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Looking Back on Your Old Diary Is a Thing

June 2, 2016

What you should know before you revisit your past

When I mustered the gall to read my old journal, I started cringing after the first few pages. But soon enough, I was bursting into tears, in hysterics over the hilarious things I’d written down at various points in my life.

I was never a regular journal-keeper, but I was always a writer. As such, I took to journaling during particular times in my life: Bat Mitzvah season, bad breakups, Birthright and various trips abroad that left me wanderlusting after something so intense, I could only capture my feelings by writing them down.

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I’m not the only one looking at diaries past right now: Sixteen-year-old Madie Cardon’s journal that talked about her “player” friend who “hugs at least five boys every day” recently went viral. And Lena Dunham announced in mid-May that she’d be selling a book containing excerpts from old journals to benefit the nonprofit Girls Write Now.

If you want to dive into your old diaries, psychologist Sandra Hamilton suggests first thinking about why you’re looking back.

“Reading former journal entries is much like looking through a closet that hasn’t been cleaned for several years,” Hamilton says. “You never know what you are going to find. Both positive and difficult emotions may unexpectedly arise that you assumed were no longer a part of you.”

One thing to be wary of is trauma. Hamilton strongly recommends against intentionally reading about a traumatic experience unless you’re in the care of a mental health professional, as it could trigger feelings that require mental healthcare.

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I found that paging through my old journal entries felt like visiting an old friend, one I’d lost touch with for reasons neither of us felt sour about. But she made me laugh cry and feel a deep ache in my chest for times past—while also reminding me that what was to come would be so much better.

“When reading past entries, approach the writings of your former self with compassion, not judgment,” Hamilton says. “Our journal entries are a mirror of who we were at the time of our writing, not of who we are in the present.”