This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
I’ve kept a diary since I was 11 years old. Writing multiple entries a week has brought me up to 10 diaries total.
They’re straight out of a television sitcom: ratty spiral notebooks covered in stickers saying phrases like “Boss Babe” or “Girl Power.” I even have some video diaries from when I was 15, where I talked about mundane topics like how much I loved buying Doritos Locos Tacos at my local Taco Bell.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been journaling more and more, both in writing and on my camcorder. On Aug. 13, 2020, for example, I recorded a video diary on the COVID spike happening where I live in New York City and how it served as a reminder that I still needed to be cautious, even though cases weren’t as bad as in March.
Like this entry, some of my writings are still about the daily details of my life. However, I’ve noticed that my diaries have become a lot more emotional over the years — even before the pandemic.
Finding two diary entries, 10 years apart, was proof of this emotional switch.
On March 26, 2008, I wrote, “Today’s a science test. Boohoo. I’m buying a Hershey Bar today. Yesterday I ate this gross caramel bar.”
At the time, I was 11 years old. Since then, my entries have become less about what I did that day and more about my state of mind, like who I want in my life, or what I want out of life.
This is clear in my entry 10 years later. On March 20, 2018, I wrote, “I’ve explored so many parts of myself these past four years, parts I’ve hated and parts I don’t want to forget.”
Besides keeping track of good memories, my diaries have helped me keep track of who I am and who I want to become. Some people who want to focus on that aspect of journaling are turning to “guided journals,” which get you right to those big questions.
Her guided journals have prompts like “What’s the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?” or “What does success mean to you?”
“I have friends that have never journaled before,” Seetubtim said. “And when they start using the Happiness Planner or the journals, it scares them. They’re like, ‘It’s really scary! I’m too scared to even open the books you gave me!’”
Self-awareness grows the more we practice. A guided journal is like a practice book that gets us closer to our true selves.
“It’s a tool that basically forces you to reflect more,” she said. “It’s basically like if you want to get more toned and grow muscles and you buy dumbbells and you use it every day, the dumbbells are going to help you grow some muscles. So, I would say that’s how guided journals can help you gain more awareness by being the tools for you to practice with.”
Still, the journey to our true selves doesn’t end with just starting to journal. Ryan Howes, therapist, fellow journaler and author of “Mental Health Journal for Men,” said that when you’re journaling to improve self-awareness, it’s important to get rid of some high expectations.
“When someone gets a new journal, often times they start off with a bang,” Howes said. “And then the next day, they don’t have as much time, and then they feel like, ‘Oh, now I’m failing at this, and I’m not doing so well.’ So, I actually like to encourage my clients, if they’re going to start journaling, to really start small. You know, a few words even, of just, ‘What did I feel today?’ or ‘What did I notice about myself?’”
It also means paying attention to your writing style, which can affect what you learn about yourself, according to Kate Culkin. She’s a biographer and professor at Bronx Community College, where she uses diaries to uncover the personality of different historical figures.
“Diaries, I think they really sort of have two functions,” Culkin said. “On the most basic level, they let you know where people were, what they were doing. The other way that they can be used is, ‘How was someone emotionally responding to what was going on in their life?’”
Culkin is currently using diaries to create a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, Edith Emerson Forbes.
“She had what I thought were going to be very valuable diaries,” Culkin said. “When I saw them listed in the archives, it was, like, years of diaries, and when I got them, they were really … there was nothing in them. There was nothing emotional in it. It was just, ‘Here are a few things that happened today. Here’s who I saw. Here’s who I had lunch with. I have a doctor’s appointment.’ Those sort of things.”
The diaries that get to someone’s core are the ones where there’s a balance of events and emotions,” Culkin said.
“The dream diary is, of course, the one where the person records everything that they do and records a thoughtful, emotional response to what happened and how they’re processing it,” she said.
I re-read my own diaries from time to time, mostly to relive pre-pandemic memories. I admit that, looking them over, I’m not always good at including as much emotion as I do facts. Still, as Howes said, getting to know yourself is a continuous process.
“You can finish a journal prompt or a prompt journal or write your last page of your Moleskin and then buy another one, but I think it’s not a goal to accomplish like that,” he said. “I think journaling is a lifelong process where, whether it’s daily, whether it’s yearly or every decade, you just check in with yourself and say, ‘How am I doing right now?’”