The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
This week I’m joined by Alex Elle, writer, wellness educator, and certified breathwork coach whose work centers on writing and self-care. She is the author of several books and journals including, After the Rain: Gentle Reminders for Healing, Courage, and Self-Love and her brand new release, How We Heal: Uncover Your Power and Set Yourself Free. Alex and I discussed writing as a healing tool and the inspiration behind her latest book, the power of sisterhood and how to cultivate a community that feels non-judgmental, how to lean into your truth and building an emotional toolkit.
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Executive Producers: Dennison Bradford & Maya Cole Howard
Producers: Fredia Lucas, Ellice Ellis & Cindy Okereke
Session 283: Writing to Heal with Alex Elle
Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 283 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get right into our conversation after a word from our sponsors.
Dr. Joy: Today's guest isn't just on a personal healing journey but is using her gifts, talents and latest book to help others discover essential techniques for healing, cultivating innate strength and finding tools to process difficult emotions. This week, I'm joined by Alex Elle, writer, wellness educator and certified breathwork coach, whose work centers on writing and self-care. She's the author of several books and journals including After the Rain: Gentle Reminders for Healing, Courage, and Self-Love, and her brand-new release, How We Heal: Uncover Your Power and Set Yourself Free.
Alex and I discussed writing as a healing tool and the inspiration behind her latest book, the power of sisterhood, and how to cultivate a community that feels nonjudgmental, how to lean into your truth, and building an emotional toolkit. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession or join us over in the Sister Circle to talk more in depth about the episode. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Alex.
Alex: Thank you for having me. I'm a big fan.
Dr. Joy: Thank you, excited to chat with you. You do so many things: you are a writer, poet, wellness educator and a certified breathwork coach. Can you tell me a little bit about what attracted you to writing and poetry as a medium?
Alex: Oh my goodness. I've been writing since, I don't know, by age 10. I was an only child, so a lot of my creativity came out through writing short stories and poetry. But it wasn't until I turned 18 or 19 and I was connected with this amazing therapist who encouraged me to write to heal myself. And so in my emotional toolbox, she gave me a journal and said, keep this in your emotional toolbox and use this to be kind to yourself. Because all of my writing and storytelling was really rooted in sadness and so it wasn't until I started writing to heal that I actually started to feel inspired by writing and also affirmed by writing.
Dr. Joy: I love that. We love a good therapy origin story. Can you tell me more about what she shared about how she felt like the writing would help to heal?
Alex: She told me that I needed to be my own greatest teacher and that for so long I had been looking outside of myself. Which is the truth, I was 18, 19, 20 young, and really wanting validation from those around me, especially my parents. And so she was encouraging me to be the validation that I did not get or that I was not getting. And also positive self-talk. Be kind to yourself, start there. And that was really foreign to me back then but now it is what I do for a living. And it's just like, if she wouldn't have given me that tool, I don't think I will be here today.
Dr. Joy: I love that. We are definitely going to dive deep into your newest book, How We Heal, but you have so many other books and lots of great work that you have produced. Can you talk a little bit about how all of the other work that you've done has gotten you to this stage where you have now put out How We Heal?
Alex: That's a really good question. I would have to say that my last book, actually, After the Rain is really what shifted me to this phase in my career and in my life. After the Rain was a part memoir, my agent calls it a encapsulated memoir, where I talk about my origin story, like with my mother, how I learned self-love, how I learned self-hatred and how I'm choosing to grow through some of the pain that I've gone through. The other books were Notes To Self and essay and poetry, but it really wasn't until I started talking about my own “how I got here” story that I was really able to use my growth to put me in the place to write How We Heal. Because I'm a big believer that healing is a communal act, that healing is community care, it's an active community service, and when we allow ourselves to heal and grow, even after the rain and after our storms, we can pass that on by leading by example, to other folks.
Dr. Joy: Your work I think is so brave in a lot of ways, Alex, because you are sharing so much of your personal story on such a huge platform. We've talked to other black women who are creatives and authors and do other kinds of work, and while it can be incredibly powerful because it allows other people to see themselves and to really accept and honor their own stories, it often comes with a lot of needing to protect yourself. You're very vulnerable by sharing some of the things that you've shared. Can you say a little bit about what that process has been like and how you have taken care of yourself in the midst of that process?
Alex: Oh, my gosh, that process looks like boundaries. Everything isn't for everyone. And I think when you are vulnerable, people think, oh my gosh, they're sharing everything, like I know everything. And it's really maybe a percent of my life that I share with folks. It's interesting that you brought this up because I had a friend tell me early on, before I started sharing and writing books, this was 10 years ago—11 years ago now… And she said you need to stop hoarding your happiness, you never know who needs you. I was in a really different place then and I was just insecure and scared, like who is going to read a book from me? Who is going to care about that? She goes, you don't know who needs you. That was really my push to step out on bravery and courage and vulnerability, especially as a black woman.
I mean, I was a teen mom, I had my first daughter, I was 18. I'm now married, I have two more daughters and I've gone through my fair share of really deep pain and trauma. And to be on the other side of that and standing in a life that is fulfilling and rooted in ease and healing and joy, I think other black women need and deserve to see that. Especially those of us who may have been teen mothers, who may have come from abusive homes. To see that there is possibility and that there is healing, even if you're the first one in your lineage to be doing the healing. I think that is sacred, I don't take that for granted. I think that is God's work and universe's work to be able to use me in that way so that people can say, wow, she did that and I can do that. And that's really important to me.
Dr. Joy: Tell me how How We Heal is different from the rest of your work. What does the book cover?
Alex: The book is really my journey through writing to heal and it's really a guide. It's a guide to finding your voice on the page, which is really special to me, especially as a facilitator. I've taught thousands of people writing to heal and how to really tap into their voice, not even to write books or anything like that, but just to get clear on their own wants and needs and healing. How We Heal is essentially that. And also, there's different women in the book who I interviewed to break up the journaling prompts, to break up my stories and my teachings, so that folks can see that healing is so diverse and it looks very different for everyone. It may not be writing to heal for you, it could be gardening. Like my friend, Nedra Glover Tawwab is in the book, she's a therapist and she talked about how being with her garden is healing. There are so many other amazing women in this book, like Morgan Harper Nichols and an Olympian who is really wonderful, her name is Megan Rapinoe. And we're all different and we're all sharing what healing looks like for us and what taking care of ourselves looks like for us.
It was really important for me to give folks other views on what healing is. People know how I heal, but how we heal as a collective is so vast. And I think that's extremely beautiful to be able to say, hey, you may not resonate with this section of the book, but you may resonate with Nedra’s story or you may resonate with Tabitha Brown’s story. Take what you need and leave what you don't. And also, I wanted How We Heal to be accessible. I've read a lot of books on healing and self-help and a lot of times, I’m like what are they saying? I don't understand. I know we're talking about intergenerational trauma, but how do I start peeling back the layers? I wanted How We Heal to be a steppingstone of sorts for folks to have an accessible tool in language they can understand on how they can begin their journey.
Dr. Joy: I think that that was very clear in the book, so I appreciate you sharing that. You’ve mentioned your work as a facilitator of workshops around writing. I wonder if you can say a little bit about some of the common themes that you see with the women that you work with. What are some of the struggles they have about like finding their voice on the page?
Alex: Wanting to be seen, feel safe, and be supported. I call that my Triple S: seen, safe, supported. And I ask folks often, what do you want to feel? What do you need? Who are you outside of your roles to other people. It's hard for people to identify that, especially women, especially black women, because we are so used to putting everybody else before ourselves and doing it with a smile on our face. I mean, I saw my grandmother do it, I saw my mother do it, and that's the theme. Like, wow, I don't even know how to center myself because I am so used to being everything to everyone and nothing to myself. I think something else that's really beautiful that I've experienced over the past six years of being a facilitator, is that I have had folks aged 16 all the way up to age 84. The last group that I taught, it was a grandmother, her granddaughters and her daughter, all came to a retreat that I was teaching. Grandma was 84 years old. And the message was still I want to feel seen, safe and supported. And that was really beautiful, like cross generations, cross cultural lines, we want to feel held and so that's what I hear a lot of.
Dr. Joy: Are you still doing those workshops?
Alex: Oh, yeah.
Dr. Joy: Nice, I love that. And I wonder if there were some theme that you saw in the stories from the women that you share in the book, like were there some themes that came up for you then?
Alex: The themes were that this is hard work, this is intentional work, and it has to be a daily practice. That is the theme. That self-care and healing has to be something that we intentionally make space for.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Alex after the break.
Dr. Joy: I was particularly excited to see you talk about sisterhood in the book as I'm also writing about sisterhood. You talked about nonjudgmental safety net of sisterhood. Can you say a little bit about how sisterhood and community has been healing for you?
Alex: It just makes me feel held. It makes me feel held and I cherish it so much because growing up I was the only child. I didn't feel seen, I didn't feel held, and it wasn't until I went through this big transformation around age 22, 23 where I literally lost everybody (meaning I had to step away from who I used to know and who I used to be to step into who I wanted to be) and that is really where I found my core group of sister friends. And without judgment, without shame, without guilt, they hold me and I hold them and I had never experienced that before. So having that chosen family and it be a safe space, I'm so grateful for it and I feel like everybody needs sister friends. It is just so, so sacred. And to have also a neutral party. Like even if we love each other, it's like, okay, I'm not in your relationship, you know what I mean? I'm not in your workplace. How can I support you and be there for you in a way that makes you feel like you're not being judged? So yeah.
Dr. Joy: How have you been able to do that in your sister circle? Because I think that those are difficult conversations, especially when you know somebody so intimately. How do you cultivate a space that feels nonjudgmental?
Alex: I ask permission and they ask me permission, and we have boundaries. So before I give my two cents or my advice or before I give any type of response, I'll say “Can I share something that I just noticed you say?” Or, hey, I need the space to say something. Especially if like there may be a disagreement or there may be some odd energy in the air. Like, hey, I feel something, can we talk about it? How I knew my sister friends were my sisters was that it was never met with dismissiveness. Always met with “yes” and that's because we feel safe with each other. Creating that emotional safety is so major. I feel like all of us at one point felt like we didn't have that, so to have that with each other and to be choosing that intentionally has been a game changer. It's a game changer.
Dr. Joy: I agree. Tell me, what are you most excited for people to read in the book?
Alex: I'm actually most excited for people to walk away feeling like they can trust themselves and like they have their answers. Just like how my therapist, Miss B, all those years ago told me that I had my answers. I am excited for people to read my stories and feel like they're sitting down and talking with a friend. I am excited for people to learn different tools by way of writing and meditation and breathwork and everything else in between, and see what sticks and what helps them deepen their own practices. That's really what's exciting for me. I am a writer but I'm a teacher first and so getting people to lean into their truth is so, so, so important to me and that's what I'm really most excited about.
Dr. Joy: What work do you think needs to happen before people are ready to lean into the truth? Because I think a lot of people say that and then they see a little glimpse of the truth and they’re like, “Oh wait, let me back up. I'm not actually ready for this.” What needs to happen before people are actually ready to face their truth?
Alex: Something that I say often is baby steps are still steps and so taking the baby steps to see yourself, to look at your trauma but also to center your joy, is really important for me. And I want people to take that away from How We Heal as well. You don't always have to be in deep healing work. I often tell my clients and my students you can be in the middle of your healing and that can look and feel neutral. You don't always have to be down and out or feeling like, oh, I made it over that thing. Sometimes you're just in the middle. And giving yourself permission to put your healing down, I think is really step one in honoring your truth because maybe your truth is I cannot deal with this today. You can come back to it. Your healing is always going to be there for you. I really do believe healing is a forever love and we’ll be healing until we transition off of this earth and I think that's actually a really beautiful thing. I also want people to know that, especially black women, we are allowed to center ourselves, we are allowed to center our joy, and healing isn't just about our trauma. It's also about preparing for the happiness, being in the happy moments, even if we're in our hurting. And just trusting that we are enough, even when the world tells us we are not.
Dr. Joy: You mentioned the hoarding happiness that came from one of your friends early and you just mentioned it again. It feels like something that maybe a lot of women struggle with, like this always preparing for the shoe to drop or the other shoe to drop. Talk a little bit about what kinds of things people can do if they find themselves struggling with hoarding their happiness or wanting to really allow happiness in their lives.
Alex: I'd like people to really think about how that makes you feel. Do you feel whole holding on to things? Do you feel easeful? Ease is one of my words of the year, easeful and clarity. Do you feel clear minded and easeful with thinking that, okay, this is really not meant for me, or this is going to pass, or this is not mine or I'm not worthy of it? Oftentimes, people say no, I don't feel good. I want to share my happiness, I want to be in joy with other people, I want to feel like this is meant for me and I can bask in it. And so if you're saying, no, that doesn't feel good, I would just encourage you to try to look at the little things that do feel good. What does spark happiness for you and how can you share it, not only with yourself, but with others? And how can you let yourself be in that? And I think reminding myself personally, like I am safe now, I am not in survival mode, I am allowed to hold this happiness. Yeah, that's what I would say.
Dr. Joy: One of the other people that you included in the book is Dr. Thema Bryant, fellow colleague and psychologist—she shared her healing after a sexual assault. Why did you feel like it was important to, one, include her story, but also to include the voices of mental health professionals in the book?
Alex: Dr. Thema is one of my absolute favorite humans on this planet. Her ease, her joy, and her reclamation of healing, it just is otherworldly. I thought it was really important to include that story because she's not the only one with that story. And that is how we really create healing, is sharing the thing that makes us feel most alone and realizing that we are not alone in our struggles. And to hear a psychologist, a proclaimed healer in this generation, talk about her trauma and how to come home to yourself after something that big and painful, that's moving. That's brave, that's vulnerability and that is a door opener for other people, which is why I had her and everyone else contribute to this book.
Dr. Joy: Agreed. I definitely think that, again, like we talked about before. When we share our stories, it really does provide the space for other people to share theirs, so I completely agree with you there. Another feature of the book is that there are lots of journal prompts and spaces for people to kind of reflect on their own experiences. Can you say a little bit about how you came up with the prompts? And is there one that really sticks out to you that you would want to share with our community today?
Alex: Yeah, so a lot of the prompts in How We Heal come from the coursework that I've taught. Over the pandemic, I taught about 15,000 folks and each course was different every quarter and so I pulled some things that really resonated with my community there. Also, as a writing to heal facilitator, I'm always thinking about, okay, how can we make this a journal prompt to reflect on? And these are not super deep questions, y'all. They are very much “get back to basic questions,” which is really what I want people to understand. Like, that's how we start our process, by getting back to basics. In every book that I've ever written, are prompts in there because I really want folks to tap into their voice and their truth.
The journaling prompt that's titled What Are You Scared Of is one of my favorite things because nobody likes to talk about their fears, myself included, it's scary. But something that I've realized in my journey is that befriending my fear has really helped me be in healthy partnership with it, instead of trying to just hush it or turn away from it. It says: What are you scared of? Now it's time to unpack what you're scared of so that you can begin to befriend your fear. In your journal, answer the following questions:
What fear has been coming up for you the most these days?
What is your first memory of this fear?
How is it getting in the way of your healing?
What would it feel like to befriend this fear and make it a part of your healing?
It's just giving people some reframe questions to think about, to look at, and maybe they’ll be supportive, maybe they won't. But it's about the exploration and that's what I think fear and healing need. To be explored and greeted with a curious mind.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, that feels like an exercise you can come back to time and time again. Because of course, fears change throughout our lives so that’s one to revisit for sure. What was your inspiration in writing this book? Are there other authors or other books that you looked (at) to kind of pave the way for this one?
Alex: No. It's really hard for me to read other people's work when I'm writing. I'm an avid reader, I'm an avid book collector. So I try to think about what book would I want to read? How We Heal, like my other books are kind of set up a little bit differently. There's a lot of breathing room in there with practices so that people can actually absorb the work and then do their own. I knew that I wanted this book not to be in chapters but to be in sections, so there's four main sections. I knew that I wanted within the sections to be not only my stories and teachings, but the other women that I interviewed for this book, and the meditations and journaling, etc. I wanted this book to feel easeful. I want this book to be one that people come back to, time and time again. I want people to keep it out. It's a very beautiful book. I don't know if you have the hardcopy, but it's a very beautiful book so I want people to keep it out, to reach for it, keep it by their nightstand, gift it to others. All in all, I just really wanted it to be and feel accessible. Not just say that it is, but actually have a tool that is what it's supposed to be.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Alex after the break.
Dr. Joy: You opened up our conversation talking about how a lot of your writing came from that original therapy assignment. Can you say a little bit about how you have worked with mental health professionals in your own healing journey? And especially as writing books. Like because I'm in the midst of edits for my first book, a lot of my therapy sessions are now about the book. So I'm curious to hear what kinds of mental health assistance you've had, throughout your life, but also as you've been writing all these books.
Alex: I went back to therapy last year and it was interesting writing How We Heal because I was in the midst of my own deep, deep emotional healing. And my therapist just said, be patient with yourself, you don't have to have the answers. And I already know these things but it's nice to have someone reminding me like, hey girl, relax. It's okay. Having a neutral party when I need mental health maintenance, not just when I'm having these big moments in my life, has been so helpful. Because sometimes we're not going through big things where we need to be unpacking. Sometimes we are like, yo, I don't know what's going on, I just need some mental health maintenance, I need a neutral party who is going to ask me some tough questions and also just let me talk. That's really how I was supported through How We Heal—my therapist just listening, asking me some questions, reflecting back to me and helping me not overthink because I tend to be an over thinker.
Dr. Joy: It feels familiar. Do you feel like you learned anything new about yourself from writing this book versus the books in the past?
Alex: Oh, that's a good question. I think that this book solidified that I have a lot more healing to do and that each stage of healing looks and feels different, it's kind of seasonal. This season of my healing, when I was writing How We Heal, it was hard. I have three children, I have a husband, we were home during the pandemic. I had to go to Starbucks a lot of nights and be there until they closed because that's the only time I could write the book. When I was there by myself with my thoughts, writing stories about my first experience with big fear that happened with my biological father, or writing stories about making my favorite peach cobbler and not getting the response that I wanted or needed from my mother at the time… All these different things that I thought I was over but I'm still healing from, this book has shown me that I need to pay closer attention to those small things, to those tender things. And to not judge myself for it, to not judge myself for being 33 years old, still struggling with something that happened when I was seven. It's like, how do we heal ourselves and our inner child? And how do we give ourselves grace as we move through the different seasons of our healing?
Dr. Joy: I think that there's something particularly powerful about having daughters and being able to have this work as they get older, right? What would you like for them to take from your books?
Alex: I would like them to take self-trust from my books. To stand bravely in their truth and to know that they are their own person, they are their own safe space, with or without the validation of others, including me and their dad. I'm really glad you asked that because I have a 14-year-old, she'll be 15 in November. And she is such a self-aware, kind, sweet, creative kid and she's really sure of herself. And it's just like, wow, seeing her is seeing my healing and it's absolutely phenomenal. She trusts herself in a way that I didn't at her age and it's like, oh, I'm doing something right. I'm raising humans, I'm raising young black girls to know their worth from jump.
It's so funny because my husband, he tells Charlie who's our oldest, he goes, “Remember who you are, you are Big Dog.” So when she goes to school and she gets so embarrassed, like, who are you today? She's like, I'm a big dog, papa, I’m a big dog. But she believes it. And even when she's having her moments of like she's an artist and she gets really frustrated with her paintings or sketches don't come out. And she's like, it's okay, I'm a big dog. It's just hilarious but it's like there's her affirmation. I'm a big dog. I’m just sharing that silly story because it's just not always heavy. Sometimes it's just light and we are allowed to be lighthearted, and we are capable of raising children who know themselves and that's so powerful.
Dr. Joy: It really is. And even in you sharing that small example, you can see how the voice in our head is from our parents often. So her even repeating “I’m a big dog,” you think is very silly, but she's holding on to it. I think it's just a beautiful example of how our voice then becomes the voice in our kids’ heads very often.
Alex: Very often, yes.
Dr. Joy: What have you learned from your own healing and writing journey that you could share with others who may be kind of starting the process of using writing to heal?
Alex: That I have no answers, I know nothing, and that I am a forever student of life and I actually really love that. I didn't used to. I’d be like, dang, I thought I learned that already, I thought I healed from that already but here I am. And instead of beating myself up over not knowing or thinking… Because growing up, we hear like, oh, you should know better, you should know better. I'm like, I don't know better, sometimes I don't know better and that is okay. I can give myself grace for not knowing better and I can give myself grace for still having to heal through things that I thought I already healed from. That is, I think my biggest takeaway. It's okay to not know better and that we can continue to learn and be curious so that we can gain the knowledge to do better as we grow.
Dr. Joy: Beautifully said. Where can we stay connected with you, Alex? Where can we grab the book? Where can we find your website as well as any social media handles you'd like to share?
Alex: My website is AlexElle.com. You can find all the links to How We Heal, it's very much in your face. I'm going on tour. In November, I'll be going to seven cities; I would love to see folks there. Tour dates are also on AlexElle.com. I have a podcast called This Morning Walk and it is one of my favorite things. It's cohosted with the lady who got me walking over a year ago so it's really awesome and very healing. On Instagram, I’m just @Alex. Facebook, I think it's AlexElleFB. Yeah, I'm always open to an email so you can hit the Contact tab on my website in there. And if you want to come to retreat with me, you can find all of that on AlexElle.com too.
Dr. Joy: Perfect, we will be sure to include all of that in the show notes. Thank you so much for chatting with us today, Alex, I really appreciate it.
Alex: Thank you for having me, this was great.
Dr. Joy: I'm so glad Alex was able to share her expertise with us today. To learn more about her or to grab a copy of How We Heal, visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session283. Don't forget to text two of your girls and tell them to check out the episode right now. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory. And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis, and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. Thank y’all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.