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Can journaling be toxic?

December 15, 2022 10 min read

Can journaling be toxic?

I've kept a notebook on and off for about a decade, and its hundreds of pages are full of happy and sad memories, thoughts, and feelings. Some people question if this habit of journaling can be detrimental.

So can journaling be harmful? The answer is yes, there are instances in which journaling can be damaging, but these scenarios are readily averted. Just like anything, you have to moderate the amount of time you spend doing it. You simply have to know when to stop. Once you manage your journaling habit, you'll find it to be one of the most calming and pleasant habits you can create.

What are the rules of journaling?

This page offers all the data and figures you need in order to create your own opinion on the topic. Should you start journaling? Should you continue journaling? Give some concrete circumstances where keeping a journal proved to be counterproductive. I'm here to show you all the information.

Before commencing this article, I'd want to introduce myself:

It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I began keeping a journal. As soon as I completed the first page in my journal (I started with a hard-copy journal), I knew I was going to continue this habit.

It was love at first sight.

Despite the focus of this post being on the negative aspects of journaling, please don't get the wrong impression: I find keeping a notebook to be a really beneficial practice. In truth, journaling has helped me in a variety of ways. Despite that, I have done my best to uncover ways in which the habit of journaling might still be harmful to someone else.

Maybe, in a few years, I will fall victim to my own journaling obsession as well. We'll see. All I know is that when that day arrives, I'll most likely journal about it.

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Some negative effects of journaling include the following:

Keeping a journal can be therapeutic, but it can also lead to excessive introspection.
Sometimes writing in a journal is just too honest.
You could go into a rabbit hole if you write about your problems.
You can get locked inside your journal
I'll give quick explanations of these elementary cases. If you are thinking if you should start journaling, you may connect to some of them!

Asian man relax in the holiday. Study read a journal

Writing things down can make you ponder them too deeply.
"What should I write in my journal to reflect on this?"

Some people spend so much time reflecting on their diary entries that they miss out on living in the moment.

Example: you're at a concert with a few of friends and you're having a drink. You have a nice time together and feel a little tipsy. One of your pals tells a joke and you laugh so hard that your drink spills from your nose. You run to the restroom to jot a quick note in your phone or notebook before you forget this great joke and the fantastic time it brought you.

The next time you attend the performance, you realize that you missed your favorite part of a song.

This might just be a stupid example, but it is plausible that a compulsive journaling habit can drive you to constantly overthink your life. As a result, you may have trouble letting go and taking pleasure in whatever is happening right now.

A more extreme real-world illustration of this can be seen below.

There are times when keeping a journal can be difficult.
Putting down on paper all the bad things happening in your life may be a really distressing experience when you're going through a hard patch. This can induce worry for some people. I'll give you an excellent illustration of this type later on in the piece.

Pensive young lady sitting outside with a journal on her lap and a pen in her hand

You could go into a rabbit hole if you write about your problems.
Human cognition is fascinating because it can be triggered by whatever is now occupying our attention. Most of the time, we have no idea when such a mental domino effect has taken hold of our thinking. It's actually quite easy. Your current state of mind can have an effect on your future state of mind.

When you are going through a hard patch, journaling might cause your mind to slide down into a chain reaction of negativity. Simply put, I'm not predicting that something bad will happen to you. In reality, most people find wonderful help by writing negative thoughts into a notebook, as it allows them to purge these things from their brains.

However, for some people, expressing their feelings in this way can lead to a pessimistic outlook. This can sometimes be prevented by just not journaling about your negativity at all.

There's a risk of becoming mired in one's journal.
For some, the need to write in a diary is so strong that it takes over every aspect of their existence.

Robert Shields is a fantastic case in point. He kept a notebook for 25 years, detailing every 5 minutes of his life. He had written 37.5 million words—enough to fill 94 boxes—before a stroke forced him to stop. Consider the potential readership for such a journal. Really, this is out of this world.

As a point of reference, I have been keeping a journal for nearly a decade, and its current word count is well over 400k. Since I keep a digital notebook, the math was a breeze.

A journal kept for the next 25 years at my current rate would have about 1 million words. I'd say Robert Shields has about a 30-to-1 writing advantage over me.

Robert Shield's journal-keeping is clearly an obsessive behavior on his part. I think this is the perfect example of how you may get locked inside your notebook. Do you want your entire existence to revolve around how you've been chronicling it in a journal?

I suppose not.

The words you choose to express your innermost ideas with can be used against you.
An additional negative effect of journaling was brought to my attention after this article was published in the form of reader comments. If you want to see for yourself, just scroll down, but I'll summarize it for you as well.

What actually occurs is that partners find your journal (or actively seek it out) and read it cover to cover. You don't hold back since it's your personal journal. There are certain things you've written that could be seen as offensive, humiliating, or just plain strange to some people. Journals were discovered by others and dealt with (very) immaturely by those who discovered them, as evidenced by the instances provided in the comments.

They took advantage of me by playing on my fears. My shortcomings (all put down nicely – thanks journal!) were used as grounds to not trust me.

I think this is incredibly immature behavior that is really just a product of insecurity and a complete lack of self-confidence.

To avoid this, you can take some proactive measures.

Mature concentrated woman writing down new ideas in journal sitting on kitchen.

Make it plain to anyone who might stumble onto your journal that it is meant solely for your eyes.
It was a long time before I revealed the location of my journal to my girlfriend, and when I did, I made it abundantly clear that it was not meant for public consumption.

I explained to her that a journal is a record of one's thoughts and feelings, both good and bad. That is to say, there are passages within it that can be taken in a harsh way and cause emotional harm.

If you're interested, here's a piece we wrote about forceful communication.

Only tell the individuals you trust.

I told my girlfriend about my journal since I fully trust her not to dig around anytime she's bored. She knows where I store my journals, and I have no worry whatsoever about it.

Fair warning: I was terrified that someone would find my journals when I first started writing in them. Next, I'll share a piece of advice related to that:

Don't let people know you keep diaries by hiding them.
When I first started keeping a notebook, I kept it inside the computer case. Since I could slide one of the side panels in whenever I was done writing, my journal was never out of reach. There is no way that anyone ever discovered it in that location.

While not ideal, this method can keep prying eyes out of your notebook without sacrificing the therapeutic benefits of writing it all down.

Try out a password-protected app.

While this isn't a viable option for physical diaries, there are secure journaling apps available that can be unlocked with a PIN or fingerprint. Diaro is the only journaling app I've tried that gives you the option to keep prying eyes out of your entries because I've tried it out myself!

As always, I appreciate the feedback. I know how difficult it is to talk about things like this. If you have another advice on how to protect others from using your journal against you, let me know in the comments below!

Stylish journal and pencil on light green background

If you let it, journaling can cause harm.
During my readings, I came across something that piqued my curiosity somewhat. Journaling is only bad since it is tolerated in all these situations. It's true that it's possible to prevent each of these catastrophes.

The problem with these instances is that they are too extreme. You should keep a reasonable daily journaling schedule. Basically everything you do should follow this rule. You shouldn't spend your entire life doing a single thing, no matter how much you enjoy it or how useful it may be.

If you don't get what I'm getting at, think of my number one interest, jogging. I find that when I go for a run, I feel much more content. Does that imply I need to spend every waking moment of my life pounding the pavement? Not at all! The benefits of writing, running, or anything really, diminishes as the amount increases. That's why you need to appropriately control the time you spend on these activities.

All of these negative outcomes from journaling can be avoided with some self-control.

Can I point to any negative outcomes from keeping a journal?

I've written over 400,000 words in my journal and have never once felt threatened or anxious by them. To answer your question, yes, there is enough of pessimism in my journal. I don't merely brag about the good times in my life when I write.

Because of this, I can state without reservation that keeping a journal has done me no damage. Not that I'm aware of, either. Maybe that's how Robert Shields felt as he recorded the 37.5 millionth word in his journal. I simply don't know for sure.

To be honest, all I can say is that keeping a journal has never done me any damage.

Can journaling create anxiety?

Yes, for some people, the act of journaling might trigger anxiety to set up. I inquired around for any first-hand accounts of journaling for anxiety, and a helpful Reddit user agreed to let me use her story here. In my opinion, this is a prime illustration of the anxiousness that writing can bring on.

When I originally started journaling, it was an outlet to help me in my recovery from drugs & alcohol. It actually required a TON of work and a “fake it till you make it” approach to get me to even put pen to paper. There was never any coherence to my writings; they were just ramblings of a madman. After some time, I found a rhythm and flow to my writing that was both therapeutic and cathartic.

After five years of on-again, off-again writing, I've finally identified the root cause of those negative emotions: worry.

The written word only comes in black and white. Writing things down often helps people see them more clearly. I can go back and read what I’ve written and see my thought process. Whatever it is that I'm struggling with—my secrets, my dishonesty, my selfishness—is all laid bare before me. It’s scary for me and that’s generally what makes the pen feel like it weighs 200 lbs. Yes, that's a great place to begin... Just get started by expressing how you feel about not knowing where to begin.

I think this brilliantly describes how journaling may generate worry.

Even better, it also reveals the quickest technique to deal with these issues. Just write about your feelings of anxiety when journaling. Write about your fears instead of the content you're worried about releasing.

Feeling stuck for journal entries?
If you have no idea what to write about, then you're not alone. Many people take up a pencil with the intention of keeping a notebook, but they have no idea how to get started.

This always makes me think of David Sedaris' journal. His journal entries are so straightforward yet so witty and charming since he merely records his observations. Here's how he explains it in his public diaries:

It might look like my normal diary entry amounts to little more than seven sentences, but in fact I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about my day - approximately forty-five minutes, usually. If nothing big happens, I'll ponder on a newspaper item or a broadcast I heard on the radio. Even if I'm not particularly interested in writing about the weather, I also have no aversions to doing so. Thus when life becomes really uninteresting, I'll just gaze out the window and describe the color of the sky. Most of the time, that will trigger another event, such as a mean bird attacking a friendly bird or an airplane overhead.

Theft by Discovery. - David Sedaris

See how simple it really is?

Don't waste time writing about your life; instead, live it.
Before completing this piece, I want to leave you with another great passage from David Sedaris' diaries:

Therein lies the challenge of keeping a diary, though. If you want to keep a record of your life, you kind of have to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. There is so much beauty and complexity and sadness in the world that it can be therapeutic to sit down and write about it.

- David Sedaris, Theft By Finding

My original point in writing this piece is reinforced here. Only when journaling becomes an obsessive habit can it be detrimental.

Existence is outside of our diary and in front of us. Paradoxically, if we want to have something to write about in our journals, we need to stop sitting around writing and start living.

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