I’m just back from a 4-day conference that just knocked my socks off. I’d been invited to facilitate a workshop at it, for which the scheduled time slot turned out to be early on the conference’s last day. That encouraged me to attend the full event, so I could take part in what promised to be a great professional development opportunity.

There were other good reasons to choose to spend that time. It gave  the chance to connect in person with the wonderful team that I’ve been working with for the past 9 months, mostly virtually, and to celebrate our accomplishments together. And it would let me have the fun meeting up with other colleagues I haven’t seen in a while, as well as the pleasure of making new contacts.

I’m so grateful I did that, instead of popping in to the conference the day before my workshop. Not only for the reasons stated above, which in themselves were great reasons to invest the time. This choice meant that I was immersed in the same setting as the rest of the conference participants, a multi-disciplinary group of professionals from across the country who work with families and very young children involved in the child welfare system. Being there for the full event helped me understood how my workshop, Strengthening Self-Compassion: Practical Tools with Impact, fit into the meeting’s ongoing conversation about mindfulness, compassion fatigue, burnout prevention and self-care. Workshops focused on this theme were featured, along with other workshops that addressed specific areas of knowledge and skill development. This elevated the point that self-care is a professional responsibility, of equal importance to deepening knowledge and building skills. [Click to tweet]

That sharing of experiences, as much as the time I spent planning and preparing, contributed to what turned out to be an outstanding professional experience.

How Writing Helps Us Heal

Expressive writing, and other specific forms of writing – transactional, affirmative, poetic, legacy and mindful writing – improves our spirits long-term by allowing us to feel and honestly express difficult or painful feelings.

Writing deeply and honestly about what’s on our mind and in our hearts allows us to release feelings that have been kept walled off, which takes a lot of energy. Releasing them can feel like putting down a heavy burden. We feel lighter and freed up to attend to other things.  The writing allows us to reflect on past experiences, integrate experience and emotion, make meaning of what happened and move forward making use of what we have learned.

The positive impact of this kind of writing on our emotional and physical health and well-being has been well-documented by over 30 years of research. Expressive writing, and these other forms of writing, improve emotional and physical health, strengthen relationships, and enhance workplace and academic achievement.

 Healing In Action

I saw the power of writing in action during the 90 minute Strengthening Self-Compassion workshop. The focus on self-compassion was deliberate, as research links self-compassion — our ability to be kind and caring to ourselves — to preventing burnout and building resilience.

Thought about that way, cultivating compassion is a professional responsibility. [Click to tweet]. This is particularly true for the audience at this conference, which was made up of multi-disciplinary professionals who work with highly stressed parents and young children who are involved in the child welfare system.

Self-compassion is important to enabling us to work with true caring, acceptance and kindness with those very much in need of such support, and is a critical aspect of maintaining well-being in the midst of high-stress work. Even though it is critical to the work, most of us don’t come by self-compassion naturally.

Mindful Writing

In the workshop, we practiced several tools. We used the Six A’s of Mindful Writing, applying it to self-awareness and self-acceptance . Next we applied Mindful Writing to making meaning of a time when we had a strong negative emotional response to program participant or colleague. Finally we used it to bring a time we recognized a moment of success in our work. Each round of writing took about 5 minutes, and each brought new discoveries and learning.

Guess which one the three rounds was hardest? Allowing ourselves to acknowledge a success. That speaks to the strength of our Inner Critic, the inner voice that runs in the background, and sometimes comes to the foreground, negatively judging every aspect of our selves.

Finding Our Inner Encourager

As our next set of tools, we practiced turning down the volume on our Inner Critic and turning our attention to our Inner Encourager – the inner voice that offers us words of encouragement, understanding and help.

Letter of Self-Forgiveness

The last tool we tried out was to  write  a letter of self-forgiveness. This was not an easy one. It is difficult and painful to face our shared humanity that includes sometimes making mistakes, or doing things we later regret. That, some noted, brought tears, and yet also relief as we described to ourselves what had happened, and found words of acceptance and kindness to help us  resolve and let go of painful feelings we’ve been carrying. Writing allows us to look at our thoughts without judgement; to see what is useful and what is not; to decide what we can let go of, and what we can make positive use of.

As the participants wrote, I wrote along with them. If promoting self-compassion is an important gift togive ourselves, and one that helps us bring our best selves to  our work and to the world, it’s important that I not only teach it, but that I do it too.

Messages from our Inner Encourager

We shared messages from our Inner Encourager

You are enough.
You work hard and do great things.
You don’t have to be perfect. You can be good enough.
It’s okay to ask for help.

We also shared some struggles.

How it was painful to write the letter of forgiveness, and how it was important to our healing to have done so.
How it’s hard to hear the voice of the Inner Encourager, who might seem small and powerless in comparison to a big and scary Inner Critic.
How we struggle with guilt, feeling as though whatever we are doing, we should be somewhere else, or doing something else.

Closing with Gratitude

The session’s official end time came, but no one was quite ready to leave. A participant got up to close the door to block out the sounds from the hall and we continued for a few more minutes, processing our thoughts and discoveries.

None of this exchange involved sharing what we wrote. That remained private, creating safety and support as we wrote alone, but in the company of others. These supportive others listen compassionately and without judgement to the sharing of thoughts and feelings.

We closed our gathering with expressions of gratitude, with hugs, and with commitments to continue to use the tools we had practiced with to keep strengthening our capacity for self-compassion. I am still carrying with me, with feelings of tremendous gratitude, the energy of that experience, made up of equal parts of loving-kindness, compassion, caring and commitment.

Reference and Photo Credit

DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a way of healing. Boston: Beacon Press.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

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