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Can Journaling Be Harmful? [Answers, Examples & How To Avoid It]


I’ve been journaling for almost 6 years now, pretty much every day of my life. I’ve written hundreds of pages filled with emotions, both the good and the bad. Some people wonder if this habit of journaling can be harmful. I’m here to show you exactly what can happen when you start journaling.

So can journaling be harmful? The answer is yes, there are scenarios in which journaling can be harmful, but these scenarios are easily avoidable. 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 moderate your journaling habit, you’ll find it to be one of the most relaxing and positive habits you can build. 

This article includes all the facts and figures you need in order to create your own opinion on the matter. Should you start journaling? Should you continue journaling? What are some actual examples of how journaling can be harmful? I’m here to show you all the details.

Journaling, gratitude, mindfulness, and introspection. What do all these things have in common? It’s that they’re all significantly correlated to your happiness. That’s what the section Journaling For Happiness is all about in the biggest (freely available) guide on how to be happy.

Before starting this article, I’d like to introduce myself:

I started journaling when I was 20 years old. As soon as I completed the first page in my journal (I started in a hard-copy journal), I knew I was going to continue this habit. It was love at first sight.

This is an article about the ways in which journaling can be harmful, but that doesn’t mean that I think journaling is harmful. Definitely not. In fact, journaling has helped me in a lot of ways. Despite that, I have done my best to find ways in which the habit of journaling can still be harmful to someone else.

Maybe, in a few years, I will fall victim to my own journaling habit as well. We’ll see. All I know is that when that day comes, I’ll most likely journal about it. πŸ™‚

Examples of how journaling can be harmful

Here are some examples of how journaling can be harmful:

  • Journaling may cause you to overthink your life
  • Journaling can be too confronting at times
  • Writing about negativity might cause you to spiral down
  • You can get stuck inside your journal

I’ll briefly explain these simple examples here. If you are wondering if you should start journaling, you may relate to some of these!

Journaling may cause you to overthink your life

“How am I going to journal about this experience?”

Some people think about their journal so much that it keeps them from experiencing their lives firsthand.

Example: you’re at a concert with a couple of friends and you’re enjoying a drink. You have a great time together and feel a little tipsy. One of your friends makes a joke and you laugh so hard that your drink spills through your nose. By fear of losing this awesome joke and the memory of this good moment, you rush to the toilet in order to make a little note about it in your phone or notebook.

Then you go back to the concert and you find out that you missed your favorite part of a song…

This might just be a silly example, but it is possible that a compulsive journaling habit can cause you to constantly overthink your life. This can keep you from living in the moment and enjoying your life as it goes.

Journaling can be confronting at times

When you are in a rough spot and want to write down the negativity that’s in your life, doing so can be very confronting. This can cause anxiety for some people. I’ve found a great example of this which I’ll share with you later in this article.

Writing about negativity might cause you to spiral down

Our minds are interesting, as the things that are on our minds can cause a reaction of thoughts. More often than not, we are unaware when our mind enters such a chain reaction. It’s very simple, actually. The mindset that you are in NOW can influence the mindset that you’ll be in LATER.

It’s why I believe that optimism is a great skill, and why you should consider training your mind into being more optimistic.

Either way, when you are going through a rough patch, journaling can cause your mind to spiral down into a chain reaction of negativity. I’m not saying that this will happen to you per definition. In fact, most people find tremendous support by writing negative thoughts into a journal, as it allows them to clear these things from their minds.

But for some, this venting can result in a negative mindset. This can sometimes be prevented by simply not journaling about your negativity at all.

You can get stuck inside your journal

Some people feel such an extreme urge to journal that their lives are consumed by it. A great example of this is Robert Shields. For 25 years, he journaled about every single 5-minute interval of his life. When he had to stop due to a stroke, he had produced a journal of 37.5 million words that filled 94 boxes. Just think about the scope of such a journal. It’s truly bizarre.

For your reference, I’ve been journaling for over 5 years and my journal currently contains 275,000 words. I was able to calculate this quite easily since I write my journal digitally. At my current rate, 25 years of journaling would result in roughly 1.4 million words. Robert Shields basically wrote 23 times as much as I do.

Robert Shield’s habit of journaling can definitely be described as compulsive. I think this is the best example of how you can get stuck inside your journal. Do you really want the majority of your life to be about how you’ve been journaling about your life?

I guess not.

(Extra) Your words can be used against you if others read your inner thoughts

After publishing this article, I’ve received examples in the comments of an additional way that journaling can actually be harmful. You can scroll down and see for yourself, but I’ll summarize it here as well.

What happened is that partners stumble upon your journal (or search for it) and read it all. Since it’s your personal journal, you obviously don’t hold back. You’ve written things that others can view as hurtful, embarrassing, or just weird. In the examples that were shared in the comments, the journals were found by others and the ones that found it handled in a (very) immature way:

They used my insecurities against me. My failures (all written down nicely – thanks journal!) were used as reasons to not trust me.

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

There are a couple of things you can do yourself to prevent this from happening.

  1. Be assertive to those who know where to find your journal and make it clear that this is your personal journal.

It took a long time before I personally told my girlfriend where I hid my journal, and when I did, I tried to make it very clear that this journal was not supposed to be read by others. I told her that my journal is just that and that it shows me at my best and worst. In other words, some parts can be interpreted as hurtful and as such can be emotionally damaging.

  1. Only tell the people you trust

I told my girlfriend about my journal because I fully trust her not to dig around whenever she’s bored. She knows where I store my journals, and I feel no anxiety whatsoever about it.

To be fair, though, when I started journaling, I was ex-tre-me-ly scared that someone would stumble upon my journals. That brings me to the next tip:

  1. Hide your journals and don’t tell anyone about them

When I started journaling (link), I hid my journals inside the casing of my computer. One of the side panels was movable, so I crammed in my journal every time I was done writing. I’m 100% sure that nobody ever found it there.

While not the ideal solution, this can prevent others from reading your journal while still enjoying the many benefits of emptying your mind on paper.

  1. Use an app that requires a password

This solution is unfortunately not applicable to actual hard-copy journals, but there are journaling apps out there that are protected by password or fingerprint unlocking. I’ve tested Diaro myself, and know that this one allows the option to protect your journal against insecure intruders!

Thanks to those who commented! Opening up about these experiences can be hard, but I really appreciate it! If you have another tip on how to keep others from using your journal against you, let me know in the comments below!

Journaling is only harmful if you allow it

As I did my research on this question, I noticed something very interesting. In all of these examples, journaling is only harmful because it’s allowed to be. The truth is, all these scenarios are easily avoidable.

The issue with these examples is that there is no sufficient moderation. You have to moderate the amount of time you spend journaling daily. This goes for basically anything you do. No matter how much you like it or how much it benefits your life, you shouldn’t spend your whole life doing that one thing.

A good example of what I’m trying to say is my biggest passion, running. Running has a great effect on my happiness. But does that mean I should run every waking hour of my life? Of course not! The benefits of journaling, running, or anything really, diminishes as the quantity increases. That’s why you need to properly moderate the time you spend on these things.

These examples of how journaling can be harmful are easily avoided when a little moderation is applied.

Have I ever been harmed by journaling?

No.

As I said, I’ve written 275,000 words in my journal and I have never felt anxious or troubled by my words. And before you ask, there is plenty of negativity in my journal! I don’t just write about the positive things that are happening in my life. If you want to know more, I publish parts of my personal happiness journal every month. These will show you a little more about how I fill my journal! πŸ™‚

That’s why I feel confident in saying that I’ve never been harmed by my habit of journaling. At least, not as far as I know. Then again, that’s probably what Robert Shields thought as well, as he was writing his 37.5 millionth word in his journal. I simply don’t know for sure.

All I can really say is that I’ve never felt harmed by my journaling habit.

journaling has many benefits but also some cons

Can journaling cause anxiety?

Yes, for some people, the act of journaling can cause anxiety to set it. I’ve asked around for actual examples of this journaling and anxiety and a kind Redditor has allowed me to share her experience here in this article. I think it shows a true example of how journaling can cause anxiety.

When I first started journaling, it was an outlet to help me in my recovery from drugs & alcohol. It really took a TON of effort and a β€œfake it till you make it” attitude to get me to even put pen to paper. My entries never made sense, it was just madness on paper. After a while, I was able to put my thoughts down in a way that flowed and was healing.

Now, after 5 years of an on-again-off-again relationship with journaling, I have figured out where those feelings come from: Fear.

Writing is black and white. Once you get it down on paper, you can see it for what it really is. I can go back and read what I’ve written and see my thought process. I can see my secrets, my dishonesty, my selfishness and whatever else I’m dealing with. It’s scary for me and that’s usually what makes the pen feel like it weighs 200 lbs. That’s also a good place to start with too… Just start with your feelings about struggling to start.

I think this beautifully captures how journaling can cause anxiety.

Even better, it also shows the easiest way to deal with these struggles. Just write about your feelings of anxiety when journaling. So instead of being afraid of what you’ll write down, just write down about your feelings of being afraid!

No idea what to write about in your journal?

If you have no idea what to write about, then you’re not alone. A lot of people pick up the pencil but don’t know where or how to start journaling.

This always makes me think of David Sedaris’ journal. He writes his journal in such a simple – yet playful and funny – way, and it’s all because he just writes about the things he sees. Here’s how he explains it in his published diaries:

It might look like my average diary entry amounts to no more than seven sentences, but in fact I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about my day – around forty-five minutes, usually. If nothing big happened, I’ll reflect on a newspaper article or a report I heard on the radio. I’m not big on weather writing but have no policy against it. Thus when life gets really dull, I’ll just look out the window and describe the color of the sky. That will lead to something else, most often: a bird being mean to another bird or the noise a plane makes.

David Sedaris, Theft By Finding

See how simple it really is?

Live your life instead of journaling about it

Before finishing this article, I want to leave you with another beautiful passage from David Sedaris’ diaries:

That’s the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.

David Sedaris, Theft By Finding

This comes back to the point I wanted to make in this article at the start. Journaling is only harmful when we allow it and let it turn into a compulsive habit.

Live is right in front of us, and not inside our journal. If we want something to journal about, we have to paradoxically put down our pens and start living instead.

Tracking my happiness

I want to mention here that I’ve been tracking my happiness for over 5 years now, in addition to keeping a journal.

What does this mean? It means I spend 2 minutes every day to reflect on my day:

  • How happy was I on a scale from 1 to 10?
  • What factors had a significant effect on my rating?
  • I clear my head by jotting down all my thoughts in my happiness journal.

This allows me to constantly learn from my evolving life. It’s how I purposefully steer my life in the best direction possible. And I believe you can do the same.

Closing words

I hope you now know whether journaling can be harmful or not. The answer is yes, but journaling is only harmful if we allow it to be. These situations are easily avoided if we moderate the amount of journaling that we do.

Do you want to share your experiences? Do you have a personal example of how journaling has influenced your life?

You’re more than welcome to share your thoughts in the comments below! πŸ™‚

Hugo
Founder of Tracking Happiness

Founder of Tracking Happiness and lives in the Netherlands. Ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). Data junkie and happiness tracker for over 7 years.

12 thoughts on “Can Journaling Be Harmful? [Answers, Examples & How To Avoid It]”

  1. I’ve been journaling by pen on paper since 1977. I made my first journals, calling them diaries at the time. I have ALWAYS found some benefit in them. It might sound terrible but by writing in my sloppy cursive way my dyslexic spouse can never ready any of what I’ve written. Yeah, you can call me lucky because I’ve saved thousands of dollars in therapy and any good therapist I ever had to see recommended – at the very least- write down when my emotions change and what was the external factor that instigated that change. MANY times I have gone to the blank page feeling absolutely, horrible and down on myself and somehow writing it out the “magic” of the positive wins out. For me if I don’t journal I find I feel physically weighed down in my thoughts. The very act of spilling my raw thoughts to page relieves my burdened mind. No, I’m not – nor have ever been- compulsive about it. I give myself three pages and 20-30 minutes. There have been times when I’ve had to write more and sit longer and conversely times when I don’t fill 3 pages and even- yes- skip a day! (horrors- lol). Suffice to say 45 years and more than 150 journals in (not counting my “kid” diaries) I find it an extraordinarily useful tool and one of the best self-improvement skills one can employ to reach a goal, deal with ANY emotion and situation. I’ve had moments like others where I’ve considered this is all BS and what’s the point. Then I go to hand-write it my journal and suddenly I conclude- this IS the point- to make a note of it see the absurdity of life and then the sublime shows itself unexpectedly when a revelation, ah-ha, or some other remarkable idea hits me. Can journaling be harmful? Only if YOU let it. Is journaling for everyone? Certainly not! BUT why not try it, then if you don’t like it you can knock it. Thanks for your wonderful blog and I wish you well and many years (as I have had) to find journaling is simply too vital for your well-being to ever stop!

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for sharing your story. 45 years of journaling, there must be some amazing stories in there!

      Keep it up, and thanks again,

      Hugo

      Reply
  2. Unfortunately I too, was a victim of someone snooping through my private thoughts, fears and anxieties and then had them use it against me. I was openly mocked by my sister and cousin as my sister read aloud a particularly painful passage about a neighborhood boy that I had a crush on. I kept journaling and got better at hiding them (I fill journals very quickly), but since that day I haven’t had a single positive entry in a journal. It became my way of self harm, even though I was already cutting. Cutting was the physical self harm, journaling was my emotional self harm. This went on for years until I finally decided to quit journaling altogether. It was just too painful.

    I have tried getting back into journaling for several years now, but every time I start a new one, I find myself returning to old habits: self hatred, self disgust, self doubt, self pity, hopelessness, helplessness, hyper anxiety etc. By the end of the first entry I am already so re-traumatized that I tell myself it’s not for me and I throw it away.

    It may seem stupid for me to continually want to get back to journaling, but I am at the end of my rope for life. I have been considering more serious self harm for the past year, even though I know it’s selfish and horrible to the people you love. I know it’s wrong and stupid but sometimes it feels like life is (and people are) so terrible and mean and pointless and useless and overrated. Like what’s even the point? To live a painful 60-80 years not doing what you love because nobody can afford to live even though we all went into school debt to get the degrees everyone pushed on us as young adults and now we have to spend our lives paying off that debt that didn’t even help to get the job they said it would in the first place…? Like just why. Fucking pointless.

    Reply
    • Ugh that’s horrible. I don’t know what to say, really. I just want to let you know that I think you’re amazing and worth it. There are good people in this world and hopefully, you can surround yourself with people who will show you there’s still good in the world. You deserve happiness and if you want someone to just be a listening ear, you can always email me at hugo (at) trackinghappiness.com.

      Reply
  3. Why do I find it difficult to journal?
    I’m in my 50s. I married the first time at age 22, and tried getting into journalling a few years later as part of self-improvement.
    I journalled my successes and failures, fears, temptations. Basically myself all poured into pages in a book.
    My ex-wife decided to read it. And share it with her daughters. (She was older and had kids from previous marriage.)
    One of the WORST decisions of my life. They used my insecurities against me. My failures (all written down nicely – thanks journal!) were used as reasons to not trust me, temptations were reasons to try to restrict my actions. I endured that relationship 23 years and finally got the courage to end it after nearly committing suicide (the pistol misfired).

    I’m much happier now – even have a beautiful new wife and an amazing little daughter and 2 older stepkids. I am trying to get back into self-improvement, and possibly start a business – but I realize I am scarred emotionally.
    I have purchased several journals the past few years, and each one may have only one page filled out – because I realize that people are people – and will find an excuse to “accidentally” read something that is obviously private – and then be able to harm me again because I have written out exactly the best way to do it.

    Not sure if you are keeping up with comments – but I stumbled across this page when I specifically googled “why write a personal journal when others can use the information against you”. Whenever I read or watch videos of people talking about how amazing their life is because of journaling – I want to believe. But then when pen meets paper (or fingers meet keyboard) I stop. I think “How can committing this thought to paper or a file be used against me?” because I know – without a doubt – that wives and kids (and husbands) dig through stuff when nobody is around and they are bored.
    And all it takes is one paragraph, one sentence, one doodle, of self-doubt, of personal failure, of fear, to plant the seeds of doubt in someone else’s mind and turn a relationship into a nightmare.

    Maybe you want to add this as another example of how journaling can be harmful, and if you have advice on how to move past it.

    Reply
    • Hi Bob,

      Thank you so much for opening up and sharing your (terrible) experience with journaling. It’s so sad that journaling has been such a negative experience for you. On the other end, I’m REALLY happy that you’re with someone better now, and that you’re happier and thinking of starting a business! Very exciting.

      To be completely honest with you, it’s a really scumbag-thing to do: reading your journal in the first place, and then using it against you, and to top it all off, share it with children. Ugh.

      I have updated the article using your example, I hope you don’t mind. If you ask me, this person lacked self-confidence and did something really immature. But I’m just mostly glad that you’re happier now.

      Again, thanks for sharing your story with me. All the best,

      Hugo

      Reply
    • Hi Bob M,

      I am looking to start a journal, and I can see the trouble it has previously caused you. I believe a way around this is through recording digitally – this way you can lock your file. If you prefer the hand written way of recording, I use my Tablet S7 and it’s Pen which works so well. Just something to consider if you are going to be getting a new device or tablet in your house hold, you could look at these new ranges of tablet and writing technology.

      Hope this helps, if not you, someone else.

      Reply
  4. I actually love to journal but I basically use it as a tool when I argue with my husband about something & he won’t β€œget it” so I bitch about it in my journal. Well… he read it. I had some pages of cussing him out some days I was down on myself etc. being as how I consider MY JOURNAL just that. My free time to rant and cuss & just be raw. He says it’s unhealthy.

    Reply
    • Hi Carrie, thanks for sharing this! I must say, this would be a major obstacle for me. He obviously knew that he shouldn’t have read your journal, yet he did it anyway. Whatever you write in your journal is your business and not his. Heck, even if the entire book is filled with rants about him, if that’s your outlet, then that’s not necessarily unhealthy. If he cannot respect boundaries and privacy, I’d have a serious discussion with him about this.

      I’d love to know how you deal with this. You can comment here on this article or via email at [email protected]!

      Thanks again for sharing your story!

      Reply
  5. journalling does nothing for me so your whole fucking post was a waste of time. it has done nothing but fuck me over and no i dont have anything to be grateful for so fucking sorry for not being able to right positive BULLSHIT. journalling is fucking bullshit and so is your post.

    Reply
    • Hi Emily, I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I hope you find something that does work for you instead of journaling.

      Reply
    • Emily, I am sorry you are so angry. I read your post and feel you would really benefit from seeing someone to deal with your anger. I have been angry most of my life, and although it has helped me succeed just by sheer determination, and “I’ll show them attitude”. But anger works mostly to hide the hurt and pain we are trying to hide. I hope you love yourself. Best to you.

      Reply

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