Journaling For Dummies
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Reflective journaling is a structured approach to journaling that focuses on finding meaning in life events by asking questions, such as “What happened?” “How did I respond?” and “How did this event change me?”

Through the reflective journaling process, you can examine your thoughts, interpretations, and belief systems to become more self-aware and to grow from your life experiences. In addition, the reflective writing practice can improve your ability to challenge assumptions and think creatively.

Exploring life with reflective journaling

When you picture yourself journaling, you likely see yourself writing in a free-form fashion about thoughts, feelings, and whatever comes to mind. This unstructured technique, referred to as free-writing, is probably the most well-known of all journaling methods.

People usually free-write without a specific purpose. Similar to going on a Sunday afternoon drive without having a destination, you’re just out to see the sights, and maybe you meander down some side roads on a whim. Your drive may be a fun and relaxing activity that provides perspective on your neighborhood and its surroundings, and might possibly lead to somewhere new and exciting, but that’s not the intention.

Like that Sunday drive, free-writing may lead to meaningful self-discoveries, but is most often just an exploration of familiar inner roads.

On the other hand, reflective journaling combines intention with exploration. This type of journaling goes on that metaphorical Sunday drive with a final destination in mind. You can still explore interesting sights and meander down those side roads along the way, but you arrive at a meaningful destination. Your trip fulfills a purpose beyond just getting in the car and driving.

Reflective journaling is a therapeutic practice that can help you identify, grow from, and find meaning in your past experiences. And the new perspective you gain along the way can change the way you respond to people and events in the future.

We create our life stories by making meaning of events that happen in our lives. Reflective journaling allows you to reconsider those stories, to deeply explore all sides of an event, and to confirm or even rewrite those stories.

You can use reflective journaling to examine events in the distant past, or events that happened just yesterday. You can also use it to reflect on important topics in your life: relationships, life passages, parenting, and more.

Fortunately, like most journaling methods, you can quickly get the hang of reflective journaling. And, with practice, you can turn it into a powerful tool to enhance your understanding of your past, increase self-knowledge and self-awareness, help you change how you respond in stressful situations, and even improve relationships.

Defining reflection

Before you dive into practicing reflective journaling, I want to make sure you understand what I mean when I say “reflection.”

You can interpret the term reflection in a number of ways that apply to your reflective journaling practice. To reflect may include any or all of the following:

  • To cause to change direction: “The glass reflects the light.” Reflective journaling can reflect light on, or bring insight to, related concepts, issues, and behaviors. For example, while reflecting on your relationship with your son, you suddenly see a similarity in your relationship with your father. Your reflective thinking bounces the light off the surface of your intended subject (your son) to a nearby subject (your father), which ultimately provides some insight into yourself in the process.
  • To mirror back: “The still water of the lake reflects the trees along its banks.” Nothing provides self-awareness as effectively as a mirror. Reflective journaling gives you the opportunity to see your behaviors and attitudes mirrored back to you, simply through the act of writing about them as well as reading and analyzing your entries afterwards. And when you maintain an intention of remaining curious about yourself, you can use reflective journaling to understand yourself better and make purposeful change in your life.
  • To make apparent: “Their work reflects their attitude.” You may have difficulty seeing patterns in your own life. However, writing consistently about the same issues from different angles can provide a work of reflection. Much like weaving a blanket thread by thread, then stepping back to see the patterns you created, reviewing journaling entries made over time can help you perceive behavioral patterns in your life.
  • To consider or think carefully about: “They reflected on the many mistakes they had made.” This definition provides the most direct explanation of what you’re doing when you write reflectively in your journal. You simply write down the thoughts, emotions, and responses that you have while you consider your topic.

Seeing the benefits of reflection

Simply thinking or writing about your past doesn’t necessarily involve true reflection.

Don’t play past events in your head over and over again, a practice called ruminating. This process doesn’t provide any constructive insights and can actually be unhealthy. Ruminating about your past can lead you to beat yourself up mentally about past mistakes and to dwell on regrets. Looking back in this manner can lead to sadness, anger, and depression.

In contrast, reflective journaling, done with intention and purpose, provides a constructive outlet. You can get many benefits from considering past events introspectively and, in particular, thinking about your responses to those events. Here are a few potential benefits of reflective journaling. Reflection can:
  • Help you make connections between experiences. These connections, in turn, help you to see the past from a new perspective. Looking back, you can express compassion and empathy to that past version of yourself and other people who played a role in hurtful events in your life.For example, a good friend did something that seemed like an intentional slight at the time. Upon reflection, you can now perceive their behavior for what it was: They had a lot going on in their life, felt overwhelmed, and couldn’t give you what you needed. They didn’t slight you intentionally, you now realize. This realization, then, opens the door to forgiveness and healing.
  • Improve your critical thinking skills. One of the purposes of reflective journaling is to question assumptions you make about people and events in your life. An assumption is an unexamined belief or way of thinking that you’ve taken for granted. Assumptions guide conclusions and decisions you make, so becoming aware of and questioning your assumptions is key to critical thinking, resulting in improved self-awareness and better decision making.
  • Show you how far you’ve come. Each day, you do the best you can, but you can’t easily tell if you improve much over time. When you reflect on past behaviors and relationships, and compare those behaviors and relationships with where you are today, you can see how much you’ve changed and grown. And if you realize that you haven’t changed much, that realization can spur you to make life course corrections.
  • Give you the opportunity to reassess what you want in your life. Reflecting on where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced allows you to decide what you like or want in your life and what you don’t. It can inspire you to recommit to goals or change direction altogether.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Amber Lea Starfire is a writer and writing coach who has published two memoirs and several journaling how-to books. She has also developed a series of online classes and workshops that have helped hundreds of people journal and deepen their writing practice. Find out more at

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