I’ve always loved to write. (Go figure.) Therefore, I’ve always loved journaling. I got my first journal in elementary school; it was a bulky, white, furry diary with a rainbow patch in the center of the front cover. I thought it was the coolest thing ever and wrote in it just about every night: updates on my latest crush, what I ate for dinner that night, who my best friend was, etc. My older brother always made fun of me for it, but writing in my diary was my thing. And it wasn’t just a fun little activity before bed—it genuinely made me happy.

This benefit of journaling wasn’t something 10-year-old me made up or something only 10-year-old me could reap. Journaling is an incredibly beneficial self-care technique, which doesn’t just enhance feelings of happiness, but reduces stress, clarifies thoughts and feelings, and ultimately helps you get to know yourself better. Jasmin Terrany, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, sums it up best: “When you write, you are pausing your life from all other activities and taking the time to look within. It can be a very powerful tool to help you understand what is going on inside you.”

Take These 6 Steps to Journal Effectively

The journaling process can look different from person to person. For example, I like to journal before bed, while others may prefer to write in the mornings. It can take some time to find the right routine for you, but what matters most is that you’re allotting time for delving into your mind and uncovering important thoughts and feelings. Now, if you’re new to this whole journaling thing—or if you’re still trying to find that sweet spot—the following steps identified by Terrany will help:

1) Write freely. “Set a timer for a little longer than you think you will comfortably write, and then write your free flow of thoughts until the timer sounds,” she says. I’m sure you’ve heard of stream of consciousness, right? This is all about writing in a continuous flow. Don’t think about what you’re writing, just write. This will help to unveil thoughts and feelings you didn’t even realize you had!

2) Take a break. “After you get everything on paper, take a short break. Take a few deep breaths, and focus your attention outward.” Writing can be tiring—and confronting emotions can be even more exhausting. So after you’ve written for the allotted time, take a little break before moving onto the next few steps.

3) Be your own therapist. Now’s the time to dive into what’s written in front of you. “When you are calm, clear, and ready, enter into the role of the ‘Lovingly Curious Therapist,’” Terrany says. “Get another color pen or font. Read what you wrote, as your own wise, lovingly curious therapist. When you read with loving curiosity, intend to truly dig deeper and understand what ‘your client’ is feeling.”

4) Dig deeper. In order to dig deeper, you’re going to have to really probe those thoughts and feelings you’ve expressed. “Underline points that stand out and pose questions in your journal to which you can respond,” Terrany recommends. Then, you can begin to answer these questions, which brings us to the next step…

5) Respond accordingly. You’re almost done! This fifth step is all about answering the questions we just talked about. “Get another clean sheet of paper and go back to your original font color. Write down the first question and then answer it. Then write the second question and answer it, etc.,” Terrany explains.

6) Repeat. Lastly, continue to repeat the process for as long as you want or need. “Continue this question/response process between you and your inner therapist until you feel complete,” Terrany says.

Digging Even Deeper

The whole point of journaling is to not only express your emotions, but better understand them, right? Right. “The goal is to enjoy the journey of accepting and uncovering the origins and complexities of these feelings,” Terrany explains. “Make it a detective game, a lovingly curious quest for understanding and self-acceptance. When you realize you will never finish discovering yourself, you can enjoy the challenge of this game for the rest of your life.” Are you up for the challenge? Dive even deeper into yourself by considering the following additional tips from Terrany for journaling:

  • Dig deeper into key points or themes. Ask yourself questions like, “How long have you been feeling this way?” “When did it start?” “How does it make you feel?”
  • Notice compounded feelings and try to uncover initial feelings. Make yourself look into questions like, “What are you feeling beneath that anger?”
  • Try to understand where the feelings come from. Are there any past experiences that triggered a similar feeling? Where do you think it comes from?
  • Notice the frequency with which you experience the same feelings. If you’re having relationship troubles, for example, look into how often you experience those negative feelings.
  • Acknowledge and analyze self-criticism. Terrany says when you notice you’re being critical of yourself, you can say things like, “I notice you are quite hard on yourself. Any idea why that may be?”
  • Empower yourself. Your go-to might be to self-criticize, but you should instead work on using empowering statements such as “I want to… next time I will…”
  • Create a dialogue with difficult feelings. Oftentimes, we attempt to avoid negative or difficult feelings, but the trick to healing is facing them head on. Terrany suggests speaking directly to those feelings: “Ask them what they want or need from you. Learn to listen to and take care of them.”