#JournalingGoals: Maximize Your Summer with a Practice of Presence

Tiara DeGuzman, Assistant Hall Director, The Ohio State University

July 10, 2018

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth.” -Anais Nin

From new-student retreats (Orientation) to long weeks of staff training (Residence Life) to year-long event calendars to policy adjustments, the summer for us Student Affairs folks is all about preparation. We prepare so that we’ll enter the fall with energy and purpose. We prepare so that we can be our very best when our students return. We prepare so that we can enter the school year stress-free ….and sometimes, though we try our hardest not to get stressed, all this “preparation” turns into late nights and burnout. Sometimes, we get dropped off in September with no remembrance of how we got there. The summer passes us by, and we miss out on the whole thing.

Though there are many ways that we can overcome “summer busyness” and integrate self-care into our daily schedules (re: taking vacation days, holding meetings outside the office, holding each other accountable for self-care, prioritizing efficient meetings, etc.), in this post I’d like to share with you my personal favorite way to reflect and stay present throughout the summer: journaling.

While I don’t remember which elementary school teacher was the first to assign me the task of keeping a daily journal, I do remember the amount of excitement I felt when I was gifted my first marble notebook in the classroom. Students passed around a pile of shiny, thin paperback notebooks and the teacher gave only one direction: write down the ideas, questions and observations you have about the books you are reading in class. Like many of us, my first experience with journals was in the classroom. Journaling, as a learning strategy, was supposed to provide me and my peers with the space we needed to consider ideas and synthesize all the different things that we were learning. From the classroom, I saw how journaling enhanced my studies, giving me deeper insight into my own growth. As a result, I started to keep journals and diaries outside of class to further enhance my understanding of myself- who I was, who I wanted to be, and what dreams I wanted to bring into fruition.

I have kept a journal now for the last 13 years. I’ve owned sleek leather journals with buckle clasps on the side. I’ve owned journals covered in bright, bubble-gum pink anime characters. I’ve owned journals that were given to me as gifts from good friends and journals that were given to me at work. No matter the cover, the process is always the same. I flip open my current journal, rushing to the latest page, and I use whatever hotel pen I’m currently obsessed with to write down what I’m feeling, thinking and dreaming.  My journaling practice has acted as a continuous companion for me as I have navigated the different periods of my life- the overwhelming confusion of high school, the beginnings of my leadership journey in college, the intense process of graduate school, and even now as I am processing my summer internship experience. That being said, I believe that journaling is a life changing practice that all of us can benefit from- starting with this summer! Here are some tips before we get started:

Find a journal that you will really enjoy writing in!

One of my favorite scenes in the Harry Potter series is in the first book when Harry is in Ollivander’s Wand Shop. Harry is searching for his first wand when suddenly he picks up a wand and sparks fly out of it. As Ollivander says in the story “The wand chooses the wizard.” The same principle stands when it comes to buying your first journal. Don’t just pick up the first journal you find; really allow yourself to wander and choose one that feels right. Consider these questions while you’re searching for your first journal:

  • What journal is the most affordable?
  • Do I typically carry a purse, a book bag, a wallet? What size should I get?
  • Would I like a hardback or a paperback?
  • Would I like a journal with lines (wide-ruled, college ruled, etc.) or would I like one with blank pages?
  • What do I want to feel when I look at this journal (the cover, the pages I'm writing in, etc.)

Clarify your journaling intentions from the very beginning

You would never start a new gym routine or prayer practice or professional development plan without putting a little thought into what you’re hoping to get out of it, right? So then why would you start journaling without giving a little thought to what you want to achieve with your journaling practice? When you get a new journal, the first thing you should do is think about what you want to achieve by the end of it. Who do you want to become through your writing? What things do you want to discover? What questions are you continuously seeking the answers to in your life? Writing out your intentions from the very beginning is a good way to create a contract with yourself about how you want to conduct your journey. Try this question: By the end of each journal entry I write, I want to feel__________________.

Get some journaling role models

When I was younger, I had 2 journaling role models: Oprah Winfrey and Harriet the Spy. Like Oprah, I wanted to gain a deeper sense of myself and my dreams through my journal writing. Like Harriet the Spy, I longed to write down everything I saw and everything I felt so that I could eventually call myself a writer. A journaling role model is a person who represents what you hope to become through your journal writing. As we all know, representation fosters motivation so get out there and seek out your own #journalinggoals champions (Oprah, Sylvia Plath, Anais Nin, Janet Mock, Virginia Woolf and Audre Lorde are great journaling influencers to start with!).

Practice grace throughout the process

Don’t (I repeat) DON’T let your journal be a bully.

I know how it can get.You write one day and then a week goes by, and then it’s almost like your journal is giving you dagger eyes across the room while you binge-watch Netflix. The most important thing to remember here as you’re starting your journaling practice is that journaling is supposed to be fun, lifegiving and stress free. If it’s not any of those things and your attaching your self-worth to how much and how often you conduct your journaling practice, then you are doing it all wrong. Give yourself grace as you’re developing this new practice and make sure to celebrate the little victories. Journaling prioritizes discovery and presence over consistency.

Now, that we’ve gotten the preliminary tips out of the way, let’s dive deeper into some affirming and grounding exercises that we can use this summer in our daily (weekly/monthly) journaling practice!

Affirmation Tools

Journal writing has a long history of providing spaces for women to reveal their feelings and thoughts, especially in societies where women are forced to attach so much of their identity to the role that they play in other people’s lives (daughter, sister, mother, wife). When I think of radical journaling women, I think of women like trans-activist Janet Mock, who writes everyday to find peace in herself after years of living in shame, or women like Octavia Butler, the late black science fiction author, who affirmed her dreams by writing “I shall be a bestselling writer” over and over again in her journals. I think about Anne Frank who made sense of her experience during the Holocaust by giving herself the space to reflect on her dreams and beliefs about the world around her. Though we may be in vastly different circumstances than the women and girls above, I think that we can take a valuable lesson about journaling away from these stories.

For me, journaling exists as a radical, affirmation space. In my journals, I can be whoever I want to be, I can say whatever I want to say, and I can set standards the way I want. I can be petty in my journals when I want to (just a tad here and there), but I can also practice forgiveness for myself and my mistakes in a safe space of my own creation. The tools below are affirmation tools that have guided me, and many other journaling women, to self-love and dream-realization.

  • Permission Slips/Letters: This is one you’ll probably know well if you’ve read Brene Brown. Though Brene typically encourages people to write permission slips, I prefer to write permission letters in my journal that I can read again when I need an extra boost of confidence. Think about something that is giving you anxiety, shame or embarrassment. Maybe you’ve been micro-aggressed against in the workplace and you feel like you are not given the space to voice that pain, or maybe you have a big presentation and you’re nervous that you’ll fail. Those are the times to write a permission letter to yourself in your journal. Use this prompt to start: Dear (insert name here), I give you full permission today to_______________. Don’t stop writing until you feel like you’ve sufficiently given yourself the permission to do what you need to do. **If you want to make it interactive (and have a cute keepsake for the future), ask a close friend, family member or colleague to write you a permission slip that you can keep in your journal for future reference!

  • Brave Lists: This is one of my favorites. I started making brave lists a few years ago when I noticed how much I was struggling with social anxiety. Everyday, I kept a running tally of the little wins (times I raised my hand in class and asked a question though I was nervous, times I reached out to a friend or colleague when I needed help), and each time I celebrated these little wins, I felt even more encouraged to take bigger risks and make bigger decisions in my life. You turn: What are the things that you deal with on a daily basis that require a lot of courage (crisis management, employer relations, confrontational conversations with students or colleagues)? Who are the people that you are continuously brave for in your life and work? In what areas do you surprise yourself in every day? I would suggest leaving a few pages at the back of your journal for your BRAVE LIST so that you can easily turn to them when you need inspiration and affirmation.

  • Dream Affirmation: A few years ago, Huntington Library published a few journal pages of the late, great Octavia Butler, a science fiction author best known for her books Kindred and Parable of the Sower. These pages revealed numerous affirmations about Butler’s dream to become a bestselling author. Affirmations like “I will find a way to do this! So be it!” and “My books will be read by millions of people!” dotted the pages and eventually came to fruition as she wrote book after bestselling book before her death in 2006. Butler practiced dream affirmation- a concept which encourages us to write down our dreams in the present tense and call them into existence. When you’re practicing dream affirmation, think first about what you want- the things you dream of having whether that’s a new opportunity, a feeling or an item. Write down what it would feel like to have that thing in the present tense. Here’s an example from my own journal: “I FINALLY got my Masters and I am happy that I made it through grad school and learned so much about myself. I feel like I can do anything after this experience, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!”

Grounding Tools

Grounding practices are practices that teach you the importance of sitting down and just being. Similar to yoga, I find that when I ground myself in a specific place, time or feeling I am becoming at one with myself. I am staying present in my experience and I am able to observe much more of where I am. These tools are also great because they teach us self-awareness; they show us how we show up in the world and remind us that we are not alone in the world. For these activities, especially, I would highly suggest taking a break from the office and getting outside in nature. Find a park bench, a picnic blanket, a beach chair or an old tree trunk and try out these activities when you need to relax and feel connection.

  • My 5 Senses: For journaling beginners, sometimes the basics can be best. Go to a place where you feel comfortable and ask yourself these 5 questions corresponding with your 5 senses: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I taste? What do I smell? What do I feel? These questions can be especially helpful to ask when you need to regulate your moods or you want to disconnect from work for awhile, but they can also be really good in the work that you do. When we are coaching students, a few of these questions can even be a good way to observe what’s happening in a particular situation and maintain presence during a conversation.

  • Gratitude List: Psychologists have talked about the importance of gratitude for years, and gratitude journals, journals with built-in prompts that you can fill out daily, continue to be sold everywhere in large supply (just take a look at Amazon). Gratitude is a powerful emotion that beckons us to sit in the present without hustling towards our future or dwelling too much on the past. Gratitude exists in the here and now, and the practice of journaling gratitude can be deeply transformative for all of us. You can always start this practice with a simple gratitude list.  Turn off your cell phone and go to a quiet place outside. List all the things you are grateful for today (the good interaction you had with a student, the meeting that went just as you planned, the beautiful weather outside), and after you list these things- sit in the moment and allow yourself to feel gratitude. Breathe deeply as you do this activity, and keep adding things to the list as you see fit.

  • Re-grounding: On busy days, it’s easy to forget why we keep doing the work we do. When you get burned out, it’s even easier to move into a space of ungratefulness and frustration. That’s where re-grounding comes in! When you are having a freak-out moment and you are struggling to keep moving forward, take out your journal and try out this tool. Ask yourself first: “Why am I still here?” List three people and three opportunities that are keeping you where you are. If you’re really struggling to find 3 examples at the time, then write the easiest examples you can think of. Sometimes the only thing keeping you where you are is Starbucks coffee and your love for students, and that’s okay. The point is to get those feelings out, and find reasons that can support you in the tougher times. For a deeper re-grounding tool, free-write a “Where I’m from” poem a la George Ellen Lyon that instead focuses on “Why I’m Still Here.” It’s a fun exercise that will boost positivity and creativity.

We can’t always be perfect self-care warriors in our work. There are too many students to support and just as many problems and challenges that come our way everyday. What we can do is create little moments of presence that allow us to connect with ourselves and gain clarity on why we keep returning to the work. My intention for this article was to leave you with the tools to start your own journaling practice this summer; I hope that you’ll utilize a few of these tools to make space to gain even more groundedness in your life and work.

Happy journaling!

Tiara DeGuzman (she/her/hers) is a queer, black Student Affairs professional who is currently pursuing her Masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio (she graduates in May 2019!) Tiara enjoys reading, traveling, and facilitating workshops on topics like intersectional feminism, queer development, and utilizing journaling to cope with systematic oppression. You can find her on Instagram at tiaradee_itsme, Twitter @TiaraDeGuzman, and her website tiaradeguzman.com.

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