I remember opening up a creaky hope chest in the attic and finding my grandmother's delicate blue journal. My hands lovingly traced the frayed gold edges as her childlike handwriting spoke to me of walks "down the avenue" arm in arm with her six sisters, the smell of her mother's marinara sauce cooking on the stove, and her pure excitement over her younger sister's first "visit" with the man she'd eventually marry. It was just like my grandmother to speak about beauty and hope, even then, at a time when her four brothers were off fighting in World War II.
And, in nostalgic mode, I wondered what my own grandchildren of the future would "read" of my younger days when they too someday found my worn blue journal in a hope chest in the attic. As I read through my entries, I knew what those kids would think: "Wow, Grandma had a miserable life!"
What an eye-opener. I wanted at first to yell, "But I've had a wonderful life! I have a great family, good health, the blessing of loving my life's work! I have great friends, and Oprah Winfrey once hugged me!" Yes, those were true elements of my life ... but they weren't painted into my journal. The words I recorded instead were rambling worries and petty complaints about wrongs I couldn't even remember now.
Do you see yourself in my experience? Are you a negative journaler? Read through some of your own written entries and see if you've established a "complaint journal." Read it aloud, to hear the bitterness and despair in your written words. How would someone else "read" you through these pages? Does your disparaging attitude extend beyond your journal and into your life, where the bad is all you seem to have, because it's all you take note of?
If so, take heart. This discouraging habit can be unlearned, so that you can actively balance the positive and the negative in your journal, and naturally, begin doing the same in your life. Notice the key word, "balance." Life is full of problems, worries and mistakes to work through and learn from, and journaling is one of the best ways to sort through your swirling emotions to unearth the gem, the lesson, contained in each life experience. Indeed, some of the more serious problems and deep grief in your life will require some gut-wrenching journaling that may rightfully be more negative, in order to be true to your emotions. Yet in the average day, the positive and negative co-exist to color our every experience. And a truly useful journal captures that interplay, paints our life more realistically and perhaps changes us for the better.
How do you start striking this balance? Using the "dark filter" is a tough habit to break. But like any other habit, it can be snapped with repeated, dedicated effort. I've collected seven great ways for you to begin your practice of stopping the negativity cycle in your journal ... and hopefully in your life.
1. Assess Where You Are
Select several random pages of your own journal, and photocopy them. Then find two different-colored highlighter pens. Use one color to highlight the positive remarks in your journal, and the other color to highlight the negative. I used pink for positive and green for negative, and believe me, my journal pages looked like a vast football field. Seeing the color differences gave me a visual picture of just how off-balance my journaling had become. As you practice finding balance in your journal through the following exercises, "test" yourself with your highlighter pens to measure your progress.
2. Vent, Then Use "On The Other Hand"
During some difficult trials in her marriage and as a harried mother of two teenagers and a toddler, Janine Musick from Columbia, Mo., complained in her journal a lot. "I realized that my journal made me sound like a miserable person with a terrible life. So I made a change. I decided to write out my complaints as I felt them, but then after venting, I wrote, "But on the other hand, ..." and listed the positives in those same exact observations. I deliberately wrote down all the good things that happened that day, and all of the endearing things my husband did do on a daily basis." Over time, Janine's practice of looking for the positive became a habit that absorbed into her life, and she's much happier now as a result of it.
3. Choose Your Words Carefully
Sometimes, the words you use can carry a weight and a mood all their own. Where you have written, "My life is full of problems," you can cross out the word "problems" and replace it with "challenges." The dark clouds lift a bit with that simple substitution. Where you write the dreaded words "always" and "never," as in "He never does his part around the house," re-phrase that in more realistic terms, such as "Sometimes, I feel like he's not doing enough to help with the housework." You'll be surprised at how easy it is to find a better, more truthful word to use, one that keeps the festering negatives from taking root.
4. State the Facts, Ma'am
Jennifer Louden, life coach and author of The Comfort Queen's Guide to Life (Random House), helps people clarify their intentions and their expressions. "Most of us use journaling as a 'downloading' of all of our frustrations and worries from time to time," says Louden. "But the secret to finding balance is in taking what you've written and then stating the facts about it." Louden offers an example that many of us can relate to: "If I wrote just the facts, I would say that I drove my daughter to day care this morning, I had a brief conversation with my daughter's teacher in the schoolyard, kissed my daughter goodbye and then left for work. In contrast, if I avoided 'just the facts,' I would ramble on and on about how hard it is to leave her at day care, how guilty I feel about not being with her." Louden's example shows a workable process of retraining your brain to avoid the negative and see what's real. From that point, once the purely negative is stopped by the presence of facts, then the positive can begin to work its way in.
5. Ask Yourself a Question
After you vent your daily frustrations, paying attention to the facts of the situation, then ask, "So what?" The question may stun you, because it makes you do the very thing that all of your complaining has kept you from doing: facing why this topic is so difficult for you. The answer to "So what?" may be hard to face, but it's worth considering for a while and answering truthfully. If you're able to ask and answer honestly, you may discover that your chronic journal complaining is the stall-tactic you've used to avoid owning up to a bigger problem—or perhaps a waste of time for a completely imagined problem. "So what?" gets you to face reality more quickly than you'd get there just by complaining.
Another question posed by Louden has done the most for me personally in adding more positive to the pages of my journal: "How is this situation perfect?"
Wow. Until I heard these words, it never occurred to me to look for the perfection in my life's experiences. Even the most mundane of tasks that I hate doing have an element of perfection: "Folding these fitted sheets will eventually give me and my family that great feeling of being in a clean, fresh-smelling bed." "Even the most blood-boiling of arguments with my boyfriend have a level of perfection in that I have finally learned how to stand up for myself." Looking for the positive is one thing, but being asked to look for the "perfection" gets you to think more deeply about what's really important. This one question changed my journaling practice forever. I see and note shades of perfection in the imperfect, on so many levels. And that is the key to this whole balance thing.
6. Find the Solution
Since you know that journaling is one of the best tools for working through the very real concerns of your life, the next step in finding balance is seeking solutions. "One only needs to focus on the problem long enough to realize what it is, and then the focus should turn to solving it," says Tina Tessina, author of The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty (Renaissance Books). "Instead of recycling your anger and fear through worrying and complaining, ask yourself, 'What am I going to do about it?'" Clearly, the next step is using your journal to find constructive solutions to the factual challenges of your life—notice I didn't say "problems." This proactive step returns your journal to the status of helpful tool and helps you get your balance back. Where you once moaned and complained, you're now listing the steps you can take, the courses you can take, or the major points you'll make in a difficult discussion with a loved one.
7. Accentuate the Positive
Sarah Ban Breathnach of the Simple Abundance books is not a best-seller for nothing. For many people, finding balance in their journals lies in the simple practice of listing those things for which they're most grateful. Walking through your day, you may find yourself noticing a rose in full bloom and making a mental note to write that down in your gratitude journal. You may find yourself noticing the goofy grin on your 5-year-old's face as he tries to figure out a new puzzle. With the practice of writing down what you're grateful for, you take more note of these things. And that can change your life's outlook—not just the pink versus green ratio in your journal.
My own journal is now a healthy mix of positive and negative. I'm still an accomplished complainer at times, but I also see more positive where there once was a half-empty glass with a crack and a dead bug. Now, I see a glass that's full ... full of the rich mix of positive and negative that signifies a life well-lived. I live my life looking for the good, even when the bad stuff can be much louder. And I honor the positive by giving it a place in my writing.
Now what will my future grandchildren have to say about me someday? ... "Wow, Grandma had such a full, amazing life!" That is positively the best tribute I could receive.
This article appeared in the April 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.