I opened the package when it arrived in the mail. There it was – a beautiful, glossy copy of my book. My first book. Along with pride and joy, I also felt a massive knot of nerves in my stomach. My book would be out there in a few weeks for the world to see. I felt raw, exposed, vulnerable. What will people think of me? Will they see me as broken? Or think I’ve used my story as some attempt to get ahead? Even worse, will people feel sorry for me?
It was the same feeling I had two years ago when my story was published by Toronto Life. The story hit newsstands in late February 2017 and went online a few days later. It was out there for the world to see. The list of messages on my social media rose by the hundreds every hour.
Until that day, I had always wondered why I went through so much abuse, yet survived and thrived. That day, reading the congratulatory and thank you messages from strangers, I found my why. I knew my story was not just mine. It was the story of millions of people around the world who continue to suffer in silence due to a lack of support, awareness, and hope. I wanted to give people that hope. I wanted to raise my voice and help others reclaim their voices. I wanted to break the silence for the millions of silences that are still waiting to be broken.
The same questions arise in my mind each time I go on stage, as I publish my book, even as I write this piece. In an effort to share my true self with the world, I also fear that my truth will diminish me. Yet, every time I put myself out there, I am overwhelmed with love and support from people I connect with.
As I reflect on my journey, I realize that the biggest game-changer in my life was not how smart or hard-working I was – it was the people I had around me. My friends who watched my kids when I went to class or court, and who showed up with ice cream to drown my sorrows after a bad day. My professors who spent hours motivating me to believe in myself. My mentors who helped me with critical decisions in my life. By having faith in me, these people taught me to have faith in myself. And as I’ve gone on to pay it forward by raising my voice and mentoring others, I’ve seen the ripple effect continue.
These experiences show me again and again, that the most important thing people need to heal, succeed and thrive is human connection. A sense of belonging. A community of support. For human connection creates incredible resilience.
The tough part, though, is getting there. In order to create connection, we must allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen. We must practice letting go of who we think we are supposed to be, and embrace who we truly are, by cultivating the courage to be imperfect and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. And that is scary. Many of us live in self-made prisons of judgment, with the key held by strangers from whom we seek approval.
When my Toronto Life article went viral, I had massive anxiety going back to work the following week, unsure of how my story would be perceived in a corporate environment at a major bank. But as I walked through the office, colleagues who I’d barely ever spoken with came up and gave me teary hugs, sharing their own life stories and experiences. This has resulted in genuine, life-long friendships and connections that go beyond our job titles and business cards. I cherish these connections every day.
When we connect from a place of humanity, what fades into the background is where we were born, the colour of our skin, the gender we identify with, the faith we practice, or who we choose to love. Because when we connect authentically, we realize that what unites us is far greater and more powerful than what divides us. By practicing the courage to show up as who we are, we give others around us permission to do the same, building trust and confidence, a common sense of values, and the emotional muscle to allow ourselves to fail and to empower each other to get back up. We realize a profound thing: We do not have to do it alone, because we are not meant to do it alone. We create collective resilience in ourselves, our families, our teams, and our workplaces.
I’ve spent a major part of my life hiding pieces of myself from others in order to fit in. As a girl who was told her dreams were too big, as a woman who was trying impossibly to perch on the pedestal of being “a good wife”, and as a person who was seen by many as a source of shame or as a threat to their own value systems, I’ve tried to hide my imperfections behind my awards and accomplishments, seeking validation of my worth in others’ approval. I’ve learned that the only person I need that approval from is myself. The vulnerability of my truth does not diminish me. It sets me free.
A few weeks ago, I delivered a keynote address at a University of Toronto graduate conference. After the speech, a PhD student approached me and said, “I came to say hi, because I’m not staying for the networking session. I’m leaving right now for the police station to report my abuser. Your speech gave me the courage to stand up for myself and do the right thing”.
I gave her a big hug and admired her courage. I was once again reminded that this is why I do what I do. This is why I wrote my book. This is why I put my story out there. And I will never stop.