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How do you document your life, capture your struggles and triumphs, and pay attention to how you have grown and changed? This might not be an easy question to answer, but is an especially important one for humanitarian workers. Humanitarian workers are generally exposed to multiple competing demands upon their time and energy, and a high degree of novelty and change. This environment can add spice to life. But life can also seem like it’s slipping by bewilderingly fast, with intense experiences blurring together into one long challenge. While it is impossible to undertake relief and development work without being challenged and changed by its demands, it’s sometimes difficult to identify and evaluate those changes amidst the busyness that usually comes with the work.
One of the best ways to check in with yourself and stay balanced is to make a habit of telling your stories, even if you aren’t entirely sure what they’re going to be before you start telling them! Of course, you can tell stories just by talking to others. However research suggests that there are added benefits to telling stories using a tangible, re-workable medium…like writing. A growing body of research suggests that writing detailed accounts about stressful or traumatic experiences in a way that links feelings with events leads to significant physical and psychological improvements that can endure for months. This remains true even if the experience of writing is upsetting in the short term.
Personally, I find that not only does writing help me feel better, but that merely considering how I’ll word my next email to my friends and family while an experience is unfolding can transform something potentially frustrating into something bearable, or even amusing. A good example of this can be seen in an excerpt from a letter, titled “Bridget Jones moves to the Balkans,” that I wrote while I was a young trainer on assignment in Croatia…
3:45pm: Joy! Just received two books on training from Amazon. Noooooo! They’re not on STRESS but SALES! Arghhhhh! This means waiting another 10 weeks while Amazon ships them to Vienna, then a courier ships them to Croatian customs, where they will no doubt languish indefinitely. I can't believe this! I thought I was joining a cutting edge training team - focusing on the pressing needs of today's humanitarian workers. I have no resources. No help. And less expertise than people seem to think I do. Note to self - have identified dysfunctional thought patterns here. Do not use the realism challenge as this will probably make you feel worse. Stick to plain old positive thinking. I am a stress management trainer extraordinaire...I am a stress management trainer extraordinaire...In fact - I am an excellent person full stop... I am... I am... I am HUNGRY! I wonder what I have to eat around here?
Writing can take many forms – letters, fiction, poetry, blogging and journaling. Many people who commit to the discipline of regular writing find that it becomes an essential part of their self-care routine. I also realize, however, that it’s not everyone’s passion. You might prefer to use other artistic mediums such as painting, drawing, scrap booking, or creating a photo gallery on a blog. Even something like collecting favorite recipes from places you’ve lived and visited can become a tangible marker of your experiences. But however you choose to do it… make sure you’re telling your stories.
This month: Try spending some time at least once a week telling your story in a way you enjoy.
Adapted by Fara Choi from our Peace by Piece series written by Lisa McKay.
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