By Emily Torres
Writing in my journal is not the glamorous habit I make it out to be in my mind. I envision luxe hard-bound volumes full of pristine, poetic calligraphy written by candlelight before dawn. Reality finds me sitting sleepily in a robe, writing nonsense into spiral-bound notebooks until my coffee kicks in. My initial plan for a consistent hour of cataloging my deepest thoughts has turned into 15-minute increments of jotting things I’m grumpy about, interrupted by phone-checking and wandering over to pet my rabbits.
Even though it’s not picture-perfect, I still cherish my personal writing because it offers me a place to be fully myself, without interruption. There are no counterarguments or invalidations in my notebook—just the raw version of who I am, the good and the bad. I recommend the habit to anyone who enjoys writing or who has questions about themselves that remain unanswered. I even wrote a guide for how to start a journal here, if you’ve never tried the practice.
As we spend more time in our own worlds (both external and internal), our emotions are changing frequently. We are small spoons floating in a minestrone of emotions, scooping up new flavors by the minute—some we like, some we don’t. It’s hard to make sense of it all.
So if you need a little help processing, I’ve pulled together journal prompts for every feeling in my current emotional repertoire. If there’s an emotion I’m missing, put it into the comments below and we’ll discover a prompt for you!
It can be difficult to string together cohesive sentences when feeling restless or keyed up. Instead, try making a list of everything within your sight that you appreciate. If you need something more actionable, you can make a list of activities that make a bad day feel better.
Everyone’s feeling this to some degree: anger at those ignoring public health and safety, anger at Twitter (as a general whole), anger at yourself for not being more productive. In your journal, contemplate this: What is your anger trying to tell you about yourself? Is it calling you to do better, or is it inviting you to practice compassion? Maybe your anger is reminding you of your values, or maybe it’s a reminder of personal areas that still need some inner work.
If there’s something on the horizon that you can’t wait to experience or are worried about, take a breather and focus on the present moment. What does the term ‘embodiment’ mean to you, and how do you like to practice it? Write about the physical things you do that make you feel connected to people, things, and nature.
Sometimes we can experience mild anxiety as a result of not being able to control outcomes. It can feel halting, putting the brain on loop, and sending the body into fight-or-flight mode. Structured journaling (or art therapy) can help us feel more managed.
Try this: Write down time-stamps and construct a “perfect day.” Map out all of the things you’d do throughout a typical day if you were operating at your peak. When you’re done, create a second schedule, one that is in reach for you right now. Be realistic, practical, and generous with breaks (it’s okay if only one thing gets done each day!) How does it feel to be kind and generous with yourself in this exercise? Can you extend that to yourself off the page?
Kudos for recognizing that this is what you’re feeling. In a world where “feeling everything” is king, it’s easy to feel shame if you’re having trouble feeling anything at all. You don’t have to force emotion; you can rest for a moment.
Spend some time listing out the ways you’ve helped others in your life. Then, ask yourself this: How are you helping now? Or, how are your talents uniquely positioned to make the world a better place? Connect the dots between what you’re capable of and what the world needs.
This differs from apathy—think of boredom as feeling without action, and apathy as action without feeling. Spark some ideas for what to do by asking yourself an icebreaker-friendly question: If you could be highly skilled in something overnight, what would it be? Would you want to be known for this skill, or keep it for yourself? Once you’re done journaling, see if there’s any way you can begin to learn that very skill.
You might be feeling surprisingly chill right now. That’s excellent! Can you share some with the rest of the class? Write out a long and winding response to this question: What are you learning about yourself during this season of your life?
Maybe you’ve accomplished something huge at work, or maybe you’re just extra-caffeinated. Take advantage of the mood and bolster yourself for more difficult days ahead by answering this question: What are the words you’ve been waiting your whole life to hear?
On days you can’t handle all of the ideas bouncing around in your mind, it’s okay to embrace the wildness. Grab your favorite creative writing tool (like colorful gel pens or even collaging scraps) and write every word that comes to your mind, whether they form full sentences or not. Set a timer and let your stream of consciousness trickle out onto the paper. (Or, for more structure, head here for creative writing prompts).
When the timer rings, read through your thoughts. Circle repeated words or themes, and if you have the extra time, write out why those themes are coming up for you. There is no right answer here, and that’s the point.
Journaling can help you self-soothe through bouts of depression, but it’s not a cure. If you’re depressed, please know you are not alone and reach out if you can. Meeting with a therapist (even virtually) can equip you with more specialized prompts for reflection. Same as with anxiety and any mental health concern, there’s no shame in seeking support.
Here’s a prompt that explores hopefulness and healing: Imagine you wake up one day and all your problems are solved. Write about how you’ll feel on that day and what you’ll do. Invite the celebration.
Narrate a memorable date, or create an imaginary one. Write out the way you want to feel, the words you want to hear, the way you’d like to be kissed. Alternately, create a list of your turn-ons and your turn-offs to get more acquainted with your intimate preferences.
Disappointment is the distance between expectations and reality. If your reality isn’t quite cutting it, try examining your expectations. Write out why it is that you are disappointed—what outcome were you hoping to for, and what exactly fell apart in the real outcome? Name the values or the mindsets that missed the mark, and examine how you can support your own growth in these areas. And if someone else disappointed you in a certain way, how can you show up for yourself in that way today?
Yep, this one is a pretty universal feeling these days too. When you’re feeling like you’ve given everything you’ve got and received nothing in return, look for the hidden wins. Explore the future version of yourself in present tense—on the other side of whatever “this” is, who are you? Introduce yourself to yourself using “I am” statements; I am resilient, I am a dog parent, I have disposable income. Let your cynicism take a day off, and just revel in the confidence these statements are giving you.
Humans are capable of abhorrent behavior, and you might be feeling consumed by it. Seek a little respite by writing about the times you’ve made other people happy. What jokes have you told, or doors have you held, or long phone calls have you been present on? Write about how cheering up another person made you feel. Can you do it again?
Raise your hand if you don’t feel fear about what’s happening in the world. No raised hands? Okay, same. Now, grab your journal and ask yourself these questions: How have others offered you generosity? And how can you show generosity to someone else right now?
When fear asks you to focus on what’s missing, divert your attention to what’s abundant.
Instead, put words and names to every single thing you are mourning right now. Use your writing as a way to “look grief in the eye” and acknowledge it. Hold space for the big things, and hold space for the small things, too. Your grief is individual and unique. No one can deny you your approach to processing—if you have to write the same grievance a hundred times, do it. That’s one of the beautiful things about a journal: It’s a wide open space, waiting to hold whatever it is that burdens your heart.
Hurt calls for vulnerability and tenderness—and doesn’t always get solved by writing. First, explore what it is that is painful to you right now, and let your heart break open on the page. No one ever has to read, and you don’t ever have to revisit. Just let it out. But if that’s only making the hurt worse, find your softest blanket, your favorite snack, and a soothing book, movie, or playlist and just rest.
If you haven’t seen injustice in your community or in your country this year, I gently encourage you to look a little harder. And if you’re reeling from this feeling, you are not alone. Our journals are a great place to sort through our feelings, but they’re also a great way to break down our own complicity in racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and more. Use your journal to hold yourself accountable—what are areas you need more education in? Examine your privileges, list them, and sit with them. How are you working to extend the same privileges to everyone else? Tooting our own horns for being “the good ones” in our journals is counterproductive and perpetuates harmful behavior. Dig deeper.
If you don’t experience privileges (in one way, some ways, or every way), use this space to validate and affirm yourself. Write about why your mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and economic health are important and necessary to you and to your community. Because all of them are worthy and important.
Sometimes the best pep talk comes from yourself. What are you good at? What makes you unique? Fill a whole page with compliments about yourself. If this brings tears to your eyes, it’s okay. Same here. But keep pushing—you’ll find a rainbow of good qualities just beyond the rain.
Connect with your dreams and your wants when you feel inspiration flowing. You may find that you can better envision the specific steps towards a goal when you’re feeling inspired. Write responses to the following, and see where they take you: What did you dream of doing as a child? What do you dream of doing now? Is there a common thread between them?
Take advantage of the days you’re full of thought, and get lost in a little time-travel. Write down how old you will be in 10 years, and how old you were 10 years ago. What can you tell your younger self, and what do you think your older self will be telling you?
Everybody on social media seems to be living their best life, don’t they? When jealousy and envy start to overtake you, remember that these emotions are less about others and all about you. Don’t take that personally! (Well, technically, you should take it personally.)
Instead, sit with your notebook and write out exactly where these feelings are pointing you. Use your jealousy like it’s a compass; it points you to where your values and aspirations lie. What is this feeling telling you about where you want to go next? And as you’re journaling, if you find yourself jealous of something that doesn’t align with your interests, invite yourself to let it go by writing, “good for them, not for me.”
What a blessing to feel joy right now! Embrace this with a playful heart. Think back to a happy memory from your past—maybe it’s jumping into a pile of autumn leaves as a child, or maybe it’s the night you danced until 3 a.m. with your college roommates. Add to the celebration in your heart, and write out the story of that experience. How can you bring that feeling to someone else today?
If you’re not able to be with people who make you feel loved and seen, write an entry that calls upon their warmth. What compliments have you received from them? From strangers? How would your closest friends describe you to their friends and family?
If it is difficult to find warmth from others to call upon, know that that’s okay. Instead, call upon the things that support you—the ground beneath your feet, the breath supporting your body, the glass of tap water on your desk. Then, move into making self-validating notes: I trust myself, I belong here, I am good. Essentially, write yourself a love note in kind and affirming language.
Nostalgia can ache in both good ways and bad ways, but either way we can find the objectivity in it. Excavate memories by letting yourself free-write (or scrapbook!) about a lovely time in your past. Start with a vivid memory, then expand on it by reflecting on who you were with, what the weather was like, what clothes you were wearing, the food you were eating—that can help pull up other memories from that time. Remember these moments you’ve forgotten and write them down on paper so you never forget them again. Take care of yourself in the process.
When everything feels like it’s too much, it usually means that there’s too much. Recalibrate. Make a list of your values, and compare them to what is currently stressing you out. Muse on what plans you might be able to cancel, or what projects you can ask for an extension on.
If your overwhelm is rooted in other people’s expectations, write about how your values might differ from theirs. Is there a compromise? Do you need to set a few more boundaries?
As hard as we try, we can’t change the past. But we can explore the beautiful ways in which we can grow from those things that we regret. Ask yourself: “How do my regrets illuminate my future?” You can also practice journal writing self-forgiving things as you process those regrets, allowing yourself to release some of the harsh ways you’ve judged yourself in the past.
You are cordially invited to pour your heart out onto the paper in front of you. When you’re done writing about the heavy things, dedicate some space to what’s still good. What went well today? Even if everything seems wrong, describe one moment that things went right, like when you brewed a tasty cup of jasmine tea.
Whether it’s the mirror or it’s your face in the corner of a Zoom call, it’s easy to be harsh to ourselves about the way we look, sound, act, etc. We’re all face-to-face with ourselves in more ways than ever, and self-judgment comes easily. So if you’re feeling self-critical, write a list of things you like about your appearance—hype yourself up!
If you’d rather not focus on your appearance, ask yourself: What are the words you most need to hear from someone you trust? Be specific, direct, unabashed.
Think about relief: How does it show up for you? Describe the sensations, the thoughts, the way your mind and body feel when you experience it. Maybe it’s the relief of sending an email you’ve needed to send, or maybe it’s the relief of getting some good news about a loved one’s health. Explore it, describe it, welcome it, journal it.
If you’re reeling from shock or surprise, it can be challenging to put the experience into words. Instead of trying to summarize a feeling, examine how you responded to the event. Then ask yourself, how have you surprised yourself recently?
Full of doubt? Not sure where to go next or what’s coming? Invite some thoughts from a younger version of yourself. What does the 17-year-old version of you think of where you’re at? Ask them for an opinion. You might not come up with an answer, but it’ll get you thinking about a problem from a new perspective.
Mark Twain allegedly said, “Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe.” It doesn’t always prevent us from feeling like we’re past due. During times like those, look for evidence of your resilience to help you move through worry. Write down the challenges that you have overcome and what qualities you have that helped you through.