I had a remarkably stressful, yet pretty miraculous month of May. It would seem that I slayed a mythological dragon, and befriended a real one.
Let me explain…
A year ago I was asked to participate as a speaker at a BeAbove neuroscience and leadership conference here in Santa Fe. The participants were neuroscientists, psychologists, and professional coaches from all over the country, and from as far away as Australia. Now, I’m professionally trained in psychology, transformational coaching, and the neuroscience of leadership. But…(enter my tired old mythological dragon, the imposter syndrome)…I was afraid that in this setting, a setting not consisting entirely of my Highly Sensitive carefully cultivated professional soul-tribe, I would be judged as too esoteric. At this stage of my evolution, I have one version of me. And I can’t mold it to fit a particular crowd. Fearing I don’t belong is how my imposter syndrome has historically shown up.
To say this was a big step for me was an understatement. I was speaking and conducting a three-hour workshop alongside Oxford educated neuroscientists, tenured academics from Case Western University, and published researchers. I had been hired by a coaching leadership enterprise considered to be one of the gold standards in the coaching industry. I did not want to disappoint, for all the standard reasons–recovering perfectionism, 75% of the world is terrified of public speaking (and though I do it well, I include myself in that camp), and one of the founders of BeAbove Leadership is also one of my dearest friends.
The bottom line is there were SO MANY LAYERS to this, a virtual dragon’s lair of self doubt.
Into the Fire
As if all of this wasn’t enough for my psyche to juggle, as if the metaphor wasn’t quite sharp enough…enter the actual fires. The largest fire in New Mexico history had become a runaway train– 300,000 acres of the Sangre de Cristos were burning to the north of Santa Fe. (At the time of this publishing the fire is only 65% contained.) As well as the more imminently critical (to me) event, the Cerro Pelado fire directly in my neighborhood. 45,000 acres of the Jemez Mountains were on fire, which brought us to the official “Set” stage of emergency evacuation. I was simultaneously planning for departure, and practicing my keynote.
Because the Universe has a remarkable sense of humor, let’s also throw in the ascent into eclipse season with the full lunar eclipse in Scorpio on the very day of my keynote, and Mercury Retrograde which entered a few days before. (Both of which I am highly attuned to, and affected by.)
To a Highly Sensitive Person so high on the continuum that I actually have situational traits that mimic autism, the whole scenario was about as ludicrous as is earthly possible. As I practiced over and over again, I couldn’t help but visualize how this seemed to be playing out, which felt something akin to giving the keynote while a team of archers attempted to shoot a precariously balanced apple off my head, walking barefoot over a bed of red hot coals, with my hips gyrating a flaming hula hoop circling my waist, while dragons exhaled rancid black smoke in my face as I calmly organized my most cherished belongings into “burn” or “don’t burn” piles.
Enter Resilience (the antidote to Imposter Syndrome)
But life is not a drill, is it. This is why we do the work. Times like these…they are how we measure our evolution. I had to laugh at how all the pieces were coming together, a divine comedy of tragedies and triumphs. What could possibly put things in perspective greater than living between two massive mountain range infernos? Could my own stress possibly compete with the heartbreak I felt for my mountains burning? So I talked back to the fear. Instead of assuming the worst, I planted perennials and annuals all over my yard– a protective spell rebellion. I added beauty to balance the smoldering blackened landscape spreading like a blight across northern New Mexico. How could I possibly think of myself, and my damn petty imposter syndrome (hell yes I belonged on that stage) when so many people had lost their homes, their land, their livelihoods, their nature. When I was on the verge of losing mine.
I amped up my presentation practice by adding another layer of distraction to help me focus even more deeply. I spoke my keynote out loud, while listening to a podcast with my EarPods. I concentrated on hearing myself connect to my words, to my voice, while speaking over the droning voice of a Shaolin Monk, not allowing myself to be pulled into his thought stream. I put one foot in front of the other. Then I did a simple thing: I bought an outfit that I loved, something I could wear my handprinted Cherokee wrap with. A power piece that would help me stand straighter.
Finding my strength.
It was now close enough to showtime that my friend Sharon had arrived from Seattle to attend the conference. I quietly focused on her like a North Star. She, Aaron, and another dear friend of ours, April, had dinners out, and laughed until our tummies hurt. Not wanting to amp me up too terribly much, they each found perfect moments to gift me their low-key “you got this” assurances. The evening before my seminar, Sharon and I sat poolside at the luxury desert oasis setting, watching the blood red Scorpio full moon eclipse the sky. “Let me never again question my ability,” I prayed to this astrological wonder. “Let me truly know that I belong on every stage, in front of every audience. Let self-doubt never again cloud my choices. Be gone with you, Imposter Syndrome. I’ve learned everything you needed to teach me. Thank you, but I won’t be needing your services any longer.” The reddened sky looked an awful lot like the fire sky I had photographed a few nights prior.
The thing about fire…
It’s the apex of transformation. It’s the element of change. It purifies the heart, and clarifies the mind. No other natural disaster forces you to sit in the dread, and the fear, and the impending sense of doom for weeks or months on end, every day horrified by what the fire has devoured since last time you checked the inciweb report. With the elements of wind (tornadoes), and earth (earthquakes), and water (hurricanes…though floods can take days to recede) Mother Nature rages in, rages out, and yes there can be clean-up for months or years. But there is no sense of a fire-breathing dragon having landed on your chest, singeing your heart, with no plans to move on anytime soon. And the recovery of an old-growth Ponderosa Pine forest? That won’t happen in five, or ten, or even a hundred years. In fact, forest ecologists have said that these 300,000 acres incinerated in northern New Mexico will never return as they were. Because the spirit of transformation has declared that they are to become something entirely new…something more adaptable to our changing climate.
Heartbreaking just doesn’t even begin to touch it.
The Journey to Primordial Wholeness (My seminar takes place)
As I took the stage on May 16th, I knew there was no compartmentalizing this heartbreak. There was no placing it in a tidy box to set aside until my seminar was complete. I had to partner with the fire. I had to ask it to take the stage with me. My very first slide, designed months earlier, was an image of a sweaty but happy me hiking through a wilderness area that was currently ablaze. As I led with this bittersweet truth, feeling my throat chakra strangle shut while I fought back tears, I silently paused to still my heart that was beating too fast. In that moment a kind of life-review struck me like lightening, a split-second slideshow of a million snapshots running through my mind. A conflagration of burned nature, and doubt, and ancestral wounds of belonging. Of fires, and memories of previous evacuations, and all of the beloved animals and trees, and landscapes affected. I watched snapshots of my own evolution, starting with a toddler version of myself so filled with chaos and unknowing, her tiny hands trying to wrangle control of her wildfire of a life…and then it ended. Like I often do, I imagined Mother Nature stepping in to fortify me. She took my face in her leafy hands, and said in her cool, earthy, silken voice, “You belong.” I looked out to the audience, steadying myself from the out-of-body experience that lasted the duration of a single blink…and found a sea of tears staring back at me. There did not seem to be a dry eye in the room.
Three hours passed in a heartbeat. It was nothing but absolutely wonderful.
And like the New Mexico forest, I will never be the same.
I didn’t fight with my imposter syndrome. I transformed it by feeling the fear and walking right through it. These analytical minds in the audience didn’t just tolerate my esoteric foray into “Primordial Wholeness”, they luxuriated in it. They cried, they laughed, they worked really hard to immerse themselves in the experience. I could not love them more for how they held space for me, for how they allowed me into their minds and their hearts.
Transformation’s last word…No more imposter syndrome.
I feel like I’ve written enough for now. Though I have more to say–including some useful practical aspects to augment your own experience. I will follow up with more soon…mainly what came next. For now, I just want to leave you with one thought: Transformation never, ever enters through the doorway of comfort. Transformation means permanent, alchemical change. It is frequently instantaneous, though sometimes it takes its sweet time. And though transformation does not require the catalyst of full blown tragedy, there is no way to navigate tragedy without also undergoing immense transformation. When the spirit of transformation is looked directly in the face–when we don’t shy from it, or attempt to run away from it, or suppress it for fear of its annihilation of us–it cures us. It permanently alters us. I think if there is one knowing I would want a person to take away from my memoir, Stark Raving Zen, it would be that.
I can say this with all honesty– I will never again feel imposter syndrome. I mean that. People may love my work, or they may hate my work, but I will never again tell myself I don’t belong. It took a miraculous cast of characters including Fire, Mother Nature, and an Oxford scholar (more on that in a future post) to help me see that. But equivalent characters are available to all of us, if we can just learn to direct our minds with the right focus. I made the conscious choice to put myself in the position to be accepted or rejected by the world of analytic reason. I took that leap, I did the work, I honored myself by showing up. I will never again let myself forget that.
I want that for you too.
Thank you so much for letting me share this experience with you. Thank you so much for being here.