Old Diaries, Paper Shredders, and Letting Go

by Erin Kurup

A Page from Erin's Diary

A drawing of my parents on their sailboat done when I was 6

A few weeks ago, I shredded my old diaries. As in, with a paper shredder. Yes I’m serious.

I can hear you now: Why would anyone do such a thing? I know, right? Precious record of your past, snapshot of a point in your life, cherished document for generations to come, blah blah.

The Weight of the Past

Here’s the thing. Aside from the entries from when I was 6 (they were cute, and I scanned my favorites…like the picture on the right), those diaries were not me. They were negative, whiny, obnoxious, phony. And you know what? I knew the words were fake as I was writing them. I remember deliberately choosing what to record based on what I believed the record I thought I was supposed to write would look like.

The diaries lived for years buried in a big Rubbermaid bin in my parents’ storage unit. I unearthed them maybe a year ago while cleaning and brought them to my apartment, where I promptly hid them again. Out of sight, out of mind…right?

Not so. I knew they were there. I would think, What if something happens to me and the people I love read these diaries after I’m gone? The girl in those pages existed only between the covers, a construct of another girl who felt her diaries should have a certain flavor, a particular focus. I hated rereading what my other self had written, and it hurt me to think of others doing the same.

It’s Okay to Challenge the Norm

I finally took time to consider: Why was I keeping these journals? Because everyone said I should? Keeping something that causes you anxiety or pain just because society says you must is, quite frankly, ridiculous. It’s your choice. Only you know what’s right for you. In the never-ending battle with stuff — physical, mental, emotional — you decide what stays and what goes. Period.

I knew this decision was right for me. And yet, as I tore the first pages from the spine, I felt a jolt of panic. What was I doing? As I fed the pages into the shredder’s teeth, though, an unbelievable feeling of relief washed over me. I had chosen right. I could finally let go. I was free.

Do What You Have to Do, However You Have to Do It

So why didn’t I just toss the books into the recycling? Did I really need to shred them?

Yes, I did. Not because I was afraid some worker at the recycling plant would read my supposed innermost teenage thoughts. I needed to shred them for me. I needed them to be gone so I could give myself permission to let go.

Perhaps all of this sounds over-dramatic, stunt-like. I assure you that it is not. Sometimes things like this are necessary. Sometimes you just have to do it. And that’s one hundred percent okay.

You Don’t Have to Hold onto Everything Forever

I did not love high school, but there were some wonderful moments. I made good friends, had some inspirational teachers, and participated in a bunch of fun extracurricular activities. Yet these things appeared so infrequently in the pages of my diaries that you’d think they’d never happened.

When I look back on my childhood and teen years, I want to remember the good stuff. I want to look at my photo albums and flip through notes from my favorite teacher. I don’t want to hold onto the parts I hated, the person I felt like I had to be, even in private. By carrying those diaries around with me all these years, I was keeping that false shadow self close. I thought I had to.

Turns out what I really needed was to let her go.

Your turn: Have you ever had to go against what’s commonly accepted to do something you knew you needed to do?

23 comments
JacksonAnderson
JacksonAnderson

I've shredded old personal journals myself, and while I know that the chances are probably extremely low of having someone find the book intact at a dump or recycling center, there's also the symbolic relief of having shredded it and knowing that your thoughts and secrets have been permanently destroyed.


For anyone who is looking to shred their journals in the future, I've posted a collection of the best shredders for home use over at my site, http://www.shredderlab.com/best-home-shredder/. Most of them are under $50 and are cross cut so that it's super hard for anyone to put your stuff back together.

moony239
moony239

so glad i'm not alone! i've kept diaries since i was a kid; when i was around 19 i read through my middle-school diaries and realized that not only was i disgusted by the person who wrote those words, i knew that if anyone else ever saw them i would die of shame, because the person who wrote those entries was a melodramatic bitch, and they positively oozed with misguided melancholy. i ripped them apart and put the mixed up shreds in separate trash bags so no one could put them back together.

now, i'm nearly 30. i have twenty-one diaries, all complete, stacked in my bookshelf. they're from 2006-current, and honestly, i really wish i could do it again. but i just can't. and besides, they're pretty useful. if i'm talking to someone about something that happened a while ago, i can often use my old journals as reference books because if it was really big, i'd probably mention it.

jess
jess

About 6 or 7 years ago my dad ended up in the ICU and I was staying at my parents house to be close by.  I found all my old diaries from my teenage years and I ended up lightly looking through them and then tossing them all in the trash.  I had been married for a few years at that point and all my diaries were about guys I used to like.  I had no desire to ever revisit those feelings so it was a super good riddance to toss the evidence.

Jacob
Jacob

I am 37 years old and getting ready to shred my journals of years past. I am letting go of a person that hurt me. A person that was self destructive. I am so pumped up....and ironically I am looking into sailing classes..and my daughter is 6. I love the new me and cant wait to "let go" of the old me for good. I am not angry at the the old me, just ready to let go. Thanks for sharing your story.

remadebyhand
remadebyhand

@Jacob Thanks for sharing this. I love when people come across this post and then get in touch. It reinforces for me that it's OK to do what we need to do, even if others may not understand. I hope your experience is as freeing as mine was and that you enjoy the sailing class! I have fond memories of sailing with my dad.

Stephanie
Stephanie

Yesterday I threw out several old journals (from 2o years ago into the present!) and I lay in bed having remorse! I even considered running out to the street and digging them out of the trash. I imagined that one day I might read through them and ponder all the ways I have grown and changed in my adult life! This morning I googled "I threw out my journals" looking for someone to comiserate with and your blog poped up! It made me feel so much better. Thank you so much. I had the same problem as you - the journals do not reflect who I really am and I dont want my child to read that one day! Not only were they whiny and filled with misery but huge sections were dream analysis and anyone who read those passages would have thought I was completely nuts!

remadebyhand
remadebyhand

Stephanie -- I'm glad this post helped you feel ok with your decision! Five months after I shredded my diaries, I can honestly say I don't regret the decision at all. In fact, I feel so free. I'm no longer worried about people reading a side of me that was never really real. It's like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I hope you find your decision is equally rewarding :)

Jill
Jill

Hi, a very interesting topic. I am currently debating whether to shred my journals (that go back about ten years). I did get rid of ten year's worth of journals prior to this and regretted it afterwards so now I am considering scanning them first and keeping future ones on the computer, that way I can password protect them and it feels safer. I like re reading my old journals, which is why I want to scan them, but I fear other people reading them too which is why I want rid of the originals, even though they are locked away, locks can be picked.

Erin
Erin

It sounds like you'd do better with a backup copy tucked safely away somewhere, since you know you enjoy revisiting what you wrote. It's a hard call to make!

Jenny
Jenny

Serendipity strikes today as I find this post two days after throwing away a depressing journal I kept during my postpartum blues. How awful to read that I had resorted to watching up to ten hours of television in one day. I wondered how I ever made it out alive! It was such a revelation to me to discover how different I am now, that every year I must have been running from that situation to get into something happier and more fulfilling. I threw the journal away because it really wasn't a true reflection of who I am and I never want to go back to that sadness. My blog is a journal of sorts but I am careful to write with positivity or spiritual insight as my frame. That way I can happily dive back in if I ever want to remember. Usually I don't enjoy looking back, but maybe someday I will.

Erin
Erin

I'm the same way, Jenny -- I almost never look back. And if/when I do, I want to remember all the wonderful things about my life. Somehow I find I never have trouble remembering the bad stuff, but I forget about the good at times. It sounds like both our blogs are much more aligned with the kinds of things we want to remember than our old journals were :-)

Coral
Coral

I found this post really interesting - in the last few years, I've started keeping an art journal. I edit what I put in there. Only the good stuff gets in my journals. I've had some really tough times in my life (haven't we all?) and I decided right from my first journal that only the happy, funny, things I want to remember stuff would get past the gates and into my journals. That goes against what some other journallers do. Many of my favourite artists write about every day life with all the ups and downs and that is considered to be the most honest way of journalling. But for me, when I read my journals back, I want to smile, laugh and giggle at myself. So I journal the way that feels right, feels best for me.

Erin
Erin

That's a really neat idea. I tended to focus on the negative and forget about the good stuff in my journals. I bet I'd have enjoyed reading old diaries a lot more (and not ended up shredding them!) if I'd done the opposite. I'll have to think about that approach.

Deborah
Deborah

When I moved to my current house I came across a stash of notebooks where I had been writing my "Morning Pages" while following 'The Artist's Way.' The time when I wrote those pages was an especially difficult one in my life and, like you, I realized that I never wanted anyone - especially my children - to ever, ever read the things that I had written. I didn't have access to a paper shredder at the time, but I spent hours tearing all the pages out of the notebooks and then hand-shredding them. It took hours, but I felt much 'lighte'r when the task was done.

Erin
Erin

Wow, Deborah, I bet that was a hugely powerful process. How much slower and more deliberate to do the shredding by hand. I'm glad it made you feel lighter -- I can relate. I think it's so important to realize that you don't have to hold on to everything, that destroying a particular piece of your past doesn't mean you're denying or avoiding it. Destroying a diary or notebook might be the best thing you can do -- it allows you to let go of whatever the record is of.

Rory Green
Rory Green

Grear post, Erin. You are really finding your stride! I was culling old paperbacks yesterday and thinking of you! I'm starting to talk to my kids too about not holding onto everything just because. I wrote about high school this week too in my post. Letting go in a different way!

Erin
Erin

Aww, thanks Rory! That's so cool you're getting your kids to think about why they hold onto things. That's a great habit to build at any age. I think my Google Reader did something weird with my subscription because I just realized I haven't been getting updates from you. I'm glad you popped up here today -- I will have to investigate!

Sarah
Sarah

When I was a teenager I wrote a diary on my computer, password protected and everything. I'm pretty sure I wrote in it every single day, although that's probably a false memory. A typical entry read something like "[current crush] made a funny joke today and I laughed at it, and he probably thought I was laughing at him and now he hates me." Then I'd go into great detail about the joke and the laughing and how I thought he hated me afterwards. Not exactly great reading. Then I fell in love for the first time and got my heart broken for the first time and in a fit of rage, deleted the journal and then emptied to recycling bin. Seven years of my life had been recorded in that document and the entire thing gone in a few clicks. For a long time I regretted doing it, wishing I could reread the entries. But after a while I remembered that, to be honest, most of my old entries were full of the above angst about boys or about how I hated my mother (I didn't really, my mum is lovely). I don't want to share that randomness with anyone, and if I reread the only benefit I'd get out of it is of shame, mild amusement and perhaps sadness that I wasn't a more creative child that didn't just think about boys all day. However, earlier this year I found a letter that I'd written when I was 14, addressed to "Me when I'm 24". It was short, terribly written and pretty stupid, but it brought tears to my eyes. That's the only thing I've kept (other than a handful of stuffed toys) from my childhood, and I've written a new letter to my 34 year old self which has gone in a little box along with the original letter. Ah, I think I've written an essay in your comments! Sorry Erin! :)

Erin
Erin

HA. It's ridiculous how many of my entries followed that same format! Endless variations on the same tired, obsessive theme. Actually, it sounds like our teenage record-keeping was pretty similar. Rereading mine produced those same feelings...nothing really positive at all. I'm glad you feel ok about your decision now -- I hate the feeling of having irrevocably cut too deep. Your letter from when you were 14, however -- that's awesome!! See, that's the kind of thing you hang onto. Why make yourself drag all the hurt and negativity around when you can get so much joy from that one piece of paper? And look at that...it sparked a new tradition :-D I love it. I also love essay-comments. Never feel the need to apologize for them, please!!

Julie van de Zande
Julie van de Zande

You just gave me the push I needed to get rid of my old diaries. I am a fellow scanner/shredder, and had planned to go through them this summer. I started to look at them last year, and winced when I saw that one diary was basically a list of food I ate and how much I weighed (high school, of course). I am so happy to shred that! Thanks for the reminder.

Erin
Erin

Sure, happy shredding! Yeah...I have no desire to remember all the stuff I wrote about, either. Amazing what we think is important or should be recorded.

Sandra @ Living Lagom
Sandra @ Living Lagom

I recently re-read my diary entries. I never wrote consistently so I don't have that many. There was one summer back in university where I wrote everyday. I must have made an oath to myself to do it, since all the other entries are sporadic. Like you, I wasn't too pleased with what I read. I think of myself as a positive person and what I wrote was in many ways negative. I do remember that I never REALLY wrote how I felt because I was afraid someone would read it. For now I'm keeping them as they did help me remember things that I had completely forgotten about. In the future, I might just write a yearly recap of key events that took place. I did remove the diary pages from their original books and placed them all in a sealed envelope with a warning to shredded (and recycle) the contents without reading. But maybe one day, I'll have the courage to do what you've done. :)

Erin
Erin

I was a sporadic diarist as well! Three volumes covered age 6 to 16 or 17. I stopped before college. I wonder if I'd have liked my college diary self better? Isn't it funny how we seem to intentionally choose what and how to write in a record that should, theoretically, be the truest, most honest thing we create? There's no way to get around the fact that someone else might, someday, read our words, which makes it hard, I think, to write honestly. Whether you're writing what you feel you should or censoring or changing your thoughts to create a record of how you would like to appear, it never seems to come out as the you that actually exists. I love that you sealed the pages up. That's a great idea, if you want to make clear they are private but still have them around for occasional perusal -- or for compiling a yearly summary. Mine were so disconnected from any concrete aspects of my life that beyond the first entries (which I copied), there was nothing useful in them. Still not sure what teenage me thought the point of THAT was :-) Thanks for sharing your diary experience -- it's nice to know I'm not the only one who doesn't look back on my former self's words with untainted nostalgia or admiration!