The Timeline Exercise | What is it and how to do it

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The aim of a timeline exercise is to help you find out who you are and why you are you.

In this article I will explain:

  • What a timeline exercise is
  • How it will benefit you
  • How to take care of yourself while doing it
  • How you can write your own timeline

What a Timeline Exercise is

Your whole life story can continuously change with each major event, the choices you have made, relationships, success, and your mistakes. All these things has an influence on the direction your life takes.

  • Do you ever look back in your life and marvel at how much you have gone through?
  • Do you ever think about how your experiences have shaped and influenced you?
  • Do you sometimes wish you could understand yourself more so you can make better choices for your future?

 

By doing our timeline exercise, we can write or draw in one place all our life experiences, both good and bad. It will help you to reflect on these questions and more about what experiences have shaped you and helped you to be where you are.

How to take care of yourself while doing the Timeline Exercise

It is understandable that you would find this process daunting but please note the following before doing the timeline exercise. 

  • I strongly recommend that you have some emotional stability in your life whilst doing this. If you have an active addiction or under/untreated mental health issues, it is best to stabilise first and have a wide range of coping strategies before you embark on this exercise.
  • Work with a qualified trauma-informed therapist that understands the emotional enormity of what you are trying to do and is able to give you the support you need.
  • If you are not able to have a therapist, find a friend that understands this process and who would be able to check in on you and listen when mutually convenient for you both
  • Make sure you are feeling well physically and that you are not too tired or feeling physically unwell. How you are feeling physically would undermine how you are feeling emotionally.
  • Think about how you could keep what you are doing confidential so you feel safe writing down what you wish to. Maybe find somewhere lockable to keep it or create your timeline exercise on your computer and make sure it is password protected.
  • You might find it beneficial to time yourself whilst doing this so that you are not doing it endlessly. Set a time on your clock, say for about an hour then finish and have a break.
  • Plan something nice for when you have completed either each section and or the whole lot. Don’t do it before going to your busy job or before seeing someone who won’t be that supportive emotionally.
the timeline exercise

How to start doing the Timeline Exercise

  • Find a way to make sure you feel safe and that what you are writing is confidential
  • Use the following materials: markers, pen or pencil, notepad, and A4 or A3 size paper.
  • It might help to also do this in chunks of either 5, 10 or 15 years at a time
  • You can be as artistic with drawings, colour, and pictures from magazines – however it comes across for you here.
  • Remain open to adding events as you complete the timeline; it’s natural for one event to trigger a memory of another.
  • Make time, perhaps one or more 15 to 30 minutes, to thoughtfully reflect on the course of your life, its high and low points, as well as stable times.
  • Use a ruler to draw a horizontal line through the middle.
  • Write your birth year at the left end of the line and the current year at the right end.
  • Try to put your life events in chronological order of your (approximate) age at the time.
  • Place a “+” sign in front of events that are overall positive, and a “-” sign in front of ones that were overall negative – Then rate the positive or negative intensity of each event on a scale of 1 to 10, low to high. For Low, those are really difficult experiences you felt as a child (at that time) – you would give a 0 to happy experiences a 10.
  • Add on a future timeline of where you hope to see your life go.
  • Create a timeline that includes how significant people have impacted your life.
  • List all life events on a notepad, keeping the following things in mind:
  • Include experiences that affected you that you remember – both good and bad
  • Also, put those experiences that you don’t remember but you know happened to you. For example, those experiences when you were a very young child.

It’s important to look at the event and think about how you would have felt as a child at that time based on how it affected you then, not on how you think about it now.
For example, as a child, you might have felt devastated about something that has happened to you. Looking back as an adult, you might not think it was that bad. In this exercise, it is important that you score it on how you remember you felt back then and how it affected you.

Other things to consider

When doing your timeline, you might find it challenging emotionally. You may bring up stuff that you have buried for so long.

It is so important, and I can’t stress this strongly enough to practice some self-care and emotional management strategies even before you start so that you know what helps you if and when you start to struggle.

  • You can start some deep breathing exercises or do some daily guided meditation.
  • Look at the Story of Health here and see what other things you can do.
  • The main thing is to try and pre-empt how you will be feeling. Use this emotional feeling scale from 1 – 10 to assess how you are feeling or how you could be feeling. 
  • For example, if you know that writing about a particular time in your life would cause a lot of stress and on the emotional scale, you would be an 8. You could maybe plan to do it with someone who will be supportive. 
  • You could also avoid doing exercise when you have had a bad day at work. Or you could plan something nice to do after.

How to start doing the Timeline Exercise

It is understandable that you would find this process daunting but please note the following before doing the timeline exercise. 

  • I strongly recommend that you have some emotional stability in your life whilst doing this. If you have an active addiction or under/untreated mental health issues, it is best to stabilise first and have a wide range of coping strategies before you embark on this exercise.
  • Work with a qualified trauma-informed therapist that understands the emotional enormity of what you are trying to do and is able to give you the support you need.
  • If you are not able to have a therapist, find a friend that understands this process and who would be able to check in on you and listen when mutually convenient for you both
  • Make sure you are feeling well physically and that you are not too tired or feeling physically unwell. How you are feeling physically would undermine how you are feeling emotionally.
  • Think about how you could keep what you are doing confidential so you feel safe writing down what you wish to. Maybe find somewhere lockable to keep it or create your timeline exercise on your computer and make sure it is password protected.
  • You might find it beneficial to time yourself whilst doing this so that you are not doing it endlessly. Set a time on your clock, say for about an hour then finish and have a break.
  • Plan something nice for when you have completed either each section and or the whole lot. Don’t do it before going to your busy job or before seeing someone who won’t be that supportive emotionally.

Benefits of doing the timeline exercise

Here are some of the benefits of completing the timeline exercise:

The timeline exercise will help you to tell your story. Sharing your timeline with someone who would listen to you and be supportive, they don’t need to be a therapist, will be incredibly healing. 

 

Will help you to connect the dots of your life

When you see your whole life written out in front of you, you begin to see how different events, feelings, thoughts, people, and circumstances affect each other and are connected.

Timelines help us identify patterns. 

Do you notice certain things over and over again? Whether it is a positive pattern or a negative pattern. This exercise will help you spot patterns that were not previously clear to you.

It will help you grieve. When faced with your life experiences in front of you, you can start to grieve the things you experienced and the things you wished you had experienced.


What to do next

Feel free to share with someone else that you believe would benefit from doing this . You never know that this may help them to make their minds up!

All I could say is doing this is life-changing. It will help you to start to be more compassionate with yourself as you realise that you have done well to get where you are right now, despite what you have been through.

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