Confession, Catharsis, or Tools for Life?


Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

After a particularly difficult interaction with a key person in my life (a few years back now), I packed a notebook and my favourite Lamy fountain pen and took myself to a nearby museum. I sat in a comfy armchair in front of a large canvas over which was painted a peaceful, rustic scene. I pulled out my notebook and began to write.

I must have sat there for two hours. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I’ve since thrown those pages out. Their purpose was mostly for short-term relief from emotional pain, but also with some hope of longer-term instruction; an intellectual understanding, some ordering of my thoughts about what had occurred, what my role in it all was, and how I might improve myself in similar interactions going forward.

By the end of that writing session, I felt relief.

Blank-page Confessional

I had entered the blank-page confessional and told it my unfortunate truth. The truth will set you free, they say. In fact, Brené Brown recently said: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

And, yes, the notebook confession brought with it the beautiful relief of catharsis and I thought I was done!

But over the next few days, I noticed that I was still going over the same situation. I wasn’t emotional about it, but I was definitely thinking about it. Or should I say overthinking? And I kept writing about it in my journal.

I felt I was going over the same thing, going round in circles. Trying to find a way to fix it. Could I fix it? What was in my control? What wasn’t? (You know the drill…)

The difficult situation was persisting, but I was stagnating in a rotation of reaction, confession, catharsis, relief.


For a long time after this, I stopped journaling. The catharsis was nice, but I felt it was bringing me back to the same starting point. And, I blamed the blank journal pages for that!

Rumination is the Last Thing You Need

Do you have a habit of rumination? Do you overthink things?

In a New York Times article, published in October last year, Hayley Phelan talks about the benefits of journaling. She refers to the work of James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who is considered the pioneer of writing therapy.

Pennebaker talks about the positive effects of “labelling emotions and acknowledging traumatic events,” which are “natural outcomes” when we start to journal. Pennebaker also talks about writing as an organizational tool, a tool that helps us make sense of things.

But Pennebaker also cautions about rumination.

One of the interesting problems of writing too much, especially if you’re going through a difficult a time, is that writing becomes more like rumination and that’s the last thing in the world you need.

Writing as a “Life-Course Correction” Tool

Pennebaker talks about seeing journal writing as “life-course correction,” rather than some expressive activity you need to commit to on a daily basis.

Even the guru of expressive writing, Jane Cameron, write this:

It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action.

Constructive action and life-course correction demand a very different type of writing.

One type of writing, which I’ve been experimenting with, is the writing of my very own handbook for life. My own Enchiridion.

Create Your Own Enchiridion or Handbook for Life

So, why am I writing all this here? It’s an invitation really.

This October, at Stoicon-X in Athens, I’ll be presenting a session I’ve called “Meditations on ‘Meditations’ (MoM): Towards a more Stoic kind of journaling.” “MoM” is the way I (sometimes) do my journaling practice…

Meditations on ‘Meditations’” (MoM) Bootcamp (BETA)

Anyway, in the lead up to Stoicon, I’m seeking some Beta testers to join me in a “Bootcamp” to basically help me test out my thinking about this.

I’ll be talking about writing with limitations and with the purpose of extracting key lessons in order to compose and create your very own Enchiridion or Handbook for Life.

To this end, I invite you to join me in the [“Meditations on ‘Meditations’” (MoM) Bootcamp (BETA).

What you’ll need:

  • exercise book (physical or digital),
  • fancy pocket-sized notebook or index cards or post-it notes, and
  • 5–30 minutes a day.

You will also need to:

  • commit to 7, 14, 21, or 28 days (can be open at first until you settle in and decide if you can/want to commit), and
  • agree to complete a survey or two (your feedback is vital for me!)

By early October, you’ll have created your very own pocket-sized Enchiridion, literally your own handbook of maxims, notes, thoughts to carry around with you (in your pocket or handbag) to refer to in times of need!

If that sounds good and you’d like to complement, challenge, or enhance your journaling practice, maybe the Bootcamp is for you.

If so, join the MoM Journaling Bootcamp (BETA).

Bootcamp will run from early September to the Stoicon weekend, 5–6 October.

If you have any questions, please contact me!