Journaling for Your Future Self
by Elena Greco
I feel as though I were still master of the days I have recorded, even though they are past,
whereas those not mentioned in the pages are as though they had never been.
~ Eugène Delacroix
(This is a chapter in The Great Book of Journaling
available on Amazon this spring.)
February 18, 2021
Typical reading time: 5 minutes
My journal is an old friend that has been with me for most of my life, from early adolescence through my current senior years. I’ve journaled both regularly and sporadically, journaling regularly for long stretches, then sometimes taking a hiatus for a month or even years. But I always come back to it. Why? Because journaling is the kindest, most healing, most self-preserving and self-validating thing I can do for myself. And because my journal is truly my best friend, the wisest one in my company.
Journaling keeps me flowing and going, providing an outlet for emotions and thoughts that might otherwise grind me to a halt. It gives me a safe space to say whatever I feel like—including snarky things to people who irk me so that I can vent without harming relationships. It gives me a chance to reflect more deeply on what’s going on in my life beyond the immediate circumstances, if only for a few minutes a day.
Although journaling provides enormous benefit to me in the moment, I really journal for two people: my Present Self and my Future Self.
The Present Self
Journaling is incredibly healing for my Present Self, wonderfully beneficial in the therapeutic sense. It helps me bring order to my life. It’s a great release for pent-up emotions and chaotic thoughts, and almost as good, often better, than talking to a counselor or a friend.
When I write in my journal, I write to The Journal. I write to a faceless entity who provides witness to my existence, a confidante who never judges, one who accepts all I have to give it without question or complaint. In it, I can leave my most vile or violent thoughts without causing damage, either to others or to myself. I can leave my sadness, despair, and vitriol without being judged, and feel less burdened for doing so. I can be petty and petulant, or profound and transcendent, and sometimes all of those in the same entry.
When the thoughts in my head are swirling, leaving me no room for clear thought, journaling helps me pour the thoughts onto the page so that they no longer affect my clear vision.
When the superficial but often intense emotions sometimes obscure what’s really happening, journaling helps me gain clarity.
When I feel confused or when I’m torn about a decision, I journal, and the options become clear and the solution arises from the murk. Journaling helps me sort out difficult situations.
When I want to hear from my creative self, journaling helps me get to the creative depths, generating ideas which I can then take to the drawing board—or the music rehearsal or the written page.
Best of all, The Journal never misunderstands me.
All of these things and more are plenty of reason to journal.
But there’s an added benefit to journaling that you can’t get from talking to a counselor or a friend, a benefit you can’t get from anyone or anything else. Journaling can benefit your Future Self, the you who doesn’t exist yet, the you who lives in the future.
The Future Self
Journaling is obviously incredibly helpful in the present. But its greatest value might well be in the future.
Reading from past journaling brings back memories and helps me recall what really happened. I often forget much of my past until I’m reminded by my journal, and I sometimes have an altogether different memory of past times. Reading the journal brings back those times more realistically, correcting the whims of my memory. When I read past journals now, I’m amazed at the experiences I’ve gone through in my life in a way that I could not possibly appreciate them when they occurred in the present.
Reading past journaling helps me know myself better. I can listen to what I was saying mentally, experience it objectively and learn from it. My challenging tendencies become clearer so that I can overcome them.
What strikes me most when I read my journaling from a time past is that I sometimes feel compassion for that person—my Past Self—in a way that I couldn’t at the time—and maybe in a way that I can’t feel for my Present Self in the moment. I listen to that Past Self as I would a friend in the present, I see and feel her pain and struggles, I feel benevolence for that Self, sometimes suddenly realizing that that person is … me. That helps me feel a little more compassion for myself now, something I often have trouble getting in touch with. Reading the words of my Past Self soothes and heals my Present Self.
Reading my past journals also sometimes allows me to appreciate my positives in a way that I sometimes don’t in the present. I see resourcefulness and tenacity, the rising above unfortunate circumstances, and I feel stronger knowing that my Past Self survived and contributed to the current circumstances and strengths of my Present Self.
When I write today, I sense my Future Self lending a benevolent and non-judging ear, a Self who will benefit from knowing who I am today—my Future Past Self.
Let’s look at how who, what, when, where and why can help you get started in journaling or deepen the journaling practice you might already have.
Who. It’s a good idea to write to someone, whether to an imaginary friend, The Journal, your Higher Self, or, maybe, your Future Self. Imagine you’re speaking to a Future Self that you don’t know yet, but a Self who you know will be wiser than your Current Self, and who will have a broader viewpoint, someone who will understand things you can’t understand right now. You get to choose who will “hear” your journal entries.
What. The content of your journal posts can be as simplistic and mundane or as deep and profound as you like. It can be “I ate too much yesterday” or “I have a newfound commitment to living the virtues of stoicism.” It can be “I had a great day yesterday!” or “I am developing a clever plan for committing mayhem and getting away with it.” Write one sentence or ten pages. There are no restrictions!
And it can change focus and depth from day to day. It’s totally up to you! Where else in life do you get to make ALL the rules? Your journal can be whatever you decide it will be. And remember, your Future Self will thank you, regardless of what you decide to write.
When. When should you journal? Now! Don’t wait another minute. You can journal first thing in the morning, last thing at night, or in the middle of the day. When is not as important as that you have a regular time for journaling.
Make journaling an integral part of your life. We tend to stick with things that are a regular part of our routine, and not to stick with things that aren’t. So decide where in your day journaling works for you and stick with it. This means not only having a regular time for it, but that it follows something that is already a part of your routine, and that it flows naturally with other parts of your routine. If it always follows brushing your teeth, for example, you will always do it. You won’t have to think about it, you won’t have to look at the clock and say, Oh, it’s time for journaling, or, Oops, I missed journaling so maybe I’ll skip it today. It will feel natural, like a normal part of your life.
If you have to decide every single day whether you’re going to journal, you won’t. It needs to happen without your thinking much about it, much like brushing your teeth every morning. I invite you to think where journaling might fit naturally in your routine. Then do it!
If you find you still have trouble getting yourself to journal, you might make use of one of the several journaling apps available. The one I use has an option to send me an email on the days and times of my choosing to remind me to journal. I’ve set it up to send me an email first thing so that it shows up in my morning mail. It politely asks me how I’m feeling, then provides me with a button that takes me straight to the journal no matter where I am or what device I’m using. Somehow the app’s interface makes it seem okay to write a very short journal entry if that’s what I want to do that day, so I don’t have the excuse that I don’t have enough to say to justify journaling that day (a common excuse from people to whom I’ve suggested journaling). Using an app also allows you to keep your journal totally private, in case you’re worried about prying eyes, and allows you to download your entries if you want to keep a copy offline.
Where. Another lovely thing about journaling is that you can do it anywhere. All you need is a laptop, a pad and pen, or a smartphone app! You can journal on your train commute, during your break at work, at your desk at home, on a bench in the park, sitting on the beach, or lying in bed. There’s no place that isn’t perfect for journaling!
Why. In addition to the many reasons above, journaling allows you to know and appreciate yourself more deeply over the years, it helps you to see your life in a broader perspective, and provides a benevolent partner in life. It gives you a history of your life that you can review at any point to make broad assessments, observe patterns, and give yourself a little credit. Most of all, it is your best friend.