4 Ways to Journal for Change, Healing and Growth | by Lynda Monk MSW, RSW, CPCC

4 Types of Journaling shown by coach with client and journal

Many coaches recommend journaling to their clients. Why? Because most of us know first-hand how transformational journaling can be.

As coaches, we're in the business of encouraging our clients to grow by deepening their learning and taking inspired action in their lives. So any tool or practice that can help them do that is valuable.

However, when you consider recommending journaling to your clients, keep in mind that results depend both on the person and on the nature of the writing.

When to use caution with journaling

It's important to note that research* shows writing may not be healing if, for example, it's:

  • Consistently focused on the negative
  • Re-traumatizing (due to recency of trauma)
  • Filled with reflection without insight
  • Too controlled (not spontaneous enough, or self-censored)

So if someone just ruminates on all the negative aspects of their life in their writing, this can contribute to anxiety and stress. And while venting can be cathartic, it's not the only thing that should be happening within the journal.

So, who benefits most from journaling?

Research also shows that some people benefit more from expressive writing or journaling than others.

The people most likely to benefit from journaling are those who:

  • Value personal growth and introspection (willingness)
  • Want to experience the emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual health benefits of writing for wellness

Ideally, we want our clients to tap into what is known as therapeutic journaling:

Therapeutic journal writing implies the conscious intent and deliberate attempt to write in ways which will produce change, healing and growth. It is reflective (thinking about, pondering, exploring) and a reflexive (integrating and using the awareness gained from reflecting) practice which can help with greater understanding of the self and the world and the self-in-the world. Kate Thompson, Therapeutic Journal Writing: An Introduction for Professionals

Freewriting - and setting limits to unlock inspiration

If you simply tell people to journal—without providing guidelines—you're asking them to engage in what is known as "free writing".

However, while it may seem counterintuitive, too much freedom can actually be less productive in journal writing than having a clear "assignment".

A client who is new to journal writing may feel daunted by a completely unstructured journaling request. In other words, just telling your clients to journal and sending them off to the blank page often won't be nearly as helpful as giving them some guidance and specific journaling exercises to support them.

Free writing is the least contained, least structured and least paced form of journaling. It's what experienced journal writers do most of the time. As journaling expert Kathleen Adams says:

Free writing is unboundaried, unstructured, unpaced narrative writing. It is useful for creative flow or spontaneous writing sessions.

Adams also identifies 3 essential elements to journaling for healing and growth: structure, pacing and containment. As coaches, it is important to keep in mind that all journal writers, whether new or seasoned, can benefit from these elements in their journaling.

Here are 4 types of inspiring journaling exercises to try with your clients:

1) Sentence Stems

This form of journaling prompt provides what is called a sentence starter, and the journaling flows from there. For example, a client could do a journal entry starting with "Right now, I feel ____". And they fill in the blank with a word, a phrase or a longer response.

I will often start a coaching session with this activity and give the client 2 minutes to write from this sentence starter prompt. It's a great way to bring mindful, emotional self-awareness to the beginning of a coaching session. You can also offer multiple sentence stem prompts that are personalized to the focus of your coaching agenda.

Here are some examples of sentence stem prompts:

  • Right now, I notice ____.
  • When I am at my best, I am normally feeling or doing ______.
  • I feel confident when _____.
  • My greatest source of pride is ______.
  • One of the things that I have overcome that makes me the person I am today is ______.

And so on! Get creative.

TIP: Invite your clients to create sentence stem prompts for themselves on topics relevant to their growth and goals.

2) Timed Writing

Timed writing can be used to bring short focus to a certain topic or problem, or to an area of gratitude a client might want to express.

This is a great way to introduce journaling in a brief way to clients who might not be inclined to write for themselves.

You can suggest they do a timed writing for 5, 10 or 15 minutes. The shorter the timed writing is, the more contained and paced it is. The longer the time frame, the more it starts to move towards free writing.

Timed writing can be combined with journaling prompts for focused writing time. I often do 5-minute journal entries, where I pick a topic, a question or a quote as a prompt, set my timer and write.

TIP: These short bursts of journaling are perfect for clients who say they don't have time to journal.

3) 20, 50 or 100 Item Lists

Making lists is a fun way to journal. It lets you brainstorm a lot of thoughts succinctly.

My journal is filled with "list entries", such as 20 places I would like to visit, 50 things I am grateful for so far in 2020, 100 favourite memories in my life so far, etc. You can invite your client to make a list journal entry relevant to a coaching theme or topic you are working on together.

For example, I invited one of my clients to write a list of 20 strengths she feels she has as a leader. Then I asked her to write a list of 20 strengths her staff might acknowledge in her. We then compared these two lists and explored them in our coaching session. This journal coaching activity helped her set goals for her own professional development that were grounded in her core values and areas of growth she wants to pursue.

List topics can be about a current issue or something from the past or future.

TIP: Clients might notice repetition or patterns in their lists, and this can offer great insights and more possibilities to explore within your coaching work together.

4) Precious Moment Memories

Capturing precious moment memories involves writing about peak experiences a client recalls in any area of their life. I will sometimes combine this with the Wheel of Life Exercise and then invite my clients to write a precious moment memory for each aspect of the wheel.

For instance, one of my clients who recently retired was reflecting on a poignant memory from her career that really shaped her as an individual. While the experience itself was very difficult, she realizes it informed her work in powerful and positive ways moving forward. I asked her to write about this "precious moment memory" and to include what made it meaningful and impactful to her.

This type of journaling exercise benefits from including thoughts and feelings, as well as the senses, and strong descriptors. These types of moments are often filled with our clients' joys, successes, formative experiences and more. Writing about precious moment memories can bring insights, resilience, inner peace and inspiration.

TIP: Such writing can also offer hope and optimism during challenging times - for example now, during the COVID crisis.

Wrap-up

There are infinite creative ways to bring journaling into your coaching.

In fact, I use journaling so frequently as a transformational tool and process within my coaching work that I describe what I do as Journal Coaching. This intentional combination of guided journaling and coaching supports a whole range of key goals that my coaching clients have when we work together: transformation, balance, wellness, resilience, growth and success.

Pause and reflect: How might you intentionally and skillfully integrate journaling into your coaching? And what benefits might this offer to your coaching clients?

References

*Pennebaker, J. W. & Evans, J. (2014). Expressive Writing. Words that Heal – Using expressive writing to overcome traumas and emotional upheavals, resolve issues, improve health, and build resilience.

Adams, K. (Ed.). (2013). The Journal Ladder, in Expressive Writing: Foundations of Practice.

Lynda Monk 2017 HeadshotContributing author: Lynda Monk, MSW, RSW, CPCC is Director of the International Association for Journal Writing. She is the author of Life Source Writing: A Reflective Journaling Practice for Self-Discovery, Self-Care, Wellness & Creativity, the co-author of Writing Alone Together: Journalling in a Circle of Women for Creativity, Compassion and Connection. Sign up for her newsletter to access the free gift: Transformational Journaling Kit for Coaches here >>

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