Your journal can become a powerful tool for self-discovery. And in this article, I want to share with you the theories and tools I use as a psychologist to write and then analyze my journal to gain more insights into the fabric of my psyche.
If we haven’t met yet: My name is Alina, I’m a German psychologist and psychodynamic psychotherapist in training. I create content all about psychodynamic psychology, an approach to understand human nature that focusses on unconscious inner processes.
Why Bother With Self-Discovery?
It might have never been more important to cultivate self-awareness than it is today. With all the possibilities that the modern world offers, everything is changing so fast and we have to adapt so quickly, that we easily lose ourselves in the sea of a million possibilities. Following the constant demand for better, more exquisite experiences, it becomes much harder to know what it is that we want instead of just running to the next goal post.
As you might guess, my favourite way of self-discovery is based on psychodynamic theory. It’s an approach to understand human nature that started with Freud’s psychoanalysis and has developed throughout its 120-year old history up until today.
It includes attention for intricate unconscious inner processes, exploring emotions, identifying patterns, and inner conflicts, and I want to introduce you to some helpful basic concepts today.
Following the psychodynamic approach both in my job as a psychologist and in my own life, I believe that self-knowledge is freedom and that insights are liberating.
If you struggle with your mental health, please seek support from a mental health professional, don’t DIY this. But for everyone else: I’ve found journaling to be a wonderful way of gaining insights and discovering yourself on the page.
The goal for me when journaling is to discover something about myself I didn’t know before, to connect dots that were previously not connected.
This is what makes, let’s call it psychodynamic journaling, different from writing a diary. In a diary you write about things you don’t want others to know. With psychodynamic journaling you want to discover things that you didn’t know yourself.
If you want to write your diary to remember the past, so that you can one day flip back through it and remember the good old days, you should write down an actual account of your day.
If, however, you want to use your journal for self-discovery, to explore what might be going on outside of your conscious awareness, you need a different approach.
You likely sit with an obstacle, problem, or annoyance, wondering why you do what you do. And the frustrating thing is that there seems to be no rational explanation for it. Your behavior, emotions, or thoughts seem irrational even. You so wish to be in a relationship, so why do you keep sabotaging them? You know how important it is to get a task done, so why are you procrastinating?
From a psychodynamic perspective, the reason that it’s so hard to understand ourselves is because parts of us are unconscious. And these unconscious processes operating inside of us affect our emotions, thoughts, and behavior.
Freud started exploring the unconscious contents of his psyche by analysing dreams (in his famous work “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1900, which put psychoanalysis on the map). His reasoning was that when we are awake, there is a censor at work that keeps uncomfortable things outside of our awareness. This censor is the ego (the “I”) employing defense mechanisms.
It’s important that we are able to use defense mechanisms (I wrote an entire article about this) because they manage anxiety, protect our self-esteem – but they can also get in the way of us understanding those uncomfortable contents of our own psyche and might therefore keep us stuck. That means we have to find a way to circumvent the censor.
The technique Freud used for that is called Free Association.His idea was that the contents of our unconscious reveal themselves by association. In our psyche everything is connected by similarity. If you smell your favourite food, this might bring you back in time to your mum’s kitchen, remembering scenes at the dinner table, or it might take you to an exotic vacation you took and how the guide looked just like your ex, and then you think about the relationship, etc.
If you sit with something you want to understand about yourself using free association can be incredibly helpful. What you do is you write down everything that comes to mind, no matter how embarrassing, irrelevant, small, insignificant or uncomfortable it seems in regard to the concern your sitting with.
Open up a new page, note down on the top of it something that caught your eye about yourself, something that seemed odd, something you want to understand. And then let your mind wander and follow the chain of associations.
If you think of the person, emotion, situation, problem, dream, etc. that concerns you: What image, smell, memory, sensation, emotion, dream, fantasy, thought, picture, word comes to mind? What can you freely associate? What does this remind you of?
Free association is honest, non-judgemental self-observation. It requires deep curiosity and acceptance. It means dropping judgment, and opening oneself up to observe any thought, emotion, sensation no matter how random.
That means you decide that the only thing you’ll repress in the process is critique. No matter how irrelevant or embarrassing it seems, you let associations emerge freely. Let your mind wander where it needs to go.
This really is a practice, it requires time to develop the capacity for free association. So be gentle and patient with yourself. As you become more accepting of just writing down everything that comes to mind, you’ll have a good chunk of material to work with for the next step which is the analysis.
Before we dive into analyzing, I want to share three more tips and ideas with you to help you in the writing process.
I’ve put together a free in-depth journal guide + a set of journaling prompts to help you dive into self-discovery. You can get it by signing up for my email list which will also notify you about any new free and paid resources I put out to help you learn more about yourself.
Next, as I’ve said, Freud saw the dream as one of the best ways to understand unconscious inner processes. Dreams can seem like too much whoo-whoo for some but if you’re interested I’d also encourage you to keep a dream journal.
The golden rule here is: no matter how certain you are when you wake up in the night from a dream that you’ll for sure remember THIS dream because no one would forget a dream like this. Note down the dream. Because you will forget it. You can even just grab your phone and record a voice memo. But write down the dream.
The next tip connects beautifully to the last one and it’s to find a way to note down your thoughts quickly throughout the day. You might want to carry a tiny notebook with you or do this on your phone. On my iPhone I’ve installed a shortcut to apple notes and also have the notes app on my home screen. In fact instead of sitting down to journal, I note down quick thoughts, questions, memories that occur to me throughout the day.
When there is a particular question or concern I’m sitting with, I note it down in a fresh note and add as more associations show up for me. This can happen both in a focused session as well as in the most random places. I’ve had key insights come to mind in the middle of doin dishes, showering, going for a walk or during a phone call. Therefore, always be ready to take a quick note or record a voice memo.
Now that you’ve collected material, we can move to the second step which is analyzing what you wrote. And please keep those two processes separate. Just like a writer doesn’t write and edit at the same time, you shouldn’t freely associate and analyze at the same time.
One skill you need when analyzing your journal for self-discovery that I want to focus on in this video is pattern recognition. As a psychodynamic psychotherapist in training, I’m being trained in sophisticated high-level pattern recognition. Having studied psychodynamic theory for a few years now, I have started to collect insights of how certain patterns show up and repeat themselves, what dilemmas people struggle with, how emotions are instrumentalized or repressed to establish safety, coherence, self-esteem, just to name a few.
Right now I’m actually working on a in-depth resource to teach psychodynamic thinking and how to use these concepts for self-discovery, but for now I want to give you a few ideas you can hopefully apply to your own journal analysis. If you want to get notified once that launches, again, sign up for my email list.
Patterns can emerge in different shapes and forms. It can be sensitive topics, emotions, relationships, or personality styles and they can all be interwoven with each other.
As we grow up, we have to navigate new developmental challenges that put us face-to-face with the fundamental dilemma of being human. It’s the fact that we constantly have to straddle seemingly opposite but fundamentally complementary realities of life.
We need to balance individuation and belonging, permanence and change, autonomy and dependence, control and surrender. Plus we need to navigate other sensitive topics such as self-esteem, guilt and responsibility, competition, identity.
If we haven’t found a way to navigate those tricky topics on our life, they will show up again and again as patterns. In your real life and consequently on the page of your journal.
When you sit with a problem and start analyzing your journal, is there a certain meta-topic you can identify that keeps on coming back in different shape and forms in your life? If yes, it’s time to explore. Again, you can use free association to see what comes up, what chain of associations present themselves to you when you think about that topic.
Early on we start internalizing ideas of who we are and should be, what to expect from other people, how to secure love, significance, safety, self-esteem. And this ends up shaping our personality, how we enter and end relationships, how we perceive ourselves, others, and what goals we pursue.
This of course also affects what emotions we express and how. For some people anger is a forbidden emotion and they therefore turn it into sadness, or self-hatred. For others anger is a defense that is used against feeling empty, helpless or unloved.
If you look at your journal you can examine whether there are emotional patterns. Are there emotions you feel a lot, are there emotions that are absent? Where did your emotional response not align with what you would expect. What is your relation with shame, envy, anxiety? And again, you can use free association to see what comes up when you let your mind explore that emotion.
Self and Others
We usually like to perceive ourselves as virtuous, moral, kind – or sometimes as deficient, bad, unworthy – whatever our ideal-self, super-ego (the inner critic) or internalized objects demand. Because, yes, strong self-criticism for example can serve the purpose to pacify our superego (the inner critic) as a form of self-inflicted punishment. There can also be patterns emerging in how you perceive and interact with others and the role they are assigned to in your life.
Therefore, it can be useful to explore how you perceive yourself and others on the page. What does your journal reveal about who you think you are, who you think you should be, how do you judge yourself and others? Who are the people who play a role in your life? Do they remind you of someone? What pattern do you recreate again and again in relationships? How does that confirm what you fear? Take your time and again, use free association to see where those associations take you.
In the end, you have to embrace the fact that you are torn between a desire to learn more about yourself and the fear of doing so. There is always ambivalence.
Keep in mind that today the goal of free association and analysis is not to arrive at a certain memory or dig up a particular things that explains it all. The goal is to foster self-discovery, and integrate different experiences, emotions, thoughts into yourself. It’s to become more whole so that you can experience more inner freedom at the end of it.