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Journaling and Transformative Learning

by Susan R. Meyer - February 05, 2003

Life history and focused journaling serve as the basis for a life planning workshop for women. Utilizing a structured life history and framing a reflective process through journaling exercises and analysis, the workshop leaders encourage an examination of assumptions that may lead to personal transformation.

Using journaling to promote learning about self

A research participant, when asked to react to a transcript of her life history and to the researcher’s interpretation of that transcript, reported that the experience of reading her history was very powerful for her. She felt that it put into perspective the degree to which societal issues like racism and sexism had affected her. It clarified the ways in which she wanted her twin daughters’ experiences to be different from her own (Meyer, 1986). Many of the women who completed the same life history-based career development workshop as this woman similarly reported positive changes from the seemingly simple act of speaking or writing about their lives. This paper addresses the use of journaling within life-work planning workshops whose design is informed by transformative learning theory.

Why can writing – specifically writing about one’s own life – become an important tool for personal transformation? Mezirow (Mezirow & Associates, 1990) suggests a variety of techniques for assisting or prompting the transformation process, including reflective journal writing, composing life histories, metaphor analysis, and conceptual mapping. These techniques bring the basic assumptions, carried by the individual in his or her daily understandings and interactions, into conscious awareness, creating opportunities for new interpretations and actions. The basic assumptions an individual carries about life can be teased out of a life history, and, in a protected environment, isolated from circumstances and made accessible for examination and possible personal change.

This paper explores the relationship between life history or journaling and personal change. Specifically, it investigates whether the act of writing about one’s life supports an individual’s process of transformative learning. To examine this question, the paper examines a wide range of literature related to journaling, life history, autobiography, psychology and transformative learning. It will also provide an example of practical application by describing how life history and journaling can be used in a life planning workshop.

Writing One’s Life

Writing one’s own history is a powerful act. Numerous sources speak to the power of writing about one’s self ( Progoff, Sinetar, Freeman, DeSalvo, Dominice). Because journaling unlocks the past and allows the writer to view events in a different, more concrete way, there may be a disconsonance between the narrative and the consciously remembered experience. This disconsonance creates the conditions that enable or encourage reflection and creates an arena for personal transformation. An opportunity is created for behaviors to be owned. Isolating behaviors from influences gives some clarity as to deliberate choices and convenient or culturally-driven choices.

Writing a life history assists individuals in not only remembering their stories but in reinterpreting them in an organized, meaningful way. The data can then be categorized, quantified and viewed in terms of different meaning schemes. Cell (1984) reminds us that both primary thinking and secondary reflection shape our understanding of the events of our lives. Writing provides the container that captures our primary thinking, or initial reaction to remembered events, facilitates ownership of life events, and provides the distance that promotes secondary reflection. This organization and reorganization facilitates the process of isolating, identifying and examining assumptions. Kelly (1963) views the individual’s life as being made up of a series of constructions of reality that shape a world view and personal schema for interacting with the world. Journaling promotes the close examination of those constructs by making them more accessible.

As DeSalvo (1999) says:

We are the accumulation of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. So changing our stories, as Mandy Aftel, Daniel Goleman, Jay Martin, Martin E. P. Seligman. Ph.D., and others have shown, can change our personal history, can change us. Through writing, we revisit our past and review and revise it. What we thought happened, what we believed happened to us, shifts and changes as we discover deeper and more complex truths. It isn’t that we use our writing to deny what we’ve experiences. Rather, we use it to shift our perspective.

Many journal writers refer to their journals as their therapists (Adams, 1990; Allende, 1995). DeSalvo (1999) feels that writing holds the key to psychic growth when one is in pain by providing the chance to envision a hopeful future. She cites Durrell’s discussion of the work of Henry Miller, in which he says (DeSalvo, 1999):

Writing – organizing our thoughts, venting our feelings, and expressing ourselves in a complex way – Durrell thought, ultimately makes us hopeful, though the act of writing itself might cause

us temporary pain.

A more eloquent expression of this idea comes from bell hooks (1999):

To me, telling the story of my growing-up years was intimately connected with the longing to kill the self I was without really having to die. I wanted to kill that self in writing. Once that self was gone – out of my life forever – I could more easily become the me of me.

Maxine Green (1988) frequently speaks of making meaning. Although few do this as eloquently as she, each individual makes sense of – and interconnections between – the events of their lives and times.

Brookfield (1987) points out that we can become caught within our own constructed and narrowly constraining paradigms – that is, the frameworks of understanding through which we make sense of the world. Journaling opens up the possibility of painting small pictures of pieces of our lives and in reviewing and rearranging them, like constructing a patchwork quilt or creating a mosaic, making something beautiful and valuable out of events that – when viewed discretely – may not seem to have meaning.

Matthias Finger (1997) developed an exercise that uses post-its containing fragments of life markers to help participants create personal pictures of change. When viewed as a series of unconnected words – names, book titles, events, etc. – the post-its have little meaning. When arranged into a picture, they reveal a great deal about self-perception of marker events and the influence of these events on the individual’s feelings about change. As a pictorial life history, the representations allow participants to view their lives from a different perspective. Similarly, Ira Progoff 1975), creator of the Intensive Journal,® process, asks workshop participants to list Steppingstones – the significant or marker events in their lives – as prelude to looking at the choices they have made. Structured journaling provides a similar opportunity to reposition seemingly unconnected events to reveal patterns. Analysis of these patterns provides the opportunity for reflection and potentially for change.

From Journaling to Dialogue

While journaling or creating a life history alone may result in insights, the pairing of dialogue and structured writing provides the opportunity for examining mindsets and potential concomitant transformative learning. Writing puts the individual in touch with the past and offers an opportunity to revisit people, influences and events, and in the revisiting, reinterpret and reinvent the past. An important aspect of Progoff’s (1975) work is using personal journals as a springboard for entering into dialogue with significant others. This dialogue, in the form of structured journaling, provides opportunities for transformative learning. Through creating a dialogue with a character, the author has the opportunity to explore feeling and emotions related to the situation. Much as in Argyris’s (1985) action science case work, these dialogues provide the opportunity to examine underlying assumptions, to reframe them, and to emerge with a different mindset or perspective.

Jane Vella (1995) writes extensively about the value of dialogue in transformation. She reminds us that the integration, through dialogue, of self-examination and self-discovery has long been recognized as a vehicle for personal change. In her work, she encourages examination of Lewin’s principles, citing Johnson and Johnson’s (1991, in Vella, 1995) summary:

  1. Effective Learning will affect the learner’s cognitive structures, attitudes, values, perceptions, and behavioral patterns. That is, it always involves cognitive, affective and psychomotor factors.
  2. People will believe more in knowledge they have discovered themselves than in knowledge presented by others.
  3. Learning is more effective when it is active rather than passive.
  4. Acceptance of new ideas, attitudes, and behavioral patterns cannot be brought about by a piecemeal approach. One’s whole cognitive/affective/behavioral system has to change.
  5. It takes more than information to change ideas, attitudes and behavior patterns.

Life history and focused journaling provide the opportunity for self-discovery. Progoff (1975) found journaling to be remarkably liberating for the men and women in his workshops. The power of journaling for women with low self esteem may be linked to Progoff’s comments about the power of the written word. Writing gives a certain reality to the woman’s existence. It validates her experiences for her and also allows her to see them in a different way.

Bolles (1987) many years ago discovered the power of documenting one’s own achievements through life history; the power of knowing what you can do – or that you know how to do anything. The power of journaling for men may lie more in giving reality and validity to the emotions underlying events. For some men, the act of claiming emotions will be as liberating as acknowledging achievements is for women. Further research is needed to explore the power of journaling for men.

Connecting Journaling and Transformative Learning

Transformative learning involves reexamining one’s mindset. If, as Levesque-Lopman (1988) suggests, this mindset is devoid of an owned personal image, the very act of writing one’s life must be transformative. For women, making one’s life real through journaling may be increasingly important in direct relation to how removed she feels from being part of mainstream society. This may extend beyond women to men and women in poverty or otherwise disenfranchised and not supported in acknowledging their personal worth.

Meyer’s (1986) work suggests that using life history to promote self-exploration is useful with women – especially older women – who have made life choices that are not consonant with their theory-in-use. Women who have chosen – or chosen by default – work over marriage may spend a lifetime fighting against the underlying assumption that they should have married and had children. There may be a permanent disconsonance that the journaling process may reveal. Wearing though this dual pull may be, it is possible to have buried the assumption so deeply that the woman is no longer aware of its existence. Surfacing these assumptions through journaling is the first step to creating a disorienting dilemma and the possibility of transforming ways of thinking and acting.

In his practice, Gould discovered that internal conflicts can prevent individuals from adapting appropriately to current realities. They need a process to clarify and free them from the underlying conflicts that make them rigid in order to move on. The workshop described in this paper uses a process similar to the one Gould outlines. He facilitates clarification through a computer program; the workshop does this through structured exercises using journal materials. Gould’s participants move through the following steps: (Gould in Mezirow, 1990, pp. 140 -145)

  1. Identify and frame the function to be recovered
  2. Clarify the action intention
  3. Distinguish real fears and dangers from exaggerated fears
  4. Isolate and expose fears as predictions confused with memories
  5. Explain the origins of catastrophic predictions
  6. Demonstrate and diminish self-fulfilling prophecies
  7. Consolidate new views of reality

Tennant (1988) sees development as a dialectic process. He cites Berger and Luckmann, who see personality as a social construct. Each individual’s sense of identity is constructed in a social world. The way we construct our identity is based on how our parents and others treat us and on our internalized perceptions of this treatment. We take on and internalize the roles and attitudes of significant others and extend this to an identification (or way of being) with the world at large. It is this process that life history and journaling can explicate. The life history surfaces internalized constructs and makes possible reflection on those constructs.

Daloz (1986) found that in order to see how ideas different from ours exist in their own legitimate framework, it is necessary to leap out from our shell of absolute certainty and construct a whole new world based on some other person’s ideas of “reality,” other assumptions of “truth.” This process is best accomplished with the aid of a skilled facilitator.

Brookfield (1987) discusses Egan’s view of the skilled helper. Egan found that people are helped to construct preferred scenarios by imagining a different future. The helper’s role goes beyond simply posing questions and allowing people to struggle with them. They should also assist people to develop goals that are specific, realistic, and in keeping with their own values.

The facilitator in a life history-based discussion process must create a safe and supportive environment, creating conditions that encourage reflection and experimentation with alternate meaning schemes. Kelly (1963) describes conditions unfavorable to the formation of new constructs. The perception of threat can arise when a new construct is incompatible with high-order constructs upon which the individual is dependent for living. Instead of attempting to reframe the situation and move forward, the client becomes increasingly dependent on old constructs and freezes, remaining stuck in an unproductive pattern of behavior. There is a preoccupation with old material. In order for transformative learning and personal change to occur, new material needs to be interwoven with old. There must exist the conditions of a learning laboratory – a safe environment within which to try new constructs. He describes this process:

But life, to our way of thinking, is more than mere change. It involves an interesting relationship between parts of our universe wherein one part, the living creature, is able to bring himself around to represent another part, his environment. … Because he can represent his environment, he can place alternate constructions upon it and, indeed, do something about it if it doesn’t suit him. To the living creature, then, the universe is real, but it is not inexorable unless he chooses to construe it that way.

Man looks at his world through transparent patterns of templates which he creates and then attempts to fit over the realities of which the world is comprised. The fit is not always very good. Yet without such patterns the world appears to be such an undifferentiated homogeneity that man is unable to make any sense out of it. Even a poor fit is more helpful to him than nothing at all. (Kelly, 1963, p. 8-9)

Kelly (1963) feels that people seek to improve their constructs. They alter them to provide better fits, and subsume them with superordinate constructs or systems that better fit with their current worldview. Structured journaling exercises enable the participants to organize their responses and to separate past fears from current realities. This will assist in discovering areas of disconsonance and identifying constructs for examination and revision. It will provide a framework for identifying and examining the origins of distorted thinking or what Gould calls catastrophic predictions that limit the individual’s range of responses to situations. It will also clearly identify the influence of self-fulfilling prophecy. Further exercises will use dialoguing techniques, similar to Progoff’s, to generate alternate responses. Action planning and follow-up sessions will assist participants in integrating new behaviors into their lives.

Although structured journaling can be an effective tool for both genders, this method is especially effective for those who are feeling powerless. They are able to use narrative to help them claim the power in their own lives – to see their own achievements and to get in touch with their strength. The literature focuses on programs designed to empower women and has yet to be broadened to include studies of other groups. The emphasis on studies of reentry women, following Mezirow’s (1978) seminal study has resulted in numerous examples of this movement from powerlessness to power in studies of women. The power of the written word appears to make these women’s experiences real and valid. It appears to be similar to the process that Belenky et. al. (1986) described as coming to voice. At the same time, the process points out the disconnects – the apparent contradictions in the individual’s life narrative. Completing the future scenario exercise provides the materials for a process of identifying areas where the participants sees change as necessary. Through this filter, the participant revisits their original life history to complete a series of exercises that connect remembered feelings and action patterns to events.

O’Connell (1976) identified two types of identity in women; personal and reflected. A personal sense of identity is characterized by an awareness of one’s own unique talents and abilities. These women see themselves as autonomous and derive feelings of self-esteem from their own accomplishments. In contrast, reflected self-concept is derived from the opinions and judgements of others. These women can only see themselves through the eyes – and approval – of those surrounding them.

Opportunities can be created for individuals to be guided in the transformation from reflected identity to a sense of their own power and worth. A targeted workshop (only women, gay men, lesbians, single ethnic or religious groups, HIV positive individuals, etc.), bringing like participants together to discuss their writings, can develop a personal sense of emancipation. A program designed specifically by and for women, for example, can also provide the opportunity for alternate interpretations of reality within which women can examine the constructs of their lives free from other-imposed norms. Levesque-Lopman (1988, p.10) points out that:

Descriptions and interpretations of women’s experience have often reflected faulty theories that men have created about the “nature” of women. Distorted definitions resulted from men seeing women as something “other” than themselves and drawing unjustified inferences from this perspective. What are clearly missing are women’s self-definitions. As long as the images that women have of themselves are largely the product of men’s perceptions and endeavors, they will continue to be perceived and to perceive themselves as objectified, simplified, and dehumanized.

Jarvis and Zukas (1999) feel that:

Experience has a central place in feminist educational theory. Its validation is promoted as a counterbalance to the silencing impact of grand theory which suppresses the individual or idiosyncratic. Its role in pedagogy has been celebratory and emancipatory: a statement that women’s lives matter and a basis for a critical exploration of those lives in a political context. Experience is troublesome, partial and even contradictory. Nevertheless, its acknowledgement is essential to feminist praxis.

A common thread in the research is the need to provide ways to document and validate personal experience before an individual engages in reflection. Cell (1984), Dominice (2000) and Gould (in Mezirow, 1990) speak of the need to concretize and organize experience. The purpose of journaling is to encourage exploration of the multiple influences and multiple perspectives. Dominice (2000, p.6) says that:

Life history narratives can reveal the ways in which living systems form a web of life. They can make it increasingly clear that the personal and societal aspects of life are connected.

Journaling helps the individual document what we know, and, as Candy (1991) reminds us, “what we know serves as a lens through which we interpret new experiences.”

The Choices Workshop – A Practical Application

The Choices workshop is designed to help women who are unfocused about what they want to achieve in life engage in life planning. Their life plans will be based on each participant’s life history, supplemented by focused journaling, exercises, suggested readings and action planning. The process is designed to enable participants to create personal action plans based on an increased understanding of their own lives. In this, it follows Gould’s model, described earlier. Writing the life history provides a broad overview. The focused journaling activities, with guidance from the facilitators, help individuals move through steps one through six of Gould’s process. Structured exercises and post-workshop activities provide the opportunity for those participants who are ready to move on to the last step.

Engaging in personal dialogue based on focused journaling allows for the examination of constructs and for reconstructing a life within an understanding of, and at the same time freed from, the influences of others on decisions and actions. The workshop engages participants in a process of self-discovery. It is designed to create a supportive environment for personal transformative learning. Working with personal narrative, it involves a process of self-analysis, diagnosis and self-prescription. It encourages rethinking individual relationships with societal norms and expectations and encourages making personal choices to replace choices based on external pressures. The ability to make these kinds of choices requires a woman to come to a position of strength to act on her discoveries about her relationship with the world. This ability to separate from, yet work within, the context of influences is especially important for the women this workshop is designed to reach. Few of these women, the designers believe, have a sense of personal self-concept, but rather only experience reflected self-concept – seeing themselves only through the eyes of others.

The Choices workshop helps women construct personal action plans. The process, similar to that used by Progoff (1975) in his journaling workshops, uses participants’ personal histories as the basis for planned change. Personal change involves examining one’s actions and the assumptions underlying those actions. The workshop developers feel that most women’s actions and choices are based on tacit assumptions. Few take the time to examine these assumptions or constructs and to trace the roots of their assumptions about how the world operates. Mezirow (1978) found that for many women it took a disorienting dilemma – a major life change – to bring about an examination of one’s underlying assumptions. We believe that creating a reflective environment and providing appropriate guidance and support might nurture the same process. Some women, not faced with a disorienting dilemma, remain dissatisfied with their life – find it meaningless and nonproductive – and don’t know – or are not pushed to break out of their theories in action to try different behaviors. They avoid examining their lives and the historical, social and political realities that may have shaped or delimited their choices. This leaves them trapped in a cycle of powerlessness.

The exercises help participants interpret patterns and influences. This phase of the workshop is descriptive. Prescriptive activities or exercises are selected by participants based on their own self-diagnosis. For example – one area of the life history is a career history, in which the author is asked to write about all work – in and outside of the home, paid and unpaid. The second-level narrative examines the life history in terms of affective reaction to the experiences chronicled. This is similar to Dominice’s (2000, p.4) use of autobiography with students:

By confronting and reflecting on the learning moments in their own lives, they understand the extent to which learning in many different situations is an active search for meaning. As they think of themselves as the subject of their own biography, they are helped to understand that they hold their life in their hands even as they also recognize that their life’s course and its related learning are subject to many influences.

Participants use a series of exercises to identify and group skills. For example, following concepts developed by Richard Bolles (1987) in his career development guides, participants identify and categorize all skills mentioned in their life histories. This process is especially powerful for women who see themselves as having no marketable skills or a narrowly-defined skill set. The skills are then ranked in terms of interest in using them and proficiency. Interest and proficiency are viewed together to allow choices about continuing to rely on the same skill set or to develop other skills. Many women who create a skills profile seem compelled to continue to rely on skill areas in which they are proficient but don’t enjoy using. The information from this two-tiered process provides categories that can be translated into specific career areas to be researched for new areas of opportunity. These opportunities could be in the form of paid employment, volunteer opportunities or leisure activities.


Journaling has been shown to have great potential for fostering reflection and change. There are, however, cautions about this process. Focused journaling and exploration of life history should not be confused with therapy. The workshop leaders must understand that they may be unlocking powerful memories and must take care not to leave participants unprotected. DeSalvo (1999) cautions that individuals writing about their pain must be strongly supported in their efforts. Not everyone will have a transformative experience. Our hope is, though, that every participant will learn or confirm something about herself. Our hope is that participants will come to understand what is possible in their lives and that some of them will move closer to those possibilities. In the end, as Perls (1969) said, “learning is discovering that something is possible.”


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 05, 2003
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11102, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 1:32:45 AM

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