How is a journal helpful?
A journal can be a valuable tool for knowing yourself better. It is a willing ear and a confidant who keeps your secrets. It's also a way to hear yourself, to record and then re-approach your problems and ideas later, when you may be feeling differently. Your journal both affirms and challenges your beliefs about yourself. Are there patterns to your feelings? Do you always seem to wind up in relationships with the same kind of person? Do you have recurrent dreams? What do you think about that?
Another way a journal can help you is by reflecting your feelings about yourself, feelings you may not be aware of until you look back at some of your entries. What's the dominant tone of your journal? Are you usually confident, or are you typically down on yourself? Do you hold yourself to high standards of perfection? Criticize yourself constantly? Do you only write when you're depressed? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," can you think of a way to use your journal to restore some balance to your life?
How to use a journal
To use a journal, you've got to keep one. If you want to start a journal but haven't, you may be comparing your writing unfavorably to an idea you already have about what a journal should be. You may be unwilling to write unless you know in advance that you'll produce something beautiful and significant. Under these circumstances, you'll probably never write anything. Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) suggests giving yourself permission to write the worst journal entry ever. This frees you from your fear of failure and can get you started.
While I was working toward my counseling degree, I took a very intense, difficult course on group dynamics. We would meet as a group therapy for a few hours, break, take notes, and then do the whole thing again. I'd write my notes in my journal. At the end of the course, when we each told the group the most important thing we'd learned, one woman said she'd learned, by watching me, that she didn't have to write on both sides of the page if she didn't want to. She realized how many rules she was following, sometimes even when there were no rules. I've had people tell me I'm "not doing it right" because I only write on one side of the page, but they never have an answer to "Says who?" Fortunately, journal writing has no rules. Try writing a page of lies, scribbling with colored markers, copying down the words to a song you like, or tearing a page out. Leave space to go back later and comment on what you've written. Your own interests and needs will shape your writing.
A number of journal writing books are available. Some are workbook/exercise style. You'll find them in the Self Help section of bookstores. Others, such as Kimberely Snow's Word Play/Word Power, combine readings and exercises. Ronald Klug offers tips on How to Keep a Spiritual Journal. Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way uses insights from the addiction and recovery process as a framework for getting in touch with your creativity. These books tend to be sold in the Reference section with other books on reflective and creative writing.
What do you need to start keeping a journal?
Some people like a particular kind of pen or pencil. You'll need something to write on: a spiral notebook, graph paper, a steno pad. Some people like bound, blank books; beautiful ones are available (with and without lines) in many sizes. Check around at bookstores and art supply stores.
You've got a lot to gain, and nothing to lose, by keeping a journal. Whether it's for fun or for solving difficult problems, for writing poetry or writing about your last therapy appointment, keeping shopping lists or writing letters, a journal gives you a quick and easy way to talk to, support and value yourself.