How many times have you thought there was no way out of a situation? That you had no choice but to persevere, and be resilient no matter what the circumstances?
Last summer, I was facing a number of challenges that I felt powerless to overcome, yet I felt obligated to endure them. Through coaching, I was shocked to discover that I did have a choice, and that the barrier was me, not my circumstances. But I would not have learned this crucial lesson without some straight talk from my partner in a coaching course. Never once did I imagine that that moment would dramatically change my life.
In my first coaching session with my partner, I reluctantly shared my frustration at work, but I wasn’t able to name a specific emotion. “It feels like I’m in a boxing ring.” My partner and I faced each other and put our fists up, hopping around and jabbing at each other. “What happens when you get knocked down?” my partner asked. “I always get back up!” I said proudly. “Wow, that’s impressive,” he said.
We carried on jabbing for a little while, then he asked me to act as if I was knocked down and get down on the ground. After a few minutes, I started to feel anxious and jittery. I could get back up but he told me to stay put. I was extremely uncomfortable. Soon, I started to notice that it was a beautiful day outside with gorgeous clouds in the sky. My breathing slowed, and my body relaxed. “Hey, it’s not so bad down here,” I said in surprise. “I feel peaceful and happy.”
He looked at me straight on and said: “You DO know you have a choice? You can choose whether to get back in the ring or not? You don’t always have to get back up if it doesn’t serve you.”
I was stunned. I felt this sense of release – like a whole new world opening up for me. Imagine the possibility if I could choose! I knew, deep down, I would never win the fight, even if I made small steps forward. It was in this moment that I knew I had to make a serious change in my life.
My state of exhaustion, general malaise and lack of creativity and ambition – all of these were signs I was completely worn out. Yet I continued to get back in that ring every single day, despite the fact that I very little control over most of the decisions being made.
Without coaching, I never would have discovered this. Over the next three days, we focused on our internal experience, leaning into vulnerability and acknowledging that emotions are part our birthright as humans. We asked each other: What’s your dream? What are you longing for? What’s here now?
I spent the next few days pulling apart my emotions, something I hadn’t done in a long time. My sole focus had been survival: to be resilient and strong, and in doing so, I had suppressed other emotions that contributed to my well-being. I knew I was tired but hadn’t realized how my energy connected to my desire for creativity and feel self-worth. I spent hours journalling in Bryant Park, writing: “I feel like a boxer, I keep getting back in the ring but I can only take so many punches. I’m sad. I’m depressed. I’m worn out. I don’t want to get up anymore.”
I discovered that there are no bad emotions. Emotions give you the opportunity to own your whole life, the ups and downs and the peaks and valleys. Why do we avoid the swings and embrace a flat line? We need to stop judging! We constantly collapse emotions and need to do a better job of pulling them apart.
When is the last time you told someone you felt radiant, blissful or goofy? They all mean different things. There are huge differences between weakness and vulnerability, or scared and powerless. Naming your emotions is about stepping into your power. The rote answer of “I’m good” is not an emotion, yet that’s often how we respond because we’re not living in the moment. Today, I’m blissful and radiant. Tomorrow I may be dejected and hurt.
In surrendering my resilience, I also had to deal with my own sense of failure. Resilience is part of my DNA and failure is something I don’t handle well. Ultimately, I decided that I didn’t need any more fights to prove that I was smart, courageous, strong and brave. I realized that I wasn’t fighting a person or thing, or even my own organization – I was fighting feelings of inertia. These were cultural and not anything I had control over.
Two days later, I resigned. I finally felt empowered to act for me. I knew there would be consequences, but I also knew I had to be true to myself or I would never reach my true potential.
I learned that there is great power in acknowledging who you are and what you feel. In my case, I had to take responsibility for my own emotions and not overthink them. As my teacher said, our body always lives in the present – it’s our mind that moves ahead.
Today, I have dedicated my life to helping others who aspire to lead and am building a new business that encourages people to bring their whole selves to work. I’m also writing a book to help emerging leaders step into their full potential. The world has opened up in ways I never expected, and there’s not a day that I am not grateful for that practice session, and my amazing coaching partner.