way to practice one’s relationship with one’s self. We’ve all been informed now, I believe, that we’re supposed to walk around having a relationship with ourselves. How dare you be codependent enough to feel destabilized by someone else’s low estimation of you? You should have a high enough estimation of yourself that it doesn’t matter!
This is amazing — first, no one ever taught us how to have relationships with other people; they simply happen to us, much like the beaches of Normandy “happened” to the Allied troops once the landing craft doors dropped. And now even worse, no one teaches us how to have a relationship with ourselves, so that just happens to us too, more or less. But at least we can get some sympathy for our struggles in relationships with others, when they behave in ways we disapprove of, which we then relate to our friends in lurid detail. If we struggle in relationship with ourselves — there’s no divorcing our way out of that one. Except, horribly, there is.
So we do the same thing in both cases: we offer more of what seems to be well received and less of what seems to be poorly received. Most of us have a threshold, though, at which we can identify an outpost of something within ourselves which is simply not expendable, no matter how poorly it may be received. That’s a valuable threshold, wherever it lies, because it forces us to find self-approval in the face of apparent disapproval.
It’s true that the world is our mirror, in that we can grapple much more tangibly with external stuff, and that external stuff isn’t happening to us by dumb chance. And it’s true that our patterns of transactionalism, our gestures of approval vs disapproval, are first practiced and perfected within ourselves. And it’s true that these internal patterns and gestures remain largely invisible to us, until and unless they “play out” on the screen of our external lives, starring the cast we’ve unconsciously chosen to perform the dramas we ourselves have unwittingly crafted. And when they do, our first instinct is to “fix” the external stuff — ie other people — simply because it’s tangible. But imagine a programmer, like my brother, writing code for a game and then attempting to “fix” its bugs, on the level of public visibility. Oh, all the trees turned out pixilated, or sideways — should he then program a digital lumberjack to go around cutting them down? No. He should return to his code and find the glitch. He’s able to do that because he’s a coder. He can look at all that HTML bullshit and find what he’s looking for. He even developed his own programming language so he can translate his ideas into manifested reality more fluently, with fewer accidentally pixilated trees.
We are the coders of our lives, so it’s important that we learn enough about HTML to at least troubleshoot our own haphazard creations. This is where journaling can help.
Back to this man I knew, for a moment.
This man’s threshold for knowing this about himself was very low. He had abandoned inconvenient aspects of himself long ago, in favor of whatever relationship those systematic abandonments served to shore up. He was functioning at the level of a moral relativist, and so he trended up in the company of thoughtful, conscientious people, and down in the company of thoughtless, careless people, which is exactly what you don’t want to do. If you can’t hold your position, emotionally and ethically, regardless of the company you keep, then your life is going to be very fucking hard. Everyone’s life is hard in the troubled times, but your life will be hard even in the good times. You’re trying to regain control via the same mechanism which eroded your control in the first place — people pleasing and/or its shadow aspect, childish petulance thinly camouflaged as sophisticated scorn. (News flash: scorn isn’t sophisticated; it’s a cop-out, fit only to be removed from your emotional vocabulary. Sometimes the only way to remove something from your emotional vocabulary is to have a major bender with it, and then go cold-turkey. Attempt to do this, if you can, with scorn.)
Whether we know it or not, we are all searching for that anchored position, in one another, and in ourselves. The thing that cannot be budged, frightened, mitigated, or eroded. We don’t need it to have a name, or to show its face often, but we need it to be there. We don’t actually want unconditional love — if we did, we’d just pray all day long and say fuck the rest. We want conditional love, conditional approval, conditional participation, from people who have anchors and know what their own terms of engagement are. And other people want that from us.
So here’s the next piece of this: we DO want to negotiate with one another, anchor to anchor, and we DON’T want to negotiate with one another, trauma to trauma and trigger to trigger. Our anchors, however, those aspects of ourselves which act as go/no-go thresholds, will be necessarily overgrown with traumas and triggers if we don’t keep that shit trimmed back. It’s not other people’s job to negotiate the minefields of our triggers; it’s actually their job to trigger the bejeezus out of us, believe it or not — otherwise, how will we know where our work lies? So thank the next person that triggers you. Just kidding, don’t do that; that’s so Sedona. Like my dad said once, about this obnoxious super-soldier I had in my Guard unit back in the day: “That guy might save the world one day but he’s still an asshole.”
So the two types of problems we can have, around all this, are either allowing our anchors to become overgrown with unprocessed trauma, so that we’re shrieking like raw nerves, OR losing touch with our anchors altogether and walking around like smiling dummy dolls. The Law of Attraction is a real son of a bitch, too — whichever way we’re trending, the universe gives us more and more reasons to trend that way, just to see how crazy it can get before we become unwilling to push the same button for the same shitty sugar pill any longer.
Here’s where journaling is a great hack. See, the reason we always default to solving problems in their manifested form — ie, the pixilated trees — is because they seem so tangible. We can see them. The reason we ignore the source of our problems — our internal transactions and gestures — is because they don’t seem tangible. It’s just airy fairy nonsense. And that’s fine, I get that. BUT, imagine in this D-Day scenario of the landing craft doors dropping and the bullets immediately puncturing your body — ie, how relationships with other people feel — you could run that scenario again and again, video game style, trying out new tactics each time until something worked? Like, okay, this time I’m going to immediately lay down; then flop into the water; then swim left until I hear that big concussion off to my right; then flounder on up behind that big metal fucking Cracker Jack or whatever; etcetera and so forth. Journaling can be like that.
The best part is, if you start journaling retrospective to whatever thing already happened to you, then you’re already on your way to journaling in advance of whatever you suspect may be about to happen to you. This is called “pre-paving”, and it’s wonderful. Believe it or not, you know more about all the people, places, events, and circumstances in your own life than you’re consciously aware of. You can, actually, play God. You can script the way you’d prefer things to go, and they’ll actually trend that way. The trick is, you’re not controlling anyone else; you’re organizing your own resources in advance, and more cohesively, and in communication with a broader perspective to which you always have access but don’t often stop to realize, around what you know but don’t realize you know until you start journaling.
And if you can do that, then you’re already on your way to a level of the video game that’s even better than playing God with others; it’s called playing God with yourself. This is when you begin acknowledging and experimenting with your own essential malleability, in the world. It becomes far less interesting to script out others’ behavior and far more interesting to tweak your own, and to realize you don’t actually need the form of validation you just spent three pages scripting. Magically, just by admitting it’s important to you, it’s already there.
This is how you connect yourself to ideas of importance, which cohere to values of importance, which you at all times have the freedom to simply occupy, rather than requiring the universe to demonstrate them to you via your landing on the beaches of Normandy.
So let’s get down to brass tacks. Let’s say you find yourself in conversation with another person and it goes like this:
“Hello, how are you?”
“Fine, how are you?”
“I’m also fine.”
“Nice weather we’re having.”
“Yes, it is nice. It may rain tomorrow.”
“I heard that.”
“The rain is nice.”
“Yes, it is.”
How long would you tolerate this conversation? Not long. You’d either abandon it or deepen it, if you had the skill.
If you’re new to journaling or some other form of engaging yourself in discussion, it’s likely your early conversations will be exactly this compelling. If you think that’s a good reason to abandon journaling and resume reliance upon other people to make yourself interesting, think again. This man I referred to earlier, for instance. I encouraged him to journal — I’m a bit of a one-note-song in that regard — and he did, and wanted to show it to me. I don’t personally want to see anyone’s journaling, but I looked at it, and it was a conversation much like this one, peppered with inspirational cliches.
Now, there’s a reason drama coaches and writing coaches and performance art coaches encourage us to access our deep, turbulent emotions, which has itself become itself cliche — it’s because there’s a zero percent chance they’re not there. Life is trauma; hopefully anchored trauma. When we perpetually skim along the surface of our own and others’ emotions, it’s because we’re terrified to fall through into those roiling, primordial pits. But that’s exactly where we have to go, and hopefully go on purpose, if we want to unlock our own authenticity and, increasingly, that of others. So there’s a zero percent chance those pit-monsters aren’t there, and a 100% chance they’ll arise to envelop us at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way, if we continue skating around on their surface, and short of suicide we have no choice about skating around on their surface at least.
Now, this brings us another unproductive use of journaling — the trauma diary. The compendium of fear and loathing; the tome of self flagellation. Don’t do that either. It’s tacky, and self-indulgent. It is, actually, your job to find approval for yourself — pop psychology has that right. It’s easy for us to find approval for ourselves in those areas where everyone else is approving of us too, so you don’t need to throw any more spaghetti at that particular wall unless it just feels good. Journal as a means of finding just a *skootch* more approval for yourself in an area where you’re feeling just a *skootch* less from others.
Approving of yourself without resorting to disapproval of others is what’s called a “pro-gamer move” and here’s how you practice it. For instance, it’s of limited us for me to write, “I didn’t get enough approval for my identity as a tall, skinny, white, female vegan today, and so here are the ways I’m being victimized by x y z people and institutions”. It’s of slightly more use for me to write, “I feel frustrated that I pack my lunch to work just like everyone else, and mind my own business while I’m eating it, and my coworkers consider it their business to make scathing comments about my lunch WHILE MAINTAINING that vegans are aggressive and evangelical.” It’s of even more use for me to write, “I like that I feel comfortable representing a challenging perspective that my coworkers are clearly really unaccustomed to dealing with. In fact, this has happened many times in my life, and often plays out in ways that have unexpected benefits. And when I really think about it, I don’t actually want to simply fit in, and be part of the herd. In fact, if I ever found myself surrounded by people who mostly agreed with me, I think I’d be really stressed out, because that’s never happened in my life. I think that my ability to gracefully occupy the unconventional perspective is one of my biggest gifts to both myself and others. So I’m honestly happy about these silly little frictions about my lunch, and I’ll continue experimenting with increasingly lighthearted, not shut-down ways of handling them.”
So, that third iteration of essentially the same issue is the one where I was able to identify the friction, find approval for myself, find approval for the other people in the scenario, and use the impetus of the whole thing to actually slingshot myself into greater awareness of my role in the great drama. That’s the pro-gamer move, and to the extent your journaling sessions devolve to the excoriation of either yourself or others, you’re blowing it — which, if you’ll notice, is also true of real conversations with other people.
Now, a final thought: it is entirely appropriate for you to use journaling to “purge” whatever emotions or grievances you find yourself having, however flimsy or ham-fisted they may be, but hopefully en-route to your very own pro-gamer move. This is going to be a big problem for the desperately sunny side up people, like my friend who could only journal inspirational phrases. To put it in other terms, real quick, I received some great advice from an editor of memoir, years ago: she said, the first draft is for you. The second draft is for the world. Meaning, in the genre of memoir specifically, we have a bunch of shit to get off our chest before we can figure out how to say anything very valuable. Journaling gives us a wonderful, harmless, delete-able way to get shit off our chest, but that’s where most people’s engagement with it stops. That’s only step ONE, folks. You wouldn’t keep hanging out with a friend who simply vented and ranted to you all the time; so don’t be that friend to yourself. Everyone vents and everyone rants but the whole point is to get ourselves clear, so we can move on to step TWO, which our pro-gamer move: find approval for yourself, in an area where you’re not receiving it from others, but do so in a way that doesn’t cast blame upon them. If you’re so full of blame you can’t see straight, you’re going to have to lance that fucking wound first, but after the puss has squirted, get back on track.
You can journal every day, or whenever you get a chance. Play with it. I’d suggest journaling by way of an obliquely-titled document on your computer, because handwriting is crazy slow. I’d also suggest simply selecting all and deleting, from time to time, because your journal session word counts aren’t, in themselves, valuable. If I want to write something for posterity, I do that elsewhere, but I consider my own journaling process to be like a continuously shedding snakeskin. I’m the snake, not the skin — I don’t give a shit to revisit my old skins. In fact I avoid them, and set up my journal so that I start at the top each time, and don’t have to scroll down through the old snakeskins first. I want to approach it with my fresh new trauma or insight or question, without being rattled by the echoes of yesterday’s traumas, insights, and questions.
So just to emphasize, once again, the key strategies of journaling in my opinion:
1. Identify friction in your own life. I’d suggest you avoid the big frictions until you’ve journaled yourself into greater approval, or at least had a good night’s sleep — in other words, don’t kick yourself when you’re down.
2. Find self-approval within the antagonism of those frictions, in a manner which lets everyone else off the hook. If you have to rant yourself calm first, that’s fine.
3. Practice journaling retrospectively until you find yourself able to journal…proto-spectively? Can that be a word? Anyway, move your journal date/time setting steadily from the past and its events to the future and its events. Practice scripting your life the way you’d prefer it rather than bemoaning your life the way you experience it.
4. Become less and less interested in playing God with others, and more and more interested in playing God with yourself, as you journal. Imagine yourself to be a new kind of avatar-in-development in the world. The journaling version of you is the brilliant scientist observing, making notes, and tweaking things for that avatar’s best success, regardless of what circumstances it may encounter, but certainly in light of them.
5. Become more and more acquainted with the ways your outer preferences connect to your inner values, and increasingly acknowledge that you don’t need the universe to orchestrate dramatic emergencies to “show” you your own values; you can just peacefully know them, and live them.
6. Whenever you find yourself on the beaches of Normandy again, just know that you will make it out alive. You’ve cultivated and nurtured the only relationship that you can control, the one with yourself, and no matter what crazy things happen to you out there in the world, it’s going to be really fun to get home and tell your best friend the whole story and get their advice on what it all means.