Once upon a time, I was a smart, hard-working engineer and business owner. I had invested the requisite blood, sweat, and many, many tears in building a career, and a life, that by all objective measures was the very definition of success. I exceeded every expectation of the people around me. I became known as a brilliant engineer. I got married and had kids, became a partner at my firm, bought a vacation home. On the outside, I looked like a successful wonder-woman who had it all.
But something definitely wasn’t right. I was in my early 40’s, clinically depressed, angry, and confused. I was ashamed that despite everything being so full and wonderful in my life, I wasn’t happy. I felt like a failure as a mother and a wife. I wondered if I was in the right career. I was so stressed out, and I just wanted to feel peace. I wanted to be happy, and I had no idea how to achieve that. I wondered how I could have so many good things in my life, and yet be so unhappy. I felt really guilty about that.
Being a woman in the male-dominated field of engineering, as well as a business owner with many male partners, and the sole breadwinner while my husband became the stay-at-home parent to our two boys, I knew what it meant to defy conventions. And despite all the swimming upstream, I hadn’t connected my constant exhaustion and unhappiness to the circumstances of my life. I felt like I was at fault. If only I could be better, achieve more, somehow, I could finally be happy.
I guess in some ways it is the blessing of the overachiever, that I decided to do more, try something new. Through a beautiful constellation of slightly related events over the course of several years, I made the fateful decision to apply to a year-long integral coaching training program, which would take me to California five times that year and require lots of extra work, practice coaching, reading, and writing. I wasn’t even sure what the end goal was, just that I wanted to work on the “people side” of my brain, having spent so much time in the “engineering side” throughout my career. Thank goodness for that stroke of insight and taking a leap of faith.
And around the same time, I had also had a huge realization, the significance of which only dawned on me very slowly over the last few years. I realized that I had spent much of my adult life trying to live and work, essentially, as a man. And by this I mean living and building my life and my business according to the rules of engagement that have developed over hundreds or thousands of years of patriarchal cultures telling us how things should be. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of value to having a good balance of masculine traits in business (check out my blog about the balance of masculine and feminine at work), but I didn’t have the balance I needed, and I felt it, physically and emotionally.
I had neglected to figure out how I might show up as a woman in business. I didn’t know what it meant to move through the world in a way that supported my femininity too. I knew how to do business in the world of men, and I knew how to do that work in the way that most everyone seems to take for granted is the only actual way to function. Even if it doesn’t feel good for everyone involved.
I was busy trying to be what I was “supposed” to be and fulfill the criteria laid out for me – work crazy hours, give it all you’ve got, make rain, stay strong, measure up, look put together, keep your emotions in check (don’t want to be seen as weak or “emotional” after all). Oh, and don’t forget (because you are a woman after all) to be a good wife and mom too, in the hour between 6 and 7 AM, and for a few minutes at night after you finish reading and responding to emails and before you pass out for the night!
Somehow, it had failed to dawn on me that this way of being might be, just a little bit, responsible for how awful I felt. That it wasn’t some failing of me as a person that led me to feel so “off”.
So, where does belly dancing come into this story? Well, to start that part of the story – my coach training program was so eye-opening, so transformational, so different than anything I had experienced before. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The whole point of integral coaching is to integrate – to take what’s separate and fractured, and make it a single, unified whole. And a huge part of that work is to tease apart one’s life and let it reassemble in a more functional way, to find the parts that are out of balance, and bring them more into balance and alignment.
For me, that meant slowing down, finding sides of myself that I hadn’t met yet, connecting with my desires and my deeper self in a very different way. And of course, this was by no means easy. This required me to embrace new and different ways of thinking, to change the things that I did with my body as a way of supporting and anchoring the new learning that I was acquiring, to relate to my emotions in a new way.
I was being coached as a part of my coach training, because of course, we can’t take people places we haven’t gone ourselves. This was practically deprogramming, if I’m honest; being removed from the cult of “busy is a badge of honor”, you are not enough as you are, and running-on-fumes as a way of life doesn’t happen without some serious support.
My first assignment from my coaches at New Ventures West was restorative yoga, which turned out to be like a luxurious combination of stretching and kindergarten nap time. It was glorious! I had never realized that I could just rest and breathe. Those classes were like the feeling of a giant sigh, a delicious in-breath and out-breath, nourishing and gentle. My nervous system was being rewired, one slow breath at a time.
I also came away from the first session at coach training with a deep desire to let loose and dance, to feel joy in my body, to love movement for the sake of movement, not for some exercise benefit that would keep my unruly human body in check. My husband and kids most certainly wondered what they’d done to me that week in San Francisco.
At first, I danced at home, just enjoying the music, and the feeling of connecting with my body and with the joy of movement in a new way. Sometimes, I even got the boys to dance with me, which was so much fun!
A few months into coach training, as all that magic and music was beginning to work on me, I decided to take a big leap and find a dance studio, someplace where I could be brave enough to dance in public. I was drawn to belly dancing. It sounded sensuous, and beautiful, and feminine. And it was. I showed up and shimmied, for fun and for myself.
I was finding new parts of my being, and showing up in a different way, not to achieve some aim, but because it felt good, and because I wanted to dance, to embrace my femininity, to sparkle a bit. I simply enjoyed my body for the magic it held, and found a joyful new way to be connected to it.
And of course, this was not the end of the story, only the beginning. And the rest of the story I’ll save for future blogs or a book or some such, except to say that I’ve continued along my self-proscribed path of adventure and exploration, of curiosity and joy, over the past few years.
And through much learning and a slow letting go (which was also far from a straight and easy path), one day I realized that I needed to let go of the engineering consulting executive persona, because that just wasn’t my thing anymore.
And I let go.
Because by then, I knew what else had become my thing.
Supporting other people through their transformation is my thing.
Having faith in myself and the wisdom of my body.
Finding ways to collaborate and not compete.
Appreciating my emotions for the messages they offer.
Giving back in my community.
Enjoying femininity and masculinity in balance.
Trusting deeply in my own innate strength, power, and wisdom.
All that is my thing.
And that’s the true story of how belly dancing ended my engineering career.
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