‘Writing as a healing space where our soul can speak and unfold.’1 One of the benefits of scribing the soul is to create what the African-American activist and academic, bell hooks, calls a healing space. Self-care is one of the ethical principles we all subscribe to as practitioners, and ensuring we maintain our own wellbeing is one of the purposes of supervision.2
Recent developments in BACP’s Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions (2018) define supervision as: ‘a specialised form of professional mentoring provided for practitioners responsible for undertaking challenging work with people. Supervision is provided to ensure standards, enhance quality, stimulate creativity and support the sustainability and resilience of the work being undertaken.’2
In inviting participants to write reflectively during a recent short presentation in Gateshead, on which this article is based, I was highlighting the words ‘creativity’ and ‘resilience’ from that paragraph from the Ethical Framework. Like any other expressive art, writing helps you step aside, move away from the everyday path. It combines richly with other expressive arts, eg dance and movement, drawing and painting. It’s a kind of deep listening to yourself. The strength it builds is more to do with your agency and creativity than with positive psychology, and what can sometimes feel like ‘you will find the benefit in adversity’.
Soul means very different things to different people, depending on culture, language and religion. At the BACP event in Gateshead, I was tempted to play some music by Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who had recently died, but decided against it. For some, associations with soul might be more JS Bach or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. George Fox, in the Quaker tradition, refers to the inward light, and there is always a cultural, a collective, connection, adding an external context to that inner light. As other presenters had looked at soul in more depth, my aim was to invite participants to try out some reflective writing. You might want to try it.
The first writing activity, a six-minute splurge, is tapping into the unconscious mind by deliberately turning off the ‘thinking’ part of the brain. This might sound contradictory – writing is a cognitive activity – but it’s possible. Just write whatever comes to the end of your pen, or fingers – don’t think about grammar, spelling, nobody else is going to read this but you. It may be that only a shopping list or ‘to do’ list emerges. Yet one aim of this writing splurge is to clear the mind, and out of or up to the surface might come a feeling you didn’t know was there. Unfilling the heart is another aim. Writing is embodied and can connect immediately with how we are, in body, mind and feelings.
This was a six-minute write after a first meeting with a new supervisor. I was irritated and wrote it out: What do I want? Haven’t a clue. Daft question. I want you to listen to me With everything you’ve got: Ears, eyes, soul and heart. Can you do that for 20 minutes – or even more? And not get in my way – can you?
At our next meeting, I was able to answer the new supervisor’s questions – politely – and continued to write before and after meetings, if only for a few minutes. Six minutes is a random amount of time, but giving yourself a time boundary works well – catch down a thought or feeling in whatever way works for you. I always carry something to write on and even time spent waiting for the bus can be harnessed in this way.
For several years, I worked in the South Pacific and mainly in Aotearoa/ New Zealand. Yes, both names for that bicultural country, one indigenous Maori and one white coloniser. Strikingly for me as a new migrant, Maori language and beliefs are honoured as a matter of course. No professional meeting would begin or end without taking a moment to sing or recite a karakia – or prayer – for example. The ancestors play an important part in the present. This was a glimpse of a very different way of seeing soul, not as part of an organised religion but as a given, a part of everyday life. The natural world is not separate from human lives. Rivers have similar rights to humans… to pollute a river is seen in New Zealand law as an assault on a person and as serious.
When Maori introduce themselves in a formal way, they name their mountain and their river – the one nearest to where they were born. They are the mountain and the mountain is them. Now I began to see how being out in nature had always felt like a connection with something transcendent. Working with soul in supervision in New Zealand meant more silence, more singing – an opportunity to ‘hear the inaudible’ in the words of a counsellor, Morag Cunningham, from New Zealand: ‘Like a mindfulness meditation, a Quaker meeting full of silent waiting and wondering, a star-filled clear night sky, the writing gifted me transcendence from the ordinary. It let me hear what had been inaudible.’3
How to ‘hear the inaudible’
Some of the powerful ways in which writing works are to do with the privacy of it – for your eyes only until, and if, you decide to share it. There is also the stopping the busy-ness of the day (or night) to ‘pause and reflect’. It is a kind of meditation. As with all meditations, finding a safe-enough space inside and out is an important place to start.
Notice your breathing and pause until you gain a sense of quiet. Take a moment with a pencil or pen and some paper in your hand and close your eyes if that helps reduce distraction. Rereading your own writing is useful if you follow the guideline of turning the volume down on the inner critic.
Some supervisees have brought their writing to our meetings, and creating a safe-enough space for receiving your own and others’ writing can be straightforward if you follow the acrostic below. In the January 20018 issue of Thresholds, Nigel Gibbons, a therapist and supervisor who, among other things, facilitates writing groups, gives us his acrostic, Writing Well:
‘Write without self-criticism
Respond to your words from your feelings
Ignore grammar, spelling, punctuation, and doing it right
Take the words gently in your hands and do not crush them with criticism
Invite the words to nourish and refresh you
No need to read or share if you do not wish to
Go where your words lead, but only as far as you wish to go.
Wise words are not necessarily complicated or difficult, they are often simple and straightforward
Excellence is not required, there is always someone who writes better, but they do not write your words
Listen with your ears and from your heart
Let the words remain confidential to us, and do not scatter them thoughtlessly.’4
Research in using reflective writing in supervision and for therapeutic purposes
Not everything can be measured, and some of the research in the field of writing for reflective practice and for therapeutic purposes seems to me to be attempting to master what is essentially mysterious.3 In one of the chapters of the book, Writing Cures, which was an edited collection, I used that binary, ‘mystery or mastery’ to frame a literature review.5 Together with poet and writing therapist, Claire Williamson, I’ve recently updated that review of the research, which is still relatively sparse, even though there has been increasing interest in this topic.6 Perhaps the most startling result of the research findings Claire and I summarise, is how beneficial writing can be for our physical health. A poem a day may well keep the doctor away!
The African-American novelist and poet, Alice Walker, refers to the ‘Great Mystery’ when Celie, the narrator and protagonist, writes letters to God in The Color Purple.7 Scribing the soul or writing to ‘the Great Mystery’ is one way of surviving, of strengthening the immaterial part of us that plays such a powerful role in therapy and supervision. Trying out some writing activities (or indeed continuing to write if that is part of your practice) might feel serious/playful and many things in between.
Safeguarding your writing
If reflective writing can bring more silence and meditative moments into supervision, it can also expose your private thoughts and feelings in a way which needs care. The ‘unspoken’ is there on the screen or the page and is no longer private. Make sure you safeguard your writing until – and
this might never be the case – you are ready to share it. You are in control of whose eyes, other than your own, see the written ‘self-talk’ that might lead to greater clarity and creativity in your practice. I wish you all the best in what you might find in reflective writing.
Jeannie Wright is Visiting Professor at the University of Malta. She has taught at several universities and colleges, and practised in different parts of the world, including Fiji and New Zealand. She has been involved in supervision practice for over 30 years. The second edition of Reflective writing in counselling and psychotherapy comes out in late 2018 and adds to Jeannie’s publications on individual and group supervision, both off and online.
1. hooks b. Remembered rapture: the writer at work. London: Women’s Press; 1999. Lutterworth: British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy; 2018.
2. BACP. Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions. Lutterworth: BACP; 2018.
3. Wright JK. Reflective writing in counselling and psychotherapy. London: Sage; 2018.
4. Gibbons N. Findings: discovering writing with soul. Thresholds 2018; January: 12–15.
5. Wright JK. The passion of science, the precision of poetry: therapeutic writing – a review of the literature. In: Bolton G, Howlett S, Lago C, Wright JK (eds). Writing cures: an introductory handbook of writing in counselling and therapy. Hove: Brunner-Routledge; 2004 (pp7–18).
6. Williamson C, Wright JK. How creative does writing have to be in order to be therapeutic? A dialogue on the practice and research of writing to recover and survive. Journal of Poetry Therapy 2018, 31(2): 113–123.
7. Walker A. The color purple. London: The Women’s Press; 1983.