Overcoming Adversity: You ARE Good Enough to Lead!

I hope by sharing this very personal story with you, it will inspire you to stay strong and never give up on your leadership vision no matter what obstacles you face.

Last week my brand new TEDx Talk “Recovering perfectionist … my ass” was released via youtube. Within a week, I’ve had over 1,800 views, speaking invitation inquiries from colleges and women’s leadership organizations have come in from across the country and my Facebook Wall has lit up with congratulatory messages, praise, media buzz and support from friends, family and colleagues. It’s been a dream come true! It’s almost picture perfect. Then I had a conversation with an aspiring speaker that led me to tell the whole story. This novice speaker confided in me that she watched my video, compared herself to me, and felt like she was never going to be good enough to lead like she dreamed of doing. So I got real and told her the following story:

When I first began my public speaking career about six years ago, I wrote out my speeches and then stood behind podiums and read them word for word. I slowly grew my confidence one opportunity at a time, standing in my PJs practicing my speeches in my bathroom mirror! Then in 2010, I was invited to Orlando, Florida to lead two 75-minute workshops at the National Conference on Student Leadership (NCSL). I was excited and a bit terrified, counting down the days until I would make my debut on the national stage. To help me get my name out there and grow my speaking business, my husband helped me pay for the conference. Then five days before I was scheduled to leave for Orlando, I received some devastating, life-altering news from my family—news that sent my hypersensitive nervous system into overdrive. I stopped sleeping, my body trembled and my anxiety shot through the roof. I thought to myself, “How can I possibly speak at a national conference in the state I was in?” I concluded that I couldn’t. That’s when Perfectoria (my inner perfectionist; see my TEDx Talk) took charge. To protect me, she attempted to shut down my emotions and transfixed me into stone. I was nearly impenetrable. No emotion was going to come out of me, and no emotion was going to reach me.

On day one of the conference, I made it through my first presentation and did well. Then I did everything in my power to calm myself so I could sleep before my second presentation the following morning, a brand new presentation that I had never led before. I did a high intensity aerobics DVD on my laptop in my hotel to sweat out my anxiety. Then I did a Yoga DVD to calm my body down. I took a long hot shower. I prayed. I did a meditation DVD. I called my husband to say goodnight. I sipped chamomile tea. I took a homeopathic sleep aide. I fell asleep…for two hours. At 2am, I woke up in a panic. All of the emotions that I had been stuffing down to make it through the conference came pouring out of me and I burst into tears. I began hyperventilating–just like when I had a panic attack on the bathroom floor during a final exam my senior year of college, I was having one again. After about an hour, I stood to wash my face. With all the empathy I could muster up, I said to my reflection in the mirror, “You’re ok. You can get through this and be there for your family when you get home. Stay strong. I love you.” Then I did another meditation DVD, took another shower and meticulously curled my hair. I caked on layer upon layer of under eye concealer; then I put on mascara, eyeliner, lipstick and a nice dress and then headed out the door. Even though I have 20/20 vision, I stopped by a Walmart at 7am on my way to the conference to try on a pair of reading glasses in an attempt to hide the dark circles under my eyes. The glasses (of course!) hurt my eyes and gave me a headache, so I left wondering why on Earth I had thought that was a good idea to begin with.

I led my workshop that morning in a packed-to-capacity room with student leaders from across the country. The presentation was called, “When A Equals Anxiety.” Ironic huh? I talked about the importance of making time for self-care and getting enough sleep, and not being so afraid to be imperfect. But all the students saw was a somewhat pale, exhausted speaker who clearly had not been sleeping herself, and they saw a speaker who was clearly afraid to be real about it. And boy did they call me out on it in anonymous feedback forms. Some students wrote that I was a “hypocrite”. Some rated me 1 out of 5 stars. Sure, some students rated me 5 out of 5 stars and gave me positive feedback, but to a recovering perfectionist like me, one less-than-perfect grade can be devastating.

So here’s what I did to persevere:

1. I reached out and asked for help. I called speaker mentors of mine whom I felt safe with and told them what had happened. I allowed them to comfort me, and I listened to their words of wisdom. I heard their war stories from the road; their negative audience feedback and, together, we laughed and released the shame. One mentor asked me to read her every positive comment I had received from the conference feedback forms. Then she asked me, “Why is it so easy to gloss over this and focus on the negative feedback?” Another mentor asked me, “How do you feel you did?” After a long pause, I took a deep breath and responded, “Given the circumstances, I showed up and did the best job I could.” He responded, “Then learn from this experience and move on.”

2. I did take the lessons and move on…eventually. I admit it, I expended more time and energy than I’d care to admit wondering if I was good enough to keep speaking and leading. After some real soul-searching, personal leadership development, coaching and prayer, I concluded that the students at NCSL couldn’t hear my message because they couldn’t connect with me because I wasn’t allowing myself to be real. By putting on my perfectionist mask to protect myself from the devastation I was feeling over a family crisis, I was also covering over my vulnerability and humanity, my power source as a leader. Even though that NCSL experience was painful, I am grateful for it because I learned so much about myself, both as a woman and as a leader.

A few years and many successful speaking engagements later, I sit here writing this blog post, full of gratitude and joy. My TEDx talk is out there in the world, going viral, and making a positive difference in the lives of all those who need it most. The viewer feedback has been so positive! And regardless of that feedback I receive from the rest of the world, when I watch the video, I’m deeply proud of myself for how far I’ve come. Beyoncé says it best in her new self-titled documentary Imperfection: “The reality is, sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose, you’re never too big to lose, you’re never too smart to lose. It happens and it happens when it needs to happen. You have to embrace those things.”

I lost at a time when I most needed to lose because God knew I was ready to learn the lessons in resilience I needed to learn. In my TEDx Talk, I was more vulnerable and real than I’ve ever been before, so much so that the following day, I stayed in bed for a while and pulled the covers over my head. I was experiencing what Brené Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover.” But no matter how scary being vulnerable is, it’s worth the risk. I have opened myself up to the gifts that leading by example affords. So many women have written to me this past week to tell me that my vulnerability on that stage inspired them to be more open and real. Even men have been writing to tell me how my message has been helping them come to terms with their own inner critics.

The lessons I learned in resilience in the past three years led me here, able to fully breathe this moment in. I am good enough to lead and I always was. So is that young speaker I spoke with this week. And so are you!

Empowering Questions:

  • How will you practice being resilient in moments of adversity?
  • How can that help you to grow as a leader?
  • In times of struggle, what could you do to be kind to yourself?
  • What does being vulnerable mean to you?
  • How could being vulnerable help you grow as a leader?
  • What is one thing you could do to practice being more vulnerable starting today?
  • If anything is holding you back from being more vulnerable, how could you breakthrough that?
  • Who can you enlist to support you?
  • How can you thank them?
  • What will you do to celebrate this accomplishment?

Leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

-Maria Pascucci
Founder & President
Campus Calm®, certified professional life coach, national speaker and author of Campus Calm University: The College Student’s 10-Step Blueprint to Stop Stressing and Create a Happy, Purposeful Life.

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