Journaling is a practical and effective tool to practice self-care in your life.
As intersectional feminist activists, self-care can become radical when caring for ourselves subverts systems of oppression and sustains our struggles towards social justice.
If you think journaling can help you rest and restore, I show six different ways to use self-care journaling in order to calm your mind, nourish your spirit, and foster self-love and self-acceptance.
And if that’s not enough, at the end of the post, I’ve listed some self-care journaling writing prompts to spark fresh ideas for reflective and expressive writing. These journaling activities are perfect to build into your self-care days. If you’re not sure what self-care days are, I have a whole post all about why you should take them regularly and how to create self-care days tailored to your unique needs.
I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.Anne Frank
What is Radical Self-Care, Really?
Radical self-care is the tenet that you need to take care of yourself before you’re able to take care of others or change the world. For marginalized people living within the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, caring, loving, and accepting ourselves is a radical act.
The idea that self-care is ‘radical’ perhaps is most famously traced back to the writings of self-defined “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, Audre Lorde. After fighting for social justice all her life and then being diagnosed with liver cancer 17 days before her 50th birthday, Lorde began to assemble the collection of writings that would eventually feature in her book, A Burst of Light.
One immortal line in the epilogue states (p. 130):
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
Radical self-care has since been developed by a number of women of color activists. Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Gloria Anzaldúa have all discussed the importance of radical self-care, self-love, and self-acceptance to sustain our survival and resistance in the face of gendered, sexual, racial, colonial, and ableist oppression.
In the video below, Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, talks about how self-care as a concept has been co-opted in our capitalist society.
When doing a Google search for “radical self-care“, it’s easy to find a slew of dangerously misinformed articles that use the word “radical” with a quote from Audre Lorde to promote the idea that privileged cisgender straight able-bodied middle-class white women should take spa days.
Many think the word “radical” whether it be radical self-care, radical self-acceptance, or radical self-love just means a more ‘extreme’ version of self-care, self-acceptance, and self-love.
In the minds of people who are highly privileged, ‘radical’ self-care, ‘radical’ self-acceptance, and ‘radical’ self-love can become justifications to perpetuate domination and reinforce prevailing systems of oppression.
As Africana scholar Donna Nicol and Asian American Studies scholar Jennifer Yee write, radical self-care involves:
… practices that keep us physically and psychologically healthy and fit, making time to reflect on what matters to us, challenging ourselves to grow, and checking ourselves to ensure that what we are doing aligns with what matters to us. We consider this self-care “radical” because it fundamentally alters how we make choices about allocating time, money, and energy for ourselves personally, at home, and at work and seeks to revolutionize our workplace practices. Practiced faithfully, radical self-care involves owning and directing our lives and choosing with whom, how, and how often we engage in our nested, interconnected worlds so that we can be unapologetically ourselves in the face of unrelenting pressure and expectations to be otherwise.
For self-care to be truly radical, it needs to subvert and challenge systems of domination and oppression — not reproduce them.
As Alicia Garza says in her interview earlier, radical self-care practices enable collectives and organizations to “transform the ways we be together, the ways in which resources are distributed in our communities, and the ways we get to make decisions over our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others”.
For example, radical-self care might:
- Challenge imperialism by honoring the knowledge of people of the Global South and fighting for Indigenous sovereignty.
- Challenge white supremacy by insisting on the full humanity of people of color, supporting Black Lives Matter, and defunding the police and abolishing prisons.
- Challenge cis-heteronormativity by rejecting gender binaries and respecting people’s self-defined gender identities and sexual orientations.
- Challenge patriarchy by respecting women’s bodily autonomy and personal boundaries.
- Challenge capitalism by rejecting the exploitation of others’ labor and refusing to allow our own labor to be exploited.
Why Should You Journal for Radical Self-Care?
Writing as a therapeutic process has been known as early as when Aristotle advocated in Poetics that writing may be a form of catharsis.
Catharsis is experienced as an emotional release through which one can achieve a state of moral or spiritual renewal as they discharge their anxiety and stress.
Journaling and other forms of expressive and reflective writing are intentional about their goal. It aims to help the writer to understand themselves and the experiences they encounter in everyday life. To purge and purify themselves of the emotions that accumulate through their daily life.
Self-care journaling allows you to cultivate self-awareness; taking the time to get in touch with your emotions and learning to identify and communicate your needs, values, and beliefs.
Self-care journaling is not necessarily about ridding yourself of negative thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions are in their essence neither negative nor positive. And more to the point, self-care is not about eliminating negative thoughts/emotions so that you may force a constant state of positivity.
However, reflective journaling can be useful to sort through helpful and unhelpful thoughts.
Unhelpful thoughts are the beliefs that lead to destructive consequences, for example, thinking “I’m a total failure” when you make a mistake becomes unhelpful when it leads to self-loathing and self-sabotage.
Thinking “I’m learning and will get better with practice” may be more helpful if it honors your growth and builds self-compassion, allowing you to take setbacks in your stride.
What Should Be Included In Your Self-Care Journal?
The short answer is you can include anything you want in your self-care journal. All of us have different self-care needs (which may change over time) so you should always tailor the writing activities to you.
Some of the ways you may want to use your journal include:
- Brain dumping. If life feels too hectic, brain dumping is a great way to clear the chaos and gain clarity. One of the most well-known examples of brain dump journaling is Morning Pages, introduced in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. Cameron recommends filling three pages every morning with a stream of consciousness. Even if you feel like you have nothing to write, you can write “I have nothing to write” over and over again until (and if) something else emerges. My own experiences with Morning Pages were beautifully cathartic. It’s like maintaining your mental/emotional hygiene by purging the random worries from your head first thing every morning so you can start your day feeling more fresh and clear.
- Getting in touch with your emotions. If you’re someone who is always putting others’ needs above your own, reflective journaling is a great way to start tuning in to your internal world and check in with your own needs. A terrific tool for this kind of self-care journaling is an emotion wheel. This diagram presents a spectrum of emotions to help you identify your feelings and regularly check in with yourself. You can also use reflective journaling to explore when and how your boundaries are violated, for example, untangling knots of hurt and resentful through your writing to work out how you may communicate and enforce your boundaries going forward.
- Forgiving yourself. Self-love journaling is a powerful way to work through any shame you may be carrying. If you’re working with past trauma, it’d be wise to check in with yourself that journaling doesn’t exacerbate your suffering through rumination. However, journaling can allow you to unpack past mistakes or perceived personal failings that trigger unhelpful thoughts. Self-love journaling here could also involve writing down something that you frequently beat yourself up about, then writing from the perspective of a loving friend. Pretend your best friend has just confided in you that they’re holding onto this secret shame, and then advise yourself as you would them. Write as if you’re convincing them why they did the best they could given the circumstances. Remind them of all their redeeming qualities. Forgive them, and through the process, forgive yourself.
- Fostering gratitude. Gratitude journaling has diverse uses. If you find yourself constantly comparing your life to others and battling feelings of jealousy, gratitude journaling can be a helpful tool to acknowledge the good things happening in your life. I benefited immensely from gratitude journaling when I was struggling with anxiety. However, the wellness industry in recent years has gone overboard with the concept of gratitude, forcing this state as a cure-all. Psychological research suggests that gratitude has some limited benefits, but the conclusions are not definitive. I found gratitude journaling useful for my anxiety as I was so focused on worrying about what would go wrong in my life that I wasn’t noticing the many, many things going right. My therapist recommended a form of gratitude journaling called the Three Good Things exercise where I needed to write three good things that happened every day and explain why that good thing happened. As I was struggling with self-compassion, my therapist suggested that the additional explanation should focus on what I did or who I am that enabled this blessing. Gratitude journaling can be accused of being rather self-absorbed. An alternative to gratitude journaling is writing gratitude letters. Gratitude letters involve composing thoughtful, heartfelt letters to people in your life who you want to thank but never had the chance to do so. Ideally, the letters should then be read aloud to the recipient. While gratitude journaling is considered a more long-term practice, gratitude letters can be used as a potent short-term intervention to improve your mood.
- Radical dreaming. If you feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and despair, journaling about your dreams is also a way to cultivate hope. I adopt Jennifer Nash’s beautiful term of “radical dreaming” to go beyond the typical ‘vision board’ exercise where you think about where you want to travel or what your future mansion would look like. Taking a radical approach for me means dreaming about how you would like to see the world transformed. Can you imagine a world free of gendered, sexual, racial, colonial, and ableist violence? How would it feel then, to be recognized as fully human, to exist in a more hospitable world?
- Spiritual writing. Journaling can be a way to nourish your spirit and connect with the Divine (whatever that means to you). For example, some people have pointed out that gratitude journaling is in some ways a secular version of prayer. Journaling about your faith or spiritual growth can be an incredibly meaningful way to develop a higher sense of purpose in your life. If your spiritual beliefs are open to a little witchy self-care, I’ve previously written a new moon ritual to set intentions as well as a full moon ritual to raise power. I also have a guide to setting up an altar at home and using tarot cards to reflect on your activism.
How Often Should You Journal?
If you’re new to journaling, start off doing it for a 10–15 minute session each week, and then build up from there if it feels good to you.
Start with the form of journaling in the list above that resonates the most with you. Mind feels a mess right now? Try Morning Pages. Feeling emotionally exhausted? Try reflective journaling about your emotions. Battling low self-esteem? Try self-forgiveness and/or gratitude journaling. Feeling demotivated and hopeless? Try radical dream journaling. Feeling spiritually empty? Try spiritual journaling.
Start simple. There’s no urgency to rush out and purchase new notebooks and pens or develop elaborate journaling rituals unless you really want to. The most effective forms of self-care journaling are simply the ones you can fit into your routine and stay committed to.
For me, I started daily gratitude journaling in an old notebook I had purchased a long time ago but never found a good use for. I kept it on my bedside table, but that meant I frequently skipped days when I got home late and was too tired to fit it in.
After I filled up the paper notebook, I switched to the free version of an app called Day One. As an app on my phone, I’m able to quickly fill it in throughout the day whenever I have a spare moment and as good things happen. The app also pops up with reminders of previous entries so it makes it easy for me to go back and read previous blessings I have to be grateful for in my life.
Within the imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy, marginalized people are rarely afforded the opportunity to define who we are for ourselves.
Women, LGBTQIA+ folx, people of color, working-class, and disabled people are most often confined to societal expectations and stereotypes. Rarely are we allowed to be fully human.
Self-care journaling is a way to challenge dominator culture ideologies by defining ourselves on our own terms.
After I experienced exhaustion and burnout, I realized that I never developed a vocabulary for identifying and communicating my needs. I would frequently only notice I was burnt out long after the fact because I never learned what my personal boundaries are and how to maintain them. And even when I did, I often ended up guilting myself into violating those boundaries in order to please others.
Self-care journaling should be seen as part of a long-term practice to get better at identifying your needs and communicating them (first to yourself, then to others).
Writing Prompts for Radical Self-Care, Self-Love, and Self-Acceptance
In addition to the ideas I offered above for the types of self-care journaling practices you could try, I’m including some writing prompts to help you develop your self-love and self-acceptance.
I recommend using these writing prompts whenever the need arises and you feel the calling to practice some extra self-care. Choose 1–3 questions that resonate most with you right now or close your eyes and point to one at random.
I thoroughly recommend making this journaling practice an intentional part of your self-care routine. Perhaps set aside 20–30 minutes in your self-care day to use these writing prompts.
- Which qualities of yours do you like the most and why?
- How would your best friend describe you?
- What aspects of your body do you like the most and why?
- What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment/s in life and what about you helped you to achieve them? Who in your life supported you the most to achieve this?
- Who or what are you most grateful for having in your life?
- Who or what do you need to enforce stronger boundaries?
- Who or what gives you peace?
- Who or what gives you hope?
- Who or what inspires you?
- Who or what makes you laugh?
- When have you helped someone find peace, hope, inspiration, or laughter?
- What goals are you working toward?
- What are your values? When have you done something that made you feel really aligned with those values? What’s a small thing you can start doing now to help you feel more in alignment with your values?
- Why do you deserve to find joy?
- What makes you feel better when you feel anxious, stressed, angry, and depressed? Write a list and keep this handy for the next time you need ideas for what to do.
- What ways have you or your community challenged dominator culture?
- When have you felt truly seen and heard?
- When have you felt truly stood up for by an ally or co-conspirator?
Radical self-care is a vital practice of healing for marginalized people engaged in social justice activism. By taking proper care of ourselves, we’re better able to serve our communities and sustain our activism for the long-haul.
Unfortunately, “radical self-care” is often misunderstood and misappropriated within the imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy as being about highly privileged people using their privilege to pamper themselves.
For self-care to be genuinely radical, it needs to reject and challenge the prevailing systems of oppression in our societies.
For marginalized people, it means practicing radical self-care to define yourself on your own terms and insist on the inherent worthiness of your self-love and self-acceptance in a world that might see you as less than human.
This post has introduced six ways you can practice radical self-care journaling with practical tips about maintaining the habit for long-term healing and growth. It also provided some writing prompts to begin making self-love and self-acceptance intentional exercises in your self-care routine.
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Leigh Stein (2020) Self Care
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Featured image by Samson Katt