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Journal Like a Stoic: Connecting Our Everyday Reflections To Our Principles
In a new interview, Brittany Polat shares how Stoic journaling can help us as caregivers and people.
Have you tried journaling? I have been intermittently keeping a journal for many years. It’s not a daily practice, but on the days when I feel inspiration, I pull out my journal—or nowadays, I sometimes just click on the Notes app on my phone—and start writing.
Since I was in grade school, I have written free-verse poetry and prose poems when inspiration strikes. I’ve found that this kind of writing is one of my favorite forms of journaling. It can be imaginative and wide-ranging, but still draws on my spark of reason, or “inner genius,” as Marcus Aurelius called it.
Much of my journal writing aim to pin down an inner truth about the world as I experience it. When I study them closely, these words show me why a certain moment in time stuck with me; they demonstrate how a decision I made served as a turning point; they share a struggle I face as I work towards the virtues; they investigate a relationship that I am seeking to understand better. I also use my journal to test-drive ideas that I might like to write about in a public forum.
For me, the biggest obstacle to journaling is time. I work at a demanding job; I am raising two teens and enjoy doing activities with my family; I do volunteer work; and then there’s all the daily household things need to be done. Often I’m too tired to focus on writing thoughts in a journal. It is when I have time off from daily work that the ink really starts flowing, and I access a pathway to understanding my world and my place in it.
One way to make journaling more accessible is to use a guided journal. To learn more about a Stoic guided journaling approach, check out my conversation below with Brittany Polat, author of the new book Journal Like a Stoic: A 90-Day Stoicism Program to Live with Greater Acceptance, Less Judgment, and Deeper Intentionality.
I’ve worked with Brittany on interviews, articles, and talks on Stoic-inspired parenting and the intersection of Stoicism and compassion. She is the founder of the nonprofit Stoicare and publishes her own Substack here. It’s always a pleasure to hear her insights on modern Stoic theory and practice. Here, Brittany shares her thoughts on Stoic journaling—how it can help, how to make time for it, and more.
Could you describe the origins of Stoic journaling, and how it’s different from other kinds of journaling?
As most people know, what we now call the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was actually Marcus’s private philosophical notebook—not a journal per se, but a place where he could remind himself of the philosophical principles that had guided him since his youth. This form of writing was probably recommended as one type of philosophical exercise, alongside other “spiritual” exercises such as reading, contemplation, and discussion. The ancients were well aware that we need to keep our principles top of mind in order to put them into practice in everyday life.
Then in the early 18th century, the statesman and philosopher Lord Shaftesbury kept his own philosophical journal, modeled on the Meditations. It was a space for him to work through his understanding of Stoicism and apply it to his own life, much like Stoic journaling today. These two well-known examples illustrate what a timeless technique journaling is.
What distinguishes Stoic journaling is the connection between philosophical principles and real life. Most types of journaling allow the writer to reflect on their day or their life, but Stoic journaling goes one step further: we connect those everyday reflections with our philosophical principles. We all know how difficult it is to apply ideals of wisdom and virtue in everyday life… Journaling helps us to think through how to do this. Writing things down on a page helps us to take a step back and observe our minds, then evaluate how we're doing. It's a place to have a conversation with ourselves.
How does journaling help people? What value does it add to someone’s life?
I think journaling can be valuable in different ways to different people. For some, it’s a chance to slow down and really think carefully about life, a space for centering and reflection. For others, it’s a way of building routine and discipline, holding themselves accountable for their Stoic principles. For others, it’s a way of taming unruly emotions or mental habits.
I certainly don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all way of journaling. I always encourage people to find a pattern that works for them. Think about your schedule, your personality, your preferences, and work with your inclinations instead of against them. The goal is not to force yourself to do something you hate! If you give journaling a solid try (at least 30 days) and it’s just not working for you, then find a different spiritual exercise. Maybe it’s not for you. But for many people it does add value to their lives, so I would strongly encourage everyone to give it a good try at least once.
Your book is divided into three “courses”: examining the inner critic, road to acceptance, and living with virtue. Do you think that one of these three would appeal particularly to parents or caregivers, and why?
Tough question! For me personally, I think the hardest aspect of being a parent is coming to terms with the limits of our control. We want the best for our children, but there are so many things we simply can't force. We have to learn how to adapt to this reality. From that perspective, the course called “The Road to Acceptance” may be the most useful for caregivers.
I also think one of my favorite Epictetus quotes, from Day 30, is very relevant for caregivers. Epictetus says: “Now although the fruit of even a fig tree is not brought to perfection all at once and in a single hour, would you still seek to secure the fruit of a person’s mind in so short a while and so easily?”
To me this is an elegant reminder that changing habits (in ourselves or in our children) is a long, slow process—the process of a lifetime, really. We need to be patient and compassionate with ourselves and anyone else whose character we are trying to influence.
What do you think parents or caregivers could gain from Stoic-inspired journaling? How about kids?
Much of what we do as parents on a daily basis feels reactive: reacting to our kids’ needs or their behavior issues or their requests for more stuff. Obviously, this is not ideal because we always feel behind the curve, stressed, and pulled in a million different directions.
Stoic journaling can help us be proactive rather than reactive. We set our principles in advance, do our premeditation of adversity, and generally prepare ourselves for the crazy or difficult things our kids might throw at us. Even taking a few moments to reconnect to our Stoic ideals can help us to pay attention, stay calm, and steer the family ship in the right direction.
As for kids, that’s a great idea! I haven’t tried this yet with my kids, but there are quite a few journals aimed at children to help them think through their emotions or become more mindful or grateful. If you choose one of these, I would recommend previewing it to make sure there is no advice you disagree with.
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Do you think Stoic journaling can help us grow our self-compassion—something we are very short of in modern American culture? How?
Yes, I do think Stoic journaling can help us grow in self-compassion, and this is precisely one of the aims of the first course in Journal Like a Stoic. So many of us are incredibly harsh with ourselves. Perhaps we have been criticized by others in the past, and we’ve internalized their negative judgments of ourselves. Or maybe it’s just a fact of living in a very competitive, individualistic society with rampant loneliness and alienation. We feel that if we don’t perform in some way, we are unworthy of love or respect.
As you’ve pointed out in much of your work on this topic, compassion is not about lowering your standards for your own behavior; it’s more about recognizing that no one is perfect. We can love ourselves and forgive ourselves even if we make mistakes. We are worthy of love and respect from other people, but also from ourselves.
For those who have a difficult time loving themselves, journaling can be part of the solution. (For severe cases, I would also recommend therapy with a qualified professional.) It’s incredibly difficult to overcome these powerful negative emotions. Journaling can provide a comforting routine and safe space to explore our thoughts and emotions. There may be things you’re not comfortable sharing with anyone else that you can share in the privacy of your own journal.
Plus, Stoic journaling provides a method for talking to our negative emotions and moving past them. So once you start journaling, you might realize for the first time just how harsh or critical of yourself you are. You can then start to analyze your beliefs about yourself and the world, and you can start to construct a healthier and more accurate way of seeing yourself and other people.
Do you have any advice for busy people who want to do more journaling, but who find it hard to make time?
Think about how you can fit journaling into your schedule. Be honest and realistic with yourself. If you’re not a morning person, don’t tell yourself you’re going to wake up 15 minutes earlier to journal! That’s probably not going to happen.
Instead, analyze your daily and weekly schedule to see where you can carve out some time. Do you have time at lunch? Or maybe in the evening before you go to bed? Remember you don’t have to journal every day. It’s better to journal once a week than to not journal at all.
The main thing is just to be consistent. Whatever time you decide on, stick to it. Just get started. Once you start seeing the benefits of journaling in your life, you’ll be more motivated to continue!
Thank you to Brittany for all this journaling wisdom. Please feel free to share below any of your own journaling practices, or anything you else you do to reflect on connecting your everyday reflections to your principles!