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The Case for Journaling

I have a confession: I journal, a lot. I’m not sure why I feel like this needs to be a confession, and yet I think I just revealed something that some people might find strange, or even shameful, about my life.

But I shouldn’t be ashamed to be reflective. I should be past that middle school instinct to hide my diary under my bed. So why—at a school obsessed with self-improvement and personal transformation—do so few of us take the time to write about our thoughts and record our progress towards our best selves? And why do those of us who do journal guard that habit like a secret?

We might worry that it’s self-obsessed to think so deeply about ourselves when the world has far bigger problems than our emotions. There’s a certain level of guilty responsibility that comes with being a Harvard student—that crippling feeling of needing to pay the world back for this opportunity we have. But if we can’t deal with our own internal battles, how can we expect ourselves to save the world?

The tools we develop internally to cope with our relatively small problems are those same tools that we need to fight external battles: namely, empathetic thinking and emotional awareness.

It can be hard to be empathetic with ourselves. We rush to shower our friends with love and seek to understand them, but we rarely treat ourselves with the same amount of compassion. We write off our caring for others better than we care for ourselves as humility. We say that we don’t look into our emotions because we don’t deserve that level of attention.

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Maybe we don’t want to give ourselves attention because we are afraid of what we will find when we do. In middle school, we hid our journals because we didn’t want our friends to read them. Our greatest fear was that someone else would truly see us and gain access to our rawest thoughts.

Now, however, I think a scarier idea by far is that we see ourselves. We want to let other people know us, we want to forge those deep connections, but we resist connecting with what is inside of us. I know that, for me, this resistance comes from the fear that I will find out that I’m not good enough.

Not good enough for what? This is the type of question that I confront in my journal. When I force myself to identify what scares me, I gain some level of confidence by knowing that I am able to face to my own self-doubt.

I value my daily efforts to look within myself (especially to the parts that I would rather not see) because I know that I am doing something that is really hard. As Harvard students, we look for challenge and see it as a platform for personal development. If we lean into the discomfort of this challenge—journaling with honesty—we might be surprised by the ways it pushes us to grow.

It’s difficult to be vulnerable with ourselves, but that difficulty makes it essential. Veritas, truth, must be an internal as well as an external maxim. We can never see ourselves objectively, and there probably isn’t a single objective truth about who we are. But there is a truthful account of how we perceive ourselves and our experiences. By articulating this truth, we can get closer to feeling okay with who we are, to feeling like we are good enough.

To journal is to make a bold declaration that we are proud of who we are at this moment. When we write about ourselves, we say that our thoughts are worth having; that our present self is worth being and worth knowing. Maybe this is where we see shame in journaling: the shame of wanting to feel worthy, or worse, the shame of achieving this self-worth.

At the end of my senior year of high school, I started “confessing” to keeping a journal. I got a lot of weird looks. A few people thought it was cool (or said so to avoid being awkward). At Harvard, every time I feel myself hiding this part of my life from my peers, I tell myself there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

I should be proud that I take time to get to know myself, that I am doing the hard work of being okay with the truth I find internally. I shouldn’t be ashamed to be seeking self-worth.

So, go buy a journal. Buy your friend a journal. And keep it out in the open. (No one will read it, this isn’t middle school.) Keep it out as a reminder to yourself and to others that you are worth knowing, in all of the difficult truth that you access within.

Sophie G. Garrett ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a Mathematics concentrator in Quincy House.

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