Caren Kenney Of Evolve Leadership: How Journaling Helped Me Be More Calm, Mindful And Resilient
An Interview With Heidi Sander
Building Confidence. Journaling can help us change our perceptions as well as our stories about why we are not good enough or why we cannot do something. We often dwell on our shortcomings or perceived barriers, but journaling can help us intentionally focus on our strengths and capabilities. One way to do this is by writing down one thing we accomplished or are proud of each day. It can be as simple as completing a task or being proud of how we handled a situation.
Journaling is a powerful tool to gain clarity and insight especially during challenging times of loss and uncertainty. Writing can cultivate a deeper connection with yourself and provide an outlet for calmness, resilience and mindfulness. When my mom passed on, I found writing to be cathartic. When I read through my journal years later, there were thoughts that I developed into poems, and others that simply provided a deeper insight into myself. In this series I’m speaking with people who use journaling to become more mindful and resilient.
As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Caren Kenney.
Caren is the CEO and founder of Evolve Leadership, a global executive coaching and development organization which takes a holistic approach to developing some of the most admired leaders in companies around the world. She has been working in the health and wellbeing space since 2001, when she co-founded a company that created the world’s first direct-to-consumer digital behavioral health coaching programs. Prior to starting Evolve, she spent 12 years at Johnson & Johnson and was on the leadership team at the J&J Human Performance Institute, where she led an executive development program focused on building higher levels of physical wellbeing, mental and emotional resilience, and character-centered leadership for C-suite executives in some of the world’s leading companies.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story of healing. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
My childhood was pretty normal for the most part. I had amazing parents who were incredible role models and taught me I could break down any barriers and accomplish anything if I worked hard enough. They also recognized in me a very early love for writing poems, stories, and songs and encouraged me to follow my passion. Fast forward to today where I am blessed with an amazing family including two beautiful daughters, but my life has also presented some significant challenges that tested me mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, including losing my first husband to a slow-developing but severe mental illness, raising my daughters as a single parent, and battling an ongoing and still undiagnosed autoimmune disorder after being misdiagnosed with some scary conditions like multiple sclerosis and cancer. As difficult as these experiences have been, each has ultimately helped me grow and become more resilient and reminded me how important it is to identify and stay connected to your personal purpose, take care of yourself, and invest your energy in the people and things that matter most in your life. One incredibly useful tool which has helped me through difficult times since childhood has been writing and journaling, so I was excited to learn you are covering this topic. There is significant research and science around the psychological, physiological, and biological benefits of journaling which include a reduction in toxic cortisol levels, amygdala activity in the brain, pain levels, and symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as improved mood, emotional self-regulation, immunological response, memory, sleep and mental and physical health. So this is such an important and timely topic — especially with everything going on in the world around us!
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about journaling. Have you been writing in your journal for a long time or was there a challenging situation that prompted you to start journal writing? If you feel comfortable sharing the situation with us, it could help other readers.
Writing has been a powerful and therapeutic tool for me since I was a teenager, though in those years I referred to it as writing in my diary. I would write about my daily activities and interactions with friends, though found it most useful during times when I felt sad and alone — for example, when a friend hurt my feelings (girls can be so mean!), when I had a bad day, when the boy I was dating broke up with me, etc. I realized early on that in times when I felt sad, alone or scared, writing could be a comfort, and a safe place to release my emotions. This benefitted me during some of the most difficult times in my life, especially when my cousin died tragically (I was with him that night), when I lost my husband to a mental illness, and during times when my children experienced their own life challenges.
How did journaling help you heal, mentally, emotionally and spiritually?
Journaling helped first by enabling me to release overwhelming emotions that were bottled up inside me –sadness, insecurity, anxiety, fear, etc. Once I was able to express my emotions, I began to feel a sense of calm. There was an energy that seemed to travel from my body, through my hand, and onto the paper. I then found that by rereading what I wrote, I could begin to see things from a different perspective — maybe they weren’t as bad as they seemed, or at least I could see they would likely get better. The more I wrote, the more I realized that I had the power to make myself feel better, and that I could find the answers to some of my greatest challenges inside myself if I just took the time to write, reflect, and listen to my “inner coach”.
Did journaling help you find more self-compassion and gratitude? Can you share a story about that?
Yes, over time. I have always been a “high achiever” — someone who puts a lot of pressure on myself to do well and someone who is hard on myself when I don’t meet my expectations or even worse, fail someone else. The more I got to know myself — through my journaling and honest self-reflection — the more I realized how hard I was on myself and that I sometimes set unrealistic expectations as I try to be successful in all areas of my life. I realized that I was going nonstop trying to please and help others but burning myself out in the process. I learned to set more realistic expectations for myself, create boundaries, and be grateful for the amazing people and experiences in my life.
What kind of content goes into your journal? For example, do you free-write, write poems, doodle?
When I was younger, I wrote a lot of poems, but more recently I mostly spend time free-writing. I also worked with Dr. Jim Loehr, co-founder of the Human Performance Institute, on a book called Leading with Character which has an accompanying journal that helps you define your Personal Credo, which helps you align every action and decision with your deepest values. By answering guided questions and reflecting on your life story, personal strengths and weaknesses, and life goals, you are able to define the legacy you want to leave behind and the impact you want to have on others. I recently started this guided journaling again as I continue to learn more about myself each time I go through the process.
How did you gain a different perspective on life and your emotions while writing in your journal? Can you please share a story about what you mean?
Journaling helped me to become more human — to accept my flaws and imperfections, be kinder to myself, and realize my life is a work in progress and that while I’ll never be perfect, I can try to become a better version of myself every day. Instead of beating myself up for not being a better mother, wife, or friend, I have learned through journaling that while I have made mistakes, I did the best I could in the moment and each moment where we feel we feel short is an opportunity to learn and grow.
In my own journal writing, I ended up creating poems from some of the ideas and one of them won an award. Do you have plans with your journal content?
I have no plans other than to leave my journals behind when I pass on from this life. I have shared the good, bad, and ugly about myself in my journals — my dreams, aspirations, and the things I am not so proud of about myself — insecurities, times I didn’t handle things the way I should have, etc. It feels very vulnerable, but I think it’s important for my daughters not only to see me completely for who I am and learn from my mistakes, but to have more compassion and love for themselves in challenging times.
Fantastic. Here is our main question. In my journaling program, I have found that journaling can help people to become more calm, mindful and resilient. Based on your experience and research, can you please share with our readers “five ways that journaling can help you to be more calm, mindful and resilient”?
- Improving Mood and Mental Health: Journaling can improve mood and mental health through the practice of gratitude, which entails writing down the people and things we are grateful for in our lives. This is especially powerful when we are going through difficult times and struggling to stay positive or find a path forward. It can be as simple as writing down 5 things you are grateful for each morning or evening to help elevate your mood and start or end the day on more positive note.
- Managing Stress and Anxiety: When you have a lot on your mind, journaling can help by transferring your thoughts or worries to paper. For those who ruminate or dwell on events of the past day or worry about the day to come, journaling can not only help take the load off your mind but enable you to develop your “inner coach” to help with problem solving, viewing your challenges from a different perspective, and training your private voice which often holds you back in life. One way to do this is to write down something you are anxious about and then ask yourself challenging questions, such as a) What evidence do I have to support my thoughts? b) What’s the worst that could happen? c) How have I coped with this type of situation before? d) What advice would I give to a loved one or friend in this situation?
- Connecting to Purpose: Guided journaling can help us look inside ourselves and assess what is most important in our lives and where we should invest our energy each day. This type of journaling can help identify areas of misalignment when individuals recognize that the words they write are not aligned with the way they are living their lives. For example, they may say that their family is most important, though their family may not be getting their best energy or attention each day. Guided questions that can be helpful include: a) Who or what matters to me? b) What impact do I want to have on others? c) What must I achieve to live a life of true success? d) Why am I here?
- Building Confidence. Journaling can help us change our perceptions as well as our stories about why we are not good enough or why we cannot do something. We often dwell on our shortcomings or perceived barriers, but journaling can help us intentionally focus on our strengths and capabilities. One way to do this is by writing down one thing we accomplished or are proud of each day. It can be as simple as completing a task or being proud of how we handled a situation.
- Problem Solving. When you are faced with a challenge that does not have an easy answer, journaling can help you find a solution. Find a quiet place and write out the question or problem you are trying to solve. Write down the different options and the pros and cons of each. It’s important to use both facts and data (the evidence), but also your feelings and thoughts about each option. What does your head, heart and gut tell you? Once you have it on paper, re-read what you’ve written and tap into that amazing coach within yourself!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of peace to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I would propose a global initiative that asks people to disconnect from technology one-hour per week (for example, every Sunday from 4:00–5:00) While technology has enabled great advances, it often isolates us and consumes an inordinate amount of our time and energy. I would initiate a weekly one-hour global technology disconnect and recovery break — 60 minutes where people commit to disconnecting from all electronics (phone, television, social media etc.) and focus on investing in either themselves (journaling, meditating, enjoying nature, etc.) or their relationships (taking a walk, playing a game, or enjoying an uninterrupted meal with a loved one). Of course, they can then jump back on social media and share their stories of recovery and connection with loved ones! ;-)
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
I would love to meet Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code. She is a courageous, inspiring, and purpose-driven leader who created a global movement and closed the gender gap for girls and women in technology. In addition to creating more opportunities for women in this space, she challenged girls to be bold, take risks, and seek jobs in an industry where they had previously been overlooked.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/carenkenney/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued fulfillment and success with your writing!