Alex Elle Is Showing Us ‘How We Heal’ In Her New Book

The author’s latest offers a “soft place to land” as we address the traumas and obstacles holding us back.
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Alex Elle
Alex Elle
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photo: Erika Layne

I Run This is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Tracee Ellis Ross interview here.

Alex Elle’s words have a way of hitting you right at the exact time you need to hear them. Whether it be a quick-hitting quote that graces your Instagram feed or an entire text worth of wisdom and journal prompts, the author just has a way of shifting perspective with compassion.

But the Maryland-based teacher isn’t a wellness guru or self-help aficionado. She rejects gimmicky titles. She wants her audience to know she’s just a woman doing the work to figure it out. And she attempts to lay that out in her forthcoming book, “How We Heal.”

Healing, according to Elle, is a “radical act of self-choosing and self-advocacy.” “How We Heal” explores and unpacks the practice of healing, according to personal anecdotes, journal prompts, affirmations and contributions from other women — including actor and internet sensation Tabitha Brown, musician Morgan Harper Nichols and writer Nneka Julia. With this book, Elle holds a “community conversation.”

“It’s not just my voice, because it’s the invitation to the reader to explore their own,” she said. “I think seeing the book finished and seeing the collective experience in these very unique ways, it just showed me that not only is healing possible, but healing truly is communal.”

In the book, which is set to be released on Nov. 8, the author and podcast host makes it a priority to show that, though self-work and healing can be hard, it doesn’t have to be just that. She said she wants to show Black women especially that their growth journeys don’t require struggle to be worthy.

“We see the grind, we see the struggle, we hear the messaging in the world. Everybody wants to hear your struggle story, but how long are we going to struggle through it before we find ease?” Elle said. “I’m not really interested in the struggle story. I’m interested in the joy story. I’m interested in the transformation story, in the lightheartedness of it. Because we all know healing can be hard, but it can also give us a really soft place to land.”

The author discusses healing as a communal practice, redefining our narratives as Black women and the ease that should come with growing.

Alex Elle is the author of "How We Heal," a guide to self-growth, which is due out on Nov. 8.
Alex Elle is the author of "How We Heal," a guide to self-growth, which is due out on Nov. 8.
Erika Layne

Right now, it feels like we’re collectively trying to pick up the pieces from the last couple of years and really starting to understand how some of the traumas that we experienced due to COVID we haven’t had to reckon with until now. How much of that went into “How We Heal”? How did you get to the point of writing this book?

My editor actually did not want me to talk too much about the pandemic in the book because she wanted it to be a timeless work that people can come back to and not necessarily a marker in time. So we did do a lot of shifting, but the reason why I wrote “How We Heal” is because during 2020 and 2021, I taught over 15,000 people, and it was all online, and it was this collective, communal, necessary bond that we were gaining together as folks who just wanted to understand their voices on the pages of their journals. So while I was the facilitator of those courses, we were all learning together, and I’m a big believer in walking beside me and not behind me.

I don’t really like the whole expert guru term because I truly think that, especially when it comes to healing and self-care practices, it is an act of community care and community service, and so we have to be walking next to each other. I wanted “How We Heal” to feel like a book that folks could feel supported in and feel like, “I’m walking with Alex on this path, and I’m walking with the contributors on this path of healing, and it may look different for her and them and me, but we are all in this together.” I want this book to be a hand-holder. I want this book to be an act of community care for folks.

What did that process look like for you? You’re very transparent about this being a hard book to write. How did you get to the point of walking beside yourself in the journey of even writing this book?

That’s a good question. Well, I had to write it because I got paid to write it. So it was like: You know what? We got to get this done. And, two, people need this. So it took a lot of me stepping away from it as a writer and being like: What would I want to read? What did I need when I was deep in my healing? And I just wrote from that lens. I just supported myself through the process, and it was really hard because I was home with my family of five, and I had to do a lot of staycations in hotels and go to Starbucks and just get out of the house so that I could have a clear mind while I was writing. I stopped overthinking and started being, like, write what you would want to read. So that’s what I did.

In the first chapter, “Starting From Scratch,” what really hit me was the passage of you finally turning 30 and hitting a breaking point and finding yourself mad and upset about not valuing yourself and your body. And that was a lot for me because I just turned 30, and I feel like I’m having a similar conversation with myself.

Welcome. Welcome to 30 because, God, it’s crazy.

I feel like I’m going through a second puberty. When you just turned 30 and you were at this turning point and ready to get on the path or continue on the path to become the Alex that we see today, how did you define healing for yourself?

I defined healing as a radical act of self-choosing and self-advocacy because that’s what I had to do in my healing process. I had to advocate for myself and I had to choose myself, and I had to do that in a way that was really big and major, which is what made it radical for me because I had no one teaching me how. I just had to figure it out, and I talk about this in “How We Heal,” too.

Being the matriarch of healing for my lineage and for my people in my life, like my daughters, for example, felt like such a big undertaking but so worth it because I’m going to be the one who they say, “She healed herself, and in her healing herself she healed us, and now we can heal each other.”

Alex Elle with her daughters.
Alex Elle with her daughters.
Erika Layne

Specifically, how do you do that, though? You’re very open about your relationship with your mother. I think we used to frame healing as a luxury, whereas it’s essential. I know that generations before us had a lot to undertake and a lot to overcome. But how can you heal in a way that those things you may still be healing from, or are not completely healed from, don’t trickle onto the next generation?

I think that comes with identifying what’s still hurting. I mean, I have three daughters, and I often say after each birth, I’ve been reborn into a new version of myself and new wounds have emerged. So looking at what still hurts without judgment and shame is how I have learned over time to just give myself grace and also give other people grace. Because at the end of the day, human beings are just human beings. And if they don’t have the tools to heal or to be compassionate or to be loving, nurturing, kind, all the things ― hating them is not going to make that happen.

And so for me, it looked like letting go of grudges and just leaning into my life. I didn’t want to keep being disconnected from myself and my life because I was mad at what I didn’t get growing up or I was mad at my mom, or whatever. And that doesn’t mean forgive and forget, but it does mean forgive so that you can be free, at least for me.

How hard is that? I feel like for a lot of us giving up grudges can be hard because that means that we’re giving up, honestly, a piece of ourselves that we probably always identified with and feels comfortable, even though it is a very uncomfortable place.

I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard to make the choice to put the armor down. It’s hard and it takes practice, which is why a lot of my work is centered around practice. Writing practice, walking practice, gratitude practice, healing practice. It is a work in practice. And I know that some of us have big traumas that may be really hard to unpack and maybe we’ll never forgive. We also have to find ways to get free. If forgiveness feels hard, we have to let that out of our body, so we have to find a way to get free from that.

I know that that looks and feels different for everybody, so I don’t expect this to be a one-size-fits-all, but it’s just kind of an invitation to look closer at: What are you feeling? Why are you feeling that way? What happened to you? How did it hurt you? Where does it still manifest in your body? And maybe you don’t forgive to rekindle or reconnect, but you forgive to let go. Maybe you forgive yourself for what you didn’t know or what wasn’t your fault but you’re blaming yourself for it. Do you know what I mean? There’s so many layers of forgiveness. It’s not always about external offering but internally.

One thing that I loved about this book is the voices of other women, and we’re able to get a view into their own healing journey. Can you talk about what role these women played in your own journey and why you thought that it was important to include their voices in this book?

I just think having diverse voices shows that we can have diverse experiences and that healing is not one-size-fits-all, like I mentioned earlier. It is multifaceted, and that’s why I wanted to bring in other voices. It breaks up my voice a little bit, and it gives people another lens to look at, to look through. It gives them different resonance to connect with, which I feel is really important when we’re doing this work because so often when you read books that are rooted in healing and self-help and all of this, you’re getting one perspective. You’re getting one person telling you what they did and what you should do. And I never want my books to feel that way.

I want my books to feel like a community conversation, even in “After the Rain,” those were just my stories, but there was also meditation. There was also just journaling and things like that. So still it’s not just my voice because it’s the invitations to the reader to explore their own. That’s why I wanted to bring in other voices. All the women in that book inspire me in some way, shape or form, just through simply their womanhood and their personhood. I think seeing the book finished and seeing the collective experience in these very unique ways, it just showed me that not only is healing possible, but healing truly is communal.

What’s been one of the most joyous takeaways from you on your own journey of healing?

That it’s possible. That’s been the greatest joy, especially because I’ve never seen the possibility of healing until I chose it. So that feels really exciting for me and liberating, especially because I didn’t have anyone leading by example for me. And I had people telling me that I could be broken forever because I was a teen mom, because I dropped out of college, because I wanted to be a writer for a living. I had people counting me out before I could even try to count myself in. And so I had to really learn and focus on me and the possibility of what I could do with or without someone standing next to me.

I love when you speak about your inner child specifically. Of course, healing is a continuous journey, but what is your inner child saying to you right now? How proud is your inner child of you?

I am a big believer that our inner child is us. I mean, it’s just the fact of it. And so I think that if she were separate from me, I think that she would be proud of me. But I think the better way to answer that question is I’m proud of myself for being willing to look at my old wounds and my inner child and my inner self and to hold myself in a way that I’ve never been held, and to make space for myself in a way that I felt I didn’t really deserve at one point. There’s a deep sense of gratitude. I’ve created the life I said I wanted to create, and no one stopped me because I made the choice to press forward and to press through and to not struggle through it.

A lot of times we think healing and growth must be a struggle for it to be worthy. You know what I’m saying? And especially as Black women, that that’s what we see. We see the grind, we see the struggle, we hear the messaging in the world. Everybody wants to hear your struggle story, but how long are we going to struggle through it before we find ease? So it’s like I’m not really interested in the struggle story. I’m interested in the joy story. I’m interested in the transformation story, in the lightheartedness of it. Because we all know healing can be hard, but it can also give us a really soft place to land without such a fight. You know what I mean?

Yeah, absolutely. You’re very visible in your work and in your vulnerability. How do you discern what to share?

Just a lot of boundaries and having discernment of what is for me and what is for the streets, the healing streets. And also what can help someone else and what needs to still be worked through on my own? That’s major for me, too. So it’s really all about taking inventory, being mindful, making clear decisions.

I share maybe 2% of my life. And I think because I am a Black woman who is vulnerable, who is talking about healing and joy, it comes off as brave or an open book and, “Oh, my God, I would never share that.” I understand that, but also I want to dismantle the idea that vulnerability means we are sharing everything with the world. We can share pieces of ourselves and still have so much more that’s sacred, right?

I think as a Black woman in this space and in this work who has a very large and diverse audience, it is my duty, especially as other Black women and brown people bear witness to me to be vulnerable. Because we are taught not to be. We’re taught, “You keep your business to yourself. What happens in this house stays in this house.” That’s what we are taught early. And so choosing not to do that is an act of reclamation of our lives. And it’s really an act of resistance, too. Like, no, I will not be quiet. I will not suffer in silence. I can find community in this. And that’s really valuable. That’s really, really valuable to me.

What are you finding in your routine in this season of your life that is really refueling you the most?

My walks. I’ve been walking every day for a year, and my walks are my grounding place. And moving my body and getting outside. I started painting again recently, so making a mess and painting, just doing things that aren’t related to my work that get me present and creative in soft and fun and imperfect ways.

What do you hope to accomplish that you haven’t yet? Whether it be with your writing, with your self-healing journey or just in general? What is a dream for you?

With my work and my writing, I really want to hit The New York Times bestsellers list, and I know that that is very ego-driven, but it’s the truth. I’ve been writing books for 10 years, and I am ready to hit that list. And Ryan, my husband, is like, “Can’t wait till you get on that list, you can shut up and stop talking about getting on that list that don’t even matter.” I’m like, I know, but that’s a goal and a dream of mine when it comes to work.

Another goal and dream when it comes to work is to get this book in every hand possible. Even if I don’t make the list, getting this book in everybody’s hands so that they can start their healing, deepen their healing, strengthen their healing, and come back to it time and time again would be a dream for me, I think, and I’ll let you chime in here. I think not only is it a well-written book, but I feel like it’s easy to understand, which I really wanted it to be easy to understand and to not feel like, “Oh, Alex has all the answers,” because I don’t, and I tell people that in the book, and every time I teach and speak, I’m like, “I don’t know nothing, y’all. We’re in this together.”

And when it comes to my life, I just want to get old. My husband always says, “I just want to get old so I can see everybody grow up, so I can just be here to witness the work, the healing, the love, for as long as I can.” And so that’s another dream of mine, is to get old, to be the old lady covered in tattoos and has funky hair and who wears big tunics and chunky jewelry and who teaches other young people their value with her wisdom. That’s what I’ve been thinking a lot about in my personal life, and my children see their dreams manifested.

How do you want to be remembered?

Hmm… I want to be remembered as a truth-teller. I want to be remembered as a permission-giver, and not by my words but by my actions. Yeah.

I want people to think of me and be like, “I met her once and she just made me feel like her best friend.” Or, “Her smile made my day.” Or the people who are close to me, I just want them to know love from me and feel love from me.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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