If you find yourself stuck in some area of your life – job, relationship, creativity, growth – you can bet there’s an element of fear at play. Even if it looks like something else on the surface. We can tell ourselves a lot of excuses to avoid looking fear in the face.
That’s by design. Fear is meant to protect us.
Fear saves us from taking risks. The problem is, this fear evolved in our brains when we were running for our lives, chased by lions. When every move could be our last.
Survival on the savannah does not look like survival in the studio.
Yet we’re left with these vestiges of self-preservation, programmed to sit on our hands so they don’t get bitten off.
In order to move forward and take control of your world, you need to find the fear. The little scraps of Frightened You hiding in the corners.
We’re not even talking life-or-death level fear, which makes it more insidious. Sometimes it’s just self-protection masquerading as harmless entertainment, rationalization or procrastination.
“I’ll just scroll endlessly through Instagram instead of having that conversation I need to have.”
“I’ll binge watch Netflix instead of submitting that proposal. Responding to that job posting. Engaging with that person. Making that thing.”
Let’s find the fear
Where in your life are you not making the progress you’d like to? Where do you feel stuck? Maybe it’s a project, hobby, or job. A relationship, community, or new skill you’d like to learn.
Write that stuck place at the top of your journal page.
Now start listing out answers to the following prompt:
What am I really afraid of?
And make sure you get the underscored part of the prompt, because that’s where the fear-slaying magic lives.
What am I REALLY afraid of?
Each time you list out an item, acknowledge it and immediately ask yourself, “Ok, but what am I really afraid of?” Because fear is a master of deception that thrives on ambiguity. And the REAL fear is going to throw everything else under the bus to keep itself hidden.
Keep listing until you start getting to the deep places. Until one answer resonates loudly with you. Makes you a little uncomfortable. Maybe even the one that gives you shivers.
So, what are you afraid of?
Here’s a quick example to illustrate the process. Say I want to take this new class at the community college that lights me up. Now I ask myself:
What am I afraid of?
That I don’t have enough time for homework.
Ok, but what am I really afraid of?
That I won’t be able to balance my household responsibilities with school.
But what am I REALLY afraid of?
That I can’t ask for help at home so I can make this happen.
WOAH. That’s a little different than, “I’m afraid I don’t have time.”
But you know what? Getting really specific about where the fear lives makes it solvable.
I celebrated my birthday in Miami this year. Being a Pisces, the sand and surf was a gift itself. And of course, getting a tour of the Miami Seaquarium was perfect for this fish. Painting artwork with a dolphin named Onyx, getting kissed by a seal (sardine breath, gah!), watching the epic manatees bob at the surface like two ton potatoes. The sushi was a no-brainer. I also enjoyed some birthday journaling barefoot on the beach. Which is how I’d prefer to do all my writing.
Toward the end of dinner that night, the waiter came out with a slice of cake held aloft, an unlit candle atop. I smiled in appreciation, ready to accept this thoughtful delivery orchestrated by my partner. But alas – the server was delivering it to the woman seated next to me. Because it was her birthday, too! She’d driven two hours to have dinner at this place. A birthday miracle! Or a fun coincidence, at least.
Why I like journaling on birthdays
I know it’s a mixed bag when it comes to loving birthdays or hating them. I’ve always loved my birthday and leverage it to get attention and free stuff, an approach I don’t normally pursue the rest of the year. I enjoy having the date all to myself, unlike regular holidays.
Plus my birthday falls in that bleak slush between winter and spring when there’s little to look forward to, so the celebratory break is a treat.
I enjoy organic rituals as an opportunity to review progress and set goals for the coming year. Although I enjoy the energy of the New Year, the standard annual calendar turnover doesn’t really speak to me as much, maybe because it’s kind of impersonal. I tend to favor the first new day of each season, especially June 21st, one of my favorite days of the year. And as a lifelong student, September has always felt like the real new year starting to me.
I spend extra time journaling around these dates and use them as a level setting point to check in on my goals, where I’m at and what kind of progress I’m making. Also to think ahead to the next milestone and what I want life to look like at that point.
Birthdays are a natural fit to this type of journaling.
It’s also just fun to compare one year to the next, and while you can pick an arbitrary date and compare and contrast, doing it around birthday time feels more special.
Ocean front journaling, where this Pisces thrives.
Visiting birthdays past
Because I have 35 years’ worth of journals, I like to pull out several and revisit the entries from those birthdays. Sometimes I choose them randomly, but I also like to seek out a few I know have meaty entries or show stunning progress that I can enjoy. A little back-patting never hurt.
Even if I didn’t do a formal birthday round-up, it’s fun to see what kind of birthday I had 10 years ago. Let’s have a look, shall we?
Ten years ago on my birthday, I wrote this:
“I was thinking about Pisces nature this week in light of my birthday and how it’s two fish swimming in opposite directions. And how that nature can keep one either eternally conflicted, eternally balanced (if we rely on the laws of physics rather than astrology), or constantly flopping back and forth – not unlike a fish caught in a net.
I believe my path in this life is learning balance – perhaps borrowing Virgo’s scales. To honor both fishes, and at times favor one or the other, but in general return to center. Black and white thinking – or more accurately, “on and off” behavior, has fueled my crazy for a looong time. It doesn’t work and I just end up swimming in circles.“
Still checks out.
What does your birth story say about you?
This is a fun prompt I included in the Birthday Journaling article, because I’m fascinated by origin stories. My mom was in labor for days and when I finally emerged, I had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. Born blue, but came out swinging. I think that set the stage for the rest of my life. You just can’t keep me down.
What birthday gift has meant a lot to you?
One of the prompts I enjoy working with on my birthday is what gifts I’ve received that meant the most to me. Some material gifts, others experiences or intangibles. A few gifts were something I really wanted, others were super thoughtful and showed that the giver truly knew me. This year’s present from my partner took the cake.
I’ve always wanted to learn archery. It seems like a fabulous skill for the zombie apocalypse – you can make your own ammunition, it’s silent and sustainable. And I could both protect and provide for my family. Plus I’d get to be a badass like Katniss or Neytiri. There’s a place in town and every time I drive by, I say, “One day I’m going to learn archery. It’s on my bucket list.”
This year on my birthday I unwrapped a strangely shaped gift from my fiancé to discover a breathtaking carved wood bow and a set of feathered arrows, along with a package of archery lessons. I have to be careful what I say around him because he makes things happen. But this was next level. Bucket list, here I come!
Meet me at my place for the Zombie Apocalypse. I got your back.
New project: dedicated birthday journal
I’ve been active on Reddit lately (I’m at u/journalingsaves – come say hi!) and one thing that’s become clear is that many journalers like to keep multiple notebooks for specific uses. I recently started the same with a wellness journal and a business journal.
But while writing the article on Birthday Journaling, I realized how fun it would be to keep a separate birthday journal. So when it came time to do my birthday journaling, I wouldn’t have to dig through a couple hundred notebooks to find the relevant February entries to work with. I could have one journal with all my annual birthday narratives. Then I could be more mindful and focused about it.
I have so many gorgeous blank journals I could use for this – although I do love an excuse to procure even more. “But it’s my birthday!” usually keeps me out of trouble.
One of these blank books would probably work for birthday journaling, but then I wouldn’t have an excuse to go journal shopping…
Thanks for celebrating with me! Check out my article on Birthday Journaling for more ideas to try around your birthday time, if you’re into that sort of thing.
We have many journaling opportunities throughout the year to check in, celebrate progress, compare notes and create goals. Natural milestones present themselves throughout the year, whether it’s seasonal changes, annual events, holidays or other important recurring dates. Of all these, birthday journaling takes the cake.
If you’re not into celebrating birthdays, I get it. Have a cupcake on me and go check out another journal prompt that lights you up and gets you writing.
The gift of a birthday journaling ritual
The New Year is often the focus of goal setting and journaling rituals. But birthday journaling provides a more personal angle, and one you don’t have to share with everyone else. (Unless you’re a twin. Then you’re probably used to sharing everything, anyway.)
You can always ask, “Where do I want to be next year?” But a more powerful question is, “When I sit down to journal on my next birthday, what do I want to be writing about?”
If this is your first time focusing on your birthday in your journal, you can begin a ritual to provide insight and inspiration for years to come. If you’ve been journaling for a year or more, try referencing previous years’ entries as you play with these prompts on the page.
Birthday Journaling Prompts
Try any of these birthday journaling prompts to explore your year, or your experience of birthdays in general. Pick one that resonates with you and try free-writing for 10 minutes. Or make lists, brain-dump style. Then you can return and flesh out a couple items later if you like. Choose the approach that feels most useful and enjoyable to you.
What is the story of my birth? Does it seem to foreshadow anything about the person I’ve become?
What’s the most meaningful birthday gift I’ve received? How did it affect me?
How did I celebrate last birthday? Did I have a part in planning it?
Where was I at emotionally last birthday? What was I succeeding at? What was I struggling with? What was I writing about?
How am I doing this birthday? Am I where I expected I’d be? Am I surprised?
What solutions have I found to previous problems?
What high-level lessons have I learned in the past year?
What big events took place?
What goals have I achieved?
Where do I want to be next birthday? What goals do I have for my next birthday? What solutions would I like to focus on in the coming year?
What words of wisdom does this year’s self have for next year’s?
Letters to your past and future self
Writing a letter to yourself is a journaling exercise you can leverage any time of year, but is especially powerful on your birthday.
Some ideas for Letters to the Self:
Write a letter to read on your next birthday. What are your wishes for your future self? What problems do you want to solve for her so she can celebrate fully?
Write a letter to yourself for 5 birthdays from now… or 20.
Write a letter from last year’s self to this year’s. What encouragement or wisdom would you impart? This can help you see how far you’ve come.
Keep a separate Birthday Journal
We journalers love an excuse to pick out a new journal – here’s one! Some writers enjoy dedicating journals to specific topics. You can keep a separate journal to write in each birthday – freewrite or follow the same list of prompts each year for a “round up” approach.
This dedicated birthday journal could even be a gift from someone you care about, imbuing it with extra meaning. Next time someone asks what you want for your birthday, you’ll have an easy answer.
However you choose to celebrate your birthday, try to incorporate a little a little journaling. Whether you try some of these prompts or just enjoy filling the blank page, your personal new year awaits. Cupcakes optional.
Spring has sprung! This is a season of fresh starts. It’s time to open up the proverbial windows and air out the house.
We need to start small, though. Like crocuses pushing their heads up through cold soil, we’re determined – but not invincible. Embrace your newfound energy and optimism with small, manageable steps.
This week, I have a journaling exercise for you to try. Let’s call it “Spring Cleaning for Your Life.”
Get out your journal, secure a quiet spot with some time when you won’t be interrupted. Take a few minutes to write answers to the following questions:
1. In this season of fresh starts, what one new project might I enjoy focusing on?
Really think outside the box on this one. You’ve got a blank slate – what do you want to create for yourself? Dream a little on the page. What undertaking would make you excited to get out of bed in the morning?
This week, take one small step forward on this new project. A small step is the key. If you want to dig deeper, read Size Matters where I cover the beauty of “micro goals” in depth.
2. What one habit can I let go of that would really help my life this season?
In Seattle, the sun disappears for 6 months in the winter. I develop some coping mechanisms that are best let go of when spring arrives. For example, I can replace my nightly movie-watching ritual with a walk around the block. I no longer need to hide from the darkness and rain. Instead, I can enjoy the later sunset, some exercise, and the smell of cherry blossoms.
Not sure which bad habit is keeping you stuck? See if a round of the Working/Not Working exercise helps you pinpoint some of these less-than-desirable behaviors.
3. What negative or limiting believe am I holding on to?
There’s something innately hopeful and positive about spring. Use your journal to spring clean that negativity right out of your life. Rewriting the stories we tell ourselves immediately changes our perspective and improves the quality of our lives. For more inspiration, read Is Your Perspective Keeping You in the Dark?
I hope this spring season finds you well. Now shut down this computer and go get some fresh air!
If you don’t have time to read this whole guide, stick with #1 and you’ll do just fine!
1. Keep it Simple
Journal writing at its core is simple. You get some paper and a pen, you write a few pages about what’s going on. You do it again tomorrow. And the next day.
We humans are a curious bunch — we make things needlessly complicated. So if you feel yourself getting mired in whether or not you’re doing it right, which journal to use, or when when you “should” write, or if the color of your pen will affect the outcome, take a breath and get back to basics. Words, on a page. It’s really that simple.
2. Keep it Private
Don’t share your journal and shelve it out of reach. Your journaling privacy is essential to the process. Your journal is a safe place for you to explore whatever is on your mind without worrying about how it will affect anyone else. If you fear it will be read, you’ll censor yourself and the benefits of journaling will be lost.