When I first found WBI, my intention was to learn ways to bring positive psychology into a dark, traumatized world. For the past two decades, I have worked to provide and support mental health services for individuals who are incarcerated. Prisons and jails are shadowy, primal environments. They are dehumanizing by design, stripping away individualism and identity for all who enter, both inmates and staff. They are worlds that most never see, and certainly don’t understand.

I have spent my career attempting to do just that—understand and get at the root of the pain and suffering, and support healing. It hasn’t been easy. I have tried, time and time again, to shine my light into the murky corners of these worlds. In my early years as a psychologist, I provided services to a segregation unit, where individuals are locked inside cells, alone, for up to 23 hours a day. I pestered the sergeant to allow me to hold groups with individuals who had mental disorders. I offered support through steel doors when I couldn’t see patients any other way. I did what I could to bring my light to the human beings in that place.

The last time I set foot on that unit was more than 17 years ago. Since then, my roles have changed and expanded. I work with more inmates and more staff. But those days stay with me.

The trauma of prison is not limited to those who are incarcerated. Everyone who moves inside those walls experiences direct or indirect trauma. And most enter already holding trauma from their past. As a psychologist, I thought I was well equipped. But something was missing.

Through my learning with WBI and at Kripalu, including completion of the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology (CiWPP), I began to see that I was out of balance. When I used the SPIRE check-in to assess my well-being, I realized that I was overly reliant on my Intellectual well-being while neglecting the Spiritual and Emotional aspects. I saw that I needed to attend to my whole self and understand my role, personally, in my work and beyond. I needed to connect to something larger than myself, and build and broaden positive emotions in my work.

As part of the CiWPP program, we developed Forever Projects as a culmination of our studies and an exploration of where we would move from here. I knew that I needed to reach a broader audience of individuals who would not ordinarily have the resources or the opportunities to access positive psychology concepts—not only inmates, but also security staff and healthcare providers who work in prisons and jails. This became my intention and focus for my project.

Initially, I envisioned a brief workshop, accessible to those working and living in correctional environments. I kept the concepts of trauma-informed care (e.g., safety, choice, peer support, trust, empowerment) at the forefront of my mind as I developed my project, and decided that focusing on self-efficacy was the safest approach. And I know that the best way to get people engaged and move them past their intellectual defenses is through storytelling and metaphor.

The program I created, “You Already Are…,” includes modules supporting individuals in recognizing that they already manifest so much of what they seek.

You already are:

  • Here
  • Brave
  • Strong
  • Capable
  • Kind
  • Whole.

And then, one autumn day, I was out for a walk and saw a pile of leaves. As my signature strength is Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, I was captivated by the unique wonder of each leaf. My mind began to spin as I realized that each leaf was a person, unique and beautiful in its own way. Even dried and torn, ragged and tattered, each leaf was magnificent.

I gathered a pile of leaves, ran home, turned on my computer, and made my first YouTube video, called “Autumn Perfection.” I realized at that moment that I could begin sharing positive psychology—right now—with a broader audience, focusing on self-efficacy and supporting understanding through metaphor and storytelling.

My YouTube channel, “You Already Are Amazing,” now features 18 videos, including a series of Daily Affirmations for Frontline Workers, sharing moments of mindfulness for those working through the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.

I have no idea where I’m going next, but I know one thing for sure: This world needs more light in its darkest corners. And I have a light to shine.

Dr. Sharen Barboza, a 2019 CiWPP graduate, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has worked in the field of correctional mental health for more than 20 years. She is a monitor, consultant, trainer, and speaker with expertise in mental health, crisis management, self-injury reduction, and trauma-informed care. Sharen provides workshops on stress management and self-care for custody and healthcare staff, and has published research related to suicide risk factors, dementia, interventions in restrictive housing, and reducing self-injury. She holds an MS in Experimental Psychology from Tufts University and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Find out more: sharenbarboza.com