A self-gratitude diary is a simple way to lower stress and negativity in your life by creating a habit of self-compassion.
A couple decades ago, the positive psychology movement pioneered the concept of the gratitude diary as a way to combat excessive negativity and the emotional distress that came with it.
If your mind was constantly reminding you of all the terrible stuff in life, they reasoned that you could improve your outlook and mood by balancing the scales a bit and making time to deliberately remind yourself of all the good stuff in life—the stuff you’re grateful for.
Well, countless personal examples and many research studies over the years have shown this to be true:
Reminding yourself of what you’re grateful for in life tends to improve your mood and overall well-being.
Of course, in some ways this is obvious, right?
Many traditions and cultural practices encourage the idea of giving thanks and “counting your blessings.” But instead of being an occasional practice or for something specific (e.g. grace before meals), the gratitude diary expanded this idea by turning it into a regular practice for emotional health.
In my own experience—both personally and in my work as a therapist—I’ve found this to be true as well. For many of my clients who tend to get stuck in spirals of worry or self-doubt, I often recommend starting a simple habit of keeping a gratitude diary—usually to good effect.
But the longer I’ve worked with the gratitude diary, the more I sensed something was missing… After a while of mulling it over, it finally dawned on me:
Most people struggled with negative thinking about themselves. But their gratitude diaries were full of things they were grateful for in the world and other people. What if they practiced being grateful for things about themselves specifically?
Just like the positive psychology movement improved on the idea of traditional gratitude practices by making them super consistent, I figured that we could improve on the gratitude diary itself by making it more focused on self-gratitude.
My thinking was that for a certain set of people—those who were in the habit of being especially self-critical and negative about themselves—self-gratitude would be a more “concentrated” version of the traditional gratitude diary. And sure enough, it seemed to produce better results for those people who were especially self-critical and judgmental.
If you struggle with overly negative self-talk and extreme self-criticism, the solution is to get better at self-compassion—treating yourself when you’re struggling just like you would treat a good friend who was struggling.
And the self-gratitude diary is a great technique to help you build that habit of self-compassion.
How to get started with a self-gratitude diary
The practice of keeping a self-gratitude diary itself is remarkably simple:
Make a little time every day to remind yourself of a few things about yourself that you’re grateful for.
I emphasize the simplicity here because it’s important not to overcomplicate things since this usually leads to procrastination and never actually doing it.
While there’s no one right way to do this, here’s what I recommend for most people:
- Choose a 5-minute window of time you can stick to each day and set a recurring reminder in your phone labeled “Self-gratitude.”
- Buy yourself a small notebook that’s dedicated entirely to self-gratitude.
- When your time arrives, pull out the notebook, make a quick note of the date, then try to think about a few things about yourself that you’re grateful for and jot them down in the notebook under the date.
- Rinse and repeat, daily if possible.
Pretty straightforward, right?
That said, even though it’s a pretty simple exercise, here are a few more guidelines that may be helpful:
- I recommend at least starting with a pen and paper version. I’ve found that the act of writing with a pencil is a bit more conducive to reflective and contemplative thought (maybe because typing is so much associated with work and problem-solving…). However, if you really prefer, you could keep the diary electronically, either in a document on your computer or maybe a notes file on your phone.
- Choose a dedicated time and place. We’re all busy, which means even for something as simple as a three-minute self-gratitude exercise, we can easily get distracted or procrastinate. And one of the biggest causes I’ve seen of people not sticking with their self-gratitude exercise is that they can’t find their notebook! So, try to do your self-gratitude exercise in the same place and keep your diary itself right there so you always know where it is. Regarding time, for whatever reason, I’ve found that most people find it best to do the self-gratitude diary in the evenings. So if you’re not sure where to start, give that a go. That said, just doing it consistently is the most important thing. So whatever time helps you do that is best.
- Don’t get discouraged if you have a hard time thinking of things. Especially in the beginning, it may be tough to generate ideas for things about yourself that you’re grateful for. This is totally understandable since most of us are taught to not spend too much time thinking about ourselves for fear of being “self-centered” or “prideful” or whatever. Also, keep this in mind: The things you’re grateful for about yourself can be big or small in scale (I’m a generous person or my checkout person at the store seemed to really appreciate that I asked her how her day was going). They can also be things in the present or past (that compliment I gave James this afternoon after his presentation seemed to really put him at ease or being able to be really present for my dad when he passed away years ago). When in doubt, if you’re struggling to think of things about yourself that you’re grateful for, ask yourself this question: What would a good friend or family member say they really appreciate about me?
- It’s okay to repeat yourself. While it’s good to try and look for new examples each time, it’s totally fine to reuse examples of self-gratitude from time to time.
Common obstacles and objections
Having recommended this exercise to quite a few people lately, I’ve been getting a lot of interesting feedback, especially in terms of why people find it difficult or challenging.
Here are a few of the most common obstacles or objections to the self-gratitude diary:
Isn’t it kind of narcissistic or self-centered to focus so much on myself?
Just because you’re focusing on and thinking about yourself doesn’t mean you’re narcissistic. Narcissism is a spectrum. And while you can obviously take it to an unhealthy extreme by being obsessed with yourself, it’s just as unhealthy to ignore yourself and your positive qualities and achievements.
In fact, taking a little bit of time to remind yourself of things about yourself that you’re grateful for and building up some self-compassion actually leads to spending less time thinking about yourself overall.
I mean, think about it:
What could be more narcissistic than constantly worrying about yourself and criticizing yourself and judging yourself all the time?
Learning to be more compassionate with yourself actually frees you up to focus on other people and things in your life instead of staying stuck obsessing about your own mistakes and flaws.
I just can’t seem to think of anything… It’s like I have writer’s block for self-gratitude!
This is common, especially when you first start. Stick with it and eventually it will get easier and you’ll be able to think of more and more things.
If you’ve tried this for a week or more and really can’t think of anything, here’s a helpful way to get unstuck…
Call up a friend or relative whom you respect, trust, and who knows you well. Then tell them about this exercise you’re trying to do and ask them if they could send you a list of things they appreciate about you, admire in you, or are grateful for in you.
Then, whenever you find yourself stuck in your own practice, pull out that list to kickstart your process.
Can I do a self-gratitude diary in addition to a traditional gratitude diary?
Of course! Some people like to keep a separate diary or journal for each and some people like to combine them. Whatever works for you.
The benefits of keeping a self-gratitude diary
There are a lot of benefits to keeping a self-gratitude diary. Here are a few of the most common and impactful I’ve found:
- Less self-criticism. Of course, it’s healthy to be critical of ourselves sometimes when it’s helpful. Unfortunately, self-criticism can easily turn into an unhelpful habit that dominates our thinking about ourselves and leads to a lot of excess guilt, shame, and self-directed anger. While trying to resist or stop self-criticism can easily turn into even more self-criticism, self-gratitude is like a competing force that helps pull you away from self-criticism instead of you constantly having to push yourself out of it.
- Lower your anxiety, especially social anxiety. While some worry and anxiety are about other people and the world, a surprising amount of our anxiety stems from worrying about ourselves, especially our own flaws and mistakes. On the other hand, you can counteract this self-focused worry with a habit of self-compassion built up by self-gratitude. And when you’re worrying less about yourself, it’s easier to feel more present and confident in your relationships with other people.
- Easier time falling asleep. This one surprised me, but a lot of my clients were reporting that after doing the self-gratitude diary in the evenings, it made it significantly easier to fall asleep quickly. In hindsight, this makes total sense: if in the hours before bed you spend time reminding yourself of the positives about yourself rather than the negatives, you’re going to feel less stressed and anxious in bed, which means an easier time falling asleep.
- Improved mood. I often hear from people that one of the most surprising (and welcome) benefits is an overall improvement in mood throughout the day. There could be many reasons for this, but I’m actually partial to the idea that it’s because of better sleep: self-gratitude before bed means less worry and anxiety before bed, which means easier and better quality of sleep, which means feeling better the next day!
- Better self-esteem. People who suffer from low self-esteem are often caught in a vicious cycle: They feel bad about themselves so they think badly of themselves, which only leads to feeling even worse about themselves. Self-gratitude tends to help with self-esteem issues because it can short-circuit the thinking badly about ourselves side of the equation. And when that happens, it makes it easier to act in a way that improves our self-esteem instead of detracting from it.
All you need to know
Keeping a self-gratitude diary is a simple way to improve your self-compassion and reduce the level of negative self-talk and self-criticism in your life.
But like all healthy habits, the key to unlocking their benefits is consistency.
If you want to become a little gentler and more compassionate with yourself, commit to making a little time for self-gratitude. It may well be the best 3 minutes of your day.