Who will we be when the masks come off?
Why wholeheartedness is the sustainable cultural revolution under our nose
Hi friends, Wow, my last post on burnout really hit a cultural nerve. It got shared widely, and a number of people emailed me: “I’m so burnt out that sleep won’t address what I’m feeling. So, what is real rest?!” It’s a profound question, and this post is my humble attempt at a response. As always, would love to hear your reactions & questions! Much love, M.
Having lounged listlessly at the foot of the Pandemic Wall for weeks now, my favorite poet David Whyte’s words from Crossing The Unknown Sea have been ringing in my ears:
“The answer to burnout is not (just) rest. It’s wholeheartedness.”
This is a truth that has taken me many seasons to embody because I’m a wild idealist. But what exactly is wholeheartedness?
Simply put, it’s living from the core of who we are and expressing our soul’s unique gifts. This means neither over-doing, nor hiding to survive.
Over-Doing Starts in the Cultural Lie of “Not Enough”
In my early 20s as a McKinsey consultant advising Fortune 500 CEOs — I was regularly in rooms dominated by white men with decades more experience. Being a petite 5’1”, young Asian woman, it was hard not to wonder, “Do I belong here? Will anyone hear what I have to say?”
Without role models who looked like me, I was plagued by impostor syndrome.
So to counteract the gnawing doubt, my inner critic kicked into high gear. She relentlessly insisted I be 2x better prepared, 2x better spoken, 2x …everything. My critic was stuck in fight/flight and couldn’t imagine any other way than outworking everyone else.
This paid off short-term; but was ultimately unsustainable.
You see, every time I filtered my actions through “How will others perceive me?”, I was unconsciously giving my power away. The more I pinned my worthiness to others’ validation, the harder it got to ask “How do I feel?” And long after I knew how to do my job well and extreme over-preparation had outlived its usefulness, I lost my capacity to trust my instincts.
Hiding Starts in the Cultural Lie of “Too Much”
In a business culture teeming with sharks, I feared if I was my naturally sensitive self I’d be eaten alive. I fretted if I was empathetic, I’d be judged too soft, too weak.
So I was damned if did, damned if I didn’t: I was too much AND never enough.
Since it didn’t feel safe to be me, I tucked away these perceived vulnerabilities and masked up.
The problem? The more I hid, the harder it became in off-hours to reclaim these essential parts of me. And in losing touch with my fundamental humanity, there was no source of fuel to add fuel to my tank.
Spurred by profound burnout, I started meditating. Hundreds of hours of meditation later, Buddhist teacher Arinna Weisman said within 5 minutes of meeting me:
“Do you realize your sensitivity is your most precious cargo? It’s your greatest strength and source of power.”
I was floored.
The only Sustainable Way Forward was to be ALL of Me
The constant self-consciousness and mistrust left me spent not just physically, but emotionally, mentally and spiritually. My most authentic self got masked because of the voice of chronic fear.
The only way out of this endless power struggle — between feeling not enough and too much — was to own my wholeheartedness.
Rather than accept this impossible bind, I started to ask: “How can I make the system work for me? How can I take what I was taught was my weakness and turn it into my greatest strength?”
Through years of practicing radical unmasking, I got clear my greatest contribution to the more beautiful world I yearn for is to use my empathic gifts to coach teams and leaders to own their wholeheartedness, and to write for audiences like you about this paradigm shift.
And I won’t lie. Unlike movies that depict roses and rainbows after journeys like this, continually surrendering to this inner truth has been profoundly humbling.
For example, it’s painful at times to turn down lucrative opportunities misaligned with what I now understand to be my purpose. But, committed to this process for the long-haul, I’m very conscious about spending energy only on what will nourish me.
And it’s been excruciating to have people question my counter-cultural choices (e.g., my family, business school classmates). Early in this journey, I sometimes felt like an addict in withdrawal — trembling as the steady stream of external validation evaporated.
BUT, playing the game on my own terms and remaining unmasked in my authentic self has made life far simpler. It stripped away the complexities I created to navigate around the tension of being misaligned. And in the process, I freed up enormous amounts of energy!
Said another way: wholehearted alignment has allowed me real rest where my inner and outer worlds are in conversation, like the easeful exchange of breath.
This is the true foundation of sustainability — as a leader, family member, and human!
And perhaps the masks we’re wearing during pandemic are simply a physical reflection of our hidden selves and society.
So, who will you be when the masks come off?
I’d love to hear! Leave a comment below, or send me an email!
Melissa’s Reading & Watch List
What’s giving me hope?
We’re having a cultural moment where celebs & the media are having a reckoning — and it seems there’s real energy to break the mold of old paradigms and step into wholeness.
A few examples that have caught my eye:
Patriarchy | How Dolly Parton became a Secular American Saint by being as much of herself as she could during a very public life. This was the most thought provoking thing I read this week! (Vox, 7 min)
Imperialism | Meghan Markle pushing back on what it means to be a British Royal. (The Atlantic, 4 min)
Racism | Basketball player Jeremy Lin speaking up after being called ‘coronavirus’ on court. (FB, 1 min)
Toxic Masculinity | How Baby Yoda taught the Mandalorian to take off his mask. Spoiler alert: In this hit Star Wars spinoff, the insanely adorable Baby Yoda teaches his space cowboy “father” to literally take off his mask and discover the tenderness of interconnection. (Disney+, 16 episodes)
What’s making me curious?
Might Whitney Houston still be alive if she’d been able to be wholehearted?
So, I love Whitney Houston’s voice. Her capacity to make you feel the full range of the human experience through the sheer grace of her voice gives me chills. And the NYT Still Processing podcast helped me see how the expectations placed on her as a black woman of R&B royalty (Aunties including Aretha Franklin & Dionne Warwick) kept her from being whole, and ultimately led to her tragic early death. (Apple | Spotify | Web) (55 min)
What’s making me laugh?
Laughter is my favorite path back to wholeheartedness (since it relaxes the whole body by triggering endorphins)! Watch…
This monkey breaking out into wholehearted laughter. (Twitter, 30 sec)
Tika the fashionista Italian Greyhound wondering if she’s too much. (TikTok, 1 min)
Mango The Seal unapologetically being herself. This is my fave TikTok of the week! (TikTok, 1 min)
And in case you missed it…
My thoughts on how social healing may be key to our path toward wholeheartedness.
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