I wrote in my journal five years ago: "I'm trapped in this job." It wasn't the first entry I'd written griping about my work, and it wouldn't be the last.
I'd begun working as an adjunct college lecturer to supplement my writing income, and with each passing year I was spending more time correcting students' essays and less time writing my own. "This is going to be my last year," I journaled as each spring semester came to a close. But every August I'd find myself writing, "I need the money." By October I was penning, "I'm trapped," once again.
Although journaling provided a way to vent my emotions, I was bored with my seasonal litany. Worse yet, I suspected that journaling in circles wasted precious energy I instead could use to change myself, my work situation, or both. Determined to stop writing about being stuck in a dead-end job, I vowed to write my way through it to whatever awaited me on the other side.
Anxiety about changing jobs is only one of life's many potential sticking points that leave many people feeling like they're going nowhere fast. Whether you're simmering about a betrayal from a failed romantic relationship, feeling resentment about a childhood hurt, or burrowing in self-disgust about the 20 extra pounds you've gained, you can feel trapped.
Complaining, ranting and making promises to ourselves only to break them is enough to tempt even the most avid journal keeper to stop writing. Those of us who do continue to rewrite the same laments often dig ourselves deeper into the frustration that inspired us to whine in the first place. Fortunately, we have better options than developing writer's block or journaling ourselves into a quagmire of resentment and helplessness.
Finding the Gift in Sticking Points
Even though on the surface, most sticking points are covered with fear, anger, shame, sadness or hurt, these emotions are blessings in disguise. The discomfort they cause serves as a call to resolve unfinished emotional business, let it go for good and move forward.
If you find yourself spinning your wheels as you rewrite the same old resentments and fears time and time again, consider what might happen if you eased up on your accelerator, drew a few deep breaths and chose to view your delay as an opportunity to find true freedom. Imagine how you would relate to yourself and to the world around you if you were no longer bogged down in old patterns that failed to work or give you pleasure. If your life were to pick up momentum, how would your journal entries change?
Take a few minutes to jot down the journal entry you might write if, by some miracle, you suddenly found yourself released from your rut. How would you spend your days, and how would you feel about your life then? What kind of work would you be doing? What would you do for fun? Where would you live? Who would your friends be? What kinds of relationships would you have with the people closest to you?
Exploring What Holds You Back
Begin working toward making that dream a reality by finding some quiet time to read through your journal entries from the past six months to a year. As you read, notice the unresolved issues you revisit repeatedly. Read what you've written honestly and without judgment. Your goal is to assess the situation as much as you would need to do if you became stuck while driving your car down a muddy road. Mark the passages where you detail the same frustrating circumstance or tell yourself the same story about a problem three or more times. (Two times and you're blowing off steam; three times and you are probably axle-deep in mud.)
Since I'm a visual person, I highlight the passages that detail my most irritating sticking points, selecting colors to code different issues. Color-coding entries allows me to get a clear understanding of just how much energy I'm pouring into a particular issue and which ones need my immediate attention. For more ideas on color-coding in your journal, see Page 22.
Pay attention to whether you tend to blame yourself for the frustrations in your life or focus the blame exclusively on other people or external situations. Do you bemoan the past, or are your laments confined to the here and now? Are big issues impeding your progress, or are you being held up by a collection of more minor procrastinations and irritations?
Uncovering the Truth Beneath the Patterns
No matter how much energy we expend, we can't release self-defeating patterns when we secretly cling to them. Without the extra push that willingness gives, ending a relationship, changing careers or even moving across the country are temporary fixes at best. The next thing we know, we're bogged down in yet another dead-end job or frustrating relationship. Openness to learning the truth and gently accepting what you discover provides the traction necessary for self-forgiveness and freedom.
Your journal is the perfect place to gain that self-awareness. Begin by writing a dialogue with the dominant feeling that your stuckness evokes. Give it a voice and ask it why you are immobilized. What is it trying to tell you? What is it urging you to do?
Another effective journaling tool as you ready yourself to let go of stuck emotions is to answer two critical questions:
What hidden benefit do I derive from this relationship or situation? Some sticking points provide a way to structure our lives so that we don't have to make choices. Others provide excuses to avoid taking responsibility for our choices. Yet others keep us so preoccupied with chaos that we're distracted from deeper issues. Staying in our ruts can even protect us from risking change. Recognizing these hidden benefits can motivate us to make conscious decisions to take steps to improve the situation or to release it from our lives. My payoff for remaining in a low-paying job was that it protected me from failure. If I wrote half-heartedly, my work wouldn't be rejected, but I rejected myself for not writing. Obviously something had to change.
What lesson can this experience teach me? Pretend that your life is a classroom, and that you create learning experiences to gain wisdom. Some of those lessons are presented in the form of sticky situations. Since each of your life lessons builds on the one that came before it, only when you master the current one can you continue forward in the curriculum. Until then, you must repeat that class until you get it. Describe the lesson contained in your sticking point. If you still have more to learn, continue to observe, reflect and make notes in your journal until you feel ready to graduate to a new learning experience. The more I journaled about my job, the clearer it became that I valued being a writer more than I'd realized. I knew continuing to avoid it would only make me more frustrated.
Focusing on Problem Solving
Think of your sticking point as a problem to be solved rather than a source of complaint. When I reframed "I feel trapped in this job" to "How can I find ways to feel less trapped in this job?" and "How can I focus on my own writing?" dozens of ideas sprung to mind. I could stop loading myself with unnecessary work when I taught classes. I could write one hour a day or one day a week. I could explore the possibility of teaching noncredit community adult education classes. Knowing I had choices shifted my mood.
Once you've rephrased whatever holds you back as a challenge, brainstorm as many options as you can imagine. Write down everything you can think of, from the silly to the sublime, until you fill at least a page in your journal. Once you've generated a page of possibilities, circle those that seem the most promising. Now select one of them to try. If the first solution you choose doesn't work, you can move on to another one.
Should indecision keep you from choosing, try giving voice to the wise person inside of you. Allow that inner sage to write a letter advising you about the best solution. My inner wise woman suggested I plan classes and grade papers on campus and dedicate my home office to my own writing. She advised me to spend three hours a week working on heartfelt personal essays at a local coffee shop so I would feel like a writer rather than an overburdened teacher. She also urged me to market my writing as if there were no tomorrow.
Insights and options do us little good until we act on them. Fortunately we don't need to do everything at once. Divide the solution you've chosen into smaller tasks that you can get to work on immediately without becoming overwhelmed and giving up. Remember that the steps that form this personal action plan can be internal, such as forgiving yourself or changing your attitude, as well as external. The best plans combine both. So I moved my teaching files to my office at the community college. Then I got a notebook for my coffee shop writing and scheduled my first session for the very next day. I also began steps toward self-encouragement and self-forgiveness, focusing on positive writing in my journal one entry at a time.
These baby steps may seem insignificant at first, but each step, no matter how small, moves us forward. From creating lesson plans that made my students more responsible for their own learning to setting a writing schedule for myself, I gained momentum. My journal entries did, too, as each day I recorded the specific actions I'd taken to move toward my goal—revising an essay, reading a book by an author who inspired me, or entering a writing contest. As my courage grew, so did my writing income. Eventually I was able to write full time.
"I'm walking on air," I wrote in my journal this spring. "I just won an arts fellowship in creative nonfiction." And I have my journal to thank for helping me find the courage to pursue my dreams.
This article appeared in the August 2003 issue of Personal Journaling.