Skip to content

How journalling helped me ‘future self’ my mental health and put an end to my all consuming anxiety

Chloe Laws has spent a lifetime battling anxiety and panic disorders. Then she put a new ‘future-selfing’ theory to the test – with incredible results.

My brain is constantly buzzing. There’s never a moment I’m not thinking. Meditation? You must be joking! Being 100% present? Ha! There’s over-thinking, and then there’s this: a swirling, whirling mess of internal monologue, like Fleabag’s self-narration but significantly less poignant.

This inability to ever find quiet in my mind has plagued me, from being diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorder as a teenager, to having an all-consuming level of self-awareness over every little thing I do. In short, I get in my own way – a lot.

Internal monologues aren’t inherently negative – thoughts can be matter-of-fact and purely descriptive. Mine, on the other hand, is a bitch: full of self-criticism and second-guessing. Every time I speak in public, I spend days thinking about it. Did I sound uninformed? Was everyone looking at the spot on my chin? Did I pronounce everyone’s names correctly?

Is this negativity more prevalent in women? “Yes,” says Margie Warrell, best-selling author of You’ve Got This! “Partly because of our social conditioning and partly because our brains are biologically wired to ruminate more than men. We also tend to hone in on our weaknesses and failings when we slip up, versus what we achieved.”

This year, thanks to lockdown, I’ve had more time than ever to contemplate my life. Why do I give so much power to that negative voice? Why am I so hard on myself about my career, love life and appearance? How can I feel more content? So when I heard about a new thinking process called ‘future-selfing’, I was intrigued. This self-therapy method is backed by professionals as a way to unlock a more positive outlook. It doesn’t replace vital therapy for mental healthissues, but it’s a good place to start. Could this could be the first step in getting out of my own way?

You do (future) you

Future-selfing is the practice of putting yourself in the shoes of – and prioritising – your future self. Through journalling, you’re encouraged to ask yourself daily what your future self wants, needs and deserves – and manifest how your present self can take steps, every day, to reach these goals. A string of new books and expert voices believe we should trust our own internal future persona – ie, a wiser, less-anxious version of you now – to guide our life choices.

Image: Unsplash

One theory is that ‘outside’ sources of inspiration, for instance, celebrities and influencers, breed a toxic comparison culture and can hold us back from positive personality development. Another is that our past can also create a negative view of ourselves – today and tomorrow. When we think about what makes up our personality, the onus is on the past – that our past traumas shape our identity, and lock in our traits.

With this belief, however, our personality and future can become determined and it takes away our autonomy. I’ve always seen my ‘Type A’ personality as unchangeable. I’ve thought I’ll always innately be a perfectionist, for example, because my life’s experiences have forced my hand.

In his new future-selfing guide, Personality Isn’t Permanent, Dr Benjamin Hardy challenges this: “Personality can, should, and does change. Your goals shape your identity.” When I think about myself even five years ago, I’ve changed drastically in the way I navigate life: I’ve matured emotionally and have more perspective, rather than reacting emotion-first, as 20-year-old me would have. I’m more secure and I know ‘me’ better.

But Dr Hardy pushes this further, claiming personality doesn’t just evolve with age, but can change completely. Those characteristics holding you back from achieving your goals? They are choices, and changeable, he claims. He believes your authentic self is your future self and, therefore, who you aspire to be is already within you – you just have to be brave, shed the past versions of yourself and actively choose who you want to be.

This process involves setting boundaries (mine included finishing work before 7pm on week nights, saying ‘no’ to plans with people I didn’t really want to see, and not going on second dates with people who were lacklustre), questioning the relationships in your life, and journalling. A lot of journalling.

Personality planning

During my research I discovered different models of future-selfing. For instance, the founders of The Past Authoring Program (Jordan B Peterson, Daniel M Higgins and Robert O Pihl) have a five-hour writing course, costing £30 (approximately R600), to help you explore your past, present and future, claiming, “People who spend time writing carefully about themselves become happier, less anxious and physically healthier.”

Others, such as psychiatrist Dr Dion Metzger, suggest setting goals for yourself within situations where you can thrive, rather than basing them on the expectations of others. As a writer, I write a lot about myself but I’ve never actually journalled, so I felt Dr Hardy’s method could provide the most interesting way for me to discover future-selfing.

So, off I went for four weeks, journalling for an hour every evening. The core practice of journalling is simple: write down what you feel, see and believe. I’d start each entry by logging what I did that day, then explore what I felt. Finally, I’d journal into making decisions, which could be big: ‘Shall I quit my job?’; or small: ‘Shall I cancel on that dinner tonight?’ There’s no cookie-cutter way to journal; just figure out what gives you the most clarity and relaxation.

In the words of Darius Foroux, of online learning community The Sounding Board: “When you write things down, they become real. Start journalling and see it for yourself.” Studies have shown regular journalling can boost memory and communication skills and lead to better sleep. Psychologist Dr James Pennebaker from the University of Texas even suggests it can strengthen immune cells.

Initially I felt excited: my assignment was to, in the words of Dr Hardy, “Imagine, design, strategise and conspire to create and live your wildest dreams.”

But in week one of the plan outlined in his book, I was faced with huge questions, such as, ‘What is the story of you?’, and ‘Why are you the person you are?’ It triggered an existential crisis: Am I me because of my parents? Am I me because of the trauma I’ve lived through, or in spite of it?

Writing to reach me

By week two, the more I journalled, the less I felt I knew. When Dr Hardy’s book challenged me to ask myself what I want in the next ten years, the question felt too big – especially during Covid, where planning a week ahead feels precarious. As I unpacked my ambitions (the job, the house, the relationship), I became less sure as to whether I want these things, or I just feel I should want them. So much for that solid sense of self. By week four, I’d come to the last question in the book: ‘Are you going to be consistent with your former or future self?’ I didn’t know. I don’t know.

One realisation I had, however, was that I’ve been future-selfing for a long time. When I was 16, I wrote a list of ten things I wanted to achieve by 25. On my 25th birthday this year, I panicked. I’d only achieved seven; I hadn’t lived in New York, bought a house or published a book. What journalling taught me – which is the opposite idea of the process – was I need to let go of this attachment to my future self.

Goals are great, but can be counterproductive. Because seven of the things on that list I didn’t just check off, I exceeded. I’ve done things, better things, that weren’t on ‘the list’. Using birthdays as milestones can be a good pointer, but what happens when you reach that birthday and you’re not where you wanted to be? Those unmet goals on my 25th felt like failures. When I told those around me, they laughed; because they don’t see me as a failure.

Eventually, journalling made me come to a point where I don’t see myself as a failure, either. Taking stock of my feelings, achievements and goals every evening helped me to see just how much misplaced pressure I put on my current self.

Protecting my past

Some parts of Personality Isn’t Permanent frustrated me, however. The idea that past trauma isn’t something you should define yourself by is a pipe dream – it also assumes this definition will be negative. You are not defined by your trauma, but it does shape you. If I hadn’t lost someone to suicide at a young age, I wouldn’t be as committed to undoing the stigma around mental health. And while that trauma isn’t something I wish to experience again, to brush it off as a choice to be constrained by feels invalidating.

I feel more affinity to Dr Metzger’s definition of future-selfing: “Shifting your focus to becoming the person you want to be. Everybody has a different definition of their ‘best’ self, so there is no standard template.” By setting goals, Dr Metzger believes, “Future-selfing is one of the healthiest activities you can do to flourish in these uncertain times.”

I also like how Naomi Hirabayashi and Marah Lidey, co-founders of self-care app Shine, define future-selfing as a way of asking yourself: ‘What can I do today that is an act of caring for future me?’ “Future-selfing doesn’t have to be a grand plan: if thinking about yourself in five years feels overwhelming, think about tomorrow or next week – start small and build up.”

Voice of reason

Journalling and using future me as my mentor – by centring 30-year-old me in my decisions – was therapeutic. It made me slow down and calmed my inner monologue. Writing down my thoughts and manifesting what I want from life gave me new confidence because you see clearly what you’re allowing yourself to settle for, and I started saying ‘no’ more.

For example, I cut off a friend who was a negative influence in my life because they always prioritised their own problems over mine, and I’d come away feeling emotionally drained. I forced myself to take more me-time and not ‘live to work’ by turning off emails at weekends. I actively decided to date people who were healthier choices for me, rather than people I needed to ‘fix’. I’d been sitting on these decisions for a while, but journalling gave me the assurance I needed to make it happen. These acts of self-care made me feel empowered and liberated.

Future-selfing depends on where your present self is, and like all therapy practices, it’s not a one-size-fits-all fix – and it’s not gospel. All I can hope for is that 30-year-old me is proud of 25-year-old me; just as I am proud of 16-year-old me.

What I've learnt

  • Journalling does live up to the hype.
  • Pick the system that works best for you. It’s not a one-size-fits-all method.
  • We might be able to travel into outer space, but scientists and psychologists still don’t truly know what goes on in our minds. And they may never.
  • Lockdown has made us take stock. Don’t forget what you learnt in this time of isolation, and act on it.

Tools & resources

  • Personality Isn’t Permanent by Dr Benjamin Hardy
  • You’ve Got This! The Life-Changing Power Of Trusting Yourself by Margie Warrell
  • @mytherapistsays
  • @therapyforblackgirls
  • @minaa_b
  • @shinetext
  • @bodyposipanda

This originally appeared on GLAMOUR UK | Author: Chloe Laws

Share this article: