Sometimes in life, we feel unfulfilled, especially when we’re living someone else’s dream and just ticking things off that we think we’re supposed to be doing. Stop living success-empty and start living success-full. Today, Whitney Lauritsen is joined by transformational coach and author Shelley Paxton. Shelley was a former Chief Marketing Officer at Harley-Davidson. Finding herself at the top of her career but never feeling any of the success led her on her “soulbbatical” journey. Shelley shares how she finally woke up, discovered her truth, and finally rewriting her own definition of success.
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Do You Need A Soulbbatical? With Shelley Paxton
Release The Shackles of Should
One thing that drew me to our guest Shelley is when I heard her described as Brené Brown with a dash of Liz Gilbert, 2 of my favorite authors and 2 women whom I find myself very drawn to as I have shifted a lot in my approach to my online work, especially Liz Gilbert. I think of her a lot when I’m trying to think about what I want to post on a platform like Instagram. I often come back to her face, which in my viewpoint, doesn’t have makeup.
I don’t know if she regularly wears makeup. I don’t think that she does. I don’t associate her with someone who always has her clothes perfectly curated and her hair perfectly done. She comes across as such an authentic unfiltered filtered person. I admire that in a world where it seems like a lot of online personalities feel like they need to shape themselves into a specific mold.
Something I’ve spoken a lot about for my journey and a lot of guests seem to align with me on is this desire to color outside the lines, honor our true selves, shed the shoulds and define what success means for us. Another thing I love about you, Shelley, is this term success-full versus success-empty. Success-empty is that traditional measure of success versus success-full or successful is life on your terms.
A lot of people are trying to figure out what that means, especially women or people that identify as a female gender that feel like success needs to look a certain way for themselves because there’s so much tradition tied into gender. There’s so much tradition tied into even age, race, location and career. It’s like, “How many of us feel like our lives were meant to follow some formula?” Maybe a good place for us to start is have you felt pressure to abide by some formula? If so, how did you start to move away from that, find the confidence to go off script and design things in a way that feels good for you?
First of all, I want to thank you. I also love Brené and Liz. I feel the same way about both of them. To me, they’re the gold standard of authenticity, courage and vulnerability. You described Liz beautifully, at least, the way I don’t know her personally but the way I also see her and experience her. Part of what I always hope I’m channeling, I say that authenticity is the truest form of rebellion because culture, society and all of our conditioning are wanting to put us figuratively in boxes, tick boxes on our gender and on our “way to success.”
It’s beautiful that there were more of us who were saying, “No. Being my authentic self truly is an act of rebellion.” That’s how I love to think about it. To answer your question, “Yes, this is the crux of my entire story.” I spent 26 years in the corporate world. I was an advertising and marketing executive. I was good at what I did in that world. I kept getting all of this external validation and my dad had paved this path before me. The seeds were planted.
My dad had been this incredible marketing executive creating characters in commercials that we all would know and love like the Pillsbury Doughboy and things like that. He went on to become CEO and Chairman of many beloved brands and companies. I fell into that. I found it sexy and it took me around the world. Much of my worth and value became attached to these amazing iconic brands that I was representing, whether on the agency side or the client marketing side.Authenticity is the truest form of rebellion. Click To Tweet
Fast forward, I’ve spent decades doing this, being rewarded, externally validated and ticking all of those boxes because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be doing. I call them the shackles of should. That’s my version of the language. The shackles of should for me were like, “I should stay on the corporate track because of my dad and some cost.” All of my value and my worth were tied up in these other brands, not in my brand or representing myself and my truth as Shelley Paxton.
Fast forward, I make it to the top of the proverbial mountain. I become Chief Marketing Officer of Harley Davidson, which for any marketer is probably one of the sexiest jobs you can have in marketing. I went to Harley at age 40 and I’m rocketed. Who doesn’t love the idea that you get to ride motorcycles around the world and represent a brand that people tattoo on their bodies? For me, I was like, “I’ve made it. I’m here.”
About 3 or 4 years into it, I started feeling like, “Wait a second. Is this all there? I’ve done all the things. I got here. I’m representing this brand that says I’m a cool chick. I’ve made it. I’m cool and yet I feel empty inside.” I’m feeling I’m dying a little bit inside. I then start to have this excruciating nightmare. I’ve been at Harley for years and I have this nightmare that’s ripping me out of my sleep. It probably comes as no surprise that this was my soul and the universe conspiring to go, “Wake up. You’re living someone else’s dream. There’s a reason why you feel empty inside.”
I’m fast-forwarding a bit through the story. We can dig into any piece of this that you want to but the reality was in that moment and in some work that I did to understand what was this dream trying to tell me and why am I feeling this way when all of my life I worked toward this thing that I thought would bring me true joy and fulfillment, I realized I was living my dad’s dream and I had bought into his and society’s definition of success and into this idea of ticking all of these boxes. I think about when you said success-full versus success-empty. Success-empty is ticking those boxes. It’s an external validation and success-full is an internal check-in.
It’s checking in with ourselves and getting to know, “What is my truth?” There’s so much richness there that I’m sure we’ll dig into but that was the wake-up call for me and what ultimately sent me on this whole journey that I called soulbbatical, this whole idea of being a voice in helping others to rewrite their script of success on their terms. Everything you said lands so deeply for me because it is my story and it’s so many people’s stories.
I was thinking about that as you’re speaking and wondering how many people feel this way but don’t know how to express it or maybe they don’t even realize it. I think a lot about this at this stage in my life, especially when it comes to parenthood. Are you a parent, Shelley?
Neither am I. I’m also curious if you can relate to this without knowing your story about whether you chose to not be a mother purposefully. For me, it just hasn’t happened. I still have biological time if I want to change my mind and things like adoption are available too. I’ve been thinking a lot about it because I spent so much of my life thinking that I would have kids and then I thought, “Why did I think that?” It was as if it was predetermined because for me, at least and other women or people with a uterus can relate to this idea of like, “That’s the way it’s going to be.”
Whether it’s a parenting societal, marketing media or cultural thing, it’s almost odd if you don’t have children by choice. It’s not like your body couldn’t do it or there were some other circumstances. It’s like, “I’ve just decided not to.” It’s especially odd when you still have some time to make that choice. It’s not like I’ve gone past the point of not being able to choose but I’m still sitting here going, “So far, it doesn’t feel like a fit for me.”
That feels so intense because it’s one of few things in my life that I can look back on and say, “How much of this idea of children was implanted in me as a should? How much of that idea were people telling me that to feel successful and fulfilled as a woman I must have children?” I’m unmarried and it’s this idea of like, “Why isn’t she married at whatever age?”
That’s a choice. I’ve chosen not to marry the partners that I’ve been with. I’m very fulfilled and feel successful in my life despite being unmarried and not having children. What was also interesting and I would love to hear your thoughts on that too is it’s almost confusing sometimes. I’m like, “Do I feel fulfilled? Would I be more fulfilled if I had children? Are my friends feeling more fulfilled than me because society keeps telling me? Also, are they telling me that they’re fulfilled because they’ve been conditioned to feel fulfilled?”
There’s truly no way for us to measure who’s more fulfilled than the other, for me to know if I would be more fulfilled with children until I have them and for my friends to know would they feel as fulfilled in their lives if they do not have kids. I’m not trying to make this a conversation about children but to me, it stands out because it’s for men and women. Regardless of gender, a lot of human beings are encouraged to have kids and get married as a major marker of fulfillment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that personally and observationally.
This is a part of my story. You and I are just meeting and you’ve struck gold in one of my three shoulds. My three shackles of should are at the core of my book. We all have our shoulds just like we were meant to define success in our way. We take on these sheds in our way depending upon how we are raised, by whom, religion culture and all the things.
With my three, I’ve already said one which is I should stay on the corporate track. My second one was, “I should get married and have kids.” My third one was, “I should make personal sacrifices for work,” because I didn’t see my value. I thought if I’m not bending over backwards, let my boundaries fall and attach all of my value to what I’m doing for work, which meant all of my time and energy, I’m going to get fired. They’re not going to see my worth.We don't have to do it all and be it all at the same time. Click To Tweet
Those were the three biggies. I’ve had more shoulds than that in my life but those were the three that I realized as I was writing my story had a significant impact on the trajectory of my life, on my behaviors and actions and on getting me to this moment where I’m on the floor, sweating and balling seeing this nightmare that I was seeing at age 45 and 46. Ultimately, leaving Harley at age 46.
To answer your question about that second should, that I should get married and have kids, I was raised in a very nuclear family by very Catholic parents in the homogenous White suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. We were raised with certain expectations. Everyone around me looked the same and took the same path. Family structures looked very similar. I could go on and on. You get the idea.
I posted it on my Instagram. I was telling you I was in Austin and I found this trucker cap that says, “Black sheep.” I say at the beginning of my book, I have always felt like a black sheep because all of these kinds of “cultural norms” and expectations didn’t fit when I would try them on. They didn’t feel good. I felt like I was suffocating and yet I hadn’t seen enough of the world and had enough diverse experiences culturally and otherwise to understand that I could blaze my trail or find mentors and people who are out ahead of me doing their thing. It took me many years in my life to understand that.
On the way to understanding that, I got married. I never thought I was going to but I moved to Istanbul, Turkey for work when I was 26 years old in the advertising business. It is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was an incredible experience. Turkey is still very deep in my heart, especially Istanbul as are many of my friends there and I fell in love with the Turk. I then ended up marrying that Turk. We were together for many years. Honestly, the reason we got married is that we left Istanbul to move to New York City and the easiest way to deal with his visa issues was to be like, “Let’s get married.”
It was not romantic. It wasn’t a big white dress church wedding. It was barefoot on the beach with the family. I did it in my way but I was like, “People get married. Let’s do this thing. This is going to be easy.” We did it on our terms. He wanted a family and I was wrestling with exactly what you said. Let me rewind for a second. When I was 28, we were dating and I was still living in Istanbul. I ended up staying there for four years. I went on a 6-month assignment and left 4 years later. I got pregnant and it was our baby. We were 28 years old and we don’t even know if we were committed to each other. I don’t even know if I was going to stay in Turkey.
I was living the life of this ex-pat and was doing work in Southern Europe, North and South Africa, the Middle East and India. I was living the high life, at least, how it was defining it in those days. I couldn’t imagine bringing a child into the world under those circumstances and he was also not ready. Little did we know, you’re never ready to have a child. We together decided to abort the pregnancy. I have 1 abortion and then later, 1 miscarriage to my name.
I have realized that this is the way it was meant to be. When you asked me, I’m so comfortable. I’m old. I am not going to be having children. What I have realized in my journey is that I wasn’t meant to have my biological children. This is fast-forwarding within the past few years. I went with a shaman to the top of a mountain in Baja, Mexico. As he was reading my energy, he repeated back to me, “You are all about fertility.” I was like, “You don’t get me at all. That’s ridiculous.”
He didn’t know anything about me or my story, whether I had children or what work I did in the world. Nothing. He said, “Let me tell you a little bit about what I mean before you react and/or overreact,” as the case may be. He said, “Whether or not you have your children, what I see is your fertility, ideas and passion and the work that you do in the world. Whatever your work is and whatever seeds you are planting, keep doing that. That is your fertility.”
I went on to later tell him that I’m on this mission to liberate a billion souls and help others rewrite their script of success. He’s like, “That’s your fertility. Those billion souls are your children and you’re guiding them to living their fulfilling life.” I was head-to-toe sobbing with goosebumps. I’ve come to think about what it means to be a mother in this world and what it means to be maternal. I see it as so deeply related to my mission and my work in the world.
When I reflected on that as I was writing the book, I was like, “That makes perfect sense.” At the peak of my time at Harley, I had 250 people around the world in the global marketing organization and I viewed every one of them as my children. When I was leaving Harley, the hardest decision I had to make was how am I going to create the best possible scenario for all of them to thrive as I exit? It all makes sense. I don’t know how that lands with you but that’s how I think about being a mother and it lights me up.
That is so beautiful and something that I feel is not spoken about a lot. Just because you choose not to bear your children doesn’t mean that you can’t be maternal and all these other ways, whether that’s the people you work with, your animals or even extended family and friends. As you’re sharing that, I’m reflecting on my versions of motherhood, not just to my dog, who is the closest I’ve ever had to a child.
I have a furbaby too. I get it.
It’s beautiful and I don’t have that to compare to having my child. I hear a lot of parents say it’s unlike any other love that you’ve experienced, which sometimes also feels like a marketing buzzword. I don’t think people are intentionally saying things like that to persuade others to have kids but I’ve spoken a few times on this show about how I don’t feel in alignment with this mentality that having children is for me.
I don’t think bringing another person into this world should revolve around me. I feel like that’s selfish because it’s not taking into account that this is a whole other human being who’s going to have their thoughts, feelings and experience of life that is disconnected from me but it’s this idea of, “What if I can support other mothers instead? What if I can support other people who don’t have a mother or don’t have a good relationship with a mother?”Self-first isn't selfish. Click To Tweet
I also feel deeply compelled to support my friends that are mothers because I see how much it takes for them to show up in that way. Every time I have a conversation like this, I’m like, “How can I show up more to support friends and family that have kids?” I think back on some of the people that were in my life and are still in my life that feel like mother figures or even father figures, all these other amazing people that I’m not biologically related to that have made a difference in my life.
We can all do that, whether or not we have children. I’m so glad that you brought that up because I don’t know if that’s discussed that much. We look at the bandwidth, which I’d love to use as a pivot point beyond parenthood but as a starting point with bandwidth, that’s one thing I know about mothers and in my reflections on whether or not I want to have children.
I wonder, “Do I want to spend my bandwidth on a biological child or for a different purpose?” As much as our society likes to talk about women who can do it all, have it all and be great partners, mothers and with their work, I imagine with your experience in the corporate environment, you see how demanding a job like that is.
I grew up with my mother working in an intense corporate job. She’s going to be gone all day long and then stretches them in terms of bandwidth when she returns home. Even when my mother chose to leave the corporate world, as you did Shelley, she still in many ways had limited bandwidth to take care of herself and her passions to have a good relationship with my father and with me and my sister.
I could see the ways in which there weren’t always going to be times where she could give me her full attention because her bandwidth wasn’t there. I see this in friends that have young children who can barely show up for me as a friend, let alone do any work for themselves. I have come to this realization. I’m like, “It almost feels like a bit of a lie that I was sold as a woman that you could do it all.” Knowing myself, at least, if I had kids, I probably wouldn’t be able to do most of the things that I’m doing without children. I’m curious if you felt that way or experienced that yourself.
My view on this is that I don’t think it’s an either/or. Do I think that we can step into our full power, our mission and whatever work we’re meant to do in the world and have children? Absolutely. Do I think we can have it all and do it all at the same time? Absolutely not. There is the myth of the superwoman and I was listening to Lisa Ling talk to the chief organization. There was an acknowledgment that especially as moms and working women, she was like, “We’re exhausted and it’s okay to realize that not everything is going to be in harmony or firing on all cylinders at the same time. We don’t have to do it all and be it all at the same time. We’re going to need to ask for help.”
There is strength and asking for help, not weakness. That is one of the biggest lessons I learned in this whole journey and in my decision to leave Harley because I was pretending for so long. I’m like, “I got it all together,” in very masculine energy. I’m all polished. I’ll put on the heels and the fancy jewelry. I was spit-polished to a shine so you didn’t know what a hot mess I was on the inside. I didn’t know and I couldn’t figure it out. I was very afraid to be vulnerable and to ask for help.
This is my version. I’m speaking about my experiences as a working woman without children. I’m not making comparisons but there is this beautiful idea that asking for help is a strength and not a weakness. May more of us embrace that and support each other in that decision. Also, the self-first isn’t selfish. The moms I know in my world who are thriving the most are the ones who when they thought they couldn’t do it are taking 1 hour or 2 to themselves every single day.
I have a friend. Her book is soon to come out. She has been doing this for years taking two hours. She has two very young kids and both she and her husband are entrepreneurs who work a lot. It fundamentally changed her life. Her name is Paden Hughes. She talks a lot about boundaries, her experience as a mom, what it meant to create that space and how it radically improved her relationship with herself, her husband, her children and her work. It changed her life in every way.
I had somebody say to me when I first started learning about the concept of meditation, “If you say you can’t make 10 minutes, you probably need 3 hours.” It’s a very similar concept here. If we say we can’t make 30 minutes, 1 hour or 2 hours to care for ourselves so that we have the energy for our families, teams, work and the things we’re most passionate about in the world, then we’re doing ourselves a disservice.
Flip the script. I’m super passionate in the corporate world about flipping the script on this idea that time off is a reward for hard work. Time off is a prerequisite for showing up as your most powerful, creative, innovative, productive, compassionate and kind self. I’m translating that more into, to me, that’s a key ingredient of how I think about success. Success-full for me can’t and will never happen if I am not creating some space for myself.
I’m as human as you and everybody else reading this. Some days I do it well and some days I’m total crap at it. It ebbs and flows. That’s okay too. Give yourself grace and go gently. Especially as women, we’re so compassionate with others that were so mean to us. This is something that I’ve been working on but the most generous, kind and compassionate thing we can do is to say, “It’s not selfish for me to put myself at the top of my to-do list and not let it fall off every day as it so often does.”
It’s something I’ve had to learn to say, “If I want to show up as my most powerful self on this mission to liberate a billion souls and be as maternal as I want to be to others on that journey, I better be fueled up and create that space for myself.” I invite mothers to do the same. I’m seeing other mothers say, “I am not going to be burnt out, fried to a crisp and try to take on everything. I am going to create that space, set those boundaries and stick to them.” This is our life’s work as women because we were not taught or conditioned in this way.
Going back to what you said about this myth of the superwoman, I don’t want to make it too much of a gender issue because men have so many myths that they feel like they have to live up to and then people that are non-binary. If we could just let go of all of these gender-related things that feel so confusing for people. Something that I learn more about what non-binary means is the idea of not adhering to these gender norms. That sounds so freeing. Part of me is like, “Maybe I want to be non-binary.” It feels so nice to be fluid and say, ‘I’m just a human being. I’m not limited to the ideas of my gender or based on what I look like and how I present myself.’”Time off is a prerequisite for showing up as your most powerful self. Click To Tweet
Even as a woman, there are times when I feel that masculinity is so interesting and confusing too because there are parts of me that feel like they fit into this feminine box where maybe I present as very feminine because I’m choosing to wear makeup and do my hair. It’s also frustrating that if I don’t present myself in those ways, suddenly I’m not feminine. It’s a big thing for me and I’d love to hear you touch upon it. We could probably talk so much in-depth about things like gray hair. I’ve been growing a lot of gray hairs over the last few years.
I’m choosing not to dye it and there are these moments of like, “Do people perceive me as less attractive because women are taught that they have to dye their hair, wear makeup and dress a certain way?” Every single day, I feel pressure about how I present as a woman and I despise that because men can very comfortably have gray hair and not wear makeup. They can very comfortably wear whatever they want in clothing.
That’s incredibly frustrating so it’s exciting if we can move away from those gender norms and all of these myths around them. I’ll pause there because there’s a lot more to say but I’m curious about how you feel about the pressures to present in a way that aligns with your gender and how you feel about this movement to be more fluid or non-binary.
I love what you said and it goes back to what we were talking about in the beginning. It’s all the boxes that the world wants to put us in and I feel liberated. From the second I decided, I’m like, “Authenticity is the truest form of rebellion. I am on this journey of living a life that’s more authentic, courageous and purposeful. That’s what a success-full life means to me.”
I’ve been a woman who has largely been in masculine-dominated industries. I learned from an early age in my career in particular that success equals leading with more of that masculine energy than embracing my feminine energy. I have both. I know I want both and need both. The beauty of how I show up in the world is that blend.
I’m leaning so much more into my feminine energy because I understand, “This is the maternal that’s bringing this mission to bear. My feminine energy is wild, free, vulnerable and compassionate.” I knew I had a lot of this. Even at Harley, I would get comments like, “You’re such a different kind of female leader. We love you. We’re learning from you.” I didn’t understand it at the time. I’m like, “I’m just being me.” What I understand so clearly now in the rearview mirror is I was showing up and bringing some of my feminine energy to bear but in limited ways.
Even in those limited ways, people were like, “We’re craving more of that. Show us more of that vulnerability, your humanity and your soul. Don’t feel like everything has to be so perfect in performance and all of that.” I’m leaning into that. I’m a woman who has always been more comfortable in jeans, leather jackets and boots. I am not a frilly dress girl but I do. I present feminine.
I’ve had people comment to me when I was a Harley, “You’re so feminine. We didn’t expect that.” I’ll be honest. I get super taken aback by comments like that because I’m like, “What does that even mean? I’m me.” The choices I’m making and the way I dress for me have become less of how society and culture or any given company or brand expect me to dress. Harley was the moment where I was like, “I’m cool. I’m reclaiming my coolness.” This gives me the excuse to show up wearing exactly what I want to wear.
I want to show up in a boardroom with my nose pierced, which I have, with my leather jackets, skinny jeans, boots and big jewelry. I’m in my happy place. Ever since then, this is how I rock. I do dye my hair. I will tell you very honestly, that was a hard moment for me during lockdown with the grays and I have significant grays. I was like, “I can’t bear this.” I wasn’t ready because I see it so clearly. I make a choice to dye my hair and the reason I do is that I dyed my hair red. I’m a redhead with a little bit of blonde in it.
I was always a brunette with natural auburn highlights. After my divorce, I created my post-divorce like, “Bring back the coolness and reconnect with who I am.” I became a redhead. It’s been a big part of my identity ever since. This is a choice I make. I have friends who are doing it. I applaud when I see beautiful women growing their gray hair out and owning it. I’m simply not ready to part with that part of my identity. My hair, more specifically, the color of my hair has become so much about my statement of authenticity in this world because, in a world of a lot of blondes and brunettes, I love being the standout redhead.
I love being bold, brave and cool in every way that I can be. That’s my position on that but it’s a choice. I’ve been leaning into my feminine energy and what that’s been bringing to my leadership and my work but you’re never going to see me in pink or a flowery dress. I can commit to that for the rest of my life but you will see me in some pretty fun, funky clothes and always with my jewelry and my hair done.
It’s so fascinating this idea of our identity is so tied to our appearance. That’s something that I find myself thinking a lot about because I can see it from both sides. I’m like, “First of all, freedom of expression is amazing.” We should all have that option to have freedom of expression but simultaneously, I would like to see less judgment around our appearance and assumptions about what that means.
To your point, you walking into a corporate boardroom and dressing a certain way says nothing about your ability to achieve whatever goal of that meeting is. You can see it from both sides. It’s natural. We’re conditioned, plus historically, as human beings, the appearance of anything is a survival mechanism. We’re making assumptions to determine, “Are we safe here? Is this person trustworthy? Are they going to help me with something?”
We’ve gotten so far away from the basics of that humanity that has become very confusing. I’m hoping that we’re moving to a time with all this more gender fluidity or lack of gender at all. Could we move to a point where we’re seeing the humanity in one another and not making all these preconceived notions because, for me, I’ve been breaking out of that so much over the last few years? I used to feel so concerned about my gray hair. At the beginning of the pandemic, I would notice my gray hair all the time and then I moved away from it because I wasn’t around other people as much. I stopped looking in the mirror as much because I didn’t feel like I needed to.Success can't and won't happen if I’m not creating space for myself. Click To Tweet
Then it was this a-ha moment of, “I’m looking in the mirror to determine how other people may perceive me.” I’m looking in the mirror to say like, “Do I look okay and will I get the approval?” Also back to one of your points, Shelley, this external approval. I found myself only concerned about my appearance when it was in the context of how other people viewed me because if I’m not taking in the possible perceptions others may have of me, then I feel freer. I don’t feel the need to look in the mirror, look at photos of myself or even take them or scrutinize myself on camera if I choose to make videos for this show, for instance.
I could sit there all day long and tear myself apart but then I realized, “All of those critical things I’m thinking about myself have nothing to do with me. They’ve been conditioned into me based on me trying to approval from others. What happens if I let go of that and show up in my comfortable state?” I’m not a jeans girl. I’m a big fan of any type of stretchy clothes. I love stretchy jeans. Those are the only jeans that I feel good in.
I’m wearing leggings. I am embracing them more. I wear jeans with stretch in them and comfortable jeans that fit me well and feel good on me. This made me think. As you were talking, I have my big struggle, if you want to talk about getting super vulnerable and one of my areas of personal struggle that I know will play into my work some way in the world and it may simply be talking about it in these beautiful brave forums like you’ve created on your show. Mine is about bigness. The acceptance of the fact that I am a big personality. I am also not a small woman. I grew up swimming and the minute my big boobs started to show up and all the things, I was like, “Apparently, I’m not a swimmer anymore.”
I got to figure out all this stuff and realized that for most of my life since puberty, I’ve never been comfortable with my body. I’ve been shaming myself for all the reasons that you pointed out. For me, it’s been about, “People are going to see me as larger or curvier than average.” It’s like, “What is average? Why am I trying to fit into this thing called average? I don’t want to be average.” It took me a long time to have the courage to own my bigness in terms of my passion, my personality, the curves of my body and my success in the world. I could go on and on. I have finally made peace with all of that but it’s probably my forever journey.
I’m closer to peace than I’ve ever been. I am working on it every day and you reminded me that I wrote this poem. I did some work. There’s a guy by the name of John Wineland who does beautiful work within masculine, feminine, spiritual intimacy and a lot of cool practices. I did a weekend intensive with him during COVID. A the end, we each had to perform a piece that represented either our breakthroughs, the experience we’ve had or how we’re moving forward in the world. I wrote a poem called bigness and it was such a turning point for me in my life.
These were the total lockdown days in 2020 of COVID. I wonder if it would help to read this because I feel like this might resonate with others. Many of us as women, we’re told we’re taking up too much space and that we’re too much. I’m calling crap on that whole thing in the same way that you’re calling crap on like, “Don’t call me out masculine, feminine, certain traits and expectations. Let me be me. Learn about me, dive into me and understand it.” This was my turning point in appreciating my big, beautiful and wild feminine self. I wrote this. It’s fairly short.
“I was always too big for you. Yes, you. Every man in my life, every husband, boyfriend and potential suitor. Too intense, too successful, too curvy, too bold, too smart, too independent, too charismatic, too much. Too much like the wild swells of the ocean, like the raging winds of a Monsoon, like the scorching rays of the desert sun. You told me I was a force of nature too big in every way and I believed you.”
“I felt crushed, ashamed, misunderstood, unlovable, alone, aching and too big for love until now. Now, I understand that big is beautiful and the vast expansiveness of the divine feminine is powerful. The movement, the energy, the beauty, the expression, the emotion, the leadership, the force that nature intended. Now, I choose to show up as she, who must be loved in her bigness and ravished in her wild feminine. Look out world.”
How does it feel to share that again? Have you read that out loud before?
I have only read it out loud two other times that I can remember. It’s not a lot since 2020. I’ve read that out loud in 2022 3 times, max 4. It feels amazing. To me, it’s so energizing. There’s a reason I keep it on my phone. It is a cornerstone for me and that’s a gift or an insight. For anybody reading this who is like, “What can be your cornerstone that you go back to and it grounds you in your authenticity, bigness and brave, courageous journey?” That’s so beautiful because that fuels my energy when I read it. It reminds me that no one can try to put me in this little box.
It is my choice not to live in that box or any other box and unlock the shackles of should to not create my box, which so many of us often do. We create our boxes in our prisons. This is an ongoing journey but this is so much of what I’ve experienced. I left Harley years ago so I’ve been on this journey for many years and I’m constantly having breakthroughs. That bigness moment was such a breakthrough for me where it’s like, “No, I’m not going to shrink in the corner, try to fit into the size four jeans or contort my way into some box I don’t belong in.” It feels liberating. It has become so foundational to my definition of success-full because I’ve committed to myself to live.
My values are freedom, authenticity and courage. I believe that living success-full is truly courageously and intentionally defining success on your terms and in a way that’s in alignment with your truth, values and dreams. Bigness has become a part of that and owning my bigness on stage, in this conversation and in the whole world. Ask everybody, “What’s your version of that you want to own to explode out of that box or those boxes that people are trying to put you in?” It feels so good. It is liberating.
I’m so glad you’re sharing all of that because it’s liberating just to hear you. Your poem is wonderful and I can relate to so much of that as well. I feel like many, if not all women and again, I keep trying to move away from the gender side of it because it goes beyond that but as somebody who has identified as a woman and is trying to find my place with the gender, that’s also been a big journey too. I’m like, “Maybe I don’t even identify as a woman after all. I’ve been conditioned to believe that.”
As you’re talking about these ideas of big and small, I keep reflecting on physically how much pressure I felt, struggled with my body and feeling comfortable in it and feeling so much shame when I don’t fit into certain clothing or when I see photos of myself where I perceived myself to be big and then become terrified of, “Maybe people don’t perceive me as beautiful, powerful or important because of my body.” What an awful feeling many of us have lived with.I'm not going to control my way into a box that I don't belong in. Click To Tweet
That is horrifying how many people have felt unworthy because of their body and frustrated because they’ve spent so much time trying to control it. A visual came up for me as you were talking and maybe during your poem too, Shelley. The Disney movie Turning Red, have you seen that? It’s about this little girl and a red panda. I encourage it through the lens of what you shared because the movie has a lot of cultural significance. It has a theme of anger and the story of a relationship with a mother.
It also represents to me this idea of not having to control yourself all the time because the movie is about this little girl who was born with something that she inherited from her family and is trying to control it. It feels “out of control.” The whole story is about how her mother taught her to control it. It’s being passed down. “You got to control yourself,” even though this is naturally within you or it’s been passed down through your family. You technically don’t have control over something. I want you to force control over it to adhere to the cultural norms of what we believe is proper. “This is the right way to do this.” It does come down to success, Shelley. All of your work is like, “How can I be successful?”
We’ve been told over and over again that to be successful, we have to control ourselves and control could be either hiding things about ourselves, squeezing ourselves into spots or trying to reshape ourselves. For me, my new journey is realizing my neurodivergence and how I’ve had to control my brain my whole life. That ties into one thing I want to make sure we touch upon before we wrap up, which is burnout. We could talk on and on about that but do you feel, as I believe, that burnout is often the result of us trying to control too much in ways that may be as I’ve described it is trying to force us into a shape that we cannot hold?
This idea of like, “You’re too big to be contained in this small space.” Maybe temporarily, you can shove yourself in there but at a certain point, you’re going to burst out of the seams because you cannot fit in whatever shape you’re being forced to fit in. That is so stressful. You’re going to feel burnt out and also coming back around to the Superwoman and Superman thing, if we’re told over and over again that we have to do it all but we cannot do it all, we’re going to get burnt out because we’re trying to do something that we can’t do.
I can relate to all of that. Burnout is a combination of so many. It’s like a Molotov cocktail of ingredients. It’s the things you mentioned and my third shackle of should that I mentioned. I should make personal sacrifices for my work or they’re not going to find me worthy or valuable enough to be in this job. My work couldn’t speak for itself. I felt if I didn’t go the extra hundred miles, do all the things, bend over backwards and please everyone that, for some reason, me showing up and phenomenally doing my work wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough unless I was contorting or letting all of my boundaries fall.
I’m a fan of saying boundaries over burnout because so often, a piece of burnout and some of these gender expectations is people-pleasing. How many of us, especially as women, have been conditioned to please our parents, authority figures, the church or the cultural circles we were raised in and to not ruffle feathers and choose ourselves? I have a lot of friends who didn’t come out of the closet until very late in life when it was “more acceptable” because they were raised in a way where that wasn’t possible which also makes my blood boil.
I think so much of that. There’s a stat that I often use in my work and talks that 85% of Americans have experienced burnout. A lot of that came from COVID, working from home, trying to wear all these hats in one small space and juggling so many things. I think of boundaries and creating space. Burnout ties together so many of the themes we’ve been talking about because I’m shackling myself to the idea that I need to be small, that I have to fit into some pre-determined set of boxes, to somebody else’s definition of success and pleasing others.I will absolutely disappoint others over disappointing myself. Click To Tweet
To me, this idea of, “I can’t imagine disappointing others. I’d rather disappoint myself,” is such a crime. Absolutely not. Let’s flip that script as well. I am living a life where I will disappoint others over disappointing myself because the other way around contributes to burnout. Self-care, not caring for ourselves, putting ourselves on our to-do list at the top of it, creating space and fueling ourselves lead to or contribute to burnout.
Many of these things I feel like are the through-line to the entire conversation and it’s only gotten worse. To your point about control, this is something I am passionate about with all of this work and this conversation and even more passionate than I was pre-COVID. My book came out in January of 2020, eight weeks before the world shut down. I was super passionate about this before, what we’ve experienced since 2020. I am incredibly passionate because the way I see the world is like, “2020 was the year that shook us.”
If you didn’t already have that universal 2×4 that whacked you with tragedy, illness, losing your job or the other kinds of things that wake us up from living our lives on autopilot, then COVID probably shook you up and reminded you that you have no control. The only certain thing is uncertainty. All control we had was perceived. White knuckling the steering wheel of life is not going to get us anywhere. 2020 was the year that shook us. 20 21 was the year of the awakening. There was so much wrong with what many people call the old normal and it crystallized what mattered most to us.
I’m calling 2020 and 2022 and beyond the years of the revolution where we are all going to create our most authentic, courageous and purposeful life. We are going to choose success-full and not success-empty because we’re forced to let go of this control. Believe me, trust and surrender is the lesson I will have to learn again and again until my dying day. It’s probably why I’m so passionate about it. We teach what we most need to learn. We write the book we most need to read. That’s what I do but by learning to let go, we’ve all gotten yet another wake-up call. The universe is shaking by our lapels saying, “How do you want to live the rest of your life?”
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bronnie Ware. She wrote The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. She was a palliative care nurse in Australia. The number one regret of the hundreds of patients she sat at the bedside with on their death bed was, “I lived the life someone else expected of me, not the life I truly wanted. I didn’t have the courage to live that life.”
Let’s not be those people. We got the biggest wake-up call of our lives and I feel like I keep getting these awful messages of young people dying left, right and center. I’ve lost two friends so I’m like, “It’s time. This is our wake-up call to truly live life on our terms and create it in alignment with our soul, values and truth.” It’s all of those things. The more we live like that, the more we get into a mental health crisis and go get at the burnout epidemic and these things that are eating away at our society, especially in the US.
I couldn’t agree more and that’s why your work is so important. Speaking of your work, you have this wonderful book, Soulbbatical. You also have a podcast too. Can you talk about that so that somebody who might want to go immediately to learn more about you can jump into another podcast right away? What is it?
It’s called Rebel Souls. It’s all the things I talked about. If you want to flip the middle finger to the status quo in your life, business or the world at large, then you’re in the right place. It’s all of these things that we’re talking about. It’s so aligned with your work and the beautiful conversations that you host. You can find it anywhere where you listen to your podcast. I’m on a brief hiatus but there are probably 85 episodes that you can binge should you choose to and I will be back.
You can find my book anywhere you buy your books. I don’t know if you and I talked about this but I’m working on book number two and it is called Success-full. It’s this whole conversation about why so many of us are shackling ourselves to this generations-old patriarchy-led definition of success and how people are rewriting it, getting inspired, how you can do it for yourself and a bit of my messy story through that journey. Look out for that as well.
It’s another very much-needed topic for us. Thank you so much for diving into so many things, being vulnerable, honest and inspiring. It got me thinking. My brain went to places that may have never gone before. Honestly, I felt little a-ha moments with a lot of the things. As you were speaking, I’m like, “Wow.” This is the joy that I feel for a guest like you, Shelley. Thank you for sharing that with me and the readers. Check out Shelley’s existing book. Shelley, I can’t wait to see it all unfold for you. Thank you again.
Thank you so much for inviting me. I love this conversation.
- Shelley Paxton
- Paden Hughes
- John Wineland
- The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
- Rebel Souls
About Shelley Paxton
Think Brené Brown meets Biker Babe, with a dash of Liz Gilbert. As former Chief Marketing Officer of Harley-Davidson, Shelley Paxton found herself at the top of the proverbial mountain feeling success-EMPTY instead of success-FULL. That awakening led her on a profound Soulbbatical journey that became her mission, business, and bestselling book, Soulbbatical: A Corporate Rebel’s Guide to Finding Your Best Life (https://bookshop.org/a/17878/9781982131333). She’s leading a REBELution to rewrite the script of success and liberate a billion souls.
She’s also hosts the Rebel Souls podcast which invites you to flip the middle finger to the status quo in life, business, and the world at large.
Shelley is based in Chicago (when she’s not indulging her wanderlust) and is obsessed with the color orange
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