I went off to university and the professional working world with layers of armor and protection, tough and smart, and collecting all the knowledge I could gather. That was who I had become. Until the moment I let that go.
It was Bali 2009. Her face was earnest and her stare imploring me to help her with her pain, as if I was the keeper of knowledge and could possibly know what she needed. I felt my body soften, and as I held her hand and kept my gaze focused on her, something in me transformed.
I spent a decade of my life traveling in Southeast Asia and coming back to the US to work. Sometimes I was there for four or six months, sometimes it was a year at a time. In my travels I was a voracious observer of culture and people, and the thing I noticed more than anything was the way people connect with one another – both the subtle and the not-so-subtle ways. Always an outside observer, watching. Until that day. The day that changed everything for me.
In fact, before that moment, I judged vulnerability, femininity, and asking for support as weaknesses because I grew up in a household where vulnerability, emotions and the feminine were not celebrated.
I learned from my mother to be successful in life with my MIND, rather than my looks.
But I happen to be pretty. So as much as I tried to hide, I got lots of unwanted male attention – my neighbor, my gymnastics coach, boys harassing me in school, etc. I wanted to hide even further. My friends had to tease me relentlessly until I would put on a bikini.
I learned from my father to always keep it together and put on a good business face.
At home we saw many sides of him but he worked hard to make sure everyone outside saw what I call his “game face.” No matter what happened at home, when we met up with other people he was always “on,” and that seemed to be most important. It also appeared that as a result, that people really liked him.
I decided to be more my like my dad, and less like my mom. It seemed the safe way to feel ok. I spent a ton of energy trying to keep it all together and do things well. And I got praised for it. I had lots of friends, but I never really exposed myself to others nor felt I connected very deeply. I was really good at making other people feel connected to me while I held back just enough to feel safe.
In high school I fell in love with a guy and let myself completely feel loved, connected and vulnerable. I loved that he was vibrant, a bit rebellious and generous with his expressions of love. We played, drove fast around town, went to parties with friends and had a blast. And then abruptly I knew it was over … so I bailed before he could. I was deeply hurt by the first person I’d opened up to. I quickly added another layer of toughness.
I had learned that intimacy equaled weakness and hurt, and should be avoided.
I actually prided myself on the masterful way that I could connect to all types of people yet keep emotionally distant.
I excelled at work and was promoted to Executive Director at a young age. I again had lots of friends that I kept at arm’s length. And as soon as I felt myself pulled into the opportunity to grow and connect more deeply and intimately, being more of myself at work, I got scared. Even though I wanted to be more me and more connected I got too uncomfortable … I bailed.
That’s right I bailed. Have you ever been there?
That’s what had me traipsing to the other side of the globe, traveling. And in my travels I loved being around the people I would meet who would laugh with open hearts and be fully present with me. We’d sit together and do nothing intellectual, just be together quietly. I felt fully me and at ease in those moments. It was easy to do on the other side of the world.
I would try to recreate the experience when I went back to work, but I couldn’t get there.
I saw that most of the people around me didn’t feel safe to be open and vulnerable either.
I wanted more ease and connection but didn’t really know how it would feel or how to create it. One day, in my role as Executive Director of a senior care community, I wanted to bring some fun and ease to the team so I hired a drumming teacher to come lead a morning drumming session. You would have thought I hired a dentist to pull out their teeth! As I looked around the room their bodies were closed, their smiles were frozen and uncomfortable. They were hiding behind the drums. Energetically it looked like they might explode. I know they only stayed because they trusted me. Admittedly once they saw me start banging on the drums they started laughing and having fun – but ONLY to the degree that I was. I was the boss and they were following my lead.
Since work was a HUGE part of my life when I was not traveling, it got 110% of my attention. I wanted to be an influential leader. And by the standards of my companies, I was. But something was missing. I was so focused and I was avoiding real intimacy in my personal life. I was giving so much of myself, but I really didn’t have the tools to make my life easier, or to inspire my team to true greatness. I was close, very close, and I knew that the secret had something to do with full engagement, with not leaving parts of ourselves at home. But I couldn’t quite crack the code, and I wasn’t quite happy.
And then that afternoon in Bali, I met Nilu …
That deep connection and intimacy I described above happened while I was helping to deliver her baby. I handed the baby to Nilu who then started her immediately breastfeeding. In Bali, they don’t cut the cord for many hours and the baby doesn’t leave the mother’s side for that time. After supporting Nilu through this scary and exciting time, I watched the two of them as they lie there, creating deep connection, intimacy and feelings of safety from the moment of birth.
I realized how disconnected I had been up until those moments of birth (baby’ and mine). But in those moments, I felt exposed, deeply trusted, completely vulnerable and completely alive.
THAT was what I wanted to feel everyday. THAT was the state I wanted to be at work and in relationship. I had tapped into the state of all possibility and unlimited potential.
Suddenly I felt the experience of being intimate as expansive strength. I was fully engaged, thinking clearly, in my body and far more powerful than I’d ever felt.
I made a decision in that moment to do whatever I could, to learn not only make that MY new normal state of living, but to share what I learned with those who were seeking connection and ease.
Over the next two years, I:
- Attended a week-long silent meditation retreat at Brahmavihara-Arama monastery in Bali.
- Left a 9-year relationship that I realized had no potential for true fulfillment.
- Met an amazing man, Jeff Sanders, who became my sweetheart and one of my great teachers who continually helps me to be more connected every moment that I allow it.
- Learned more deeply how to communicate fluidly and effectively.
- Started teaching yoga.
And I learned how to integrate these new tools and ways of being into the world I was living.
I took my knowledge and went back to the professional world.
I started work for a company in which the leader was out on medical leave. In one of her first meetings back, she went from sharing with us about her near death experience, to imploring us to make more money for the company.
As I watched, her whole body shifted from soft to tense as she traversed the two topics. She went from vulnerable and connected, to hard and distanced in a matter of minutes. This distinct difference jolted me.
I saw how her behavior mirrored the way I was taught to behave, and I knew I had changed.
In that moment, I had a vivid vision that I wanted to work with people like us to share what I had learned and change this pattern.
My passion skyrocketed and at first, I started a business consulting with organizations on culture change, focusing on how people could be fully engaged and present in their work.
My clients were taking what I shared and using it in their work AND personal lives, and I began to see the impact.
It wasn’t long before I was compelled to focus on leaders specifically. Time and time again I was hearing the people who were affecting whole teams and companies express their frustration that they felt torn because they were not fully themselves at work and it was exhausting. And I had been there – for much of my life.
My bigger realization was that I am not alone in my desire to be whole at work and in my personal life. Professionals everywhere buy into the widely held illusion that being vulnerable and connected to colleagues and clients signals weakness. I know that is not true because as I have let go of my conditioning and become more intimate, I have also become more powerful and strong.
I believe the more we connect in the workplace, the more we share intelligence, kindness, ease and success. And the potential for changing lives, and the world, happens one interaction at a time.
I love working with influential people who are personally invested in the way they influence others to create the team, and family, and world, they desire.
No more leaving parts of ourselves at home. We must pay attention to our feminine and masculine qualities to be great leaders and model this for other people around us.
Privately and through Do The Dream Now ~ The Elite Bali Retreat™, we work on communicating effectively, attracting the right people (team members or clients), leading teams, being aware of their desires and connecting deeply with others. I help leaders embrace their power and position of influence while building stronger leadership skills that empower those around them.
In the process, we create a life that has more time for play and ease. I love to support my clients as they learn to connect with themselves and others, become highly effective leaders, parents, and partners, and create the personal life they truly love.
You can also find Kelly at www.KellySheets.com