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How Anne Frank Survived

Avoiding journaling pitfalls through self-mentalization.





Readers familiar with Anne Frank’s backstory may question the title I chose for this article. I will provide an explanation for my title choice in due course. Since our articles are read worldwide, some readers might not be familiar with the life and death of this inspiring young writer. Therefore, let me offer you a short introduction to her story.


Annelies Marie Frank was a German-born Jewish girl who, along with her immediate family members, escaped Nazi Germany in 1934 when she was four-and-a-half years old. The Frank family moved to Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, where they went into hiding together with four other people in July 1942, as persecutions of the Jewish population increased.


On her thirteenth birthday, June 12, 1942, just before they went into hiding, Anne was given a diary by her father, a present she had chosen herself. For two years, Anne kept a diary and wrote letters about her life in hiding, which are marked with remarkable insight for a girl her age. The letters were addressed to Kitty who was her favorite imaginary friend.


On August 1, 1944, Anne made her last entry in her diary…… On August 4, 1944, the family was arrested by the Gestapo. She died in Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in February or early March the following year, presumably of typhus. 


Her father was the only survivor of the Frank family. As he was aware of Anne’s aspirations to become a writer, he decided to have her diary published in book form with the title “Het Achterhuis” which literally means “the backhouse,” named after the part of the house where the family was hiding. The title of the English translation of the book is “The Diary of a Young Girl” (1)



Tragically, Anne did not survive the war. She did, however, bravely manage to mentally persevere through two harrowing years of living in constant fear alongside seven other inhabitants in a small house, with its windows blacked out. Throughout the ordeal her affinity for writing provided her with an effective therapeutic technique for dealing with stress, depression and anxiety: journaling.


As Anne expressed it so well herself in her writings:


“Best of all, I find that at least I can still write down what I think and feel, otherwise I would completely suffocate.” Anne Frank, March 16, 1944. (2)


This is the reason I chose the title “How Anne Survived.” True, Anne did not survive the war, she did, however, mentally survive a harrowing ordeal. Those of us who found it necessary to share a small place with other people during the COVID lockdown might have some insight into Anne’s perspective in some small way.


 

In the remainder of this article I am going to discuss the practice of journaling in relation to mentalization, while using quotations from Anne’s diary to exemplify different aspects of journaling.


Please note that the diary quotations that I selected for this article are not meant in any way to discredit Anne. As a young girl, she viewed the world through a lens typical for children of her age. Despite her youth and challenging circumstances, her journal entries demonstrate a remarkable capacity for reflection and insight.


 

What is journaling?


Journaling is the practice of regularly recording one’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and reflections in written form such as traditional handwritten journals, digital journals, visual journals and art journals. 


People journal in different ways and for different reasons. To name a few:


  • reflective journaling, writing about experiences, emotions and insight for a deeper understanding of yourself and your life;

  • gratitude journaling, recording aspects in your life that you are grateful for to help you transition from negative thoughts to a positive mindset;

  • goal-oriented journaling, describing your goals and tracking your progress towards achieving them to stay focused and motivated;

  • stream-of-consciousness journaling, documenting your thoughts without censoring or editing them, and

  • therapeutic journaling, writing about traumatic experiences for managing stress, coping with difficult emotions, and promoting self-awareness and healing.

The following quotation beautifully captures the therapeutic nature of journaling and reveals the profound impact it had on Anne’s state of mind during her time in hiding.


“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” Anne Frank, April 5, 1944. (2)


The practice of journaling, especially with a therapeutic goal in mind, is a form of intrapersonal mentalization, as described in the following excerpt:


“Mentalization” pertains to our ability to detect verbal and nonverbal signals and cues, and use them to infer mental states upon which we can base more fully-informed predictions and explanations of behavior.
Mentalization does not focus solely on the perspectives of others. We also mentalize about ourselves by taking our own perspectives, through the conscious observation of something of interest, and considering our affective, cognitive and behavioral response in relation to our observation.
We gain our own perspectives by using our inner voice to reason about our own mental states. This “intrapersonal mentalizing” is key to shifting our own perspectives, for example, comparing our own perspective to that of another, or moving from an old perspective to a new one.
Intrapersonal mentalizing is also critical to shaping our own perspectives through internal monologues that help us arrive at a satisfying understanding of different situations. As with interpersonal mentalizing, we mentalize about our own mental states to explain and predict our own behavior. The ability to mentalize about ourselves is also referred to as “self-mentalizing.” (3)

Thus, self-mentalization relies heavily on mental state reasoning. What is a mental state?


A “state of mind” is the psychological state that a person has at a given time, or the condition or quality of a person’s thoughts or feelings. We have classified mental states into four “primary mental states:” affects (emotions, feelings, or moods), desire, belief and knowledge. The primary mental states can be viewed as the building blocks for secondary, “complex mental states.” 
Complex mental states include, for instance, “intentions” — having an aim or plan, “attitudes” — a settled way of thinking or feeling about something, and “motivations” — reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way, all of which guide our behavior. (3)

To illustrate, the following is a diary entry in which Anne describes her mental states after rereading passages that she had written about her mother.


This morning, when I had nothing to do, I leafed through the pages of my diary and came across so many letters dealing with the subject of ‘Mother’ in such strong terms that I was shocked. I said to myself, ‘Anne, is that really you talking about hate? Oh, Anne, how could you?


I continued to sit with the open book in my hand and wonder why I was filled with so much anger and hate that I had to confide it all to you. I tried to understand the Anne of last year and make apologies for her, because as long as I leave you with these accusations and don’t attempt to explain what prompted them, my conscience won’t be clear.


I was suffering then (and still do) from moods that kept my head under water (figuratively speaking) and allowed me to see things only from my own perspective, without calmly considering what the others — those whom I, with my mercurial temperament, had hurt or offended — had said, and then behaving as they would have done. Anne Frank, January 2, 1944. (2)


This quotation also demonstrates the importance of considering the mental states of others while journaling. Understanding the mental states of others provides another way to better understand ourselves and the world around us.



What are the benefits of journaling?


Journaling can positively impact your behavior and overall well-being by:


  • Encouraging self-reflection and examination of thoughts, emotions and actions.

  • Reducing emotional reactivity in interactions with others.

  • Transforming negative feelings into opportunities for creative expression and personal development.

  • Aligning your emotions and motivations with your core values.

  • Fostering empathy by considering alternate perspectives alongside your own.

  • Promoting a sense of compassion and humanity towards yourself and others.

  • Building tolerance for life’s uncertainties, including ambiguity and ambivalence.

  • Facilitating problem-solving by exploring potential solutions.

  • Empowering you to make clear and decisive choices moving forward.

Can journaling be bad for you?


Many forms of journaling are psychologically benign, even when they fail to provide the anticipated benefits. To illustrate, with goal-oriented journaling you might set your goals too high and become demotivated or disillusioned. Although this might set you back, it actually serves as a learning experience rather than a psychologically damaging event.


Research on the benefits of therapeutic journaling employed as a means of alleviating mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, or trauma, shows mixed results. Here are some pitfalls:


  • It can foster self-absorption.

  • It can cause you to ruminate excessively and live predominantly in your thoughts.

  • It can cause you to dwell on negative past events rather than focusing on growth and moving forward.

  • It can transform you into a passive spectator of your life, more focused on documenting experiences than fully engaging in them.

  • It can lead to using journaling as a means of assigning blame to others, or to environmental aspects, rather than taking a good look at yourself and/or seeking solutions.

The causes for negative consequences described above can be traced back to a lack of, or inaccurate, mentalizing during the journaling process. Let’s consider three non-mentalization modes that can account for these negative effects. Described within the clinical field of psychology by Fonagy and colleagues (4), they are:


  1. Teleological mode,

  2. psychic equivalence mode, and

  3. pretend mode.


These modes are categorized as prementalization modes, referring to the non-mentalistic approaches children use before they fully develop their mentalization competencies. As adults, we can sometimes revert to these prementalization modes when we journal about our life experiences. It is often an indication that we are trying to avoid painful emotions, or that we are dealing with conflicting emotions.


What happens when we use the teleological mode?


Teleological thinking involves inferring another person’s (or one’s own) state of mind based on actions that have been performed, e.g., “He didn’t call me; therefore, he doesn’t like me.” (4)

In other words, teleological thinking refers to our tendency to ascribe mental states to behavior without any evidence of the true mental state of the other. The following quotation from Anne’s diary, where she talks about her father and her sister, depicts this mode of reasoning to a certain degree.


When I see him being partial to Margot, approving Margot’s every action, praising her, hugging her, I feel a gnawing ache inside, because I’m crazy about him. I model myself after Father, and there’s no one in the world I love more. He doesn’t realize that he treats Margot differently than he does me: Margot just happens to be the smartest, the kindest, the prettiest and the best. But I have a right to be taken seriously too.


I’ve always been the clown and mischief maker of the family; I’ve always had to pay double for my sins: once with scoldings and then again with my own sense of despair. I’m no longer satisfied with the meaningless affection or the supposedly serious talks. I long for something from Father that he’s incapable of giving. I’m not jealous of Margot; I never have been. I’m not envious of her brains or her beauty. It’s just that I’d like to feel that Father really loves me, not because I’m his child, but because I’m me, Anne. Anne Frank, October 30, 1943. (2)


Obviously we cannot verify whether Otto Frank truly loved Margot more than Anne. Reading her other diary entries, however, we can assume that she was interpreting the situation using the teleological mode. Anne ascribes her observation of her father’s disparate treatment of her sister and herself to his incapability of giving her the same love that he feels for his “favorite” daughter.


What happens when we use the psychic equivalence mode?


Psychic equivalence is a mode of functioning characterized by equating internal states with reality, resulting in unwarranted yet deeply held beliefs, such as that others think and feel in exactly the same way as the subject does; e.g., “I am sure she disapproved of me — I could just see it in her eyes”. (4)

This prementalization mode is illustrated in the following quotation from Anne’s writing:


Everyone thinks I’m showing off when I talk, ridiculous when I’m silent, insolent when I answer, cunning when I have a good idea, lazy when I’m tired, selfish when I eat one bite more than I should.” Anne Frank, July 15, 1944. (2)


At this moment in time, Anne has a negative view of herself and assumes others must view her in a negative light too.


What happens when we use the pretend mode?


Pretend mode, a particularly problematic mode of non-mentalizing for psychological therapy, is a process by which a person’s experience of thoughts and feelings are not based on evidence and are poorly linked to external (or physical) reality. 
Most commonly, such descriptions of internal states in self and others are overly elaborated, loosely connected to actual events, far more easily modified than might be expected, and carry little emotional conviction. (4)

An example of this prementalization mode was difficult to find in Anne’s writing as she is psychologically quite mature for her age. Perhaps the following quotation from Anne’s diary reflects the pretend mode to a certain extent.


Daddy says that if Mother isn’t feeling well or has a headache, I should volunteer to help her, but I’m not going to because I don’t love her and don’t enjoy doing it. I can imagine Mother dying someday, but Daddy’s death seems inconceivable. It’s very mean of me, but that’s how I feel. I hope Mother will never read this or anything else I’ve written. Anne Frank, April 11, 1944. (2)


At this moment in time, reflective, explicit, controlled mentalizing is absent due to Anne’s frustration towards her mother. She distances herself from her true feelings, while “pretending” to self-mentalize about how she would feel about her mother’s death. 


Earlier that month, however, she wrote:


“I shudder at the thought of saying goodbye to Mother and then never seeing her again. How dreadful it is to have to bury one’s own dear ones!” Anne Frank, April 5, 1944. (2)


In this passage, Anne expresses how frightened and sad she would be if her mother died, emphasizing how profoundly it would affect her emotions.


How to reap the benefits from journaling to survive hardship?


I am prepared to argue that mentalization is one of the most fundamental abilities (if not THE most fundamental ability) necessary to make journaling a beneficial practice for dealing with hardship. In other words, it is crucial for journaling to include your own and other’s true mental states (affects, desires, beliefs, motivations, intentions, etc.) when you commit your experiences to writing.


The following research done by Ullrich and Lutgendorf (2002)(5), supports this axiom. These researchers assigned one hundred twenty-two students randomly to one of the following three journaling conditions:


(a) focusing on emotions related to a trauma or stressor,

(b) focusing on cognitions and emotions related to a trauma or stressor, or

(c) writing factually about media events.


On the basis of their research they concluded that:


Writers focusing on cognitions and emotions developed greater awareness of the positive benefits of the stressful event than the other two groups. This effect was apparently mediated by greater cognitive processing during writing. 
Writers focusing on emotions alone reported more severe illness symptoms during the study than those in other conditions. This effect appeared to be mediated by a greater focus on negative emotional expression during writing. (5)

To ensure that therapeutic journaling is beneficial and not harmful, I recommend the guidance of a well trained psychologist, something that Anne had no access to, but many of us do.


Before concluding this article I’d like to share one last quotation from Anne’s diary:


“Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.” Anne Frank, June 20, 1942. (2)


Little did she know….


While I was writing this article I remembered that I took up journaling when I was a young girl, being inspired by Anne. I went up to the attic and rummaged through the old boxes to find it. Once I found it, I dusted it off and took it downstairs for a read. While reading, I discovered that as a twelve-year-old girl, I offered detailed situational accounts, but my diary entries about mental states were scant.


I also noticed that my love for journaling was not, by any means, comparable to that of Anne. But unlike her, I didn’t require the psychological and emotional support demanded by her situation. I was fortunate to be carefree, content, and secure — a young girl with nothing on her mind but horses.



 

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