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mental health Music Writing

In praise of…Kanye West

The College Dropout

I have loved Kanye since The College Dropout (2004). That summer I went camping with a friend and my only memory of the trip is that we listened to “Spaceship” on repeat. The familiar pitched up vocals on tracks like “We Can Make It Better” from the second album Late Registration (2005) evoke vivid memories of secondary school.  I can recall singing his lyrics to myself while walking the corridors between lessons. After purchasing Graduation (2007) on CD, I played it so much I would often wake with his lyrics in my head: “I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / when I awoke I spent that on a necklace”. Some provoked strong emotions too. The sentiment in “Bittersweet Poetry”, which I would later revisit when considering my relationship with alcohol, was transposed onto my teenage co-dependencies. (He performed these lyrics in poem form at Def Poetry Jam in 2006, but more on that later.)

Graduation concluded Kanye’s triad of college-themed full-length projects. It closes with “Champion”, an anthem for the next generation that also pays homage to his father for teaching him the value of entrepreneurship. The chorus, I have recently discovered, appropriates a Steely Dan sample (my Dad was a Steely Dan fan.) According to West, it was this determination to express his feelings to his father (“a champion in [his] eyes”) that got the sample cleared. When producing the album he was inspired by stadium tours, house music and indie rock. Not all fans appreciated these efforts to bring hip hop to the mainstream, but it paved the way for other artists who did not conform to the conventions of gangster rap to find commercial acceptance. Only “The Glory” retained the “chipmunk soul” production style he had become known for, but I enjoyed it. I can still recite most of the lyrics.

The Postgraduate

The release of 808s and Heartbreak (2008), West’s melancholic synthpop break-up album, coincided with my first relationship. I can remember nonchalantly scrolling through the tracks on an iPod classic in the passenger seat of his car. I projected my teenage insecurities on to songs like “Paranoid”.  “Welcome to Heartbreak” introduced me to the introspective musings of Kid Cudi. I discovered The Black Album (2003) by Kanye’s hip hop “Big Brother” Jay-Z. I became well acquainted with T-Pain (and Auto-Tune) with the release of “Good Life”. By the time I finished sixth form, “Stronger” (the one with the Daft Punk sample) was still the most-played track at parties, having replaced “Gold Digger” a few years earlier. I welcomed the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2009) after his self-imposed exile in Hawaii, which Pitchfork called “a culmination [of his first four albums] and an instant greatest hits, the ultimate realization of his strongest talents and divisive public persona.” Hearing the high-energy Daft-punk produced “Black Skinhead” from Yeezus (2013) still reminds me of when I attended the UK premiere of The Wolf of Wall Street (AKA Best Day Ever), because it was used in the trailer. It has graced most of my workout playlists ever since.

As the self-proclaimed “Louis Vuitton Don” shifted from Kanye to “Yeezy”, with an increasingly hyperbolic public persona to match, my hero worship did not waver. I loved him when, during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina telethon, he remarked on live television, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” – a moment Bush would later call the “all-time low” point of his presidency. I loved him when he crashed Beck’s Album of the Year speech at the 2015 Grammy Awards, which he played off as a joke – six years after interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards for beating Beyoncé to best video. I loved him on the self-referential track “I Love Kanye” from The Life of Pablo (2016) for satirically mocking the critics and followers who disliked his post-808s electronic-inspired sound and emotional outbursts: “I miss the old Kanye / straight from the ‘Go Kanye / Chop up the soul Kanye / set on his goals Kanye”.  I even forgave him when he called it a gospel album, despite deranging it with misogynistic lyrics (he went on to release Jesus Is King in 2019, which actually is “an expression of the gospel”, as West intended).

With The College Dropout, Kanye claimed to be rebranding rap for the next generation, promoting creativity and collaboration in place of rivalry and violence. “I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind, a creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns”, he concludes in its closing track “Family Business” – but he overlooked female empowerment. In 808s and Heartbreak, “RoboCop” degrades a “spoiled little LA girl” who won’t let him forget about his womanising ways. In this especially hateful analogy he compares her to Kathy Bates’ antagonist in the film Misery (1990):

“Who knew she was a drama queen / That’d turn my life to Stephen King’s?…Just looking at your history / You’re like the girl from Misery / You said you ain’t take it to this degree / But let’s agree to disagree”.

RoboCop

West went on to reveal his own emotional immaturity by taking to Twitter to criticise ex-girlfriend Amber Rose, for which he has since made a public apology. The album inspired by their break-up was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (with its redemptive yet defeatist second single “Runaway”), which he referred to as a “back-handed apology”.

Misogyny is something of a mainstay in mainstream hip hop music. Admittedly, I could be more educated about hypermasculinity in hip hop culture and how it relates to West’s own misogynistic content. Perhaps this is a subject for another time…or another writer – one not so biased in Ye’s favour. On The Life of Pablo Kanye collaborated with his Chicago-born successor Chance the Rapper, whose uplifting lyrics and gospel influences elevated the album with the song “Ultralight Beam” (Chance is also a feminist activist, social activist and Democratic Party supporter). Kanye had the chance to change the record with this album. Instead he chose to pass the baton on to Chance.

Lyrically, West’s eighth studio album ye (2018) represents a notable departure from the likes of “Robocop” and “Runaway”. In “Wouldn’t Leave” he laments over what he risked losing in his marriage due to past errors of judgement, while in “Violent Crimes” he reforms his perceptions of women now that he has become a father. Even so, he continues to consider women in Madonna-whore terms. West has constructed a complicated misogynistic narrative for himself over the years, which I have largely looked past due to my privilege as a university educated white woman (that, and the aforementioned hero worship).

Others have, understandably, been less forgiving. Channelling her frustration at being continually let down by his lyricism, poet Jessica Mans responded with a spoken word performance entitled “Footnotes for Kanye”, which went viral in 2015. In the poem she accuses him of acting out of alignment with the lyrical trajectory laid out by The College Dropout. She speaks his own words back to him to highlight his hypocrisy, in the same art form (ironically) that he adopted for his early Def Poetry Jam performance.

By this point fans and artists alike were becoming increasingly frustrated by what West was not saying – about women, race, black representation and white privilege. One major source of hypocrisy for Mans was when West received his honorary doctorate at the Art Institute of Chicago, failing to use this opportunity to support Black Lives Matter. Instead he used his platform to make public stunts, like jumping to Beyoncé’s defence at an award show. Kanye the “College Dropout” seemed to be staying in retirement. After releasing Yeesuz, which was in many ways an over-the-top manifestation of his God complex, Kanye married Kim Kardashian and in 2014 launched his first fashion collection – prior to which he had designed sneakers for Nike. Speaking in 2017, Mans cites the Yeezy label as promoting “white careless privilege” and criticises West’s “choice…not [to be] a cultural gatekeeper”, describing him as the embodiment of America’s goal “to make black men lose their way”.

The Campaigner

For the most part, rightly or wrongly, Kanye is known for creating public controversy first and music second. While I have overlooked his objectionable politics because of my subjective adoration, objectively I am deeply disappointed by the direction he has taken.  When he was photographed with Trump in 2016, shortly after he was hospitalised for the psychiatric emergency that led to his bipolar diagnosis, I found it sad and disturbing. If there can only be one image pinpointing the moment Kanye lost his way – the moment Trump seized the opportunity to exploit his illness for the praise of a popular Black celebrity – then this is it.

Writing for the Guardian in 2018, author and speaker Ijeoma Oluo points out that West is “selling out his own people” because it will pay off for him personally; but in doing so he is helping to enable real harm:

“West is betting on anti-blackness to gain him power and notoriety in non-black circles…He is already being rewarded for it with the praise of Trump…[A]nti-blackness will come for him in the end because white supremacy may use him but will never actually love him”.

Oluo cautions non-black people against using West’s words to inadvertently justify oppression and systemic racism, “[which] does not allow for black people to speak their truth without resistance, or to own the stories that they have written.” She reminds the non-black reader that when discussing his support of the Trump administration, “you are also discussing a black man as a non-black person, and the way you do so can contribute to anti-blackness in a way that you may not intend, but will still be very responsible for.”  In other words, such discussions have the potential to play into the hands of anti-black opportunism.

There is considerable evidence for the impact of racism on the emergence of mental illnesses and post-traumatic stress. Racism is one explanation for the ethnic inequalities in mental health care. Should we not be softening the hostility that surrounds him, given these contextual complexities? Sure, we can disagree with his politics, but can we not give him the grace his family asks for? There needs to be more compassion shown to people with experience of severe mental illness. I think we need to choose our words more carefully when we are discussing the mental health of people living in the public eye.

The Mental Health Advocate

Individuals reserve the right to conceptualise their own mental health condition in terms that make sense to them. Kanye reinforced this message when he released ye, appropriating for the album cover the well-known phrase “I love being bipolar its [sic] awesome”. It deals with themes of addiction, family conflict and mental illness. Dark, honest and sobering, ye is more contemplative and introspective than its ego-driven predecessors.  And, as he exclaims in “Yikes”, his bipolar “ain’t no disability, it’s [his] superpower!”

Kanye has always liked comparisons. In an early interview he talks about being able to “see” sound, describing (I decided to look this up) a form of synaesthesia called chromesthesia: “It’s hard to explain…I see colours…it’s almost like a portrait. Like an oil painting in my ear.” In a 2013 interview he draws creative parallels between hip hop producers and fashion designers (he is the “Marc Jacobs of hip hop”, apparently). Kanye has famously likened himself to creative geniuses such as Pablo Picasso and Renaissance polymaths Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo. Clearly synaesthesia is not enough to substantiate these claims, but it’s not such a great stretch to imagine either.

Kanye’s outspoken opinions over the years have complicated the mental health “conversation”. Individuals living with mental health diagnoses like personality disorders risk being stigmatised when bad politics is pathologised, as we have seen with the discourse that surrounds Trump. It could be very damaging to consider some of West’s more controversial acts within the context of a mental health crisis. Kim has defended Kanye on this in the past, responding to speculation about his illness in relation to some seemingly erratic Tweets in 2018: “mental health is no joke and the media needs to stop spitting that out so casually.”

Uneducated guesses about West’s mental health also have the potential to detract from the real harm his words cause. It is possible to have a mental health condition and still say hurtful things. But problems can occur when the two are conflated. Too often West’s mental health is used by the media to invalidate his beliefs, hopes and ideas. In these instances severe mental illness almost sounds like an accusation, rather than being given the compassionate understanding it deserves.

For freelance writer Nylah Burton, who has bipolar herself, much of the rhetoric surrounding West’s health is ableist:

 “When I see the world relentlessly make ableist statements about West, I am reminded once more how it is both confused and often disgusted by people with severe mental illness like bipolar disorder”.

Whether we call them rants or “visionary streams of consciousness” (as Kanye referred to them in his radio interview on The Breakfast Club in 2013), I have been saddened by what I’ve watched online. I won’t be the only one to have followed the trajectory of his bipolar diagnosis this closely. People look to the media for messages about how mental illness is regarded by society. So when celebrities like Kanye become the subject of numerous negative news stories (and he is often at the centre of a media circus), a huge community of people affected by mental illness will be watching.

The Family Man

At the time of writing, the topic of West’s mental state has dominated yet more headlines. In July this year his wife Kim felt compelled to comment, “because of the stigma and misconceptions about mental health.” In a statement to the press she wrote:

“Anyone who has [bipolar] or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand. I’ve never spoken publicly about how this has affected us at home because I am very protective of our children and of Kanye’s right to privacy when it comes to his health… I understand Kanye is subject to criticism because he is a public figure and his actions at times can cause strong opinions and emotions. He is a brilliant but complicated person, who on top of the pressures of being an artist and a black man, who experienced the painful loss of his mother, has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar [sic] disorder. Those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words sometimes do not align with his intentions.” 

Kim Kardashian West

I am glad Kim spoke out about this. I, along with my two younger siblings, grew up with the confusion and helplessness of witnessing my Dad’s manic and major depressive episodes. There is not enough understanding about the distress caused by mental illness within families.

Journalist Kate Leaver agrees. She has written an admirable piece for Vogue about how Kanye’s unravelling shows our unwillingness as a society to confront the messier symptoms of mental illness. She articulates how it is harder for our collective compassion to extend to mistakes made whilst under the influence of a mental health condition, or experiences like losing touch with reality (psychosis). If an invisible line exists between bipolar and the person, it is important to respect where that line is drawn. Although it is hard not to jump in and rescue, it is generally up to the individual to find that line themselves – with the appropriate professional support and the help of friends and family members, if it is welcomed.

As Leaver points out, “with someone like Kanye, [it’s difficult] to know where his ego ends and his mania begins”. Kim touched upon this in her statement:

“Living with bi-polar [sic] disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some. That is part of his genius and as we have all witnessed, many of his big dreams have come true.”

Inflated egos are prominent in general hip hop discourse, though I think it’s fair to say that West has explored his own ego more so than most hip hop artists. His arrogance is almost trademarked.  I often questioned whether this was related to bipolar, as I did with my own Dad, but the answer was always complicated. Regardless of whether we have mental illness or not, we all have an ego. Let me illustrate this by taking a trait like narcissism, which sits on a spectrum of personality traits – coexisting with arrogance, overconfidence and self-absorption. Sometimes narcissism serves an important purpose for us. (It has benefited Kanye’s success a tremendous amount.) It can also mask deep-seated insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities, such as self-consciousness and shame.

Speaking to the BBC in October 2019, West called himself “unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time” – adding, “God is using me to show off.” Taken to this extreme, it is easy to forget that he has spent close to two decades creating some of the most brilliantly original music of any genre. OK, so he may not be a God, but he is still one of the most commercially successful hip hop artists of all time. And as a human being he is flawed like the rest of us.

The “Self Conscious” Poet

On The College Dropout, the track that most hooked me in was “All Falls Down” – Kanye’s moralistic tale about a woman who is gripped by the “peer pressure” of a capitalist culture, full of “the things we buy to cover up what’s inside”. He first performed these lyrics as the spoken word poem “Self Conscious” – an impassioned critique of his own materialism.

My parents were not university educated, but we lived in a fairly affluent area of Oxford among academics, students and University alumni. In retrospect I realise I was incredibly lucky, but this not fitting in felt uncomfortable at the time. I was also the only one of my friends to really love hip hop. Here were these Motown-inspired melodies mixed with conscious rap sensibilities, full of self-examination and lyrics that talked about family, higher education, individualism, materialism, racism, religion and self-identity. I was enamoured with Kanye from the get-go. For someone who confessed to being self-conscious, he was also curiously self-assured. He had self-awareness as well as self-confidence.  For “Through the Wire”, he chose to record his vocals with his jaw wired shut after being in a near-fatal car accident. In “All Falls Down” he included the line, “we’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it”.

When it came to light that Kanye had been diagnosed with bipolar, my Dad had been living with the condition for a decade or more.  I struggled to articulate my experience of living alongside this illness. It didn’t help that there were very few examples of lived experience to draw from at the time. Stephen Fry was probably my go-to spokesperson. I found a sort of unofficial one in Spike Milligan too. The confusing and sometimes frightening aspects of mental illness are all too often hidden from public view. If there had been as many media representations of bipolar as there are now, I think I would have coped very differently. Thankfully he is doing really well now, but I wonder whether my Dad would have found it far less isolating too.

Luckily there were many people around me who I did talk to – friends and family members who asked questions and listened as I attempted to answer them. But I met no one with experience of parental mental illness. Even if I had known someone, I doubt we would have talked about it. With hindsight I realise that my inarticulateness about this illness was the consequence of stigma colliding with shame. Why do we suffer in silence, instead of risk sharing what’s on our minds?  I have since seized the occasional opportunity to talk about it and discovered my listener has gone through a similar thing.

Eventually Kanye became my point of reference. My intuition recognised certain subtle expressions of bipolar beneath the bravado of his public persona. I marvelled at the self-awareness and lucidity he expressed in his music. I sympathised deeply whenever he lost his way. I essentially projected onto him my innate protectiveness towards anyone with this illness. The commonalities of my Dad’s manic highs and all-consuming lows were mapped onto Kanye’s character. As he went through his ups and downs over the years, I wouldn’t hear a bad word said about him.

When I first read Kim’s statement my heart filled with compassion. It was this part that really got me:

 “People who are unaware or far removed from this experience can be judgmental and not understand that the individuals themselves have to engage in the process of getting help no matter how hard family and friends try…We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most.”

I recognised my own situation in these words. Whenever this happens – each time a person speaks honestly and openly about the impact of this illness – something inside me shifts and I feel less alone in my experience. As I process it cognitively, there is a felt sensation in the body too. It is a physical unburdening as much as it is an emotional one. Seeking this feeling of recognition is one of my motivations for writing (and the hope that my reader might experience this too is one of the rewards).

The Storyteller

We seek out stories because they help us to create our own. This is why certain psychotherapies are delivered in groups. It is why why peer support often happens in groups too. It is also why I read books, watch films and listen to podcasts. Groups create opportunities for people to tell their stories and have those stories reflected back to them. A similar process happens with writing. In writing our story we attempt to express, as I am now, what we find challenging to articulate out loud. Narrative art forms uniquely and unequivocally support the development of self-identity.

Music is one such art form where stories are found. It is a natural facilitator for connection, to the self and to the outside world. Lyrics tell us stories; but we construct our own narratives around these lyrics too. We often listen together as part of a group; we play music at parties, we go to the cinema, and we hear it live at concerts and gigs. Music can give life more meaning. It is part of our collective experience.

It is no secret that The College Dropout means so much to me because I first heard it when I was a teenager. It was an important time for establishing my own narrative. As teenagers we are becoming independent and experiencing many things for the first time. This is what makes our teenage years so meaningful.  When our memories are stimulated by music, we are not just able to recite the lyrics – we feel strong emotions too.

Robert Snyder at the Art Institute of Chicago says this is because these aspects of so-called “implicit” memory are remembered by the unconscious. This is a more reactive, unintentional form of memory, and “things that can affect us from outside of consciousness are often regarded as powerful”, both in terms of their emotional quality and durability. This explains our tendency to be moved so emotionally by songs from the past.

According to a recent study published in Nature Neuroscience, some memories that are encoded during stress “are so overwhelming and traumatic that [they] hide like a shadow in the brain.” Hidden memories protect the individual from the emotional pain of recalling the event, but they eventually cause debilitating psychological problems. Suppression of the past often leads to anxiety, depression and disassociation in the present. Hearing music can help us to remember complex experiences that the conscious mind cannot recall.

My own memories are fragmented. Some I just cannot access; but I am still left with the feelings. My emotional sensitivity to music can feel joyous, as well as cathartic. I use music to initiate exercise and enhance the endorphin rush. It rewards me with good memories too. In the frustrating landscape of my childhood memories, revisiting Kanye’s music brings some of the blurred experiences into focus. Rappers are storytellers, after all – and Kanye’s story is woven within the fabric of my own.

I have loved Kanye since The College Dropout – and I still do.

Categories
Creativity mental health Psychology Writing

Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing

A Guide to Getting Started

What you will need:
  1. A notebook with dot grid pages. Some notebooks come with an index and page numbers, but one without is absolutely fine.
  2. A favourite pen. Possibly a ruler. A pencil is handy too. Coloured pens are optional, as are highlighters, stickers, stencils or washi tape.
What you won’t need:

How to Bullet Plan: a Practical Guide, Everything You Need to Know About Journaling with Bullet Points by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I’ve read it so you don’t have to! (But if you would like a guide, this one comes strongly recommended.)

Dot grid My Notebook journal by Legami Milano (shown below).
Why Bullet Journal?
  • It helps you to organise your life and keep track of important things.
  • It builds executive functioning skills, like memory and planning.
  • It can be useful when trying to challenge negative thinking biases.
  • It creates focus, supports goal setting and increases goal attainment.
  • It is a place to celebrate your achievements, increase motivation and positive emotion, connect with your values and practice self-care.
  • With careful planning it can take just 10-15 minutes a day to fill in.
The Bullet Journal Method is an analogue system designed to track the past, organise the present and plan for the future.

It was originally conceived for organisation. To give an overview of how it works – and because good organisation is conducive to positive wellbeing – we will spend a bit of time in this area before delving into the wellbeing tips. It should be said that countless interpretations have evolved from this basic method. There is no ‘wrong’ way to bullet journal. The only prerequisite, for it to work long-term, is that it makes you more productive and/or brings you joy. If you are focusing on bullet journaling for wellbeing then you may prefer to skip over this section.

A brief overview of the bullet journal method by its creator Ryder Carroll.
Here are the core tools:
  • Index points to where information on different topics is located.
  • Rapid logging. Events/tasks/notes/lists are logged using a system of symbols to simplify, abbreviate, categorise and organise information.
  • Logs. These are for your events and tasks (known as “spreads”).
  • Collections. These organise related types of information by category.
  • Migration. This is the practice of periodically updating lists to new lists, such as carrying over one month’s unfinished tasks to the next.
Future log:

This log helps you to forward plan and keep track of key events/tasks, such as birthdays/holidays. It is the spread that goes first, either as a list or calendar (or both), and it can be 3-monthly, 6-monthly or 12-monthly. Spread the log/calendar across as many pages as you think you’ll need.

Monthly log:
  • One-page or two-page spread (or more for 6 or 12-month spread).
  • Layout can be a list (dates/tasks/events), or a calendar plus a list.
  • Copy the relevant dates, tasks and events from your future log.
  • Write your monthly tasks list – essentially you are using this space to note down everything that you need or want to get done that month.
  • Add-ons: important events/don’t forget, mood tracker, monthly goals.
Weekly log:
  • One-page or two-page spread.
  • Schedule all upcoming activities by referring to your monthly log.
  • Make space to keep a to do list and (optional) notes section.
  • Add-ons: habit trackers, main focus, meal planner, quotes, reflections, sleep tracker, weekly goals and review, and so on.
Daily log:
  • Log entries using short, bulleted sentences and organise by category (task/event/note) using symbols. Mark priority entries with a star.
  • Migrate any outstanding or incomplete tasks over to the next day.
Your bullet journal is a to-do list and planner and diary in one.

It makes capturing and organising information really fast and it helps you to focus on the things that are worth your time. Stress can impact on productivity and poor organisation can increase stress, so it’s win-win.

The productivity part kicks in when you take the time to evaluate your logs. At the start of each new month, look back over your weekly/daily logs to assess your tasks and timescales. Scan for open tasks and ask yourself, “which are worth my time?” Only these tasks get migrated. This process weeds out distractions, allowing you to focus only on what you consider valuable. It can be a helpful goal setting activity too.

Collections

At this point you might decide to log related tasks in a collection. For example, if you are working on a specific project, you would copy all related tasks on to one page (remembering to record the page number in your index). You can refer to your collections when planning your month or week. They can include reminders, like things you are waiting on, shopping/wish lists, or low-priority tasks you want to keep track of. Collections help you to organise your thoughts and plan your time.

Reflection and “Intentional Living”

It is possible to bullet journal without a daily log. In fact, you probably won’t need to use both. If you have a particularly busy day ahead then you could use a daily log; otherwise you can rely on the weekly spread.

It is helpful for this reason to leave enough space for a task list in your weekly spread. Once the week is up you then create a new weekly spread, where you migrate any relevant events and outstanding tasks.

In my case, I do a mini-review of my week every Sunday to establish which tasks are important. Only these are migrated over to the next week. Low priority tasks get migrated to another month or collection.

Carroll calls this process Reflection. If reflecting weekly feels too burdensome or time-consuming, try reflecting monthly instead. Use it as an opportunity to refocus your attention on what matters to you. This is known in the Bullet Journal Method as The Mental Inventory. It forms the basis for goal setting, weekly planning and “intentional living”.

If intentionality means acting according to your beliefs, then the opposite would be operating on autopilot. In other words, do you know why you’re doing what you’re doing?

Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method (4th edition), page 29.

Making to do lists addresses the overwhelm of decision fatigue too, with the benefit of having the lists all in one place so you can organise them.

The Bullet Journal Promise: “accomplish more by working on less”, page 16.
The Test: for each item on your Mental Inventory list ask yourself “is it vital?”, page 41.
Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing

“The power of the Bullet Journal is that it becomes whatever you need it to be, no matter what season of life you’re in.”

Carroll, page 44.

The bullet journal method is designed with flexibility of both form and function in mind, insofar as you set up the pages as you go along. The effectiveness of your bullet journal will depend on the simplicity of your method. This is especially true of your weekly spread, which you will use every day. These are my suggestions for making a bullet journal work for wellbeing, based on my experience of setting up my own.

The Weekly Spread
  • Weekly calendar spread: create this over two pages and schedule your daily activities a timeline order (symbols are optional). Reflect at the end of each day by adding anything else for an accurate record.
  • Choose a Main Focus. This is something you would like to keep in mind or work on throughout the week. It could be wellbeing related, like “aim to get more early nights”, or “catch myself catastophising.”
  • Goals. These can be more specific and measurable than your focus and could support monthly goals e.g. go for a run 3 times this week.
  • If you are using Custom Bullets and Signifiers (a key with symbols to denote different tasks/categories) keep them as simple as possible.
Daily Reflection: Improve Productivity and Boost Your Mood

I can only improve my time management if I know how I have spent my time. So, at the end of each day, I add in retrospectively any tasks I have completed but not logged. This gives me an accurate record of my day.

Having an accurate record challenges my negative self-perceptions. For example, I sometimes get a gut feeling I have not achieved enough with my time. It is difficult to buy into this negative thinking when I have evidence to the contrary! If I don’t have the time or energy for weekly reflection, seeing my achievements accrue day-by-day is motivation enough. And if I have genuinely achieved very little, then I still benefit from the bullet journal ideas for positive wellbeing (discussed below).

Journaling vs Bullet Journaling

There are several ways you can incorporate the qualities of a traditional diary or long-hand journal in your bullet journal.

  1. Write your diary entries in between weekly logs or after daily logs.
  2. Dedicate a page or two to record reflections, thoughts and feelings.

Alternatively you might decide to keep a separate reflective journal and keep your bullet journal for planning, positivity and progress.

One key benefit of the bullet journal is that it brings everything together in one single place, but it can still suit the multiple-notebook person who wishes to use a separate bullet journal for health/home/study/work.

In this video Carroll explains the differences between journaling and bullet journaling and shows how to combine the two.

Journaling vs Bullet Journaling by Ryder Carroll
Habit Trackers
  • These are great for motivation and reinforcing behaviours. You could consider including one with your weekly spread, starting with just three habits. Mark the relevant box for every day you do them.
  • You can change the habits from week-to-week or month-to-month.
  • Specific health and wellbeing trackers could include meal planners or sleep/water trackers. You might choose to include these if/when you have a particular health goal (mine is often “no caffeine!”).
  • You can track TV/smart phone usage, step count, days you cooked from scratch / packed a lunch / met your savings target – anything!
Bullet Journal Habit Tracker by Lynne G. Caine.
Mood Tracker

Mine takes up one landscape page for each month and looks like this:

 Tues 1st Weds 2ndThurs 3rd
6+ Fruit & Veg    
8+ GlassesxWater   
Fatigue / Lethargy   
Headache   
Nausea   
Nightmares   
Poor sleep   
Socialised   
Anxious   
Dissociated   
Flat / Numb   
Sad   
Sensitive   
Agitated   
Angry   
Distracted   
Irritable   
Paranoid   
Calm   
Content   
Elated   
Energetic   
Focussed   
My Monthly “Mind & Body” Mood Tracker
  • You could use ticks, crosses, coloured boxes – any method you like. I separate habits from physical symptoms by using different colours and I colour-code each mood type too (positive/negative/neutral).
  • It is possible to record morning and afternoon separately by using two different colours and splitting each box in half diagonally.
  • Another idea, if you want to capture the emotional intensity, is to use block colour for strong emotions and shading/dots for not so strong.
  • Keep it simple, though. If it’s not working for you, the next time you set up your monthly tracker try simplifying it and see if that helps.
Three More Monthly Trackers
  • Housework – list all the different chores and dot when you’ve done them. This might not be that fun, but it does remind me to clean!
  • When Did I Last? – e.g. car MOT, dentist, eye test, oil bicycle chain.
  • Workouts – each time you exercise record it in your bullet journal. Even if it’s a short walk, that still counts. I use mine as motivation.
Habit tracker by Martha @marthasjournal.
Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing: Collections

“Creating Custom Collections is a creative, enjoyable, and rewarding aspect of Bullet Journaling because you’re empowering yourself to solve your own challenges!”

Carroll, page 237.
Action Plan

Create an action plan for a particular goal or project using these steps:

  1. Define the goal/objectives
  2. Set a realistic schedule within reasonable time frame.
  3. What are the barriers/obstacles I might encounter?
  4. What strengths/resources do I have already to help overcome these?
  5. What will be my first step/s? Make this manageable!

This is ideal for turning a Mental Inventory into more actionable steps.

Brain Dump

Take up 1-2 pages and get all your thoughts out of your brain and on to the page. You turn all your worries, ideas and dreams in to a list or a mind-map, which you can then turn into actions (if you choose to).

Celebrating Small Wins
  • On one page list the dates of the month down the left-hand side and beside each date, on each day, write down something you achieved.
  • If this seems challenging at first then start by doing it once a week. It’s about congratulating yourself on the small wins and celebrating your accomplishments, no matter how insignificant they may seem.
  • Remember that once complete your tasks turn into accomplishments! An achievements page gives you a dedicated place to celebrate these.
Check-In

Use one page of your bullet journal to do a mental health check-in. Divide the page into four sections and assign a category to each quarter e.g. physical/mental/emotional/spiritual). Do this as often as you’d like.

“Every day, once a day, give yourself the present of savouring the good in your life.”

Carroll, page 187.
Gratitude Practice
  • List the dates of the month and on each line write down something you are grateful for. Or fill an entire page by writing a list in one go.
  • Gratitude lists work best if what you record is specific and genuine. So if you can, noting it down as soon as you think of it can help.
  • Try the Three Good Things exercise. Write down three good things that happened that day. Next to each positive event, answer one of the following questions: “why did this good thing happen?”, “what does this mean to you?” or “how can you have more of this good thing in the future?” Do it every day or three days times a week.
Random Acts of Kindness

Make a list of ideas for random acts of kindness, marking them off each time you do them. Or simply notice when you perform a random act of kindness and note that down during your daily or weekly reflection.

Carroll, “Less, but better”, page 236.
More ideas for your bullet journal toolkit

The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the ones I like:

  • Books – list the titles you’re reading and tick them off when you’re finished, or break it into smaller chunks by tracking chapter progress.
  • Films / TV shows – use this collection to list all the things you plan to, or want to, watch. Again, tick them off once you’ve seen them.
  • Turn this into a goal by choosing one thing to read/watch each week.
  • Mental health toolkit – list some coping techniques that help most.
  • Self-care – list all the things that do/don’t increase your wellbeing.
Some final words on persevering with your bullet journaling

This wasn’t straightforward for me at first. Sifting through all the available information and making a start was slightly overwhelming (and, I’ll admit, on some days it still is). It took some perseverance and I had to keep tweaking things until I found a set up I was happy with. It was worth it, though. (If you’re interested, I’ve written an essay on how I got started.) I still search Youtube and Instagram for inspiration (without overburdening myself) and I don’t keep any tried ideas that don’t bring me satisfaction or joy. Above all I keep it simple. Happy journaling!

Image: Can Bullet Journaling Save You? The New Yorker (September 2019)
Categories
mental health Psychology Writing

Coping with Self-loathing

Negative thoughts of self-loathing can be unrelenting. Feelings of shame, guilt and self-directed anger are destructive for self-esteem and can keep us stuck in certain patterns of behaviour. If it goes unchecked, feelings of shame and self-loathing can perpetuate a vicious cycle of self-criticism as our low mood spirals down further – even turning into self-neglect or self-harm. At better times it can manifest in not being happy with who we are.

It is especially important to focus on acts of kindness towards oneself during these times. Because as hard as it may be, facing the pain that self-loathing brings is the key to resolving it. Learning to feel and process our emotions is a way of developing emotional resilience, but it takes practice. Start by trying out these skills drawn from CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) and mindfulness.*

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot

1. Have patience

Creating new brain pathways and new ways of thinking takes time. Being patient with yourself as you practice is the first act of loving yourself.

2. Ask for help

This can be from friends, family, teachers, therapists, co-workers or self-help groups. Focusing on getting help for yourself is an act of kindness.

3. Don’t avoid the self-loathing

You cannot address your emotional pain without feeling it first. Facing the reality of your self-loathing is painful, but it is the only way to get out of it. Do this by acknowledging that the pain is there – don’t dwell on it or ruminate. This is the DBT distress tolerance skill known as Radical Acceptance. When you can face the pain, instead of fighting it or dwelling on it, you are mastering it – and healing from self-hatred.

4. Do things you enjoy

If you are in the depths of self-loathing it is likely that you’ll be having a lot of negative experiences, but it is possible to build positive experiences. This is known in DBT as Opposite Action. When done mindfully, it can reduce emotional vulnerability and create balance in our lives. It works like this: if we feel shame and notice the need to isolate, instead we speak up; or, if we feel disgust and want to distance ourselves through avoidance, we push through it and get through the situation. By doing the opposite action the emotion goes away or becomes less uncomfortable. Self-loathing punishes you by depriving you of the things you love, so do the opposite. The more you practice doing things you love, the more you will love.

5. Try a Zen practice

Think about someone you respect who you consider to be a wise, compassionate person. Now imagine that person is living with you in your mind and body during moments of self-loathing and see how they might handle your self-hatred. You could even repeat a compassionate phrase or mantra in your mind – something like “you are enough”, “you are doing your best”, or “this too shall pass”. This is a difficult task, but with practice you will find greater self-compassion.

6. Forgive

Forgive yourself for all your perceived faults and failings. If you have crossed your values and hurt someone, ask them for forgiveness too. Keep in mind that at any point in time you are doing the best you can do. Releasing yourself from anger or resentment is an act of self-compassion.

A note on Opposite Action

This is one of my favourite skills to practice and share with others. I have found it to be effective in so many different situations. These additional practices have helped me with my mental health and might help you too if you are feeling self-loathing – or any other strong emotion for that matter.

It is possible to use opposite action by using your body differently. Take some deep breaths if you are feeling anxious or panicky, or place your hand on your heart when you notice judgement or blame. Challenging the physical signs of shame and submission, for example by lengthening your spine and grounding through your feet, can help to combat self-loathing.

Morning Pages

Taken from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, this is her “bedrock tool” for creative recovery. She likens it to “a form of meditation for hyperactive Westerners”, as the pages clear her head and prioritise her day. Morning Pages requires you write three pages, by hand, first thing in the morning, about whatever comes to mind and which you show to no one. There is no wrong way to do it; you simply keep your hand moving across the page, with no breaks or pause for thought. This practice dislodges the dust from every corner of our life, eventually moving us towards constructive action.

It is helpful for people who have difficulty expressing painful or strong emotions (so all of us, then!). For example, I have found it to be a particularly powerful tool for working through anger and frustration.

List 25 things you love

This is another one of Julia Cameron’s creative recovery tools. If you’re anything like me you can become entrapped by your list-making, so don’t over-think this – just get some things down on paper, which could be a page in a bullet journal (if this is something you like to do). Cameron also talks about scheduling an “artist’s date” – a once-weekly, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. You could do your own version by scheduling a “self-care date”, creating for yourself just one hour a week –or more – to do something you enjoy. You could refer back to your list of loves for ideas, or throw it away as soon as you’ve finished – it is up to you.

References

Coping with BPD: DBT and CBT skills to soothe the symptoms of borderline personality disorder by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen (2015).

Julia Cameron Wants You to Do Your Morning Pages, The New York Times online (February 2, 2019).

Read Julia’s Blog online / her books The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write.

*These skills are best practiced when you feel safe and well enough. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis or medical emergency click here for information from Mind, the mental health charity, about how to get help.

Photograph (my own): Self-compassionate Graffiti, Princes Place Public Toilets (Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton).
Categories
Health and Fitness Psychology Writing

6 Bullet Journal Ideas for Runners

Several people I’ve spoken to since publishing my essay on running and sobriety have expressed a desire to start themselves. Either they lack courage as a complete beginner, or can’t find the motivation to make a comeback. Even if you don’t use a bullet journal, these tips can help.

There is a reason that self-monitoring is a fundamental tool in cognitive-behavioural therapy. It informs our goals, holds us accountable and facilitates change, increasing our awareness, determination and agency. By tracking our efforts, we are more likely to succeed – and enjoy the process.

Here are some ideas to get you started, help you stay motivated and maintain your momentum.

1. Set goals.

These can be daily, weekly, or monthly goals. They can be small, such as a five minute run around the block 3 times a week, or big, like running a half marathon. Be specific. When setting monthly goals, think about breaking them down in to more manageable targets to hit along the way. Just making the effort to achieve our goals can lead to a sense of satisfaction. We feel a sense of pride and fulfillment when we finally achieve them, so it is important to make them realistic. Starting small is the key to success.

2. Start small. 

This is about creating small steps along the way to achieving our longer-term goals. A complete beginner would not normally run a 5K straightaway (check out the Couch to 5K plan as an example of this). Don’t run before you can walk! My strategy has been to set myself much smaller goals than I think I could manage. That way, I always exceed my target. Go easy on yourself – especially at first – with lots of encouragement and positive self-talk. You will get there. Slow and steady wins the race. (OK, I wonder how many more running-related proverbs I can sneak in to this..?)

3. Keep an exercise log. 

This can take a variety of forms. For example, you can focus on specific types of workouts (mine are usually boxing, running and yoga), or you could track your activity on a month-by-month basis. I choose to log my exercise in an annual calendar spread using four different colours – one for each exercise type – because I find that creating an overall visual gives me motivation. You might choose to log your strength training or running activity on separate pages instead – or do both! Personally I like having an annual overview, plus a detailed running record so I can see my progress.

4. Time yourself. 

I would say that this one has helped me the most with motivation. I use an App with GPS while I run, which tracks my distance, pace and time. I get feedback about my progress, which is helpful for motivation – especially if I’ve taken a few days off. I then record this in my bullet journal. I listen to the App mid-run too (it reports my time and pace at each kilometre); but this might add undue pressure. Either way, I recommend timing yourself if you can – even if it’s done the old fashioned way with a watch and a map.

5. Get your groove on. 

Create a running playlist you can associate with energy and positivity. Generate a good rhythm for yourself and maybe try running mindfully, paying attention to what happens in the mind and body in response to each track. Put your playlist on shuffle to mix it up and keep updating it to keep it interesting. Maybe choose a ‘track of the week’ and keep a note of it in your bullet journal. Some might prefer podcasts or audio books, which you can list in your bullet journal too. Whichever you choose, the idea is to associate running with good feelings. This leads me on to…

6. Celebrate your wins. 

It is so important to congratulate ourselves and celebrate our achievements, no matter how small. Running releases endorphins – nature’s natural pain-relief – and dopamine, the neurotransmitter (or ‘chemical messenger’) affecting motivation, mood, attention, learning, sleep and pain processing. There is much enjoyment to be had from accomplishing things that challenges us. As we strive towards our goals it is important to focus on the sense of pride and fulfilment we feel when we achieve them. The benefit of emphasising these positive emotions is twofold: it helps us to remain constructive and optimistic; and it pushes us to thrive and flourish (this refers to the ‘P’ and ‘A’ in the PERMA model of wellbeing, developed by positive psychologist Martin Seligman). Focusing on feeling good and cultivating a sense of accomplishment will encourage you to stay on track with your running. Savouring the moment can increase positive emotion. If you use a bullet journal, try noting down one achievement each day – even if they aren’t all related to running. Here are some of mine:

  • Left the house to go for a run, even though I was feeling terrible.
  • Exchanged smiles with everyone I passed on my morning run.
  • Ran a personal best on my 5K.
  • Completed a half marathon!

Finally, talk about running! Share your reservations, your fears and your challenges. Exchange tips with one another and allow people to support and encourage you as you pursue your exercise goals. Remember, the surest way to build a lasting habit and become a runner is to enjoy it.

Photograph: BBC Bitesize.
Categories
Creativity Psychology Writing

In praise of… Bullet Journaling

Despite the challenges of life in lockdown, this “new normal” has presented some unexpected opportunities. Previously, I’d been an intermittent diarist. Each January I would resolve to record daily my every negative thought and feeling, resulting in very little progress. As meditators and neuroscientists alike will tell you, “where attention goes, energy flows.” Attention has the potential to change the structure of the brain (ever considered the less catchy ‘where attention goes, neural firing flows and neural connection grows’?). I didn’t look forward to diary-writing and after a few half-hearted entries I would soon get fed up and leave the remaining pages untouched. One issue was uncertainty about my diary’s purpose. Should I be writing down the content of my dreams, or focussing on my waking life? Do I want to record my day, or forget it ever happened? How do I make my goals SMART – and do I even want to?

When this pandemic was in its early stages I found myself aimlessly browsing my local library’s creative writing section. I came across a book entitled How to Bullet Plan: Everything You Need to Know About Journaling with Bullet Points by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I had heard of bullet journaling – a creative colleague I had worked with uses it (she loves Ali and Finn’s Positive Bullet Diary*) – but I still didn’t really know what it was. Is it a planner? A to-do list? A diary? It turns out it’s all of those things.

Bullet journaling, so-called because it uses bullet points as its core structure and utilises dot grid paper, was devised by Brooklyn-based digital product designer Ryder Carroll as a personal method of organisation to manage his ADHD. Encouraged by a friend, in 2013 he began sharing his method online. By the end of 2018 it had been the subject of 3 million Instagram posts. As Carroll explains in his book The Bullet Journal Method, it is an individually-customisable system: a way of tracking your past; ordering your present; and planning your future. And, as I’ve recently discovered, it is excellent for promoting and maintaining wellbeing.

During the past three months I have dedicated more energy to running, recording my distances and times in my bullet journal – leading me to run a half marathon. My mood has improved massively, which I attribute to this newfound love of goal setting (meditation, healthy eating and early nights have helped too). Imagining how I’ll feel looking back over this diligently-kept document of my past accomplishments, or dreaming up topics to devote future journal entries to, brings me joy. I actually look forward to opening my beautiful, brightly coloured journal every day and leafing through its thread-bound pages. Selecting the perfect pen and colouring in each square has become a daily ritual I relish. I am a true bullet journaling convert.

If you think this sounds overzealous or fanatical, there’s a reason: bullet journaling works. Here’s why. It’s a quick, simple form of regular note-taking (Carroll calls this “rapid logging”) that you’re more likely to stick to, because it’s flexible and uncomplicated. You make space to record all your appointments and important tasks in such a way that you can’t miss them, meaning you actually stay on top of things (imagine that!). Consider the principle that nothing need be lost if it is written down. You create one single place to list all those films and TV shows you’ve been hearing about, or those books you’ve been meaning to read. All too often my smart phone gets in the way of good sleep, so I prefer putting pen to paper before bedtime. It’s also very beneficial to get creative. And some have suggested that writing, as opposed to typing on a laptop, allows you to better organise your thoughts and can even boost memory.

Getting Started

The first step is to arrange your calendars, known in the bullet journaling world as ‘spreads.’ These are commonly broken down into annual, weekly and monthly. You can include daily spreads too, if you decide to use your bullet journal more like a diary (I’ve chosen to keep a separate reflective journal for this kind of thing). Then you start adding in your other sections. A key one for me has been my mood tracker (which I prefer to call ‘mind and body’). I also record my workouts, circling the dates on a one-page annual calendar spread using different colours to denote each different type of exercise (fancy). I log the good habits I want to stick to and the goals I’d like to achieve. I set a main focus every week and then review it at the weekend. You can even log when you do your chores, last visit the dentist, or take your car for its MOT – called a ‘when did I last…?’ log. At times when life is particularly hard this becomes an invaluable resource. It’s an approach that focuses on achievements and prioritising your values, rather than denying yourself or giving things up. By focussing your attention you create the right intention.

If this all sounds a bit too much to contend with, I can assure you it isn’t. I use about half an hour every Sunday to review my week and set up next week’s pages. It then takes five to ten minutes at the beginning and end of each day to fill in. The secret is keeping it simple; only keep the sections that work for you. Finding that you’re not filling in your daily diary? Write a weekly summary instead. Not sticking to the habits you’re tracking? Throw them out and set new ones. Mine went through three or four different setups before I settled on its current layout. And when things are more normal and I can hopefully return to work, I expect my system to change again. Unlike a traditional diary (which I found to be too rigid), you can purchase a blank grid page notebook that includes an index and page numbers, making your journal simple to navigate. The beauty of the bullet journal method is that you can change your system to suit you as you go along.

The Science-y Bit

Increased self-awareness can bring about change. This is a central tenet of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), a type of talking therapy developed by psychology researcher Marsha M. Linehan for people who experience strong emotions. By tracking your mood, sleep, exercise, energy levels and physical health status you can increase your awareness of thoughts and feelings in relation to your activities – and hopefully begin to see patterns. Goal attainment can increase positive emotions – and we will reach our goals sooner and more easily if our emotions are positive. Positive psychology pioneer C. R. Snyder first began theorising about this in the 1980s, going on to write six books on hope and its relatedness to optimism. He demonstrated that clearly conceptualised goals provide direction and an endpoint for hopeful thinking. His “hope theory” comprises three components: having focused thoughts; developing strategies to achieve goals; and being motivated to make the effort required. We can apply this theory to our own bullet journal method. Its four subcategories are goals, pathway thoughts (the routes we take to achieve our desired goals), agency thoughts (our motivation) and barriers (which make it difficult for us to attain our goals). Goals that are valuable but uncertain are described as the “anchors” of hope theory. This is because we need to reevaluate our strategies along the way. Barriers offer an opportunity to strengthen new pathways; when faced with barriers we can either give up, or use our pathway thoughts to create new routes.

So, when we use our journal to review our goals each week, we are looking for new ways (via pathway thoughts) to reach them. Snyder says it helps if you ask yourself things such as “what is going on?”, “where do I want to go?” and “what is stopping me?” These are typical pathway thinking questions. Research on brain plasticity has shown that we can increase our neural growth through our actions, such as asking questions and deploying good strategies. This is what is also known as the “growth mindset”, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe a type of positive attitude that, crucially, can be learnt and practiced to increase motivation and achievement. By recording and reflecting on our progress we activate agency thoughts, thereby increasing positive motivation. According to Snyder, if we view barriers to growth as challenges to overcome, using these pathway thoughts to plan alternative routes to our goals, we are said to have “high hope”.  High hope has been associated with many benefits, including increased wellbeing and academic achievement. Reflection is the foundational principle of bullet journaling as a practice. It declutters the mind, cultivates curiosity and helps us to remain focussed over time (for more on this see Carroll’s Tedx talk).

The “father of positive psychology” Martin Seligman has spent his life’s work researching wellbeing and happiness. His Three Good Things exercise, explained in his most recent book Flourish, invites you to write down three good things that happen each day. Next to each positive event, you answer one of the following questions: “why did this good thing happen?”, “what does this mean to you?” or “how can you have more of this good thing in the future?” These questions encourage us to really reflect on and immerse ourselves in the good event, which increases our degree of positive emotion. It’s possible to incorporate this exercise into your bullet journal – and you should, because once you start you’ll want to keep going. Alternatively you could keep a daily gratitude list or note down one achievement each day. These exercises may even support healthier thinking patterns, the same way Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) seeks to do. For example, by keeping a record of your achievements you are building evidence to challenge negative thinking biases. Another CBT intervention that is very effective is Behavioural Activation, which focuses on behaviour and environment, rather than thoughts. By tracking good habits and logging your daily activities – known as Activity Scheduling – you increase the amount of positive reinforcement you experience. This helps to reduce the negative behaviours that may provide temporary relief, but ultimately maintain your anxiety or low mood. Become your own therapist!

Why else do I like bullet journaling? Because it is associated with positive emotions, not negative symptoms. Our brains have a natural tendency to focus on what goes wrong in our daily lives, as my previous diary attempts had illustrated. Using a bullet journal for wellbeing encourages us to dwell on the good things instead. It’s not a CBT worksheet with a mysterious acronym. Or a mnemonic that’s actually not so easy to remember. Or a digital calendar on an app. It is a holistic tool: something you can choose to build and create according to your own unique agenda. And that’s very empowering.

Books

The Bullet Journal Method: Track Your Past, Order Your Present, Plan Your Future by Ryder Carroll (2018)

Flourish: a New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being – and How to Achieve Them by Martin Seligman (2011)

Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression: Self-help Strategies to Build Strength, Resilience and Happiness by Miriam Akhtar (2018)

The Right to Write: an Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron (2017)

Online

Action for Happiness: Find Three Good Things Each Day

Bullet Journal: the Analogue Method for the Digital Age.

Mental Health Bullet Journal by Rachel W Miller for BuzzFeed.

The Positive Bullet Journal by *Positive Planner (AKA Ali and Finn) can be purchased here (you’ll be supporting the amazing arts charity Arts at the Old Fire Station too!).

Getting Started

How to Bullet Journal, by Ryder Carroll. Start here.

Journaling vs Bullet journaling. How to add long-form journaling into your Bullet Journal practice and why it can help.

How to Declutter Your Mind – Keep a Journal by Ryder Carroll, TEDxYale (2017).

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the wonderful people at Restore and Oxfordshire Recovery College for their encouragement.

A big thank you to Ruth for reading earlier versions of this essay.

Photograph: Leuchtturm 1917.
Categories
Creativity Writing

In praise of… Writing

We should write because writing yields us a body of work, a felt path through the world we live in.

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life
Why do I write?

Writing has always been my preferred form of expression. Articulating my thoughts as an essayist is one of my favourite things to do. I disappear behind the words I write and come alive with them too. I realise this sounds paradoxical, so let me put it another way: it’s as if writing reveals certain aspects of myself I wouldn’t recognise without it. Writing helps to crystallize my thoughts and examine my feelings. Seeing my ideas spill out onto the page – transported from the mind at their inception (via hours of highly concentrated attention), before finally taking shape in their written form – is therapeutic for me. This process of translation, from ideas to words, prompts intense focus and a ‘flow’ state of mind. I am completely involved in the activity of writing for writing’s sake.

The act of writing also directs my awareness towards the reader. Publishing initiates a two-way process. “The Queen of Change” Julia Cameron, who brought creativity to the mainstream following the publication of her book The Artist’s Way, says this of self-publishing:

“I believe that our desire to write is a deep-seated human drive to communicate and that it is answered by an equally powerful human drive to be communicated to. In other words, for every writer there is a reader – or many readers.”

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write, 156-157.

In an existential-phenomenological sense, reading and writing are transactional; they evoke intersubjectivity. Many features of existential therapy (honesty, relationship, understanding our internal selves and accepting reality) play out between the reader and writer – with the page as intermediary. Both reader and author take benefit from its reflective powers and potential for introspection. If the goal of transactional analysis (TA) is to ‘re-write’ our ineffective existential life positions, perhaps through the physical act of writing we plant that first seed of change.

Writing connects us to our values. Essays can be carefully crafted in such a way that they make clear what is important – and this promotes self-direction and agency. The process of essay writing encourages balanced arguments too, so it tends to help with black-and-white thinking. I love vlogging as a medium (my lengthy list of Youtube subscriptions can attest to this), but I appreciate writing because it allows me to express myself in a subtler and more considered way than video would make possible. Producing shareable online content allows me to build connections with others and form a community of like-minded people.

Creating something out of nothing to publish online lets me practice the craft of writing. There is a part of me that wants to develop a ‘voice’, for want of a better phrase. In this sense taking up blogging is a creative opportunity – one not afforded by academic writing. It is also a learning exercise, for myself and others (apparently there is even such a thing as ‘blog psychology’). If blogging can bring some clarity to my experience, distilling my own self-care practices and personal insights, then it will (hopefully) validate your experience too.

Writing serves as a marker for mental health and wellbeing. When I’m feeling low or anxious my writing is effortful; it seems impossible to weed out the waste thoughts from those that have value. A practice called stream of consciousness journaling helps with this (I suggest you start by trying Cameron’s creative recovery tool Morning Pages). When I am well I write with more ease. Some sentences I arrive at spontaneously. Something suddenly awakens and my writing becomes vibrant and determined, just as flowers flourish in springtime. Like a mental muscle memory, my writing practice grows stronger and I am able to achieve a more natural, creative state of being (it is in this ‘flow state’ that I produce flowery descriptive paragraphs such as this one). However – and here comes another paradox – it is also delicate and needs nurturing. Those closest to me are all too aware of the extent to which I am prone to perfectionism. I can commit to an endless series of edits (in fact, this sentence is an edit!) if I do not enforce a deadline. I tend to overexert myself without consciously exercising some caution. Sometimes this is possible; at other times I must simply ride the productivity wave until it crashes. Either way, in ‘flow’ my mind is calm, clear and content. You could say my writing is in full bloom, because my mind is doing exactly what it is designed to do. By channelling my creativity through writing I am challenging my mind, which rewards me with a lasting sense of happiness.

What will I write about?

My intention is to write about things that support good self-care, health and happiness, with this theme of wellbeing woven throughout. I want to shed some light on the connections between mental health and other disciplines, such as philosophy and the arts. I will be considering my own interests from the perspective of popular culture and abstracting the lessons in relation to self-care and recovery, drawing upon insights from psychology and psychotherapy too . This is why I’ll be discussing topics such as as creative writing, films, health and fitness, literature, meditation practice, philosophy, photography, music, psychology, psychotherapy and visual arts. I wish to explore the common threads and create a coherent collection of essays that when stitched together can form a comforting blanket to warm the heart, soothe the mind and uplift the soul.

To that end, so it stays somewhat coherent, I have summarised my aims for this site in the following statements.

Vision

I want representations of mental illness to be more visible. I want to hear discussions about mental health sound more authentic and nuanced. I want them to come up naturally in everyday conversation. I want mental illness to be acknowledged as both complex and commonplace.

Mission

1) To create an online community based upon common connections (with one being an interest in mental health). 2) To promote wellbeing and recovery by bringing psychoeducation and peer support together.

Values
  • Creating content of value by sharing knowledge that supports awareness and self-care.
  • Contributing to the conversation by expressing my personal experience authentically and honestly.
  • Honouring my experience and the experience of others, recognising that they may not be the same.

Thank you for reading. Rosie xox

Photograph: Interflora.