I have a secret. When people ask what I do, I say I am a life and leadership coach, facilitator, speaker and writer. At core, I am a stealth soul-worker: I help people increase their awareness, connect with their deeper self, and consciously choose how to be and what to do in the world for the benefit of the world.
I do this through bringing together attentive loving presence, powerful enquiry, and embodied practices to help clients switch off autopilot to re-awaken and integrate body, mind, heart, soul and spirit.
When I first meet an individual, a leadership team, or a group of workshop participants, the explorer in me awakes, as if I am opening a new book with an unknown journey ahead. I have learned that we are bigger on the inside, with more resources than most people are aware of, and it’s a wonder and privilege to facilitate that discovery in others.
I rarely tell my life story, but I’d like to now, even though I feel vulnerable doing so. It’s the story of how I came to do the work I do, and why I know it matters. It’s the story of how I discovered that rather than living inside a small story of who I was, I could write a bigger, richer one. It’s the story of how I discovered my purpose by letting my life speak, and listening.
My earliest memory is when I was five: I was holding my doll over the side of a boat off the coast of southern France, and my dad was warning me not to drop it.
By this early age, my story was already complicated. I was born the only child of an unmarried Irish nurse and an Italian engineer. My mother died of breast cancer when I was two years old and I was eventually adopted by my foster parents who went on to have two biological sons. This holiday was the first time they were able to take me out of the country as their daughter. They rarely talked about my birth mother or father and I grew up not wanting to upset them by asking.
I spent a lot of time alone, reading, playing in the garden, or dancing in my room. I loved dancing. I was bright but bored, and often in trouble at the convent school to which my Protestant adoptive parents sent me to fulfil my birth mother’s wish that I grow up a Roman Catholic.
On my 22nd birthday, my adoptive mother sent me a photograph of me and my birth mother at Christmas 1970. Although this was the first time I had seen a picture of her, she was looking down at me so I couldn’t see her face. There were many times that I tilted that photo in my hand as if some miracle would reveal her. But she remained out of reach.
My adoptive parents divorced. In search of freedom, I left home at seventeen. At the time, I didn’t have a goal, but something pulled me forward and deeper—a curiosity and love of learning about the world and the stories of people in it, which lead me into academia.
Eventually I was awarded a Fulbright to do a Ph.D. in Performance Studies at New York University. I still loved to dance, and sensed that there was something important being created when people danced together. So I made this the focus of my work and listened to the stories of dancers who went to gay clubs and observed how they performed these stories when they danced.
My Ph.D. complete and my book published, I returned to the UK with an instinct that my next big adventure lay not in academia but in the new frontiers of e-commerce. I joined the team at Amazon—an evangelising upstart at the time—and after a few years I was poached by one of the big publishers. So it was that I found myself approaching forty with a corporate job, a long-term relationship, a mortgage and a growing realisation that this could be what my life looked like for the next 25 years. I rarely danced anymore.
A call-to-action is a thing with teeth and claws. It often swoops in from outside in the form of an adverse life event that tears into your old way of being and leaves tattered shreds to be re-assembled with new chemistry. It also grows within if you are living a life closed off from your deeper self. I was doing my avoidance dance, and for many years it kept me safe and successful. So my call-to-action needed to go in hard to get my attention.
I experienced my first face-on-the-floor panic attack when I was forty-two. In the previous years, relationships ended, my brother became critically ill, I suffered a severe depression and was made redundant, and I left my home. Unconsciously, I reverted to my failsafe habits to feel secure. But although I was pulling the old levers, now the machinery wasn’t responding. The truth was I had run out of road and needed to find another way forward.
A good friend suggested therapy. It was a leap of faith that lasted years. The process couldn’t promise to make me better, but it could make me different—if I chose to be. Yet I kept holding fast to a story of loss and abandonment through which I filtered my life experience. I couldn’t conceive of any other possible story. The reason why I would choose loss and pain lay in a terrible unspoken secret that was unconsciously running my life: I believed that I had caused my mother’s death. Out of loyalty to her and belief in a dreadful reckoning, I had lived my life convinced that I would die at the same age as her. Now, at nearly that age, the panic attacks were the internal alarm bells ringing. I simply couldn’t imagine living for a moment longer than she had.
My call-to-action was not to seize the sword and conquer the world. Quietly and tenderly I had to learn to soften and open, to listen to myself with compassion—to all aspects of myself, not just the shiny parts I believed were responsible for my achievements and made me loveable. It’s as if I had been living in a big old house with many rooms, but had chosen to reside in the kitchen, where I felt comfortable. But the pipes clanked in distant wings and eventually threatened to shake the edifice apart. So I started to open my house room by room. There is so much more than I could have imagined, and although it feels painful at times, it has been less than the pain of living a smaller life, disconnected from my heart and my deeper self. I discovered that in doing so, I could connect with the authentic source of wisdom, clarity, courage and love. I needed to take another leap of faith to leave working for others, and instead work in service of others through coaching and facilitating people to develop self-leadership. I believe that when leaders do–and that potentially includes all of us if we decide to take responsibility for our world, then the world is a better place.
Until recently however, there was one place I couldn’t contemplate going. It’s a patch of earth in South-West Ireland where my birth mother is buried. In recent years, I tried to find its location, but my efforts were in vain and frustratingly she remained hidden. I often papered up the door of that room by pretending I didn’t care. When I finally accepted what my heart longed for and stood in front of it, I had no idea how to open it. And at that moment, something extraordinary and wonderful happened: I received a Facebook message from my birth family, whom I had never considered contacting in case they didn’t know about me or want to know me. I received two gifts that day: the gift of a connection I never imagined possible, and also a realisation that the world itself was bigger than I had imagined and included magic, mystery, and blessings outside of my logical understanding.
When I travelled to Ireland a few months later, I discovered my birth family had kept a treasure trove of photographs. Finally I could see the faces of both my parents, so full of life, love, laughter, and pride. They had even held onto my christening robe, hoping one day they could give it to me. They pointed me toward the place where my mother lies buried and left me to go there alone. I sat on the grass next to the grave and the words came, “Hello, so I found you again”. As I uttered them, the sun came out and warmed my face, and it felt like connection.
When I reflect on my story, I realise I had to lose a lot to see more deeply the truth of my life. I have also learned that we have the power to write our own stories. I decided to rewrite mine from a story of loss to one of love. I have learned that my vulnerabilities—far from being weaknesses—are in fact gifts. I am hoping that this story is a gift.
Mastery is not about reaching a destination. For me it’s about practicing every day to integrate awareness, acceptance and choice with humility and compassion. As a coach my primary practice is my own work; if I can’t be connected, and available to myself, then I can’t be for anyone else. I dance again, and through my embodiment training, I fold my whole self into my work and life, and help others do the same. I feel great joy at the privilege of life itself. I don’t feel reborn, but I sense that I have crossed over a threshold into the second half of my life, one where I choose to live more fully and freely.
What object holds significance to me? As I have moved a great deal over the years, every object I have held onto is imbued with some significance. When I was about to take first steps into my coaching career, I spent time in Thailand on a beach made of quartz and the bleached skeletons of white coral. A friend gave me a small piece and told me to use it as a gratitude stone. Touching it opens another chamber of my heart, even on a hard day. It seems right that it’s a natural object, worn down by the sea to a purpose. I guess if we live our lives right, then that’s what becomes of us, if we let the sea shape us so.
As I prepare to share this story with you, I feel on the edge of something. Story strands are weaving together and I hope they will take the shape of service to others. I’ll need courage, faith, support, and perseverance. It will mean I come out of hiding—as I have in this portrait. I feel vulnerable, scared, creative, and alive. From this place looking back I understand the story I have told you anew and gather myself to write the next chapter.