You mindfully eat a strawberry and observe how it tastes to you. You write a gratitude journal and note, “I am grateful that I…” You embrace self-care and vow, ”I’ll do more for me.”
Maybe this is not always the path to bliss.
Mindfulness, gratitude, and self-care are positive habits to be sure. But they are also emphatically egocentric. There’s a lot of “I-ness” going on. And that’s why some people feel even worse when they try them.
That can happen to all of us at times, but it’s especially likely for people who are suffering from grief or depression.
What would happen if you concentrated on things that had no “I” in them? What if you kept an “un-journal” where you never mentioned or acknowledged yourself, your point of view, or your opinion? You might find that being absent from your journal makes you more present than ever.
If you think that’s radical, it’s actually creative and rational. Field scientists (think Jane Goodall watching chimps), artists and poets do it and change the world.
The True Story of the Empty Gratitude Journal
I’d never say, “don’t take time to be grateful.” That’s a beautiful thing. In fact, I try to find something for my ongoing gratitude observation every day. What I am saying is, run a bold experiment. Spend a little time without putting yourself in the picture.
Because sometimes the best current advice—the gratitude journal, self-care, and mindfulness don’t work. I can give you a real-life example, though it took me several years to get the point of my blunder.
Someone I loved was undergoing a round of especially severe depression. Seen from the outside, everything in her life seemed good, even charmed. But she could not feel it. Rationally, she knew all this. But it did not translate emotionally.
In one of my more clueless moves, I gave her a blank journal and said, “Just once a day, write something that was good today… maybe you enjoyed the sunset, whatever.”
I thought that if she noted what made her feel good she would notice she was feeling good and…
Well, I was wrong. And giving her a gratitude journal was as insensitive and useless as saying, “buck up, it’s all in your head.”
Three researchers summed up the reason why my gratitude journal was a failure in a single sentence: “Depression is marked by rigid thinking and the inability to generate different and more positive views on the self.” [i]
Asking someone undergoing grief or depression to think themselves into a happy place is asking for exactly what they cannot do.
The researchers who so well defined depression also noted another key point. People suffering severe depression were unable to perform well on tasks that required seeing things from another perspective.
They could not get beyond seeing everything from their own center.
But aren’t we all like that at times?
When we are stressed, our stress is the overriding thing on our minds. Nothing else computes. When we are sad, our sadness rules all. Even when we are deliriously happy, we can find it hard to understand why everyone isn’t smiling along.
Gratitude journaling, mindfulness, and self-care add to the amount of “I” in what we are doing and thinking.
That’s why an un-I journal can be so iconoclastic. It’s like thinking outside of the box, but it’s thinking outside the body.
How to Do It
Take your journal and play poet or scientist. Observe and record. And leave yourself out. Every time.
Here are some examples:
The Easiest Way, Simple Observation:
- It’s so cloudy today, the sky looks like someone spilled milk in a glass of water.
- Every time Mrs. Jones wears something new, her friend goes shopping to get something new, too.
Harder, But Powerful—Translate Out of “I”:
- The dog dawdled when I wanted to walk faster > Dogs examine their world so closely, especially how it smells. It’s all so important to them.
- The clerk was rude and ignored me > The clerk was really bad at her job and seemed distracted.
- John is so unhappy, what can I do? > John is unhappy. He doesn’t talk about work these days and he’s started to economize more.
- I’m so grateful for a loving family > Interesting. Sarah shows love with sharing her stories and splitting her cupcake, always being close. Daniel’s not a sharer, but he thinks of surprises, like putting wildflowers on the table.
As you can see, even things you should (rightfully) be grateful for, like a loving family, also come in a variation that is purely observational. And that can lead to deeper understanding.
What Can Happen When You Un-Journal
Leaving yourself out of your un-journal has a lot of potential payoffs.
It gives you more room to be aware of others. Both to appreciate their distinct personalities and to discover ways to give them more effective attention.
It can make you a better listener and observer.
For the moment, and maybe longer, it can divert you from worrying about what others think of you because your feelings aren’t in this entry.
It can distract you from excess concentration on your own anxiety, worry, and self-doubt.
It can lead to actions based on evidence instead of feelings.
It can make you grateful, too, but in a newer more deeply appreciative way. You’ll appreciate the giver as much as the gift.
It can help you be kinder when you notice what is going on with others instead of how what they are doing affects you.
You will become more socially aware.
This list could be a lot longer, but why not try it for a couple of weeks and make your own discoveries?
[i]Erle TM, Barth N, Topolinski S. Egocentrism in sub-clinical depression. Cogn Emot. 2019 Sep;33(6):1239-1248. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2018.1552120.