For "talking to the elephant" (the subconscious) for my Rest of You class, I had originally intended to continue my work with the MyoWare EMG and build a wearable system that would remind to relax my shoulders when it noticed me tensing them up out of self-consciousness or social anxiety. However, my early data collection trials had uncovered that I might face a lot of issues in designing the system to accurately capture muscle tension that was from self-consciousness as opposed to from using my arms. I didn't think I could solve these kind of technical challenges in one week. Additionally, I had been very intrigued by James Pennebaker's expressive writing method of therapy. So I decided to give it a try. For the last four days, I wrote in my journal every morning using this style.
Journaling is not at all a new practice for me. I've kept a journal throughout my adult life. I can't remember exactly when or why I started, but I have saved journals going back all the way to 2010, and I think I had an on-and-off habit of writing to myself before that - it's hard to remember, though. However, my journaling practice has changed a lot over the years. At first, I wrote a lot of prose about events in my life, relatively free-flowing as in the Pennebaker method. I remember it being a great way to make sense of events in my life and my feelings around them. I always wrote at the end of the day. I don't think I wrote every single night back then, but I rarely went more than a few days without writing.
My journal was always a combination of diary writing like this, and an all-purpose organizer. I put to-do lists in it, I write down ideas for projects or artwork, I take notes in it during interviews or workshops or anything else that isn't tied to a particular class. Over time, the organization and brainstorming took more and more space, and the personal writing less and less. I never stopped journaling. But long gaps without writing became more and more common.
Most of all, the style and intentions of my writing changed. Almost always, I was writing with a particular goal in mind. I was trying to emotionally problem-solve. So I might write about a particular trauma or difficult emotion as one would do in Pennebaker journaling, but always with an eye to solving it. I might be writing out what I thought would be some sort of solution - often after hours of spinning in my own thoughts, followed by a sudden burst of what felt like inspiration. Or I might be trying to explicate the problem in total, thinking I was breaking it down to its core, and that once fully understood in this way, I could fix it. As I was seeing therapists on-and-off throughout this time, I often wrote with the goal of spelling things out so that I could show it to my therapist on my next visit.
I'm not sure I'm doing a great job of conveying what I mean by a "problem-solving" approach, but it reflected a flaw in how I was generally approaching my emotional hang-ups: spending lots of time in my own head, trying to think my way out of them, trying to solve them like a puzzle. I could've benefited a lot from this class, as its obvious in hindsight that negative thought and emotional patterns exist in the unconscious, and can't be changed through top-down analysis or deconstruction. If anything, the attempt to do so only reinforces those neural pathways in the brain. About a year ago, I came to understood how that approach only deepens the grooves in my brain, and gradually lost the habit of attempting it. But, I've also been journaling less and less often - perhaps in large part because it had become connected to such an unhelpful form of introspection.
I didn't precisely follow the method Pennebaker describe in his experiment. I did not focus all of my writing on a particular traumatic event, as Pennebaker had his subjects do. Instead, I focused on whatever thoughts and feelings were running through my head that day. However, I was inspired by two aspects of his method. First, the consistency of writing for four days in a row. Secondly, the focus on continuous, stream-of-consciousness writing. Both of these made this journaling practice significantly different from how I had been writing in my journal in recent years.
Additionally, earlier last week I had been trying some journaling in the morning, although with a different focus: on setting intentions for what to accomplish during the coming day, rather than on personal reflection. I didn't make that a daily habit, but I did find the morning to be a very effective time for journaling. When I used to journal more frequently, it was always at night before bed. In theory, this is good for reflecting on the events of the day, but at night I'm usually very tired - especially now that I'm older and have become much less of a night owl. Not only am I more awake in the morning, I found it to be an effective way to get motivated before starting my day.
So, for the last four days, Thursday through Sunday, I followed the following rules:
- Write every day about whatever is most on your mind, most in need of processing.
- Write in the morning. (Actually, I had to break this one day - due to an early morning class followed by a very busy day, I journaled at night. However, that turned out to be a good thing because I had a very eventful day and needed writing to process it.)
- Write continuously until you no longer feel the need to write. (I had no trouble filling the 15 minutes that Pennebaker used - an hour and a half of writing was the normal result.)
I have been very happy with this practice. Writing continuously, with no particular goal or audience in mind, is a completely different experience. I don't stress out about what I'm saying, I just let it flow out. Usually I have a few topics in mind, a few things that have built up that I want to get out, but even as I hold these vague intentions in my mind, I am simply watching the writing unfold, without trying too hard to censor or shape it. I watch my perspective change and unfold as I write, and am frequently surprised by what comes out. The intended consistency, knowing that I will write again the next day, is I think an important part of this free flow of thoughts - I am rarely wrapping up any issues on my mind, so much as moving a little bit forward and leaving things open for the future.
Moreover, writing provides a little bit of distance that can make difficult emotions easier to manage. The continuity helps again here: if I think a very heavy thought to myself, I'll dwell on it, repeating it on a loop. In writing, I write it down and keep going, and soon my mind has moved on to other thoughts and other topics.
Writing in the morning was very good timing. I won't be able to do it every morning, but I really felt like it was a great start to my day. Mornings are often the most difficult time for me emotionally. I wake up with whatever worries and heavy thoughts are on my mind, and they linger over me until I leave the house. There is a momentum from the day before: whatever was on my mind at the end of the previous day, is on my mind the next morning. Except even if the previous day ended happily, any anxieties that happiness bring up for me speaks more loudly the next morning. Before, I depended on getting up and out of the house to break this momentum and feel started on my new day. Even positive morning routines, like exercise, don't really do it - my brain needs novelty to feel different. But writing provided that novelty. It left my mind feeling uncluttered and ready to move forward. It even allowed me to be relatively productive during long mornings at home, which used to be very difficult for me - I would always feel awful until leaving the house. Even if I didn't journal as soon as I woke up, looking forward to journaling helped with this, as I was more able to keep negative thoughts at a distance, knowing that I'll have an outlet for them when I sit down to write.
I really felt like I was authoring my life - not that I have control over external events, but that as I write I'm constructing the narrative of what's going on for me and what I'm working on and how I'm going to move forward. I am definitely going to continue journaling this way, if not every day then far more consistently. Probably I will need to find ways to take less time on it. But then, I still got all my work done, and it was a very busy week. I think that there are a lot of time-wasting activities, like YouTube videos, that writing took the place of. Often I do such things when I am tired and want to escape my brain for a while - and they never help. Writing is much better than escaping, so in addition to making it a daily habit, I will also try to make it my reaction to unexpectedly difficult emotions.