Life story journaling is the activity of reflecting upon your life and writing down empowering stories that redefine who you are and who you are becoming.
Life story journaling is about exploring your life stories in order for you to become the best version of yourself. So what does this process really entail? Let’s start with what it means to be you, or in other words your identity.
To put it simply, identity is the answer to the very fundamental question: who are you?
That is obviously a very difficult question to answer. We may feel that we know ourselves well, but at the same time, it is hardly possible to articulate all the nuances of who we are in a simple answer. In any case, we all have a general idea of who we are, a model of ourselves. Life story journaling is about exploring the nuances of this model via guided reflection and journaling.
Storytelling & identity
As the name implies, storytelling is an important aspect of our identities because we often describe ourselves via stories – that is, our identities have a narrative structure. We reconstruct our past, imagine the future and weave these together in a coherent story. This is what we call our narrative identity – the internalized and evolving stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Because our lives are complex, and we have been shaped by many experiences, we tell several stories about who we are, and some of these may be as simple as, “I am from New York City,” or “I am a teacher,” but they can also be more complex and implicit in the way you think about yourself. For this reason, life story journaling is a continuous and open-ended process of exploring who you are and who you want to become.
Using Narratives to Create Meaning
A thing you may have noticed is that there are different ways to tell the same story, and the way we tell our stories shape who we are. Therefore, life story journaling is also about editing and rescripting your life stories so that your stories work for you rather than hold you back.
In your life stories, there are two fundamental elements: what has happened and the meaning you attach to what has happened. Narratives consist of events, experiences and actors, which we use to understand and describe what has happened, but the glue that binds the narrative together is the meaning that you associate to the things that have happened.
We cannot change what has happened in the past, but we can decide what it means to us, and the aim is to make intelligent decisions about the meaning we associate with our stories.
Some meaning you attach to your stories may be helping you, and some meaning may be holding you back. What this means is that your stories may be true, but not necessarily effective.
You may be aware of the meaning you associate with your stories or you may not. Life story journaling can both help you become aware of the meaning you have created by deliberately recalling the stories you tell yourself about yourself, and it can help you associate meaning that serves you well. In other words, this form of journaling can help you tell empowering life stories. In essence, that is the purpose of life story journaling.
What will you be reflecting on?
Naturally, you will be reflecting on your life stories, and these are unique to you. At Caleon, we offer to types of journals that help facilitate your life story journaling — guided journals and freeform journals.
Guided journals are themed journals (an example could be ‘Childhood’). The journals contain writing prompts related to the theme that help you recall life stories and reassociate meaning to them. These work well for you if you prefer to have a clear structure or need some help with your reflection process. You simply follow the questions and exercises.
The writing prompts are designed to guide you through a reflection process in which you recall relevant memories and stories, redefine what they mean to you and make sure that your stories will help you in your future endeavors.
Each writing prompt consists of a theme description for the session, which is followed by questions and exercises that you will use in your journaling. You simply write down your answers to the questions and exercises, and this will help you reflect on your life stories.
It is a good idea to read through the writing prompt in its entirety before you start as it will guide your answers and make them more coherent.
Freeform journals are journals with blank pages and an index. The index helps you organize the life stories once you have written them down. Freeform journals work well if you prefer the flexibility of reflecting upon whatever topic that fits your life or current circumstances.
It is a more advanced type of life story journaling, and it is preferable that you are familiar with reinterpreting your stories on your own. You can also use freeform journals in combination with writing prompts from other sources. Check out our community site for inspiration.
How do you do it?
What has been explained so far is how life story journaling works. In this section, we will explore the “how to” of it, which is where the rubber meets the road. The following guidelines are about the practicalities of life story journaling, and they are useful to keep in mind as you start your journey, whether or not you are experienced or a complete beginner.
If you are just starting to journal, and it feels a bit intimidating, don’t worry. There is nothing scary about journaling. You can hardly do it wrong.
Besides, any skill takes practice so cut yourself some slack and praise yourself for your willingness to try. The important part is to get started, and all you need to do is express yourself – don’t worry about grammar or formulations.
Get in the Right State
The first thing to be aware of is that your state influences your story, or in other words, your mood affects your ability to create empowering life stories.
The meaning you associate with your story depends on the emotion and the intensity of the emotion you are feeling when reflecting and writing.
That is, if you are angry, frustrated or sad you are more likely to associate those feelings with your story, and the meaning is likely to reflect that.
On the other hand, if you feel hopeful, excited, powerful, happy, grateful or anything along those lines, your ability to associate empowering meaning to your stories will be greater.
Furthermore, emotionless writing will not have an effect on your well-being. You need to spark emotion in yourself when you start your journaling process.
This may seem a bit intimidating, but don’t worry. It is not a problem if you experience some of these unpleasant emotions. In fact, it is quite natural. All you need to do is to work on changing your state. Now, how do you do that?
There are lots of things you can do. Here is some inspiration that may help you find your own way.
Do What Usually Works
First of all, try to think of things that usually get you in a good mood. It can be simple things such as a cup of coffee, a walk in nature, calling a friend, playing sports or a game, being in the sun, watching funny videos online or hugging people you care about. Try doing one of those things before you start journaling.
Change Your Physiology
Another simple and fast thing you can do is to change your physiology. By changing the way you use your body, you will also change the emotions you feel and the intensity of them.
You can either do a couple of exercises (e.g. push-ups), do a dance move or something completely ridiculous. The most important thing is that you get your body moving. It may feel a bit awkward, but it really works so just try it out.
Change Your Focus
Another powerful technique to change your state is to decide what you focus on. What you focus on is what you will feel. If you focus on what you have lost or what you cannot control, you are likely to feel sad or powerless, whereas if you focus on appreciating what you have in your life or what you can control, you are likely to feel appreciative or motivated.
Notice that it is not so much a matter of changing the topic as it is a matter of changing the way you think about the topic.
If you notice that your focus is robbing you of a positive mental state, asking yourself better questions can change your focus. You could ask yourself: In this moment right now, what could I be thankful for? Or you may ask yourself: What else could this mean? This will make it easier for you to decide what you focus on.
These various tactics can be combined into a routine that you know will get you in a good mood. This will help you take chance out of the equation.
Keep Your Pen to the Paper
When you start journaling, you may read through a writing prompt and think that you have nothing to write about or you think of your own topic and think it will take 5 minutes. Most likely, you will be surprised by how much you actually can write once you start writing whatever comes to mind.
What usually follows is a cascade of thoughts that you had forgotten, and which had been lurking in the back of your mind. This is great. It means you are processing.
Therefore, try keep your pen to the paper as much as you can. This will help you keep yourself in the flow of writing, and don’t worry if you cannot always write something. Just strive for it and do your best.
Keeping your pen to the paper will keep you from overthinking and help you write down your authentic thoughts and feelings. If you run out of things to write or if you cannot remember a specific thing, you can start by writing keywords about the topic you are trying to recall.
Also, if you find a question difficult to answer, start by writing what it made you think of. Continue writing your thoughts down until you know how to answer the question.
Expect It to Be Hard
While you should not be scared of getting started with life story journaling, it is equally important to be realistic. You should not expect it to be easy.
It is easier and a lot more comfortable to avoid diving into your stories. This is only natural. You will feel resistance towards journaling because of this, and that’s okay.
When this happens, and it will, it is important to be self-compassionate. You are not lazy if you don’t journal. It simply hurts to bring up potentially sad emotions.
Life story journaling is one of those activities that will feel good after you have done it, and the anticipation is often worse than reality so just remind yourself of the outcome you want from it and what benefit you expect to gain.
Reflecting upon ourselves can seem foreign and exhausting, but if you take your time to do it, it will be rewarding, and anticipating that it will be hard will help you get through it when the mental resistance starts to enter your thoughts.
Distance Yourself from Your Story
During the exercises, you may discover that some of the stories get you emotional. The reflection processes can touch upon topics that have a lot of emotional baggage and are difficult to open yourself to. These stories are particularly important to dive into, and therefore you need to know how to deal with these situations.
Self-distancing is a powerful tactic in which you pretend that you are a third-person observer of your life story, a narrator if you will. This is opposed to being immersed in and experiencing your life stories from the first person perspective, or in other words, being the protagonist of your story.
Self-distancing provides psychological distance to your own life, which can lessen the intensity of the negative emotions, stop rumination and help you redefine the meaning you associate with your story.
Therefore, when you start writing, pretend that you are an observer of your own life rather than in the midst of the story. If you become emotional and struggle with the exercise, you can stop the exercise and try to change your state again.
When, Where, For How Long & How Often?
These questions are important and frequent, and what works for you really depends on your individual preferences. The best way to go about it is to start small with achievable goals and take it from there.
It helps if you experiment with different methods to figure out what works best for you. Here are some of the things you may want to consider
when incorporating life story journaling into your routine.
As for when to journal, you will want to make sure you have the time for the exercises when you begin. It may take a while to do it, and it will be a much nicer experience if you are not interrupted by the next point on your agenda.
You may also want to consider at what times you are in a good mood and most motivated to journal. For some people, weekends work well because you are off work and may not may have a tight schedule. For others, mornings work well because that is when you have a fresh mind and time to yourself, and journaling sets you up for a great day. Others prefer evenings, and if that is when you have a free time slot and can be undisturbed, you might want to go for that option. It can also be a great winding down routine.
Where you do your journaling is sometimes overlooked, but your environment can significantly impact your state and your ability to focus. To accommodate this, you may want to find a place where you will not be disturbed too much and where you can dedicate yourself to the task.
This can either be at home in an office, in the bedroom, the living room or perhaps in the garden. Remember that your state of mind will be affected by what you usually do in that space, and you may also want to consider dedicating a unique place for journaling.
This is often easier to do when you are away from home, and you may want to go to a cafe or a park. An advantage of doing it away from home is that you will not be distracted by the many other things you could be doing at home.
For how long?
The length of your journaling sessions is a key factor to consider. In essence, the more time you spend, the more you will gain from it because you will be able to go deeper. However, there are diminishing returns, and it is even more important that you will keep doing it, and it can be challenging to go deep, especially if the topic is sensitive to you.
The key here is to start small. This may even be a beneficial thing to do as it forces you to complete the exercises without overthinking your answers.
It is smart to begin by making a commitment of e.g. 15 minutes per session. You can always start spending more time on it later when you have become more familiar and experienced with the process, and you might exceed your 15 minute commitment when you start journaling and get into the flow anyway.
For guided journals, each writing prompt will have a suggested or expected time frame that will help you allocate time for it. The intent of the expected time frame is only to help you schedule your journaling. You may use whatever amount of time you prefer.
How often you will journal is likely to be the most important decision to make. If you know when you will be journaling routinely, it is much easier to follow through. Therefore, it is a great idea to reserve a regular time slot for it.
To determine how often you will be journaling you can ask yourself: What goal of journal writing frequency are you absolutely certain that you can manage? It could be once a week, once a month or once a year. The more specific you get, the easier it will be to follow through.
It can be hard, and it is better if you ease yourself into it. For beginners, journaling every day is not recommended. Instead, you can always gradually increase the frequency if you feel like it.
We hope you have a clearer picture of what life story journaling is now, and that you see how it can be valuable to you. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them on the community site or contact us directly.