Please welcome toady’s guest writer, Douglas Chu ’12. At one point, Douglas made bratwurst for a living. Long ago he was a history major and will still talk your ear off about his capstone paper if you make the mistake of letting him. He lives in Grand Rapids and is job hunting while working at a local grocery store. Avocationally, he is a worship leader and singer-songwriter. Sad songs make him feel better.
I hated journaling for twenty-nine years. I’ll explain.
When I was a painfully anxious teenager, I would grab whatever notebook happened to be in reach, scrawl out some variation on the phrase “If I don’t let this out, I’m going to explode,” and then dump all my feelings onto the pages. I’d write until I was too mentally and emotionally spent to continue. It was…not enjoyable.
One year at Calvin, I went on an interim semester trip to Kenya and had to keep a journal. I had assigned daily writing times, which drove me up the wall. I resented it so much that I never picked up the journal from Professor Fackler’s office after it was graded. I’m not exactly proud of that.
The next year, I went to Italy for interim and managed to leave my journal in the seat pocket of the plane on my connecting flight from Rome to Paris on the trip home. After melting down out of pure panic when I realized what happened, when I arrived in Grand Rapids I pulled an all-nighter and rewrote all twenty-one entries from memory. I don’t recommend this.
My next attempt at journaling was a summer back home in Singapore. A pastor at my church recommended I write every morning for ten minutes about what happened the previous day and how I felt about it. This ended up just like my high school journaling experiences—just a firehose of anxieties. Much of that summer I wrote about being utterly hung up on a friend who had a long-distance boyfriend. But our chemistry was so perfect and it was only a matter of time for us! Years later, I tried to re-read those entries, and my stomach tightened into an unbearable knot.
I had made peace with not ever finding journaling useful until a friend, who ghostwrites romance novels for a living, started raving to me one day about her “morning pages.” It was a strangely bare-boned journaling concept: every day, she wrote three pages, longhand, first thing in the morning. There were no other rules. No guidelines on what to write.
Morning pages was ostensibly devised by artists for artists to lessen the power of the inner critic. I had been writing some songs in my spare time, so I figured I qualified. On my twenthy-ninth birthday, I tore out the used pages from an old history notebook and gave it a shot. I quickly realized that using college ruled paper was going to triple my workload, but something in me, probably my inborn stubbornness, decided to finish the three pages even if it took hours to do so.
This was my first venture into this new arena of the mind. Writing in this way was not the old and relentless torrent of negative emotions that had made previous journaling experiences so unpleasant. Previously, I would finish writing and only feel like my emotions were even louder and more intense. This time, I discovered that if I could write it down, I could let it go.
In the days that followed, I discovered a place to express myself without the fear of rejection. I discovered the freedom of not even using mental energy to craft something presentable for an audience. Since I was writing this for no one but myself, old unhelpful habits like self-editing as I wrote never could grab a foothold.
This was finally a place for me to practice what I’d worked on in therapy the past four years. My therapy sessions up to this point had felt like a life raft, something I frantically lunged for every two weeks to keep me afloat. Morning pages, in contrast, allowed me to practice dialoguing with my thoughts, addressing them one at a time and responding to them. I found a space to ultimately choose to reinforce the new patterns of thinking I worked on during my appointments: having compassion for myself. Honoring my limits. Directing my feelings into their proper times and places.
I discovered that writing has the power to slow my thoughts and feelings down. Before I started morning pages, the volume of my unhealthy thought patterns could easily drown out healthy ones I worked on in therapy. But when I put pen to paper, there’s only room for one thought at a time. Every thought is on equal footing.
My past experiences with journaling had made me reluctant, even afraid, to delve into the depths and write down my secret shames. I had been afraid that to write down my most unmanageable feelings would be to amplify them and reinforce them. It turned out I hadn’t found the right process yet. When I surrendered to that process of giving free reign to my mind to write down those feelings, three pages at a time, the unimaginable happened. It took their power away.