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Journaling Can Be Harmful? 5 Examples and How Keep It Positive

by Hugo

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Key points

  • Journaling can be harmful in cases of overthinking and negativity spirals.
  • Excessive journaling, without moderation, can consume one’s life.
  • Mindful and moderate journaling practices prevent potential harm.

I’ve been journaling for 10 years now. In the process, I’ve written hundreds of pages filled with emotions, rants, stories, and experiences, both the good and the bad. Some people have asked me if this habit of journaling can be harmful. For example, do I ever get lost in negativity if I keep writing about it?

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.

This article includes 5 examples of when journaling can make you feel worse. But more importantly, I’ll discuss tips to help you avoid these scenarios.

I started journaling when I was 20 years old. As soon as I completed the first page of my journal, I knew I was going to continue this habit.

It was love at first sight.

While this article is about how journaling can be harmful, that doesn’t mean that I think journaling is harmful. In fact, journaling has helped me in a lot of ways. Despite that, I have encountered some ways in which journaling can be harmful to someone.

What does our data say?

This article is not just about my own experiences. In fact, I’ve interviewed 19 people who’ve overcome struggles of mental health through their habit of journaling. These people have shared amazing stories with me of how journaling helped them. Here’s what journaling helped them with:

Our most recent journaling interviews:

Examples of how journaling can be harmful

That said, there are still some scenarios where journaling can make you feel worse. 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.
  • Other people can find your journal and use the information against you.

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

1. Journaling may cause you to overthink your life

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

Some people think about their journals 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 your time. One of your friends makes a joke and you find it incredibly funny. You fear losing this awesome joke and the memory of this moment, so you rush to the toilet 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.

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2. 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.

3. 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. Your current mindset can influence the mindset that you’ll have later.

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 definitely happen to you, 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.

4. 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 almost 10 years and my journal currently contains over 400,000 words. I can calculate this easily since I have switched to a digital journal.

At my current rate, 25 years of journaling would result in roughly 1 million words. Robert Shields basically wrote 30 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 suppose not.

5. Your words can be used against you if others read your inner thoughts

One of my readers shared this example with me:

People you trust can stumble upon your journal and read everything you thought was private. And because it’s your private journal, you’ve written things that others can view as hurtful, embarrassing, or just weird. In the example of my reader, the journal was found by others and they handled it very poorly:

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 immature behavior is really just a result of insecurity and a complete lack of self-confidence.

There are a couple of things you can do 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.

Here’s one of our guides about how to be assertive if that helps.

  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 extremely 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, 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.

Journaling is only harmful if you allow it

The issue with these examples is that there is no 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 is one of my biggest passions: running. Running has a great impact on my happiness. But does that mean I should run every waking hour of my life?

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 over 400,000 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.

In fact, I feel immense joy and a sense of accomplishment if I re-read some of my entries from years ago. My journal is a testament to how much I’ve grown, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

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?

If you’re still finding this hard, here are more tips on what to write about in a journal.

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.

Life 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.

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Wrapping up

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!

Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

24 thoughts on “Journaling Can Be Harmful? 5 Examples and How Keep It Positive”

  1. I recently discover my boyfriend’s journal. He wrote a lot of hurting things about me on it and describes fantasies with other lovers. I have never felt more judged or hated in my life before. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have read any of it. But I don’t know how to go back to a person I know now hates me and judges me. I thought he was able to see who I am. Instead he only sees what I am. If anyone has an advice, please feel free to give it.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear. That is a painful situation – for both of you… Whatever happens, I hope you are both able to be with a person you can openly trust and be yourself with, whether that’s each other or not.

      Reply
  2. I just got out of the hospital due to a depressive episode, I thought journaling would help but it’s either done nothing or made it worse. I can’t stop focusing on the negative things I feel, I’m trying to counter it by writing one good thing about being alive a day in a different journal but I think the negative is canceling out the positive. I want to write down my true feelings because I don’t have anyone else to talk to but it’s all so negative it’s bumming me out. I don’t know if it would be helpful to ignore my feelings and self esteem issue and only make up good things or keep writing how I truly feel. I understand you’re not a mental health professional (I get to talk to one in a week here) but you seem to be an expert in journaling so I would value your input along side professional help. Thanks so much.

    Reply
    • Hi Lee,

      Thanks for sharing this with me, and I’m sorry you’re going through these hard times. I tend to agree with you, that journaling shouldn’t be bumming you out. Here’s something you can try that might help: create a page for your negative thoughts and keep them there. For example, if you open up your journal, allow yourself a single page as an outlet for your negative thoughts per day. And the rest of your journal is for positive thoughts only. That way, you are limiting the amount of negativity in your journal, while still allowing it to be an outlet.

      This idea comes from one of our articles on how to stop negative thinking: https://www.trackinghappiness.com/stop-negative-thinking/#3_Create_a_worry_period

      I wish you all the best, and thanks again for sharing your experience here.

      Hugo

      Reply
  3. To my knowing, no one has ever read my journal without me there. Sometimes I whip out an old journal from when I was like 5 and read it to someone and have a good laugh, but that’s about it. I did tell my sister that if I were to pass away she could read it, but only her. We are really close and I want one person to know who I actually am at some point in this world. I really love journaling and without it, idk if I would be as connected with myself.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing, Eden. I love the idea of allowing your sister to read it after you’re gone. It’s good that you have someone you feel comfortable enough with, that this person can read about who you are deep down, the good and potentially the bad. I like it.

      Reply
  4. I love journalling. When I needed to process leaving home, going to university, travelling the world with work, my journal was always there. I am a prolific diarist since age 12. My absolute favourite thing is to sit in a cafe, people watch and write down my thoughts. I have done it in Paris, Tehran, New York, Jakarta, Munich, Amman, Montevideo…on every continent. I love it!
    However, when I lived overseas after having children, my husband’s parents would stay a week at a time in my home and the temptation for my MIL was too great. She went through my room, reading all our finances, medical notes and my diary on every visit without my knowing. She then quietly spread what she read with her daughter and they stealthily used it against me for years…until the day they said one thing and the penny dropped. The fall out for the past few years has been hideous. Despite writing very little about them or being vindictive about them, they twisted it all. They stopped talking to my children, they cut my husband from their will, we had to move house. I still absolutely love my journal – it is like an old friend who once upon a time adventured with me – but the power it gives a reader and the damage its contents can deliver in the wrong hands is something latent that, unleashed, can bring down your world. I can now see that they were jealous of what we had achieved and of our resilience and adaptability. They looked for a way to bring me down. And unfortunately, they found it. I was shattered by their betrayal of trust and my own stupidity at letting it happen.
    I am currently building back up my resilience and adaptability so that, despite them, I can again, one day, sit in a Parisien street cafe with my creme brulee and my journal and we can stick two fingers up at them from afar.

    Reply
    • Wow, thanks for sharing. What a terrible ride that must have been… Ugh.

      I hope you can one day move on from this terrible thing they did, and continue living your life the way you want to, without having to worry about other people stepping over boundaries.

      And if I’m ever in Paris and see someone eating creme brulee with a journal in front of them, I’ll think about you. 🙂

      Reply
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
      • Hi Ben, Bob M, Hugo & anyone else:
        Has anyone thought of just a lock and key? That’s what we used to do in the old days, before word processors and computers were in wide use (or any use).
        Especially the little girls: we’d have our Dear Diary that came in a faux-leather binding, and it had a strap closing it that fit into a latch that could only be opened with a tiny key.
        Of course one’s sisters would still figure out a way to get into it and tease you about the boy you likes. Also a strap can be easily cut, but then it would be obvious someone had looked! A grown- up version of this could be done somehow, no? Lock it in a box somewhere, hide it effectively, something.
        Wrap a small chain around it and secure it with a padlock! Yes, that takes longer than entering a password. But if you want to write in a physical book, maybe that book could be locked somehow. Or just hidden.
        Of course, writing on a device where it can only be viewed with a password is quite effective. I mostly just write digitally now too, but I Prefer real pen and paper, it’s just not convenient at this time. The idea of writing with an electric pen on an electric device when you could just click a ballpoint and get out a piece of paper seems insanely expensive to me. And troublesome. Maybe it’s less troublesome, but it just seems so absurd. Like you’re just putting money in some big company’s pocket, falling victim to the the gimmickry of a $100 pen when a stick pen can cost only a few pennies. If you buy them in a bunch. But, to each his own.
        I will say, even though I was somewhat Addicted to writing during and try now not to overdo it (because it can be just a way to waste time), I am conscious, when I do write, that somebody might see it and use it against me. Because I have had problems at times with my family, and they can twist things and be cruel. If I don’t write down every detail, they might see something and take it the wrong way or even just find a way to hurt me with it anyhow. So I just don’t write down any of it sometimes. It’s less cathartic but you have to protect yourself. I can’t really write as freely as I would like to, but so it goes. it’s just safest to keep things in your own head sometimes and that’s what you have to do.

        Reply
    • Hi, If you truly want to journal you could. Do it on laptop with a password or
      What I find therepudic is to journal on loose paper/draw /write words/emotions etc – anything I need to get out, then I burn the page in a pot with a ceremony of letting go of negative thoughts/ experience and honouring the good stuff. I hope this helps, Ruth

      Reply
  8. I actually love to journal but I basically use it as a tool when I argue with my husband about something & he won’t “get 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 hugo@trackinghappiness.com!

      Thanks again for sharing your story!

      Reply
  9. 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
    • Ha ha, I always thought some of that grateful stuff was a bit difficult as well. Though I must admit I haven’t really tried it. It can help to look at the bright side – there’s almost always something. But yeah – sometimes things are just bad.

      Reply

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