How to Drastically Change Your Viewpoint with Pen and Paper

This is the second part of a two-part series called “Writing as a Tool of Awareness”

Writing “inventory” was like taking a small dose of magic mushrooms at times. There were times when the result was more like something obtained from a larger dose. I knew traumatic events could shift my perspective on things. I knew beating my head against the proverbial wall with the same dumb actions could make me more willing to try a different approach at life. I didn’t know that I could drastically change my viewpoint on things in short order with only a pen and paper.

If you know anyone in a twelve-step program, you know they are very big on something called “writing inventory.” Other spiritual movements and communities have picked up on it as well. Inventory is a way of first slowing the rapid-fire mind down with pen and paper, and then raising your viewpoint enough to see a given situation from an entirely different angle.

There are many ways to writing inventory and the only wrong way to write inventory is not to write at all. I was trained in Alcoholic Anonymous’ rendition of inventory. That is how I will break the process down here.


Writing Inventory

It starts out with columns. Drawing three or four lines down the center of notebook paper has an immediate stilling effect on the mind. On the first column is written the negative emotion you are feeling and the cause of it. Let’s use resentment for one example and fear for another.

First column example 1: Resentful at — Job

First column example 2: Fear of — Not getting published

On the second column you would write what part of your psyche is affected by this. You’re now looking a little deeper inside. AA uses pride, self-esteem, ambitions, security, and sex-relations as aspects of self that are often affected. That’s what we will use. The pen’s pace with the paper, throughout this process, keeps the mind from careening off into outer space.

Second column example 1: Resentful at job and it affects my -

  • sense of pride and self-esteem (“They” treat me unfairly)
  • Sense of ambition (I don’t see opportunities for upward mobility and I’d rather be doing my school work instead of working)
  • Sense of financial and emotional security (They are talking about downsizing. I feel expendable.)

Second column example 2: Fear of not getting published. It affects my –

  • sense of pride, self-esteem, and ambition (If I don’t make it as a writer, I will be a failed writer. As a writer, that would make me a failure.)
  • Sense of financial security (Bills ain’t gonna pay themselves.)

In the second column, we get a sense of what could truly at play. An inquisitive person may find themselves thinking at this point, “Haven’t I felt financially insecure before? Is the origin really from my current job? Was my pride perhaps a little damaged before I started working here?”

The third column of inventory is where the focus is taken completely off of the external and put squarely on your actions and thoughts. AA calls the last column “My mistakes.” I prefer to say my actions or my part. It sounds more objective and scientific that way. This is the column where we search diligently inside of ourselves for our role or our influence in the thing. We dismiss entirely everything except our own being. A prayer for understanding and guidance is usually offered before the pen strikes the paper on the last column.

Last column example 1: I have a resentment towards my job. My role –

  • I am the one who took the job.
  • I am the one staying at the job. I play games on my phone while I could be putting applications out.
  • I’ve been lying to myself. I enjoy having an enemy and blaming my problems on a job. I’ve been keeping my teeth clenched in silence instead of expressing my frustrations and concerns to my colleagues.

The fear inventory is focuses more on what thought or belief we have been relying on that has led to the agitation in question.

Last column example 2: My fear of not being published. My role –

  • I’ve been operating under the delusion that I need to be published within the first year to be a success. The passing year is the failing of my standard, not of my work.
  • I’ve been using stress over the situation to make myself uneasy. It would probably be best for the sake of my work to maintain a work-life balance.
  • I have chosen to worry about contacting publishers and editors instead of actually contacting publishers and editors.

Most medical, religious, and philosophic authority and common sense would say that negative emotion clouds our thinking. We can see wider from a higher plane. The person in example 1 might see from this practice that she can either start applying elsewhere or she can put her all into hating her job without self-delusion, enjoying the hell out of the adrenalized victimhood with a full heart no longer conflicted.

What About Truly Traumatic Events?

The above examples have been clear examples of first world problems as they say. What of the events that seem to break people at their very core? What about sexual abuse?

A victim of sexual abuse had no role or part in the assault other than being a survivor of it. How would that apply to this process?

The same way.

The pain is analyzed. What part of me is affected? Well, my sense of self-esteem shoots from megalomaniac to lower than shit and back up again in any given hour. I’m pissed off all the time. People say I am my own worst enemy but all I know is that I seem to destroy everything good in my life. My sex relations have been compartmentalized with rigid boundaries and intermittent promiscuity. Physical security is affected. My heart starts racing and I become afraid that I’ll die.

And it proceeds, after prayer, to the last column.

Last column example:

  • I haven’t addressed these issues with a professional. Maybe I could talk to someone about it. Maybe I could find a therapist, and if I’m not comfortable talking with that one, perhaps I could find another therapist.
  • If I pay attention to my thoughts, I seem to be thinking a lot of bad things about myself. Maybe I could set aside 5 minutes every day to say good things to myself. Maybe I could tell myself I’m worthy of happiness.

Awareness brings freedom. We don’t wish to escape pain as much as we’d like to think that we do. We want freedom. We want a capacity to see beyond the limitations that we have told ourselves are concrete and impenetrable. Anthony De Mello would tell us all about this when he was alive.

This inventory process has a big role in my upcoming autobiography in showing the main character how he hates others not because of what they have done to him, but because of what he has done to them. The young man in my book comes to see how relying solely on his own thinking and pride has resulted in him being afraid of his own shadow.

Next time you are having a really bad time, I want you to try this. Get out a piece of paper and try it.

This is AA’s way of doing it (the language and moralistic approach will not be for everyone). You can also check out Byron Katie’s inquiry process from her book Loving What Is. It’s very similar, using four questions to assess the validity of one’s own painful thoughts.

The exact process used does not matter. It only matters that you list your thoughts on paper and attempt to see them from a new viewpoint. You can open up a whole new world inside of yourself with only a pen and paper

See also:

What I Learned from Writing My Autobiography

How I Transform Trauma with Art

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