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What {almost} broke me.

With a title like that during a time like this, one might assume the pandemic is what {almost} pushed me over the edge. While the experience of COVID-19 has been hard, I made a conscious choice to use it as an opportunity to focus on silver linings. I am able to do so because of what {almost} broke me long before the pandemic started. Here’s my story. My hope in sharing this now is that if you’re {almost} broken, my story will give you the courage to take that first step towards change.

In the height of my broken-ness I beamed full-teeth smiles when I heard "we couldn't survive without you" and "thank you for saving the day" and "yes, you are right!" These words of affirmation meant I was helping others, I was important, I was validated. It meant I really could be everything to everyone. I could do it all!

In the quest to do it all, to be everything to everyone, I made an assumption. We all know what we get when we assume, right? Ass-u-me. That's right, you and me reveal our worst selves. I made an assumption that if everyone around me was happy, especially if they were happy with me, then I would be happy. So when I wasn't happy and those around me were happy with my efforts - what was wrong? And the question I was asking myself was "what is wrong with me?"

At that time, I was the Vice President of a consulting firm where I was making a positive impact on non-profit organizations - I was interacting with C-level executives and leaders at all levels who told me I was implementing change that was meaningful and worthy. I was on the Senior Leadership Team of a growing company. I was managing a side business to feed my passion. I was sitting on the board of three organizations helping my community grow. I was hosting dinner parties and going on weeknight and weekend adventures with my husband and daughters. My husband and I had a weekly babysitter for date nights and nights with friends. I even planned a retirement party in Cabo for my father. I was doing it all! And I was miserable.

This is a picture my husband captured of me in Argentina hiking the Andes Mountains, wondering if I was strong enough to complete the journey. Spoiler: I was.

I decided it was time to take a look at who I was. Not just who I was to others - who I am and who I desire to be. This exercise was not something I knew how to do on my own so I took a leap of faith and elicited help from a coach. Help I paid for. Something else I had never done - invested money in myself with no clear guarantee as to what that money would get me (i.e. by the end of our time together you will have a new job doing xyz). I had to trust that the unknown opportunity was worth more than the known misery.

My criteria was simple: a coach who specializes in women in leadership. There was nothing else I had to go on. I didn’t even ask for references - I took her website testimonials as proof enough that she was capable of helping me. After our initial discussion, there was an inner voice telling me she could guide me through this journey. Perhaps it was her articulation of my exact stuck statement or her recommendation of a podcast that stopped me in my tracks (literally, I was running in the park and stopped abruptly causing the person behind me to mutter a few four letter words at me), or her explanation of why baby birds leave the nest (spoiler: it involves poop). "It doesn’t matter," my gut told me, "go for it." And for the first time in a long time, I set aside my brain and the rational argument that without a guarantee, the investment wasn’t worth it, and said yes to investing in myself.

Let's be clear though: it took 4 more conversations for me to actually listen to my gut. This is important because I see it all the time as a coach now. I see other women, right there, on the cusp of choosing differently for the first time in their lives. To choose themselves. Ladies: it was worth every single dime. The accountability. The perspective shift. The inner reflection. It changed my life in a positive way and I couldn't have achieved that level of clarity and life purpose without the guidance of a trained professional.

What I learned with my first coach: in my quest to do it all, I wasn't being. That’s it - there’s nothing more to that sentence. We are human beings, not human doers. In order to understand how to find my personal joy, I had to know myself fully.

The specifics:

  1. 1Listen to your instincts. At some point early on in our lives, we are conditioned to push aside our intuition, that gut feeling that comes from deep inside. We rationalize that our brain, our learned knowledge, is more powerful than our intuition, our born wisdom.

  2. There’s a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a reaction to experiences. Seeing your child walk for the first time. Getting a well earned promotion. Staying up until 2am to finish that book that was SO good. Happiness comes and goes based on factors largely outside of our control. Joy comes from within. Joy is a choice outside of circumstance. Joy is being confident in and curious about your journey.

  3. To live a fulfilling, joyful life, you must first understand what fulfills you. So simple that you need to define the very thing you desire. It went a little something like this: Me: I want a fulfilled life. Coach: What fulfills you? Me: I don't know. Coach: well that's the reason your current life is not fulfilling.

Alright so, Step #1: determine what fulfills me. Seems so obvious yet this step was arguably the most daunting. Once you understand your innermost values - what lights you up at the core of your being - then everything else becomes clear. I will admit, this process was extremely uncomfortable for me. I thought I knew who I was. I was a person who desires deep connection with those around me. I was a person who desires to make an impact on this world. Those are two admirable desires but what is at the core? Coach: Tell me, Karen, what is your definition of deep connection? Coach: Tell me more about the impact you desire to make. Me: Crickets.

These questions were not intended to belittle my goals, they were intended to clarify them. I learned that deep connection (for me) was not about diving into one’s innermost secrets - it was about being fully present with the people around me. When I stopped searching for the most vulnerable question I could get someone to answer, I started to take joy in the present moment. I experienced, first hand, a deeper connection with my family at Thanksgiving during a passionate debate on the best pie filling than I ever experienced by asking about their biggest challenge at work. It’s not the content - it’s the people. Bingo.

For me, it wasn’t about the value I added to the strategic plan of an organization or the contribution to the profitability of the company. It was about the connection to the individuals. The client struggling with imposter syndrome yet knew the change that would transform the team’s effectiveness. The employee who wanted to pivot into a new role that was outside of their current expertise. The nanny (yes, the young woman who came into my home to care for my daughter while I worked) who wanted to be a first generation college student in her family. That’s the change I wanted to empower.

These conversations didn’t happen because I asked about the upcoming deadline or what the schedule looked like next week. They happened because I took an interest in the present experience. “What made you laugh today?” - or - “You seemed unusually quiet today, what’s on your mind?”

This is just one example of how I shifted my perspective. I was correct that I value deep connection. It was the shift in definition of “deep” that drastically impacted my life. Small shifts have seismic level impact. The shift wasn’t just professional either. By clarifying my personal values I gave myself permission to be one person. I stopped being a marionette doll plopped down into different scenarios and acting accordingly. No more work Karen, wife Karen, friend Karen, mom Karen, etc. I am simply Karen. Karen who values present moment connection and empowering others to use courage until confidence shows up. Whether that is coaching my toddler to ride her pedal bike, coaching a leader how to define their leadership style, or advising my employees as the CEO of a non-profit organization, my focus is the same: you are naturally creative, resourceful and whole.

Did this hit home? Perhaps you have a similar “is it me?” feeling. If the boxes are all checked yet something is still not quite right; if you desire help in gaining the type of clarity that will allow you to live your most fulfilling life, help is available. No more strong arming or box checking alone. There’s no better time than right now to prioritize yourself.

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