We’ve all felt overwhelmed by our thoughts at one point or another. During challenging or stressful times, it’s like a whirlwind of fear, anxiety and worry. Today’s forecast: Stormy with a high chance of a mental breakdown.
When it comes to taking control of our thoughts, one of the most effective techniques is journaling. Writing down the way we think and feel provides greater clarity, helping us make sense of our thinking patterns and emotional triggers.
But there’s a caveat. In order for certain non-bullet types of journaling to work, it’s important to take any self-editing out of the equation. It requires abandoning self-criticism and overthinking habits. This type of journaling is only beneficial if you write without thinking, letting the words flow on to the page. This is where stream of consciousness comes in, a narrative technique that can reveal underlying thought processes.
In literature, stream of consciousness is the interior monologue of a character's thoughts. As a literary technique, stream of consciousness makes us feel closer to the character and brings them to life. Some of the top writers in this category are William Faulkner, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Dorothy Richardson. These authors mastered this literary device and the use of stream of consciousness.
Want to see a great example of stream of consciousness? Read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot
But stream of consciousness goes far beyond popular literary terms. In psychology, it's following the stream of thoughts inside your mind.
Definition of stream of consciousness
Psychologist William James first coined the phrase "stream of consciousness." As one of the principles of psychology, William James defines it as the full range of thoughts that one can be aware of.
“Stream of consciousness is writing the first words or thoughts that
go through your mind without actually planning or consciously thinking
about what you are writing,” says Matthew Welsh, MS, PhD. “Some people may refer to it as automatic writing.”
It allows you to dive deeper into your unconscious, revealing thoughts and feelings below the surface. This style of writing provides a creative outlet to raise your self-awareness.
How to write stream of consciousness
The first step is to quiet your mind and get “in the zone.” Meditation is a popular stream of consciousness technique.
“When we talk about getting into the stream of consciousness, what we’re really talking about is getting into a state of focus and flow,” Chris Lemig, CHT, registered hypnotherapist. “It’s that feeling we get when we’re so into what we’re doing that when we finally look up, we’re surprised to find a couple of hours has gone by.”
Long distance runners experience this feeling, as well as writers and anyone in a creative profession. There are a lot of ways you can get better at tapping into your stream of consciousness. Since it has a lot to do with focus and attention, a regular mindfulness or meditation practice can really help build those attention muscles, Lemig explains.
- Limit distractions
Writing when you’re not distracted is an important part of this process. The goal is to avoid interrupting the continuous flow of thoughts.
“This can best be done after meditation, yoga, or walking in nature,” Welsh explains. “For other people it can be best to write in the middle of the night, right before going to sleep, or immediately after waking up. These are good times because the mind is usually less preoccupied with other worries then.”
It's important to remember that stream of consciousness writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Do whatever works best for you.
- Don’t self-edit
In order to get an accurate picture of your innermost thoughts and feelings, you have to write without a filter. Don't worry about grammatical errors, syntax, or a lack of punctuation. Holding back from expressing how you really feel defeats the purpose of this exercise.
Here's one of the best examples of stream of consciousness: Let’s say you get into a heated argument with your partner. Your internal monologue may sound like this: “I just don’t understand. How many times do I need to tell him that this upsets me? Maybe he doesn’t care about me anymore. I’m scared he doesn’t want to make this relationship work.”
Just follow the path of thoughts and see where it leads. You may see the stream of consciousness narrative is escalated by irrational fear and worry. This type of fear can lead to self-sabotage, which is why writing stream of consciousness is so beneficial. It will help you separate fact from fiction and reframe your point of view.
Remember, the stream of consciousness style is intended to shed light into your soul: the good, the bad, and everything in between. This kind of free association can be scary at first, but it’s important to look within in order to grow and evolve into who you are meant to be.
In the wise words of author Virginia Woolf, author of the stream of consciousness novel, Mrs. Dalloway, “We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary moment in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments.”
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