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Have you ever been faced with a big decision, weighed out all of your options, made your choice, and then realized you chose wrong? I have. And it sucks.
Some time ago, I had to decide whether or not to pursue a relationship. The guy was great (he seriously is such a good human), and things were going well, but I had a gut feeling that he just wasn’t right for me. I instead decided to go all in and see if we could make it work. As cliche as it sounds, the duration of our relationship was one of the most stressful periods of my life. Ever. My anxiety went through the roof. I struggled to focus at work, and I barely had energy for my family and friends. I was exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically.
We dated for about a month before we mutually decided to break up. My relief was tangible. I thought that I would be back to my normal self in no time, but it was, surprisingly, a fairly intensive, drawn-out recovery for me. I felt so ashamed about my decision to date this guy against my better judgment, and I was even more ashamed that it affected me so strongly. It probably took a good 5 months of self-healing before I felt like myself again.
During those five months (and even now), I found journaling to be an incredibly intimidating but helpful tool. I journaled using a few different methods at various times, but I’ve organized them all here. If you’re struggling to cope with a poor decision you’ve made, I would recommend the following:
1. Word Vomit
Before you do anything else, just write how you’re feeling. I call it word vomiting. There’s no filter and no breaks, just writing. Don’t worry about how silly, dramatic, or hurtful you might sound. No one else will ever read your entries, so it’s a judgment-free zone. Your word vomit will be the foundation for processing your thoughts and emotions and moving forward.
Word vomiting is the most intimidating form of journaling for me. I’m not always comfortable with my own emotions, and writing them down solidifies them in a way that sometimes terrifies me. I can usually work up the courage to word vomit if I remind myself that it’s just part of the process—and I can burn it when I’m done so I never have to risk seeing it again.
2. Apply Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
I occasionally visit a therapist as part of my general mental health routine. My therapist shared this cognitive behavioral therapy diagram with me to help me put my thoughts and feelings into perspective:
The diagram is a prompt for asking these three questions:
- What initial thought (and related situational trigger) caused the spiral?
- What feeling(s) sparked that thought?
- How did you act or behave as a result of these feelings?
You don’t necessarily have to answer the questions in order as you journal. I’m a pretty emotional person, so I sometimes notice #2 first. In that case, I’ll start with #2 and work my way back. An example for me and my bad dating decision might look like this:
- I’m feeling hopeless about dating.
- Because I choose to date the wrong guys at the wrong time, I’ve screwed up my timing and I won’t meet the right guy.
- I’m acting sullen and distant to those around me.
Journaling all these thoughts helps me understand how my own thoughts trigger my emotions and behaviors, especially when they come as a result of decisions that make me feel shame. This process also helps me identify logical fallacies and redirect my thought/action patterns in the future.
3. Reframe Your Thoughts and Feelings
Now that you’ve clearly identified what you’re feeling and how you got there, you can use this list to validate your emotions. One of my therapist’s favorite quotes is “That which we resist persists.” (I need to put this on a poster, it’s so good.) Basically, the more we push against something, the longer it sticks around. This is especially true with our emotions. Emotions are like the ocean—you gain more ground working with the waves than you do against them.
It’s also important to remember that it’s okay to feel negative emotion. As Brene Brown says, we can’t selectively numb certain emotions and still feel other emotions. If we don’t feel negative emotions, we also don’t feel positive emotions. Instead of becoming frustrated or ashamed of your emotions, welcome your ability to emote as a sign that you are a functioning human. If you aren’t emoting, something isn’t right.
Looking at my own list, my thought process isn’t very logical. It’s also dramatic. But in order for me to work through my logical fallacy, it’s crucial for me to validate my own feelings first. Giving myself permission to feel emotions helps me move on more quickly. Now, I might write something like this down:
“Alright, Sarah. It’s okay that you’re feeling bummed out and even hopeless. You take your time and feel the feels, girl. When you’re done, remember that you know there isn’t just one person out there for everyone. And even though timing is a big factor in a lot of awesome opportunities, there are always more opportunities, even in dating. Life is good, and more chances will come along.”
4. Apply Forgiveness and Self-Love
Forgiving yourself may be the hardest part of recovering from a bad decision. One of my biggest struggles from this mistake was, and occasionally still is, feeling like I’ve irreparably screwed up the remainder of my life. I also have a hard time forgiving myself because I don’t usually allow room for myself to make mistakes.
So, I have to remind myself that failing is normal and I am not the exception—even if I work really hard to do all the right things. Perfectionism is a barrier that keeps us from trying and progressing; it is not a healthy motivator. I’m a work in progress, and that’s okay.
If you feel you need to, don’t be afraid to write down a forgiveness message to yourself. You could write something like “I’m a work in progress—and that’s okay.” Next, give yourself a little love. List at least three traits or characteristics you love about yourself. Avoid listing resume items like “I graduated with full honors” or “I lost two pounds this week.” Instead, focus on traits like “I chose to work hard for things that are valuable to me.”
If you’re feeling really brave, you can write down an affirmation. This could be a reminder to reframe your thinking when you come across triggers, a mantra to help you feel more confident and worthy of love, or a reminder that happiness and hope are in your near future. Whatever it is, write it down! This can feel really corny at first, but it’s totally worth it.
5. Record Gratitude and Anticipation
Exercising gratitude offers a plethora of benefits, including better sleep, better patience, and a better ability to process emotion and show empathy—three crucial tools for getting back on your feet after making a bad decision. The gratitude section in my daily planner is a game changer for me. It’s just a small section that prompts me to list three things I am grateful for. I feel 1,000% better when I record daily points of gratitude.
Similar to gratitude, anticipation also helps us increase our patience, and I need a lot of patience when I’m working through hard things. Anticipation also activates pleasure centers in the body, helping us feel happy. Writing down 2–3 things in my near future that I’m excited about is also a staple in my daily planning. It reminds me that my life can still be exciting and sexy, even after major screw-ups.
After the breakup, I took a few weeks to rediscover my own ambitions and interests, like going to the gym, paddle boarding, hiking, watching nerdy shows, and talking about said nerdy shows. Over time, I started to feel more like myself again. The anxiety and shame slowly faded away, and I started to feel fulfilled and happy again.
Unfortunately, moving forward after a mistake isn’t a one-and-done deal. I still look back and occasionally cringe at my bad dating decision. Writing my experiences is cathartic and cleansing and clarifying. Journaling my thoughts and emotions helps put my concerns into perspective. It’s also a tangible record for retracing my progress. When I start to slip back into illusions of perfection and failure, I can read my story and repeat these steps to refocus.
Do you use journaling to help you get through hard times? What are some of your favorite journaling methods you use to work through your thoughts and feelings? Share them with us in the comments below.