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Yes, And…

30330_1498133615858_6145634_nEarlier this summer I walked into a room at the Kripalu retreat center in the Berkshires and thought,

“Oh shit…I don’t belong here.”

One look around at the 108 women that had gathered for the REVEAL immersion weekend – an experience curated and led by Meggan Watterson that invited women to “embody the divine feminine” – and I broke out in a cold sweat, feeling like a fish out of water.

These women all seemed to know each other. They were embracing, talking about “the sisterhood” and exchanging stories about Mama Gena and previous REVEAL experiences. They were dressed in flowing maxi dresses that swooshed softly when they walked. There was lots of flowing hair and red lipstick. They looked graceful, almost feline, folding themselves beautifully into the back-jack chairs arranged in neat rows on the floor.

Sweat ran down my stomach and I’m quite certain my face winced as if I were in pain. I felt so fucking obvious in this crowd with my curls pulled back in a clip and my face bare. I caught a glimpse of myself as I walked by a window wearing my favorite pair of thai fisherman pants and my fitted black yoga tank and felt a weird mixture of pride and self-consciousness. The pride was in my stance of a competitive athlete, the broadness of my shoulders, and the knowledge that I was truly honoring myself by not wearing make-up. The self-consciousness was in my edges, how my heels pounded the ground as I walked determinedly across the floor, and the way I looked more ready to rumble than retreat.

No one noticed me, I’m quite sure. But I felt like an M&M in the middle of a bowl of Skittles.

Photo credit: Anita Dore

I settled into my seat and the panic receded a bit. I reminded myself that I had chosen this experience. In fact, just three days before I had announced to my husband that I was going, insisting, “I can’t explain it, but I feel like I’m supposed to be there.” And so I got myself there. So why was I uncomfortable and sweaty, cursing my instincts?

I knew it was going to be good. I had been following Meggan’s work for years, and in addition to her, there would be two other women I admired revealing their stories: Christiane Northrup and her daughter, my friend, Kate Northrup Watts. In fact, Kate and I had spoken earlier that week about this retreat, and I had grilled her at length on the specifics of the event asking her if she thought my instincts to be a part of it were onto something. And yet I walked in to the retreat and…

I don’t belong here. There was that damn feeling again.

The last time I had that feeling was eleven years ago when I entered a room containing the top 150 leaders of my company at their annual leadership retreat. I had walked into that same room with those same people for many years prior to that, but on that day I was gobsmacked by what I saw – as if for the first time: a sea of white men. At the time I happen to be 9 months pregnant (and due any minute), and I remember looking down and seeing just the tips of my shoes sticking out from underneath my swollen belly.

“Oh. I’m a woman.” And then, “I don’t belong here.”

That awareness marked the beginning of the end of my corporate career, and launched me into what is now my business, SheChanges. You know, the one where I work with women every day to create change for themselves and our world.

So imagine how confounding it was to walk into a room ten years later that was filled to the brim with women and have the same damn reaction I did when I walked into a room of men.

This wasn’t about gender confusion or identifying as a woman. I was clear on that. Nor was it about my ability to relate to men over women or visa versa.

It was about the two distinct energies inside me – the masculine and feminine – and how I was (or wasn’t) honoring them in myself. 

Lael-Making-ChangeWhen I find myself in the company of men, I often feel right at home. That was the case in my childhood as a girl among boys, and followed me into my corporate career as a woman working in a predominately male organization. Being steeped in that world for as long as I did gave me the freedom to feed the masculine energy in myself, super-charging my ambition, honing my directness, and fortifying my confidence and sense of worth. That world has me feel commanding, formidable and an undeniable force for change.

2014-01-28 09.51.16Being in the company of women, I experienced a foreign-yet-familiar sense of my feminine energy. It often begins with a undeniable magnetism that draws me in (even as I resist it) without fully understanding why. Working with primarily women in my business has super-charged my intuitive abilities, cracked open my heart, and plugged me into my body as a homing device for truth. That world has me feel nourished, connected, and purposeful, seeing myself as a powerful instrument of service.

And yet, I haven’t found many places in which both energies are simultaneously welcome and celebrated. While it’s become increasingly en vogue for men to discuss the feminine in themselves, I don’t experience a lot of women talking about their masculine energy. Even engaging women in conversations about the feminine in themselves is challenging and often uncomfortable. I know this having run countless women’s circles and retreats over the past ten years. But lets be honest: Who am I to engage in this conversation when I can’t even walk into the REVEAL immersion without sweating?

Who am I to talk about this?

I am a woman who has had a persistent and unrelenting hunger to find people and a space that embraces – and celebrates – both the masculine and the feminine in a body. I am a woman who stays up at night with a gnawing sensation that I’m onto something important, if only just for me. I am the woman that hears “I thought it was just me” every time I share my story with the women of SheChanges. I am also the woman that women come to when they want to connect with more people like them – so they don’t feel so alone.

Which explains how I became the woman that eventually wrote a book about this. 

But it wasn’t until I wrote the book and was reading the “final” manuscript (insert laughter here for anyone who has ever written a book…) on my front stoop this summer that it finally clicked for me.

I had just gotten back from the REVEAL retreat and was filled with new insights and understanding about the feminine that I never could have gotten had I not sat in a room full of women all weekend experiencing it. Indeed, Meggan Watterson said at the immersion, “I can do this on my own, but when I do it with other women, it’s like a slip ‘n slide…” And it was.

I got the feminine in my bones that weekend. My feminine – how that looks and feels, what that means to me, for me, and how I can continue to access and leverage it in my life. I was able to release my desire to marry the masculine with the feminine inside myself, and instead allow myself to fully focus on and experience the feminine so I could come to know it better. And I did.

On that long trip home from the Berkshires to the coast of Maine I thought about the women I work with and the book I had written. I had one of those (rare) moments of clarity, where I could see that part of the work I do with women is to meet them in their masculine energy – connect with them there and support them in breathing life and love into that side of themselves – and then, when they’re ready, take a stroll with them over to their feminine energy to check it out, sniff around, maybe even try it on for size.

photo credit: Melissa Mullen PhotographyIt really solidified for me when I read an interview in Fast Company with Amy Poehler. In it, she spoke about her book, Yes Please, pointing to the fact that “it all goes back to improv” when discussing her relationship to change.

She described the “Yes, and…” rule of improv and how she has let it bleed into her daily life. As I understand it, this rule means that you have to take what is presented to you as truth, as fact. You have to agree with it (Yes.) Which means that it can never, ever be wrong. You’ve agreed. And then, you can build off of that truth (And…), layering other truths on top of it that might put a different spin on it, maybe even take it it another direction. Yes, And…

I  want this “rule” to apply to how I dance with the masculine and feminine energies that live inside me.

Here’s how that might look:

YES I am a woman, AND…I also have a ton of masculine energy.
YES I can grow a business, AND…I can let a business grow me
YES I am decisive, AND… I change my mind constantly
YES I am extremely competitive, AND… I see my success as connected to others.
YES I do my best thinking with other people, AND… I need a lot of alone time.
YES I am very confident, AND…I’m also vulnerable and full of doubt.
YES I am strong and a fighter, AND…I am easily hurt and emotional.
YES I can push hard to make things happen, AND…I can be with all that’s unknown

Needless to say, I revised the beginning and wrote an entirely new ending to my book after coming home from the Berkshires. I was finding a way to touch what I desired. It wasn’t “balance” (which is impossible) and it wasn’t “having it all” (which is overwhelming). It wasn’t even “integration” (which felt so clinical and academic).

I wanted improv. I wanted to live my life more like a dance between two equally amazing parts of myself. I wanted to acknowledge and honor what was present for me in any circumstance or situation – letting it be true and right and good – while also giving myself the freedom to build off of that experience, shift energies, and expand into another part of myself.

Yes masculine, and…feminine. That’s me. Rinse and repeat.

My book will be available for sale later this month, and if you’d like you can read more about my story then. But here’s what I know about my story now: I wrote this book because of my masculine energy, but I wrote it using my feminine energy.

Had it not been for the audacious (bordering on arrogant) belief that I have something worthy to say, and that my experience would be relevant to more than just me, I would have never written a word. Had I not had the fortitude to put a very public stake in the ground to create some accountability and ask for what I needed to structure that process for myself, my book would have withered on the vine. Had I not said some really hard no’s – disappointing and making myself unavailable to clients, to friends and family, to my business “plan” – I would have never created the space for this one sacred YES. That was my masculine energy at work.

Had it not been for my ability to tap into and listen to the whisperings of my soul in this noisy world, and to value the emotions that bubbled up to my surface, I would have written this book only using my head and it would have felt flat. Had I not allowed myself to feel scared, be overcome by vulnerability, and overwhelmed by the pitch black of the unknown, I would have never gotten to the heart of my story – and turned on a light inside myself. Had I not held this book as a work of art and seen how it is deeply connected to my spirituality, I wouldn’t have accessed the humility I needed to take you with me and see that this is bigger than just me. That was my feminine energy at work.

So dance with me, will you? Or just meet me at the improv.