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Hate gratitude journaling? What to do if self-help tools fall short

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Self-care is plastered everywhere these days, and it might make you scream if you’re one of the millions of people who struggle to make it happen. Self-compassion is one of the established members of the self-help toolbox and can be a fantastic balm when you’re having a tough moment, as it reminds us of the power of being our own best friend in this human experience. And yet, other times putting your hand over your heart and offering yourself the empathy and solace you crave is just a band-aid, covering up hurt and anguish too deep to resolve on your own.

I tried self-compassion when it was first popularized and found it to be a deeply inadequate salve to my wounds at the time. It actually added to my frustration because it didn’t move the needle much on my emotional well-being. So I tossed it back on the shelf along with its failed companions: gratitude journaling and forgiving others. Can you tell I was an Oprah devotee? These fixes are better than nothing, but if you’re actively flailing in life, journaling about 3 things you appreciate likely isn’t enough to turn things around. And forgiveness is a chicken and egg scenario if you’re seething about past or present wrongs.

These tools can be effective when you’ve cleared old traumas and have a foundation to receive love from the self and the world around you. But if your path is blocked, these self-care methods are like looking through a dirty camera lens or standing alone on a stormy island. A blocked path means you have work to do, and if hearing that doesn’t sit well, you’re probably not ready to move forward, and that’s ok. The truth is, I didn’t realize the full extent of what I needed to deal with, and you might not either. I didn’t have many “big T” traumas in my life, but I had a whole slew of “little t” ones. They accumulated and wired my brain for a lot of negative thinking and expectations until I reached a point where I could no longer power through life with my old coping mechanisms. If that sounds familiar, there is hope.

Here are 3 steps to start clearing your path:

1. Commit to your own health.

You know what got my attention? When I learned the havoc cortisol wreaks on your body when it’s responding to non-physical threats and alarms, i.e., the thoughts you’re generating in your head. Did you know that cortisol and DHEA, the calming, repairing hormone, are generated from the same source? This means your body is producing either greater levels of cortisol or DHEA, depending on your stress level. So being angry and holding grudges is likely physically aging you and reducing your lifespan. That was a wake up call for me, and it should be for you too. Step one is choosing to let go of toxic emotions for your own physical well-being. And to keep choosing and recommitting, since we all deal with stress on a daily basis and may have difficult people in our lives.

2. Identify your resources and make a plan

What can you dedicate yourself to in terms of time and resources? Be realistic. Is it 15 minutes a day or 30 minutes twice a week? Does your budget allow you to buy a book or app, enroll in a course or small group, or hire 1:1 therapy or coaching? Which investment will produce the greatest results, knowing your personal strengths and motivations? If you opt for the self-help route, schedule the time on your calendar and find an accountability partner. Share your goals and check in on a regular basis to track progress. And always if you have a mental health diagnosis, follow the advice of your licensed healthcare provider in addition to these strategies.

3. Practice patience and celebrate success.

Clearing the crud and noise in your head takes time, depending on how much junk you’ve accumulated. Are we looking at individual events, years of strife, or decades of pain? Even though EFT can clear things faster than people expect, identifying the cornerstone memories that block your path is a process.

Celebrate the wins, even if they are tiny, like “Wow, I identified something I didn’t even know was an issue for me”. Start to notice subtle shifts in your world, such as, ‘I’m a little less cranky this morning’ or ‘I’ve gone a week without snapping at anyone or crying’. Healthy living is a practice, not a one-shot deal. Congratulate yourself on the baby steps, and someday you might even start a gratitude journal. Or not. It’s completely your call.

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