Journaling as a tool for self-discovery

I, Dee

DEE LONGHURST examines journaling as a tool for self-discovery

‘I want to write but, more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried in my heart.’ Anne Frank

EVERY JANUARY, I choose the perfect diary and tell myself this will be the year that I keep a daily account of my life. I buy a new pen too, because no pen I already own could be good enough for this important task. Yet, by the spring of each year, I dust off the cover and stare despondently at the blank pages, wondering where I went wrong.
I started 2019 differently. Last year I made a breakthrough, and it wasn’t from writing daily. Far from it. Mid-year, I bought myself a beautiful undated journal (and matching pen!) and decided I would write only when I wanted to. I put no pressure on myself to capture mundane moments. I now capture just what is most important to me.
I give myself permission to write as much or as little as I want, and in whatever format I want. Free from rules, I scribble, doodle, write poems, capture quotes and draw mind maps. I use prompts such as those suggested in Kathleen Adams’ wonderful book Journal to the Self.
I delve inside and bring out things buried deep in my heart. I capture moments of hope, despair, joy and gratitude. I jot down positive strokes and particular moments I have felt impacted by. I allow my Inner Child to speak, completely uncensored and free of judgment.
In my journal I can be honest with myself, safe in the knowledge that I don’t have to share my writing with anyone. By capturing these uncensored feelings and thoughts, I have improved my self-awareness and emotional literacy. I have also developed a sense of OK- ness. I have developed more clarity of thought. Seeing my own words on the page prompts me to reflect on my own process at a deeper level. In these ways, my journal has become a very helpful aid to my therapeutic journey.
I am often surprised by what emerges when I write without censoring. I remind myself that there is no right or wrong way to feel, and that although my writing is private, I have the safety net of my therapist to fall upon, should feelings arise that I want to explore further or need support with. Reflecting on my own written words, with or without my therapist, I often realise I have the power to challenge my own decisions and ultimately choose my own destiny.
Keeping a journal can be especially helpful in times of crisis. Shortly after ending a toxic relationship at 23 years old, I read Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own. Talking about her own journey, Milner wrote, ‘I thought the best way to begin was to keep a diary, noting in it every day when I had been particularly happy and anything that I wanted. At the same time, I would note anything else that seemed important so that if it should turn out that happiness did not matter, I should have a chance of finding out what was more important.’ (1934)
Milner’s words impacted me because I desperately needed to rediscover the parts of myself that had been stifled for so long. I re-discovered my capacity to think for myself and worked out what I wanted and needed. Years later, as a mother and wife, I can once again relate to the sense of lost identity I felt.
In my journal I give myself permission to rediscover who I am. It has become my identity, my ID, my ‘I, Dee’. It is my unique and personal story that I can call my own. Like a Polaroid picture slowly developing, an outline of a woman is beginning to emerge on the paper. I am beginning to recognise a new version of myself on the page, and I am growing to truly appreciate what is buried within my heart.
I wish you all a happy year of writing and journaling. In the words of William Wordsworth, ‘fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.’

Adams, K. (1990) Journal to the Self. New York: Warner Books
Darlinton, B. The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth. New York: Cornell University Press.
Field, Joanna (Marion Milner)(1934). A Life of One’s Own. London: Virago
Frank, A. (1952). The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Doubleday

The therapeutic benefits of creative writing

For years I have felt passionate about therapeutic writing and its benefits. Where appropriate I encourage my clients to write for themselves and see what emerges. If you are wondering what therapeutic writing is all about and how can writing help read on. Here is my take on it all. 

Adapted from ‘The Therapeutic Benefits of Creative Writing’ by Dee Longhurst. Published in The Transactional Analyst, Summer 2018 issue.

An introduction: Since childhood I have loved writing and often sat in my bedroom writing stories and poems. I didn’t know then that my writing had therapeutic benefits, but now believe that everything I wrote contained an important aspect of myself. In my adulthood, the therapeutic benefits have been more obvious and intentional. Over the years I have become increasingly passionate about the therapeutic potential of creative writing.

What is expressive writing? People often wonder if there is a difference between creative writing and expressive writing. The way I see it is that creative writing is about the product: it is often a piece of writing, a story, a poem, a letter. It may be polished and sometimes publishable. Expressive writing can result in all of this, too, but the focus is on the process. The intention is that the writer makes a deeper connection with her thoughts and emotions, and it potential for the writing to be therapeutic lies within this connection. Arguably, there may be a crossover between the two. It is often the emotional charge of a novel that keeps us turning its pages – we laugh, cry and rage as we become absorbed into the story. Every story contains aspects of the self, so could it be that a writer always benefits from sharing their story? Poets often pen their best poems when they pour their heart and soul onto the page. The American poet, and bereaved father, Robert Frost once said, ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.’ His words certainly ring true for many.

The benefits of expressive writing: The benefits of expressive writing were first discovered by James Pennebaker when he researched the benefits in the 1980’s. Pennebaker concluded that there was a huge benefit to the wellbeing of those who wrote for just 20 mins a day, particularly when writing about an emotional upheaval or trauma. Pennebaker concluded that those who wrote down their feelings visited medical centres less frequently than those who didn’t write. Whilst expressive writing can have huge benefits on mental health, it is important to note that writers often feel sadness after doing so. In most cases, this doesn’t last longer than a few hours, but it is important for the writer to apply the brakes if she feels she may overwhelm herself.

Throw away the rule book! From our earliest years at school, we are taught the correct way to write and we are praised when our writing is tidy, concise or grammatically accurate. We are taught form, syntax and rhythm. In expressive writing we can gladly throw the rule book away because whatever we write is right! Gillie Bolton in The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing, says, ‘When an explorative, expressive attitude to writing is accepted – when the writer allows their hand to put on the paper whatever arrives at the end of the pencil – they can’t write the wrong thing. It might be distressing or even shocking but it is likely to be the right thing for them at that time.’

Accessing the unconscious In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg talks about the need to ‘burn through’ the first thoughts to the place where energy is free from our internal censor. The free-writing technique is an important way of accessing our unconscious emotions and it is a technique I often use myself because it enables me to lose my Critical Parent and allows my authentic, repressed feelings to emerge. For this exercise you will need a pen, notebook and timer. Decide a time you are going to set yourself (I recommend 5 minutes) and go for it!

Goldberg suggests:

  1. Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
  2. Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
  3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
  4. Lose control
  5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

Where will your writing take you?



Bolton, G. (1999). The Therapeutic Potential of Creative
Writing. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing Down the Bones. Boston.
Shambhala Publications
Pennebaker, J. et al. (2014). Expressive Writing: Words
That Heal. London. Idyll Arbor