Q: “Should I be re-reading my old journals? I feel like I probably should but I can’t stand it and it hasn’t worked well for me when I have. Am I missing something?”
Maria saves her journals and has stacks of them dating back to college. Occasionally she’ll sit down and re-read them and reflect on her life.
Tiffany burns hers and refuses to re-read anything she’s written.
And by “right” I mean “who’s likely to get the deepest benefit from their journaling practice?”.
Let’s rewind to my own journals.
I’ve journaled off and on since high school. And truthfully, mostly “off”, often choosing to write only when in crisis or working through something difficult.
Re-reading those journals makes me want to stab my eyes out with a knitting needle. And I’ve been thinking about why that is.
Here’s an incomplete list of reflections:
- I didn’t journal often so it felt like it was the “worst hits” of my life. The lowlight reel. Barely anything awesome that happened made it in.
- I hated my whiny tone. I often merely vented and didn’t reflect and that put me face-to-face with my own immaturity. Gag.
- I didn’t usually include gratitude
- I wasn’t always super honest – Sometimes I’d write quickly and without pausing to say what I really meant – eg, “we had a great day together” when what I really wanted to say was “Everything about our day was picture perfect, but it felt empty. I felt empty and I can’t figure out what is missing.”
This was partly haste and partly the fact that my mother had read my journal when I was younger and I hadn’t yet fully rebuilt trust (even though it had been over a decade and we lived on different continents). But I could sense my insincerity in the re-reading and it made me ashamed of my writing and lack of depth.
- I struggled with how much detail to include – I would overwhelm myself with backstory and feel like I needed to explain everything to my future self. I didn’t trust my memory or my experience. So I’d often write 2 whole pages of setup and then run out of time or energy before getting to the part that needed decoding or processing.
Overall it felt like an embarrassment of embarrassments. Highly avoidable.
So I’d store my journals and only revisit them when I was trying to make space on my bookshelf and flipping through to see if it was time to let a particular notebook go.
But then I realized something HUGE:
A re-read journal entry changed my life.
I was 23 and miserable. I opened my journal to vent about it and found an entry from a year prior where I was listing all the things I didn’t enjoy about the same relationship.
It was eerie to realize that although a full 12 months had gone by, that entry listed just about everything I had been about to write down. It was unnervingly accurate and NOTHING HAD CHANGED. That was the impetus I needed to break up and I’m so grateful I did.
Re-reading my whiny journal entry set in motion the events that led to me meeting my now husband (together since 2003), finding a job in television and building a life I love.
So what’s the bottom line?
Do you have to re-read old journals? Nope.
There’s enough benefit in merely writing things down to see what you think and to process emotions in the moment. Re-reading truly is optional.
The only “right” way to journal is the way that works for you. It’s fine to try something new to test it and reflect on it, but there’s real harm in turning your journaling into a chore by over-optimizing it.
Now, is there benefit to re-reading old entries?
…It takes a particular mindset to make it productive.
Journal entries are, by nature, unfiltered, unpolished and stream of consciousness. Which means that by definition there’s gonna be a high crap-to-gem ratio.
It’s a sign you were working to create a safe space for yourself.
Put your focus on progress
Notice how far you’ve come in the way you think (and maybe even write). Or pay attention if, like me, things that need to change haven’t.
It’s all useful if you’re willing to approach it as a test of progress. As Dan Sullivan would say, “Measure the gain (how far you’ve come), not the gap (the distance left to travel),”
Will your writing still make you cringe? Probably.
And that in itself can be a cue for improvement.
I love re-reading my journals these days and make it a ritual over the holidays. But it’s because I’ve changed the way I write.
So it’s your turn. Tell me, do you re-read your old journals? If so, how does it make you feel?