My world changed the day I learned about the work of Nicole Sachs. I’d heard about journaling as a treatment for mental health issues like anxiety and depression before, but I was of the opinion it was, for lack of a better phrase, a bunch of hooey. For one thing, I’m a writer. I write a lot, I’ve written about my own experiences, and I’d previously tried keeping journals. The only impact journaling had on me was a sense of guilt for not being able to keep up with the journal, or it made me feel insignificant because my life wasn’t interesting enough. The second reason that journaling made me roll my eyes was that everyone I’d ever met who espoused journaling still had a ton of issues. I’d never met anyone who said that they’d had x, y, or z problem, but that those problems fully went away after journaling.
Nicole’s work was different. She had countless of examples of people with real physical problems, some similar to mine and some not, who had fully recovered. And the style of journaling was different from anything I’d ever encountered before. I like to think of it as allowing myself to throw a temper tantrum on the keyboard. Here’s what I did:
1. I tried to read books by John Sarno to learn about the process, since Nicole trained under him, and my preference is to go to the source. Unfortunately, although he makes a compelling case that people can recover, none of his books tell you how to recover. Ultimately, my favorite resource for how to do JournalSpeak is Dani Fagan’s website (but I’ll try to be comprehensive here.)
2. The original directions are to make three lists: One of upsetting childhood events, one of things upsetting you today, and one of your personality traits. Then you pick a topic from one of the lists each day, and you journal about that. I ended up adding a couple of lists: upsetting things that happened as an adult, expectations I had about life that had not worked out, and, while this isn’t a list, I would sometimes just ask myself what I was feeling at that moment and journal about that. Having so many lists meant that I could go to whichever topic drew me most at that moment, and I didn’t have to tackle events or emotions that I found scary until I was ready.
3. Nicole suggests journaling for 20 minutes and then doing a 10 minute loving-kindness meditation. Sarno recommended doing a 30 minute session twice a day. When I first started, I was bedridden and not doing much anyway, so I started with twice a day. I would set an alarm for 20 minutes so that I knew I would at least journal for that long, but, since I had nothing else to do, I often ended up journaling for 30-40 minutes. Once I tapped into something that had been repressed, I didn’t want to leave until I’d gotten as far with it as I could. I seem to be unique with that though, most people don’t seem to like journaling, so 20 minutes a day seems sufficient if you’re not as weirdly eager to get to all of the negative stuff like I was.
4. Much of the journaling, especially early on was about allowing myself to have the temper tantrums on page that I repressed in real life. I allowed myself to “scream” (type forcefully in all-caps) that I hated people and wished they would die, much as a four- or five-year-old might. I didn’t actually think those things—but the thoughts had arisen at some point, and rather than just acknowledging them and letting them pass, I’d repressed them. For years, thoughts like these had built up in my system. Not only had I not allowed myself to release them, but I’d repressed them so efficiently that I didn’t even know they were there. I held nothing back. I let all of the awful things come out of me.
5. I deleted almost everything. No one else ever needs to see the awful things that came out of me. I needed to acknowledge them, and once I did, they went away. To make sure no one ever saw what I wrote, I kept a single document that I would type into. I would write what I needed to write, then I would delete it, and then I would save the blank document. This was something Nicole recommended somewhere, and I think it’s a brilliant idea.
For all the bad things I journaled about others, I can’t begin to describe how shocked I was to learn that the person I hated the most was myself. Until I began JournalSpeak, I thought I mostly liked myself. Sure, I suspected I would like myself better if I lost a little weight or had gone to more prestigious schools or had published a book or could keep a regular schedule. But none of that seemed extreme or problematic. On the whole, I was proud of my life and who I’d become. At least that’s what I thought. And then I started journaling. The hatred I felt toward myself brought me to my knees, literally a few times. I had always been one of those people who thought I could have done things just a little better.
While I wasn’t debilitated by perfectionism, I constantly sought it and was disappointed whenever I didn’t meet the really high and ever changing standards I set for myself—and I never met those standards. It’s only in the past year that I’ve learned that perfectionism and setting high standards—especially impossibly high standards that will only disappoint you—is a form of self-hatred. It turned out, I was wallowing in repressed self-hatred. Everything I did was either flat-out wrong, or at best, not good enough.
But the weird thing with the journaling was that, by writing about it, I *did not* make it worse. Instead, acknowledging the voices inside that were so critical and disappointed in me, by letting them have their full and complete say, I released them. This was the case for all of the negativity. Once I allowed the negative thoughts and emotions to see the light of day, they completely dissipated. There were so many times that I had some deeply emotional journaling session that left me crying or raging, and I was so shocked by what I’d been feeling or what insight I’d uncovered. And then next, I would often have a hard time remembering what it had been about. The negative stuff left me completely.
Follow up tips and comments on journaling based on my experience:
1. Especially when I started, it could take 10-15 minutes of continuous writing to tap into the deeper emotion, so the minimum of 20 minutes is critical. As I mentioned above, the negativity would often just disappear completely once I’d allowed it to be voiced. However, some issues did require multiple journaling sessions over many months, and other issues took me over a year to even be able to access.
2. I cannot stress enough that JournalSpeak, for me, is about allowing the voices I’d been repressing to finally be heard. These can be really vicious, crude, critical, angry, sad, vulnerable, terrified, childlike voices that said any number of awful things about me or people/events in my life (even my pets and plants!). They’re the voices that have been repressed because, for any number of reasons, what they’re saying isn’t acceptable. My only objective now is to hear them fully, in all their awfulness—it was the only way to get to the deeper truths that were always full of love and compassion.
3. My journaling experience was that I would flow between using “I,” “you,” and “we” a lot. In fact, I had countless voices within me. Some of them I identified with, some just seemed to be random voices within me that needed to be heard, and some of them even seemed like a couple of sibling bickering. Without fail, the fearful and angry voices never seemed like “me.” They seemed like voices that were screaming to be heard, and once they’d had their say, they simply disappeared, never to be heard from or felt again. For some of the deeper issues, the voices might need multiple sessions, or they might reappear later, once I was ready to go deeper into an issue, but allowing the negative thoughts and feelings to be heard was the key to getting them to pass. This was a really weird aspect of journaling: Something would be so stressful and painful, and it might take me a really long time to finally access the thoughts and emotions. Then, when I finally did access and release everything, it would be so completely gone that by the next day, I’d have a hard time remembering what the issue had been. That’s one of the things that’s made writing about JournalSpeak so difficult: I genuinely can’t remember most of the issues that came up. But that’s also been one of the things that enabled me to keep coming back to journaling. I knew that if I could get to the issue, it really would be completely released and I would feel better.
4. I *never* identified with my negative voices. I think this is one of the reasons that I found it so easy to keep a journaling practice. I knew that the negative voices that were screaming such awful, hurtful, negative, and sometimes even violent things—these voices were *not* me. I don’t know why I never identified with them, but I always realized they were just voices that happened to be in me and that wanted to get out. Giving them permission to say the awful things they wanted to say was the only way to get rid of them, and once they’d had their say, they just “popped” into nothingness, while I remained the peaceful, hopefully friendly, pacifist that I am. I worry that others might struggle to remain disconnected to their negative voices. If this is you, please try to remember that the voices *do not* represent you. They *are not* you. The reason Nicole advocates doing a loving-kindness meditation after journaling is so that you can come back to a place of compassion. You might want to consider doing that if you find you identify with the negative voices. Or you may want to consider therapy if possible. But please know, *all* of us have really negative thoughts and emotions at times—these are not you and they do not define you. They are simply something passing through you that need to be acknowledged, but should not be identified with.
5. Every time I allowed a new gripe to be fully expressed, I would get physically better and more energetic, and the negative thoughts or emotions would completely disappear. Some gripes were easily expressed in 20 minutes, and some gripes took over a year to finally access. But it’s always been worth the effort.
6. Writing or typing this out is key. I’m not sure why talking doesn’t work, but it really didn’t. Maybe it’s that by typing or holding a pen, we’re bring more of our body into this? Maybe it has something to do with the way the brain processes speech versus writing? I don’t know. What I do know, is that I’d have to do free, expressive writing for 5-15 minutes on a topic before I would really start to get to the meat of whatever had been repressed. I also found that for me, typing was better for accessing and releasing negative emotions, while writing with pen on paper was better for reinforcing positive emotions (more on the positive journaling later). It was almost like the negative thoughts/emotions came faster and more aggressively, while the positive thoughts/emotions were gentler and more peaceful, and so the method I chose to access them had to reflect the “character” of the thought/emotion. That was what worked for me though, and everyone is different.
7. Just because I acknowledged something once did not mean that was sufficient for it to be fully expressed. There were many things I had to allow the voices in me to repeat over and over until they finally felt better (more on this later).
To learn more about this process, I recommend the many resources Nicole Sachs has put together. Her podcast was critical for me to really believe that this process worked, and I was most inspired by the interviews she does with people who recovered by working with her or using her process (to be honest, I don’t think she’s very good at explaining her work, but she’s brilliant at working with people directly, as you can get from the “Real-time Heal” sessions she does on the podcasts). The other resource I loved for learning about JournalSpeak was this one by Dani Fagan. I found Dani’s explanations about how to do JournalSpeak key to understanding what it was and what I was supposed to be doing.