Imagine that you have written your autobiography, titled My Life, Up to This Moment. All the stories of your life are included in this precious book, printed in indelible black ink and bound in soft leather. What have you written in its pages, aside from mere chronological events? How have you described yourself in terms of your social life? Your job? Your body image? Your stress level? What did you say about yourself emotionally, intellectually and spiritually? What are your hopes, plans and dreams for Volume II: My Life, From This Moment On?
These are tough questions, but they are ones counselor and psychology educator Elaine Sullivan, M.Ed., L.P.C., of Dallas has been asking women to explore for more than 30 years. Long before the now-popular term "journaling" was coined, Sullivan -- who is also a board member of the National Wellness Institute in Stevens Point, Wis. -- was urging women to write their autobiographies, using their own stories as tools of discovery in search of what she calls the True Self.
"Most of us live on the surface, never touching any depth," says Sullivan, who points out that many women's lives revolve around the quest for approval they sought as children from family and society. "We're just too busy to listen to the world inside us and spend too much time listening to the world outside us," she says. "To know one's life story takes silence, reflection, writing, slowing down."
It is through writing our life stories, she emphasizes, that we can see the patterns of our lives unfold, reclaim who we really are, and achieve a sense of health, balance and wholeness. That means recalling both the highs and the lows, Sullivan says, pointing out that life is full of extremes like joy and pain, shadow and light, strengths and weaknesses. "We need to learn to accept our wounds and our gifts," she says. "It's about celebrating all of who we are."
Writing your life story will help you discover the unique aspects of your own journey. It will help you recognize and avoid repeating old, nonproductive patterns, so you are free to focus your energy in new directions. "It's about becoming whole in every aspect of our lives," Sullivan says. Find a quiet place to sit with paper and pen, and try the six exercises here:
6 Steps to creating a happier life by writing your personal story
1. Divide your life into decades, allowing one full page for each. Briefly describe the highs and the lows that marked that time in your life. Think about these pivotal times, and write down something you learned about yourself during each one and a quality you gained as a result.
2. Record one memory you associate with each of these words: laughter, sadness, anger, fear, joy, grief and kindness.
3. Write down how you felt about yourself during each decade physically (body confidence/body image), socially (relationships), occupationally/professionally, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.
4. Imagine all the fresh, white pages ahead in Volume II of your life story and describe yourself -- the best you can -- five years from today.
5. Write down what you envision to be the potential "highs" and note where you would like to see yourself physically, socially, professionally, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.
6. Let go of old labels (I'm overweight, untalented, stuck in my job) and envision yourself as you'd like to be (I'm healthy, creative, in a job I enjoy). Brainstorm concrete ways to make these things happen (e.g., see a nutritionist, start walking in the morning, take an art class, research jobs that interest me) and write them down. This is how to begin creating Volume II, the life you want to be living.
To learn more about how journaling can help you achieve your goals, read The Healing Art of Storytelling by Richard Stone (Hyperion, 1996), Writing for Your Life -- A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds by Deena Metzger (Harper San Francisco, 1992) and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others by James W. Pennebaker (Guildford Press, 1997).