By Catherine Stagg-Macey, Director of Team Coaching
“What do you want?"
Someone I deeply admired had just asked me this question, and I had no answer. I was blank.
And then it came to me. All I wanted in that moment was to know the rules so that I could get it right. What I wanted was to be a good girl and look good in the eyes of another. What I wanted was to play it safe so I fitted in. None of this really touched what my heart and soul wanted because I had stopped listening. I’d forgotten how to dream. I had forgotten how to listen to the yearning of my soul. I’d chosen safety and belonging over courage and authenticity.
That realisation came as a huge shock. I felt like a robot programmed for someone else’s life. How could I not know what I wanted in that moment? When had I lost the ability to listen to my instinct and my intuition?
The wanting I’m referring to isn’t the urge to satisfy basic human needs of living involving safety and food. This is the wanting that comes from our dreams and hopes. The wanting that is the deep yearning for meaning and purpose that all of us desire. This wanting grounds us to what’s really important for us. It guides us as a North Star guides the navigator in the darkness of night.
This wanting is the place where with deep certainty we know what is right for us, what we are willing to fight for and what we will take a stand for.
It’s the wanting that makes us speak up for ourselves and for others with fierce courage – whatever the consequences. This wanting is about something bigger than us - it’s about what our team, family or community really needs. And our role in helping make that happen.
Somewhere in my early years, I traded knowing what I wanted for the sake of fitting in. I did this for the sake of an safer life and with the hope that I’d be accepted and loved.
As a young child, I did try to be me.
I remember asking for a chemistry set for a birthday present – when others wanted dolls. I asked for Scaletrix (an English toy racing car track) for Christmas when other girls wanted pretty dresses. I listened to The Cure whilst others danced to Rick Astley. I guess that somewhere in my teenage years, it became too hard. I’d learnt that fitting in was easier than standing out. I must have learnt that following the rule was a way to belong. And in one of life’s great ironies, with all that personal cost, I still never felt I fitted in.
My choice of a university degree was based on what my father thought was a good idea – which was very different to what I wanted. I longed to study psychology. I’d been inspired by reading Jonathan Kellerman novels where the protagonist – a psychologist – got to save people from their demons. I wanted the chance to do the same. I wanted to save the world and probably in doing so save myself. But my father wasn’t having any of it. In his view, the field of psychology was too fluffy and he wanted his daughter to have a ‘proper’ degree. I completed a degree in Computer Science.
My first boyfriend was a safe option who didn’t rock the boat (ok, so were the next few too!). When I was sexually harassed at work by an older man who should have known better, HR told me it was my word against his so I dropped the case. All for the sake of fitting in.
Mary Oliver writes in her poem, The Journey:
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice
That question that day of what did I want connected me to a deep sense of knowing that I was on the wrong path. I didn’t know what the right path was, but I knew I wasn’t even in the right. My longing to find my truth and honour my purpose became greater than my need for safety.
I checked out of a great corporate career in technology with all its seductive trimmings and started my own business as an executive coach. It took me four decades to admit that the degree I really wanted as a teenager was in essence, the path that I want to follow. It took that long to cast aside the expectations of me that I had internalized and mistaken for the real me. Our world favours those that fit in. But if fitting in means trading down on your dream and losing your voice, it’s not worth it.
We all make choices in our lives that have us on a trajectory that in our middle years sits less comfortably with us. And we are always at choice. Be open to that true voice of yours that whispers to you in dreams. Be open to that uncomfortable niggle.
How can you take the space that is so rightly yours?
How can you claim your space and bring to the world your true gifts?
How can you save your life?