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The Small Steps of Feeling

One of the stories I reference a lot when I remember not listening to my body, is, I’ll confess, not even a really great story (I’m selling it well, aren’t I?). It’s one that’s really clear, and clarity is one of the main things our integrated intelligence can give us. This story is one of many moments over the course of my life that convinced me that my body – my whole, integrated intelligence system – is so much more wise and knowledgeable than my brain alone.

Sometime around 2008 or 2009, I was an assistant women’s rowing coach at Northeastern University in Boston. My job (my job!) was to drive a boat on one of the most picturesque and unique rowing rivers in the world. I worked alongside two kind, thoughtful and talented Canadian coaches. I got to see young women figure out how strong they were, how capable, how intense. I got to witness the beauty of Boston from the river, through the ripping spring wind and rain, through some of the most exquisite sunrises and sunsets, through soft snow and placid water and punching heat and crusty ice. It’s a thing I’ll always miss. Except for the random people peeing by the river who don’t see you coming. I won’t miss that.

My boss, the head coach, took a chance on me as a newer coach. I was 25, fresh off my own rowing career as a college-walk-on-turned-elite-level-rowing-hopeful. I was also heartbroken, literally and figuratively speaking. It was a few months after I had been sidelined due to a diagnosis of ARVC, a genetic heart condition that terminated my rowing career. I was deeply, unknowingly in the grief of losing my identity as an athlete and my sense of self.

I had a few successful months of club coaching under my belt, with a win at Canadian Henley, one of the big summer rowing championships. As any coach worth their salt will tell you, if they’re honest, a win like that as a new coach is simply you getting lucky with great athletes. I was a green coach and I needed lots of seasoning. I’ll always be grateful to that group of men for tolerating me and being a part of me falling in love with the sport in a whole new way.

One of the ways you get seasoned as a coach is to spend as much time as you can in the launch with other coaches. The more times you get to see how someone else leads, coaches, sees, responds, communicates and persists, the more you begin to define your own approach. The more you begin to see what they see (or don’t see). The more you learn. The perspectives of other challenge you to stretch your own.

A few years into my tenure at Northeastern, I thought about applying for other assistant coaching positions. You’re always curious how other programs are run. What’s different? What’s the same? What else you might learn…

As a new coach, you’re always eager to get more exposure to different coaches, styles, approaches and experiences as it broadens your own and what you can offer. As we all know, a teacher who can teach the same principle five different ways is going to be more successful than one who only knows how to explain something one way. All these reasons piqued my curiosity about other programs and made other positions enticing.

At the end of every academic year, there is a coaching carousel of change that starts spinning as people begin to move positions. When an opening at another university emerged, I anxiously applied. I remember the slightly nauseous feeling I had as I finally submitted the documents in one of those cumbersome portals. Once it was complete, I had this feeling creep over me: I should tell my boss that I applied. It felt like the right thing to do to alert him to the fact that I was considering leaving.

My brain chimed in with her usual forceful, well-reasoned rebuttal: “No, and here’s why (insert eye roll here). Here’s how getting a job goes, Miranda. You apply. If the employer is interested in you, they reach out directly to you and set up an interview. If you do well in the interview, you’ll get a job offer. Then you can tell your boss. No need to worry him or bother him prematurely.”

I figured I was a long shot for the job. My brain simply voiced my fear and gave me the standard “Here’s the way the world works” reflection of what I know now is simply cultural conditioning: things we all make true by acting on them as a group. Yes, that’s generally true. Thanks, Brain!

“Wait, wait, wait,” the other part of me said. That part was lower in my body, with more conviction. “There’s something here. It feels wrong to do that. I can’t explain why, but it does.” At the time, I didn’t realize how important these feelings were and what they were trying to communicate. I know now that these feelings, this sense was my own inner acknowledgement of my values. Integrity and transparency are really important to me. Being forthright with those I care about and respect is more important to me than following the rules, and my body was showing me that with this deeper pull toward sharing.

I was in the midst of those feelings when I brought up the whole situation with my friend Laurie, one of the most smart and sensible people I know, and also a very good rower. Being the good friend that she was, she confirmed my brain’s reasoning and encouraged me not to bring it up. She agreed it wasn’t necessary. I let her rationale confirm mine and supersede my own instincts and feelings. I felt uneasy and uncomfortable as I moved forward, but I continued to tell myself I was wrong. I did not yet understand the importance of listening to my feelings.

About a week later, my boss sat me down one day at work. “I got a call,” he said gently. “The head coach said you had reached out about the assistant coach opening. I was surprised to hear that. I don’t think I need to tell you that it doesn’t look good that you didn’t tell me first. I didn’t know you were looking. I would be more than happy to support you if you feel ready to leave.”

The heat of shame exploded behind my skin. I knew my face was turning rippling shades of red, and I felt horrifically embarrassed. My chest got tight. Everything felt compressed. All of a sudden, some light curiosity about another professional avenue suddenly felt like subterfuge and deep betrayal. There are many coaches who would have lost their tempers at this point, or felt betrayed. My boss was too wise for that. He saw my inexperience, my lack of perspective and, I imagine, sensed that this would be a learning experience for me. Grace extended, mercy received.

I remember stumbling ahead and trying to awkwardly explain my reasoning. I felt humiliated and horrified at the prospect that this person, who had taken a risk on me, felt like I didn’t appreciate or value our relationship or my position. My boss was the epitome of grace. “Next time,” he said kindly, “just tell me you’re looking.” Case closed.

Later on my own, I fumed to myself. I knew I should have told him the truth. I knew it in my bones and I didn’t listen! It was so frustrating to have the whole path clearly laid out, deeply felt and known, and then ignored due to my own internal division and lack of trust in myself. I let my own internal directing be silenced.

While the consequences of this experience seem…inconsequential at best, the clarity it provides helps me. I’ve always felt that experience was a gift, another touchstone I could come back to over the years. Remember that time you didn’t listen, I would say? Remember what happened when you ignored that feeling?

For many of us, the lines that are drawn around the experiences of our lives aren’t that clear or simple. The stakes are high, the questions considerably more complex, and the feelings and thoughts seemingly murkier. However, we begin with the small moments, as we always do when learning a new skill. We being with the easy steps, the simpler tasks, and we grow into the bigger stuff as we go.

Here’s to seeing what’s in the small places of feeling for us all.

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