My corporate career was incredible. It was an adventure. It was brilliant. I was promoted. I had opportunities to learn and grow, to work with the best of the best. I learned to build a coveted international billion-dollar company by leading through passionate people, purpose and giving. I loved my life. I loved my work. I loved the people I worked with and had the opportunity to serve.
By the ripe age of 29 I was leading a 300 Million dollar business. I had developed thousands of leaders and led the life of a multiple time-zone high-flying young corporate executive.
All of that is true – but it’s not the whole story.
The whole story is that amongst all the brilliance, my life was not just gradually fraying around the edges, it was rapidly deteriorating.
The truth was, for several years I had been struggling with and attempting to manage and brute force my way through intense grand mal seizure episodes that resulted in subsequent and severe injuries to my body; all while keeping it a secret from 99% of the world out of embarrassment, confusion, the pressures to perform and my own shame.
It seemed every key transition and major life event—even when supposedly I should be in celebration—I found myself waking up on the floor in my home, in my parent’s home, in public spaces, in the back of random ambulances and ERs from being unconscious. I was having grand mal seizures, brought on by stress and exhaustion. After diagnosis of epilepsy, I found myself asking ‘Why is this happening to me?’ I was a ‘success.‘
Brought to my knees over and over again, as the episodes increased so did the injuries and the team of specialists; it seemed it would never stop.
I wept behind closed doors. I asked myself, my husband and my family
“Will I be okay?”
My team of specialists and doctors told me “Sarah, you are risking your life. You must stop.”
The truth was, I didn’t know how, even if every part of me wanted to.
I didn’t know how to operate any other way. I knew myself as a woman and a leader only one way – and the world identified with me that way.
Prior to my corporate career I was an entrepreneur; the first business I owned was a yoga studio. I always worked and lived in the health and wellness industry, steeped in deep personal, spiritual and leadership development. To make matters worse in my shame spiral, my corporate company was one of the most well-known high growth health and wellness companies in the industry. And, I made a large contribution to that growth. My entire personal and professional community seemed perfectly wise, limber, developed and on their way to enlightenment while I seemed to be imploding before my very eyes.
I had no idea how to “come out” as what felt at the time like the sick person diagnosed with a neurological disorder while simultaneously being the massively visible and influential leader in a health-based organization. Instead, I hid in my suffering “delivering results” until I broke.
My final wake up call came as the medics carried me on a stretcher out of my house past my 5 week-old baby twice in one week. I spent a lot of time that week unconscious and in the hospital. I don’t remember much from those days… it’s patchy. But what I do remember are moments of laser sharp clarity that have become the catalyst for my life now.
In that moment on the stretcher when I glanced over through the fog of my blurry vision, still coming to from being unconscious, I saw my sister cradling my 5 week old newborn safely in her arms.
In that moment, I awoke to the truth that I was completely unavailable for the things that I cared about most. Baby Jackson’s silence, my sister’s still eyes, and my husband’s warm hand clutching mine in the back of the ambulance once again spoke loudly.
I was done. I had hit my rock bottom.
I had been proving myself for over a decade. I had built an incredible life. I had helped build a coveted multi billion dollar international company. I had checked off a lot of boxes in my personal vision of success. And in that moment, I decided to stop lying to myself.
Why was I falling apart? Why was I so exhausted?
“Why?” wasn’t the correct question to ask. In hindsight, the correct question was “What is needed now?” At the time, I didn’t know how out of touch I was. I didn’t know I wasn’t listening to what my body was telling me. I didn’t recognize I wasn’t honoring my intuition. And I didn’t know my success was built on half-listening.
On not listening to the strain my body and my mind were under, or rather on turning up the sound of ‘success’ so loud I couldn’t hear the strain. My family and close friends loudly begged me to rest. The very few leaders of my inner circle at work who were informed had become increasingly more concerned and worried. Some people tipped toed around me as if I was a time bomb waiting to go off. But I couldn’t hear any of them at the time; I would not give up. I would not fail. I was winning and I had the results — so I thought.
Until the day I woke up to the truth: that my life wasn’t working, nor was my system. I awoke to the fact that by leading from my head and from the context of how I thought things are ‘supposed to be,’ from proving I can produce results versus tuning into my body and listening to what’s really needed, I was operating on a shaky and inauthentic foundation.
The cost of my ‘looking good’ success system was big in my case. It affected my health immensely, my spirit, my family, my relationships and my team. I realized striving for perfection is often a way of hiding behind competency. My competency had shifted from becoming the reward to being the glue holding me together.
It was a false-sense of safety. Behind the false-sense of safety was fear of failure or not being enough. My fear was that failure or breakdown would equate to a dead end instead of accepting the gift that failure brings — which is exponential growth.
I no longer operate from fear of failure or lead from ‘shoulds’ and the energy of proving, In fact when most people and companies are headed right, I’m now headed left.
I now embody authenticity and attunement. I feel everything deeply and explore it, and discern what is best to move forward.
I knew that day on the stretcher there was another way to lead and I went on an exploration to discover what was the full range of my relationship to myself, my resources, my relationships, what it looks like to lead as a whole woman, and to serve from my highest contribution.
For me ultimately this journey has been one of forgiveness, self-love and serious boundaries. I’m now the Co-Founder and CEO of SoulPowered, a thriving high growth global learning company and research institute led by a team of women leaders for the development of women leaders. We as women collectively lead with a clear holistic vision as whole women leaders, honoring our whole lives. I can’t imagine now leading any other way.
My personal commitment is always my relationship with myself first in order to show up open, strong and receptive for others and the world. Everyone from my family to my team to my clients to my community are fueled by my ability to fuel myself. My relationship with myself is fundamentally built on an internal strength that is now truly indestructible.
Sarah Kaler is the Co-Founder and CEO of SoulPowered. She’s an executive leadership coach and business consultant based in Seattle, Washington who has been featured in Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Yahoo News and other outlets. Sign up for her free advice on becoming an indestructible leader via her website: www.soulpowered.com.