Author, La Mariposa (the butterfly): A Personal Empowerment Program for Adolescent Latinas — Public Speaker — Founder Together for Latinas, Inc., Vice President, One Circle Foundation -photo courtesy of @annamherbst at www.annaherbstphoto.com
This week here in the UK, Boris Johnson will announce next steps toward reintegration to our public spaces. This may be happening for you where you live, as we wake up from our hibernations.
I’ve been self-isolating since March 14th and my instinct tells me to prepare for what’s potentially coming in the next few days and weeks: in particular, feelings of grief. I’m anticipating marked changes in my life and in my city that I’ll undoubtedly compare to the reality I put on pause a few months ago.
To hear more about the importance of moving forward with grief, which is to say to experience it fully and ultimately weave it into our story, listen to Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David’s podcast Checking In. In her short episodes, she shares advice on how to cope during these unsure times.
Just after self-isolating, I began recording Journaling Together. If you haven’t followed along, it’s a video blog meant to encourage expressive writing as a way to ease anxiety and improve overall wellness. I wanted to find a way to help and I thought I’d actually do my journaling online and invite others to join me in that calm space. I’ve considered techniques that worked for me throughout my life, which I believe are relevant even in these unsure times.
Before sharing five minutes of timed (and recorded) writing, I provide personal stories and observations I hope resonate with you. Below are descriptions and links for each video.
I am moving from daily recordings to weekly, at minimal. I hope you’ll watch future weekly Journaling Together videos. Your ideas and feedback are encouraged!
* I recently published this as an article on Medium titled DOTS Journaling: Four Steps & Three Questions to MAJORLY Improve Relationships — Reconnect With Yourself And Others During Covid-19 & Beyond. It’s an approach to journaling I developed years ago. (It’s the written version of video Day 4.) I hope you find it helpful. If you do, please share with someone you think will benefit from it. Thank you!
In addition to spending time with my family and connecting with friends across seas and countries, a lot of good has come from my time in lock-down. I’d decided to focus on getting back to healthy eating and to practice mindfulness through meditation and exercise.
As I age, I’m more conscious about food and its impact on health and the environment. I’ve realized how often we’d been eating out and how much salt, fat and added sugar are loaded on to take-out and restaurant meals. I’m hoping to cook more healthful, meatless, home-cooked meals going forward.
I realize there are many who are struggling to keep their heads above water. I am in complete awe of our care providers and the caregivers and parents who are working hard to balance multiple roles of employee, parent, and teacher. Stay strong! You are heroes in my eyes.
What about you?
What positives do you want to try and carry forward as we step into post-lockdown society? I’d love to hear your experience!
I wish you health, I wish you safety, I wish you wellness.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead to an understanding of ourselves.”
Carl G Jung
Let’s face it, there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Sometimes, even the most loving couple can aggravate each other. Familiarity can blur sacred boundaries. We bicker, blame, perhaps even say hurtful things before we pause to consider the consequences. At times, friendships can experience tension, as can relationships with family or coworkers.
Whether we are in a relationship where neither person seems to hear or understand the other or confined to four walls during a restless pandemic, it can be hard to see beyond annoyance or hurt to get unstuck. So, how can we safely manage anxiety, gain clarity, and emerge with next-level relationships?
Fortunately, there is a proven way, and you have probably been doing it already: Journaling.
By expressing our emotions through written language, without pausing the pen or censoring our thoughts, we can get to the heart of the matter.
If you are familiar with journaling, you most likely know its many benefits, including the health improvements that happen when we engage in this process as a practice to combat depression and reduce or eliminate anxiety.
In addition to controlling these diseases, here is a reminder of just a few ways journaling can support us:
Provides relief from racing or disturbing thoughts
Helps organize thoughts
Boosts our mood and positive outlook
Improve self-awareness and esteem
Facilitates personal growth
With so much to gain, it is surprising that journaling is readily accessible and requires little to get started: a pen and something to write on.
While journaling when we are stressed may help relieve tension at the moment, it may not necessarily strengthen our relationships unless we analyze what is happening on a conscious level, making it likely the problem will repeatedly surface.
So how do we get off the hamster wheel and move beyond writing to reconnecting and bonding with others?
The key may be in HOW we journal.
For nearly a year, I found myself journaling about a specific issue in my relationship, usually centered around our different parenting styles. When it came to this situation, we could not communicate well: I would say something, he’d become angry, we would stop speaking, or vice versa. Repeat.
Anger, sadness, or disappointment drove me to the page each time. The relief I experienced was enough for me in those moments. But eventually, the problem would show up on the page again.
Looking back at my journal, I knew I had to dive deeper into a more reflective form of introspection, one that would help me connect the dots and understand what was really at the root of the problem.
I developed DOTS Journaling: a four-step, three-question approach to unpack issues, relate to others, and reconnect relationships in a meaningful way:
Dump, Observe, Time, Synthesize
Step 1 — Dump it all onto the page. Writing to release tension and charged energy — that lion roaring in our head — can immediately calm us and lower anxiety, making space for us to think more clearly.
It’s important to acknowledge how we are feeling and the reasons we are feeling this way. (I feel this way because…)
By detailing what happened and what was said, we can begin to unpack the issue.
Step 2 — Observe the situation by answering three questions:
Q1: What is my role?
Q2: What might the other person be experiencing or feeling?
Q3: How can I help?
“Ego takes everything personally.”
Q1: What is my role?
This question helps identify the specific actions and words we contributed to the event.
How exactly did I contribute to the issue?What could I have done better?
(To help separate the person from the event, try writing in the third person. Instead of using “I” in this reflective writing, use a pronoun, your name, or a friend’s name.)
Q2: What might the other person be experiencing?
This is where we will need to identify and move Ego* aside, shifting the focus to consider what is potentially happening in the other person’s life.
It helps to imagine floating high up in the air, hovering over the person. Looking down, note their relationships, and consider what may be happening for them at work, home, or school. What observations may explain their role in the conflict?
Try to step in their shoes.
* We can recognize Ego’s voice because it is harsh, needy, often negative, and defensive. Alternately, our intuitive inner-voice is calm, gentle, and non-judgemental.
“If you can’t control people, then control your reaction to them. If you can’t control a situation, then prepare for it.”
Q3: How Can I Help?
Here we identify an action we can take to improve the situation – one that doesn’t compromise our integrity, but emulates our values and aligns with our intention to reconnect.
We can ask ourselves if there’s a behavior or action we’re contributing that may need addressing. Or do we need further information to gain insight? Perhaps we can explore this by asking the person open-ended questions.
Might we need to apologize? If so, why?
Step 3 — Timing — Reconnect with the person when the time is right. Knowing when they are most receptive to engage in a conversation could mean the difference between progress and a stales-mate.
Consider the time of day they have the most energy and calming presence. Note the extent that food impacts mood or attention. To ease the pressure, should we consider a neutral meeting space? Does he/she require more time to digest information? If so, might a handwritten note or e-message work best in this situation?
Once we identify the best time and approach for reconnecting, it’s helpful to prepare for a productive conversation. We can do this by speaking from the “I” point of view to create a neutral, non-accusatory tone. While it’s important to share how we feel, the discussion should happen when we are grounded and ready to share facts.
The situation made me feel… because…
I understand these facts about what happened…
I acknowledge my role and understand that I (contributed in this way…)
Acknowledging our role can help build trust and accountability and create a more open conversation.
Avoid directing blame. Instead, state facts and open up the conversation with open-ended questions** that begin with how or what. Closed-ended questions that result in yes or no answers often don’t provide insight.
What would you consider a fair compromise?
What steps do you suggest we take?
How can we support one another when it comes to this issue?
It’s helpful to remember that we can’t control how others react, so offer this gesture without expecting anything in return. Some need time to process. Trust that the words or acts will be received as intended.
**A note on the importance of the pause: the time between delivering a question or message and response can feel uncomfortable if there is prolonged silence. Try to settle into this space and allow the silence to happen. This is critical thinking time. It could be that the person is processing and exploring new territory. If you wait for them to naturally break the pause, you will receive a genuine response.
Step 4 — Synthesize — Reflect on the experience and results of DOTS Journaling.
How did the follow-up conversation go? Was an understanding reached? Did the timing work or might there be a better time to re-engage? What observations should be noted for future reference?
How difficult was it to recognize and move Ego aside? How did its absence (or presence) contribute to the conversation?
Answering these questions on the page makes our reflections tangible, so they are there to revisit and remind us when needed.
Once I approached the conflict in my relationship through DOTS Journaling, I understood that I was carrying issues from my childhood that were no longer serving me. And in the space of our conversation, he was encouraged to consider his actions.
This new awareness helped us formulate healthier responses to some of the parenting challenges we faced. It took time, practice, and patience but we were able to work through this issue and become better parents and better life partners.
Whether we are in the midst of a challenging relationship or simply wanting to improve one, DOTS Journaling can be an insightful way to problem-solve while learning more about ourselves and the relationships we care about.
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” Anne Frank
I sat at the corner hugging my legs and gasping for air. My bedroom shrank away from me, taking the oxygen with it. It was an early summer day in 1988 when the oppressive weight of depression settled onto my chest.
To drown out my thoughts, I’d turned on the radio, the fan that rattled on my bedside table, and every light with a working bulb.
After an hour and eternity, a cold rush came over me as if doused with a bucket of ice water – I decided it was the end. I’d lived a full, sometimes agonizing, life – thrust into adulthood in the mere single digits of life. I could go already, I agreed. I wanted the pain to end. I thought about the old bottle of antidepressants in my dresser drawer.
I can still hear myself whimper, “I’m so tired…I’m so tired…I’m so tired…” as I rocked myself. A tired ninety-year-old trapped in a seventeen-year-old body.
Was there a particular incident that drew me to the corner that day? I suppose it could have been the conversation I’d just had with my boyfriend, my first love and best friend, that definitively ended our relationship.
It could have been the fact that my circle of friends was disbanding, not because of anything that happened, but the way friendships end after high school when we reshuffle to new schools, the military, or to Florida, where many of my friends had family and a desire for warm sun and long, sandy beaches.
It could have been that I hadn’t seen or spoken to Mami in over a year. Mom tended to separate from things that were too hurtful. Not long after my parents’ divorce, she joined the Florida migration and moved as far away from us as she could from the Connecticut coast.
Or, it could have been that I suddenly found myself completely lost – alone and invisible between two worlds that couldn’t see me in my pain.
I no longer belonged to my familia. So many broken relationships from choosing sides in the divorce, mine – to live with my father when I was fifteen- was unforgivable to my Puerto Rican family. While I had steadiness and security with Papi, I lacked identity and self-esteem.
“Nena, your Spanish is really bad,” I was told by some in my family. I heard the rumors, too. “She ain’t down with our familia.”
“Yeah, she’s just in it for her.”
“She’s conceited. Thinks she better than us with her white girl english.”
In those pre-AOC, Salma Hayek, and Justice Sotomayor days, I couldn’t see myself outside of my inner-city neighborhood either. That spring, I toured NYU’s Stern School of Business with my prima Wanda. As we walked the campus and visited the dorms, we noticed no one looked like us. “Damn, girl, where are the Puertoriqueños up here?” I asked.
Hello? Am I alone? Where are my people? I felt misplaced and boxy in a world accustomed to people who fit neatly into smooth shapes.
Later, when I received my letter of acceptance and a half-ride offer, I turned it down. I decided my place was at home to watch over Papi. He didn’t push me. I had no plan B.
I didn’t trust myself at that moment, so I called my best friend Lisa. She rushed over and saw me pressed into the crease of the corner like a wet banana leaf.
I’ve seen girls like me get called changa and estupida for showing too much confusion and emotion as if the deal was already sorted for us and there was nothing to feel or figure out. Pick up your pantaletas and join the rest of us who are suffering, en la lucha!
I measured what I shared with Lisa, something I’d become used to doing with people because I didn’t want to freak her out and scare her away.
Later, when she left to go home, so did the sense of relief she provided. I panicked.
What if she hadn’t come over?
What was I capable of doing?
Who could I turn to next time?
No one understands me!
I always thought diaries were reserved for girls who believed their dreams were possible.
The green letters on my monitor screen were twitching. I sat in front of the computer, barely able to see the wavy letters through my tears, and began typing. Like a ravine during a heavy rainstorm, my thoughts screamed down my arms through my fingertips and exploded onto the hard keys.
I wrote letters to two people that day.
I thanked Miguel, the yin to my yang, for keeping our promise to say when another eye caught ours. I gave thanks for our four years of love and described everything I admired about him, everything I would miss about us. My heart ripped through my ribs as I finally let him go.
The second letter was to myself, by a voice I’ve always heard but never understood. This time I let her speak through my fingers. She told me I was where I needed to be, feeling what I needed to – I would grow from all of this, she said – and she assured me I’d know what to do when the time came.
This new self-talk way of expressing myself, translating my feelings into words without thinking or censoring or judging myself, calmed my racing thoughts. The weight on my chest felt bearable.
In front of me, her words unfolded like a present: “Just keep going, Nancy. Just keep going.”
The next day I read my journal as a friend’s note, allowing me to separate from my feelings and see things more clearly. That same week, I enrolled at my local community college.
Still today, as a Latina woman trying to adapt to a new life in London, I journal to relieve stress and to observe my thoughts. I write to get to the bottom of how I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way.
And I began reflecting on what’s positive, things that make me happy, big and small: my bed, my blanket, a good book, the smile from a stranger in passing who sees me.
Over time, I’ve gained confidence in myself, knowing there is good in my life, and believing the voice in my head who assures me I’ll know what to do when the time comes.
How about you?
Is there a letter you need to write? Is there someone to forgive, to let go, or thank? We don’t have to mail these to release the hold they might have on us.
Let me know how journaling works for you.
Latinas and Depression
Recently, I met with a group of young ladies in Ohio who completed the La Mariposa program. As we spoke, they shared how journaling helped them gain clarity and to feel better about themselves.
As bicultural females, young Latinas today have many of the same struggles I did growing up. Yet, anti-immigrant rhetoric adds to their worries and feelings of inclusion and security.
In his book titled Latinas Attempting Suicide: When Cultures, Families, and Daughters Collide, Dr. Luis Zayas, a psychologist who conducted a 10-year study to understand the mystery of the alarming number of suicide attempts by young Latinas*, found that journaling helped significantly reduce attempts among his study group. He found it gave them a voice and an immediate way to express themselves and safely release the heavy pressure they hold inside.