Tag Archives: reflective writing

art materials including a butterfly

Transformation and unlearning

Transformation is often more about unlearning than learning.

Richard Rohr

This caught my attention. I often emphasised the aspect of learning new things in order to grow and open a new chapter in my life. The idea that unlearning might be a more important part, or if not more important at least a preceding step to achieve transformation made me curious.

Transformation can take many shapes and is always very personal. It might include becoming a spouse or a parent. Getting a divorce. Relocating. Changing careers. A mid-life unravelling. Retiring. And there are many more. Some are initiated by us. Others happen to us, unplanned, unexpected, sometimes uninvited. There are some common elements to all these experiences and the unlearning that needs to happen.

What is it we need to unlearn as part of a transformative journey?

It’s less about knowledge and skills. I am a big fan of transferable skills whatever your transformation. But we need to unlearn old beliefs. Established ways of being and navigating life. The ways of how we define e.g. success, a meaningful life, our purpose. We need to unlearn values that are not really our own, or values that no longer serve us. We need to unlearn our own narratives and the way we expected the story of our life to unfold.

This is deep and broad unlearning. We are not replacing old facts with new facts. It’s not an information refresh and upgrade of our operating system. We need to dig deep into the layers of who we are and assess what still serves us, what still fits and what has to make space for the new.

What happens when we unlearn these things?

As we dig deep, we enter a liminal space, the space where we no longer belong to the old identity and we haven’t yet shaped and moved into the new identity. In this space we have started to shed certain values that served us as a guiding light. We have stopped engaging in certain behaviours and rituals that came with belonging to a certain group. Liminal stems from the Latin word limen, threshold. Stepping over the threshold and entering this space can feel energising and exciting. And it can feel scary and full of sadness. Most of us will feel all the above when we are thrown into this space of being in-between. It’s a waiting area. When I’m in the departure lounge waiting to board a long flight, I feel the excitement of travel, seeing places and connecting with people, discovering new food, experiencing a different way of life. And I feel the dread of the journey of getting there, the stress of possibly losing my luggage, missing the connection, the discomfort of being in unfamiliar surroundings, navigating without speaking the language, feeling exposed and like the odd one out, having to adjust my normal rhythm of life. The liminal space is just like this waiting area, or the holding pattern we are in. And often we don’t even know for how much longer we will be circling around…

Inhabiting this space is vulnerable, often lonely and we might feel alienated and that we don’t belong anywhere. It’s an uncomfortable space, where we need to embrace not knowing as a state of figuring things out rather than as a state of deficiency or ‘having no plan’. 

After all, we live in a society where being driven and progressing in a fairly linear fashion through life is being valued and encouraged. Detours, not knowing and a pattern of stop-start are being looked upon with suspicion. The polarising nature of our emotional experiences during transformation are hard to grasp. We usually enjoy the sense of excitement, but feelings of grief and sadness are hard to accept, especially when the transformation was desired or self-initiated. We expect to be excited for the long-awaited change and might feel an external pressure to rave about all the positive things this brings about. Admitting the scariness and discomfort needs a good portion of self-compassion.

Transformation is full of possibilities. Transformation is hard. It is at times ugly. It’s rarely about a straightforward move from bad to good. We leave behind positive things, things we loved, enjoyed, were good at. We enter into a new identity that is also a mixed bag. Some things will suit us better, other things will be missed. As with every journey, acknowledging the upheaval with a good and deliberate farewell, even one that involves tears, rather than minimising the disruption can help.


I want to leave you with a powerful writing/art invitation that the art therapist Lisa Mitchell has shared. This exercise celebrates the farewell rather than minimising it. It also celebrates the new beginnings. Take a blank sheet of paper or a page in your journal…

  1. Start every sentence, bullet point or short paragraph with ‘Today marks the end of…’ – write until you feel finished. Write lots. Pay attention to the details! So rather than writing, ‘Today marks the end of my job at XYZ company’, write: Today marks the end of getting on the 7am train into the city. Today marks the end of picking up coffee at … where they know me by name. Today marks the end of getting annoyed at the fact that the train is delayed at least two out of five days a week. Today marks the end of starting the week with a Monday Morning meeting which is to equal parts irritating and energising – the same people drone on about their workload, but we also feel a sense of being in this together. Etc.
  2. Same as step 1 with the prompt ‘Today marks the beginning of…’
  3. Optional : Writing might provide you with some clarity and reassurance. If you want to add a third step, consider giving something away and/ or receiving something. You might give away clothes, books, tools, anything that feels strongly linked to who you were pre transformation. And be ready to receive something to welcome you into the future state of yourself.

This exercise works because it allows for both nostalgia and anticipation.

It visualises that each stage has good and enjoyable parts. It also helps us to make visible how the two stages of being pre and post-transformation are connected. How decisions made and steps taken in one led to the other. How the same strengths or fears show up in both stages. Acknowledging these connections can help to integrate and illustrate that it is a shift rather than a fracture. Even though the shift can feel as brutal and painful as a fracture. Change and transformation are part of life. We better get more comfortable with it. 


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

a book shelf

Dear Diary

The need to ponder and reflect is a basic human need and a valuable mechanism of evolution. It supports us in learning from an experience which ensured survival. In today’s complex world, we continue to benefit hugely from learning through reflection, but often we don’t have (or don’t make?) time for a deeper reflective practice that goes beyond thinking or talking about our day.

But the desire is there! ‘Reflective journaling’ returns over 1.2 million Google search results. Amazon sells over 1000 books with ‘reflective journal’ in their title. It’s clearly something people want to find out about. Reflective journaling might be the most prevalent approach to reflection, and this post focuses on writing. But reflection can of course be achieved through other means than writing, for example through a visual art journal or sketchbook.

Reflection provides the opportunity to process and integrate experiences and let them inform our future actions. This learning can be two-fold:

  1. learning about the world and others
  2. learning about ourselves

Learning about the world is particularly important in a world that’s changing constantly, quickly and in deep and significant ways. When we reflect on new situations and unfamiliar encounters (and our way of responding to them), we understand what has worked and what hasn’t led to a beneficial outcome. By putting ourselves in others’ shoes we develop empathy and compassion for those around us.

Learning about ourselves occurs when we make our typical patterns and responses visible through reflection. This includes emotional responses which we may not want to share with others. We can therefore attend to our emotional world as the journal offers a container to hold all kinds of experiences and feelings. Reflecting on emotional patterns builds self-regulation skills, resilience and emotional intelligence. When we use a reflective practice in the workplace, it helps us identify areas for learning and development. It can therefore inform the sometimes dreaded appraisal conversation and turn this into a shared reflection – not all reflection has to be a solitary activity. Reflection can be used as a tool for self-motivation and encouragement as it makes our progress visible, no matter how small the steps. Teresa Amabile has done extensive research on the importance of identifying and acknowledging progress in the workplace.

For learning to happen we must find a way of effectively capturing the key insights. There is always a risk of losing them in the constant busyness of our minds or in a sea of written notes. That why I find a written reflective practice so valuable. I have written about my process to find what works for me before. It is based on Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but I now call my practice ‘Anytime Pages’, acknowledging the original approach of Julia Cameron, just with the twist that I’m writing them whenever it works for me. I figured going a little rogue on the original concept is better than not getting into a habit of daily writing at all.

But doesn’t all this writing just create more stuff? More words? More cognitive load? It’s true, even three pages a day create a lot of words, and I felt the need to reduce my writing to memorable key insights. Some people promote the idea to trust that whatever is meaningful will automatically stick. But as a recovering ‘high achiever’, I needed to process my pages in some way. In order to build a habit around my writing it had to feel useful and purposeful beyond the act of writing.

I achieve this simplification with one of my favourite art therapy processes: key words. Whenever something resonates with me, surprises me or somehow feels important, I underline it. Every now and then I write all my underlined words or phrases onto a sheet of paper. Sometimes I do this after a couple of weeks, sometimes when I have filled a journal (which takes me roughly two months). Collecting these key words helps me to record my insights in a reduced manner.

They become something I can USE:

Unexpected – my underlining is guided by my curiosity. I often underline what feels new or surprising, sometimes even dissonant, that makes my key words relevant and worth following up on as part of learning about myself.

Simple – just some key phrases – for example: from my last journal (they are just under 200 pages) I have collected five themes. This makes is manageable.

Emotional – key words resonate with me on a deeper level which in itself means they touch something inside me. Our brains have developed in a way to remember emotionally charged situations or content better than just factual stuff.

As with every creative process – it only needs to make sense to you. If you want to have a stab at developing a reflective practice here is my suggested approach to start with – remember to adjust it to whatever works for you: 

  • Get a cheap journal, nothing fancy.
  • Use stream of consciousness writing, simply let the words flow without censoring or editing, ignore spelling and grammar.
  • Consider writing with pencil, it allows you to write fast, which is often important for stream of consciousness writing, and with little pressure (good for a daily habit, avoids any repetitive strain injuries…)
  • I don’t recommend typing, writing longhand seems to help me get into the flow of writing, it feels more personal and intimate, there are fewer distractions to manage. There is a form of body memory when I’ve written something by hand rather than typed it, which again supports the end goal of learning from my reflections.
  • As suggested by Julia Cameron, I write three A4 pages each day. It helps turning it into a habit and is achievable on a daily basis.
  • If you can’t get started, tune into your mind and write whatever internal chatter you hear, It might be thoughts like: I don’t know what to write, I’m bored, what a waste of time…Write that down, it’s a start.
  • I underline as I write. With some practice you will notice the little jolt in your body when something you just wrote is important, resonates and should be captured as key words.
  • Review all your key words regularly. You decide what ‘regular’ is for you. It can be every two weeks or when you have filled a journal. Whatever feels right. But set aside some time to sit with these words.
  • Don’t get disheartened by a few days without major insights and little or no underlining. The good stuff will bubble up eventually. Sometimes it’s like doing some stretches before you start a workout. Give yourself time to warm up.

Sometimes I create a little ‘poetic reduction’ or a tagline from my key words (hello, marketing background!). This is a way to reduce things further. But that approach is another post altogether.

Go get a journal and start writing, you’ll be surprised how much wisdom you carry inside you!

If you have any questions around this topic, email me, I’m happy to share my experience. 


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

autumnal leaves on the ground

Winter Journaling

Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour.

John Boswell

This winter I want to slow down, take fewer decisions, conserve energy, reflect and recharge. It’s the first time that I fully recognise this shift in energy… I’ve spent many winters in the Northern hemisphere where Christmas and the beginning of a new year introduce a natural pause. The darker, shorter and often snowy days call for retreat. The beginning of a new year is a natural invitation to reflect on the year gone by and gather intentions and plans for the year to come.

This is the first time I’m spending winter in the Southern hemisphere without the more rigid schedule of a Monday to Friday work week. With more freedom and flexibility in my life, I can give into my desire to hibernate a little and get stuck in some projects that fill me up. One particular practice I’ve been rekindling this winter is reflective writing. I’ve been through many false starts of developing a journaling practice. I tried Morning Pages, for example, only to realise that early morning hours are not my peak time for writing. Different writing challenges left me with a stack of half-filled notebooks. The internet is bursting with advice and techniques for reflective writing and it’s easy to get side-tracked and worry whether I’m doing it ‘right’.

One aspect I believe in is that our writing becomes a richer source of insight when we write about our inner world and emotional experiences. And for that to happen we should always write for our own eyes only. The importance of this was highlighted by James Pennebaker, an American social psychologist. He researched the impact of expressive writing on health and wellbeing in the 1980s and became a pioneer of writing therapy. His worked showed that writing about difficult experiences and the emotional responses to them led to lasting improvements of physical health, mood and level of optimism.


How to get started

When should I write? My advice is to find a time that works for you. We can make a case for writing in the morning before our brains become reactive to the day’s events. It seems sensible to write at the end of the day, as an opportunity to review and wind down, allowing for a brain dump in the hope of sound sleep. Ultimately, I think the time when you write has to fit around your typical day. Otherwise it won’t happen. You can consider splitting your writing into shorter chunks if that is more practical, for example a morning and evening check in. Once you experience the benefits of your writing practice you might find that you naturally make more time for it.

How much should I write? Unless you want to experiment with a specific format, such a Morning Pages, I suggest you remain flexible in how much or how little you write. This also makes it easier to actually do it. But write regularly, ideally daily – the odd exception is totally fine, life has its own ways of happening… And when you skip a day, don’t let that stop you. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, promotes the motto: Never miss twice.

What to write about? Write about whatever is occupying your mind. It’s called stream of consciousness writing. Structure, spelling, grammar are unimportant. You can overcome writer’s block by noticing what your senses are taking in right now. How is your body feeling? Try to catch the thoughts you’re thinking right now, without censoring. It could be: what’s for dinner, this is dull or the groceries you need to buy. And once you’ve started writing try to add your emotional experiences, don’t just write about events and tasks if you want to harness the health benefits of writing.

What works for me

I currently write ‘mid-morning pages’, based on Julia Cameron’s work in The Artist Way. Mid-morning is a realistic and manageable time for me, so that’s what I do. I stick with the three A4 pages Cameron recommends, no more, no less. I also write into a daily gratitude journal every night, three brief bullet points, every day. Beyond that my style is a ‘journaling on demand’ approach. When I’ve got lots going on I write more, reflection is part of other creative projects and my work. I embrace this additional writing in waves.


If you want to get started, I’ve got a few specific winter reflection prompts for you – remember, winter is a time of rest and renew:

  • What do I want to make space for?
  • It’s time to let go of…
  • If I could write myself a permission slip, this is what it’d say
  • What does a perfect moment of pause and rest look like for me & how does it make me feel?
  • What lights my inner fire?

Happy writing! My monthly newsletter also includes a regular journaling prompt… You can sign up here.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space