Why Journalling Is Beneficial And Empowering – Interview With Celeste Cai

If you were to commit yourself to using this journal, self-discovery and lifelong application of these virtues can be truly transformative for you.

By Isabel Ong

October 6 2018

Celeste Cai is a psychologist from Singapore who's worked in the mental health sector for seven years. Since moving to Vancouver, Canada last year, she's been busy working on a self-coaching journal for women titled Her Words, Her World, which launched on Kickstarter on January 23, 2018. Isabel Ong speaks to Cai to find out what motivated her to create this journal and why journalling is such a cathartic experience.

How has working in the mental health sector informed your worldview?

"I used to think that by studying psychology, I could find the answers to understanding myself and others. But every now and then, just when I think I have figured something out, I get thrown off by a challenge, and I return to square one again. So I've learned to embrace a spirit of curiosity in my life and my worldview. I often find myself having this frame of mind: "The more I know, the more I realise how much I don’t know." 

What were some of the most important life lessons you received from interacting with your patients?

"I've realised how much we reap from being vulnerable. The more vulnerable a patient is, the easier it is for him or her to achieve progress. At appropriate times, self-disclosure of the therapist can also be helpful to the therapeutic relationship and outcome. Likewise, to build strong relationships, we have to learn to be vulnerable and honest with each other.

I also believe in the mantra "assume not, judge not". It’s easy and tempting to judge someone based on first impressions through what he or she wears, how he or she carries themselves, and what he or she says about themselves. But instead of doing that, try adopting a curious stance, and you may be surprised by what you find.

Another lesson I've gained is the fact that we are all searching for meaning and acceptance, no matter how seemingly successful or strong we are. In Christianity, we call it the God-shaped void. Some of my peers seem to have found complete satisfaction through pursuing psychology as it promotes self-sufficiency and explanations of human behaviour. But when we recognise that we don’t have complete knowledge of the world around us, we tend to rely on supernatural explanations, giving us opportunities to believe in God instead.

Lastly, I've learned that it's important to establish boundaries. Boundaries help to define our individuality: Who we are, what we stand for, what keeps us safe, and what our needs are. If we fail to recognise these, oftentimes we feel confused about ourselves and allow others or the world to influence our thinking and being. But when boundaries are clear and established, we become healthier individuals and know how to form better relationships, as opposed to co-dependency or isolation from others."

How did the idea to create a self-coaching journal come about?

"Many planners and journals are productivity-oriented. They are often packed with so much information, urging you to “have it all” in order to succeed. Success is also typically defined by the number of achievements or goals you can attain. To me, however, success is about building your inner life, rather than nailing one achievement after another. So I decided to create a journal that is focused solely on that. It teaches the concept of “less is more” and motivates us to concentrate on what matters most, which is to nurture our character and become the person that we are meant to be."

Why focus on producing a journal for women?

"Women face so many external pressures to achieve goals in so many aspects of life that it’s hard to take a step back to understand the big picture. Self-help books directed towards women tend to urge us to look good physically, excel in our careers or become effective working mothers and multi-taskers. While these are well-meaning, I am afraid we are missing the point here. Studies have shown that women are more susceptible to the need for approval compared to men, even though we are equally or even more talented than men. This need for approval may distract women from discovering and being their authentic selves, in terms of pursuing a certain passion or driving us away from family, community, and even faith. Yet, as more emotionally attuned beings, I believe women also have the ability to self-reflect and build their potential by understanding and valuing who they are. My journal acts a tool for women to facilitate that."

What are some of the key benefits of journalling?

"There are so many! I'm narrowing it down to three benefits here, which I think is relevant to what my journal’s mission is about:

1. It's a form of self-discovery. As you put pen to paper, that’s when you start understanding why you feel what you feel rather than just treating your emotions as a fleeting sensation. You become aware of what triggers you, what motivates you, what empowers you, or even what you struggle with: Past regrets, faulty beliefs that you might be holding onto, unfulfilled hopes and dreams… the list goes on. As you reflect on your experiences, you naturally grow to become more observant of others’ behaviour too: what they have been doing to influence you, or even why they respond the way they do.

2. It helps you slow down and unplug. This is actually very critical given our hectic and 24/7 connected lifestyles. Our attention span is spread so thin across so many things, so much so that it’s hard for us to truly reflect and process our experiences and understand how they shape us. Things that are in our heads fade quickly with time as our to-do list grows. But when we stop to crystallise our thoughts, and learning points, we take a mental snapshot of what has happened and keep our memories permanent by recording it down in our journal. Your thoughts won’t be fuzzy or forgotten. Every important detail that led you to where you are today will remain tangible.  

3. It heals you. Writing is a powerful outlet for unspoken words and inhibited thoughts and emotions. Do you know that each of us have about 50,000 thoughts per day? If we are hurting or stressed out, our minds would be wandering through a maze of unhelpful thoughts or worries. If these thoughts aren’t being let go or processed, we would end up being more disengaged with our real selves. Self-compassion, which is an inner resource, can be easily practiced when using a journal. We can offer words of affirmation or encouragement to ourselves, practice gratitude for what we have, or use words from our faith to help strengthen our belief in who God is.  In other words, journalling can help us to clarify, edit and find new meaning in the narratives we give ourselves."

Your journal features eight specific character virtues, including perseverance, humility and courage. Why these virtues in particular?

"We tend to be vague about how we need to “cultivate” our inner being, and personal development has always been a hot topic in pop culture. Yet there is no clear definition as to what this self-development entails. It seems like it comes from a whole list of things, ranging from self-care to building self esteem, practicing mindfulness or gratitude. To me, there seems to be a lack of foundational methods on how to approach inner growth. I hope that these eight character virtues will serve as core principles in life: Principles that can be a guide to you in whatever situation you are in. Each of these eight virtues has its own significance, and as a whole, it is meant to harness your inner wisdom. I have studied each virtue in detail, and have incorporated psychological research findings into why and how each of them is helpful."

What are some tangible outcomes you hope for your journal users to achieve?

"It’s hard to define it in the form of tangible outcomes, because unlike hard science, there is no measurable outcome for inner growth. In psychology we do research using empirical evidence, and if that is what you mean, here’s what I hope for my journal users to achieve: Better knowledge of themselves by having honest conversations with themselves to know where they are in terms of their current relationship with each character virtue; a clearer understanding of what helps them improve these virtues; and how to practice these virtues regularly. Practicing these virtues doesn’t end when the journal is completed. It is always an ongoing learning journey."

From a psychologist's perspective, what are some things women should do more (or less) of in order to have a healthy, balanced psyche?

"Interesting question. Let me answer this on a personal level instead, because I don’t think I can speak for all women:

1. Embrace your imperfections. Move away from the need to “have-it-all” or “get it together”. We are bombarded by highlight reels of everyone's lives these days. Every post, every picture, and everything we share with others has to look aesthetic and perfect. I’m guilty of it too. But we need to be aware of how these expectations of the outside world are changing us, and be careful not to let this desire to upkeep our image overtake our priorities.

2. Reduce multitasking. Women are supposedly better at this than men. But sometimes I feel it does more harm than good. Why? Multi-tasking actually takes us away from the present moment (imagine checking the phone while having coffee with a friend, or replying your emails while you are in a meeting). We don’t pay enough attention to the matter at hand. And as a result, we tend to lose out on details or even hurt our relationships.

3. Quit comparing yourself to others. We compare because we want to feel bad about ourselves and indulge in self-pity, or because we want to feel proud of what we have achieved for ourselves. In my opinion, these are both very selfish reasons, and if the habit of comparison doesn’t stop, it would result in you either feeling inadequate or arrogant. Both of these are unhelpful! Instead, you should compare yourself to who you were, or who you used to be by analysing your own personal progress.”

Starting your own business is never easy. What were some of the issues you struggled with, and how did you overcome them?

“Running a one (wo)man show! The learning curve for me has been very steep the last eight months. From designing (the journal) to blogging, marketing, budgeting, doing research and hiring the right freelancers… I finally understand why people say that being an entrepreneur requires you to be an all-rounder.

I wouldn’t say that I have “overcome” the challenges that entrepreneurship brings. They are pretty much still a work-in-progress for me. An entrepreneur needs to have a “can-do” spirit regardless of circumstances, and this is what I’m training myself to have.

I try to get a solid break of a few hours each week by going outdoors. A hike in the woods really helps me to disconnect, and physically it’s also healthy for me to get some workout. I feel so much more recharged every time I am in nature. I also try my best to remain present. I do my best not to check my phone for work-related matters during the weekend. It gives me the headspace to just be in the moment at that particular time.”

Your Kickstarter campaign to launch the "Her Words, Her Guide" journal takes place on January 23, 2018. Give us your top three reasons why people should back it!

1. It is one-of-a-kind. I don’t think you have seen something like that in the market before!

2. Support the vision of women empowerment. Help women build their inner well-being or character, which I think should be the most fundamental priority in every woman, because we can contribute so much to the world around us.

3. It will be a life-changing journey. If you were to commit yourself to using this journal, self-discovery and lifelong application of these virtues can be truly transformative for you.

Editor's Note: A version of this story first appeared on www.izzabelle.co