Lead a different life
where your sensitivity is your superpower!
You’ve been called “too sensitive.” You wish you weren’t “so emotional.” I want you to know that YOU CAN lead a different life from this moment forward. It starts by recognizing that the person who turns off the evening news, the person who’s told that she cries too easily, and the person who siphons the positive or negative energy that surrounds her, is not someone to be ashamed of, but someone to be celebrated! After all, as highly sensitive souls, we have a unique gift that allows us to be intuitive, connect with others, and lead with love, vulnerability and compassion. These traits can make us transformational leaders and role models in our families, in our communities, at our businesses, and within our world. That is, when we give ourselves permission to be vulnerable in sharing the essence of who we are, not whom we think we should be.
In 2015, I led a keynote presentation titled “Get Perfectly Imperfect and Lead” and a workshop titled “Success Starts With Self-Love” at Chadron State College for their Women’s Leadership Summit. Both talks were so powerful for my audience that they left young women in tears. I went in with a general idea on what I wanted to cover, but I freed myself from a strict agenda or perfectly memorized script. By leading authentically as a highly sensitive soul, I was relatable, relaxed, and most importantly, I got my message across with love.
But it wasn’t always this way…
When I first began my speaking career in 2007, I wrote out my speeches and read them word-for-word in front of the bathroom mirror until I felt comfortable reading them in front of a podium. With each speaking opportunity, my confidence grew.
In 2010, I was invited to speak in Orlando, Florida at the National Conference on Student Leadership (NCSL). I was excited and terrified, counting down the days until I made my debut on the national stage.
Then five days before the event, I received some devastating, life-altering news from my family – news that sent my hypersensitive nervous system into overdrive! I stopped sleeping, my body trembled, and my anxiety shot through the roof! My inner perfectionist, Perfectoria, took charge. To protect me, she shut down my emotions and transfixed me into stone. No emotion was going to come out of me, and no emotion was going to reach me.
I led my workshop in a packed-to-capacity room with student leaders from across the country. The presentation was called “When A Equals Anxiety.” I talked about the importance of self-care and getting enough sleep and not being afraid to be imperfect. But all the students saw was a somewhat pale, exhausted speaker who clearly had not been sleeping herself, and they saw a speaker who was clearly afraid to be real about it.
And boy did they call me out on it in anonymous feedback forms! Multiple students called me a hypocrite. Another student said it was too perfect. One wrote, “Not one ‘um,’ ‘like,’ ‘yeah,’ or ‘you know’ in a whole 60-minute speech? Recovering perfectionist my ass!” By putting on my perfectionist mask to protect myself from the devastation I was feeling over a family crisis, I was also covering over my vulnerability and humanity, my power source as a leader.
So why didn’t I just begin my speech by owning up to my audience? Let’s back up!
Growing Up Highly Sensitive
When I turned 13, and I got my first period, my hormones became severely unbalanced. In addition to being caught in the midst of puberty, I have Endometrioses, a painful, chronic disease that effects approximately 176 million women and girls globally. These hormonal changes caused me to break out all over my face, arms, chest and back. Classmates at school followed me down the hallways calling me “zit face.” Friends stopped talking to me altogether.
I remember my 7th grade field trip to Washington D.C. We stayed in a hotel with a swimming pool. While I wasn’t embarrassed to be seen in a bathing suit, I always wore a t-shirt to cover up the acne. Just as my right foot skimmed the cool water, the lifeguard called out, “Sorry, it’s against our policy to wear t-shirts in the pool.” I watched my friends splash around, confident in their flawless skin, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to expose myself. I faked a stomachache and bolted to the bathroom. Outraged, I peeled off my t-shirt to unmask scabbed, sensitive skin. I cursed the imperfect reflection in the bathroom mirror. I screamed, “I HATE you! You’re SO ugly!”
I went on antibiotics for my acne, and every time my pediatrician tried to reduce the dose, I would break out again. Even with the slightest breakout, I would visit him in tears, begging him to readjust my prescription. “You’re a vain little girl,” my 70-something year old doctor exclaimed, shaking his head as he patted me on the butt.
School wasn’t the only place I felt a little uncomfortable. I grew up in a household where I was blessed to be deeply loved, nurtured and cared for, and also where family drama was a regular occurrence. The oldest of four kids, I was the one my parents faithfully trusted to keep all of our secrets, like the fact that one of my brothers battled a serious gambling addiction from a young age. I was confused. I was scared. I was angry. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t okay for us to talk about what I had considered to be some pretty major issues in our lives.
I Felt Unsafe
The real me didn’t have perfect skin. The real me had acne, which I now know was simply my highly sensitive body’s brilliant way of communicating to me that something was out of balance. The real me didn’t want to keep our family’s secrets tucked away. The real me, just like everyone else, wanted to be accepted flaws and all. But it felt unsafe for me to own up to who I was and be my authentically sensitive self. So I found a doctor who would prescribe me the antibiotics that I thought I needed and I took them for 12 years to bury my blemishes. I followed my family’s lead by locking deep inside everything that was painful or shameful, and like my warmhearted, generous parents, I did the very best I could. I slapped on a thick coat of COVERGIRL, and covered right over the authentic, vulnerable, beautifully sensitive girl within me. Then I controlled and I perfected. And I achieved… to the point of exhaustion.
10 Years Later: In control without control
In 2001, I graduated summa cum laude from college with a 3.92 GPA, the first woman in my family to earn a four-year degree. I completed a double major in English and history, a minor in writing, and a concentration in women’s studies, all while working two part-time jobs on the side. My resume was perfect, but I was a wreck. I was suffering from panic attacks, insomnia, and other stress and anxiety-induced health problems.
I slapped on a thick coat of COVERGIRL, and covered right over the authentic, vulnerable girl within me.
Then something happened a year after graduation that shifted my perspective on everything. On a sunny September afternoon in 2002, I sat in an ICU and watched my grandfather slip away from life one cancerous cell at a time. A music teacher and band director, Grandpa was my role model of what leadership should be, who positively shifted everyone around him through the strength of his character.
Shortly before my grandfather passed away, I placed my hand over his and he said to me, “Maria, you don’t need to be in here. It’s 80 degrees out in September. Go. You have better things to do.” Here was this man, his body was dying but his spirit and his soul was so full of life. Here I was, 23 years old, with my whole life ahead of me, feeling like I was dying on the inside, cracking from all the pressure that I put on myself to hide my sensitivity and be perfect.
In that moment, I made a fundamental choice that I was going to lead a different life.
What I did about it:
I sought out counseling, I journaled, soul-searched and invested in a ton of personal leadership development. Then I hired a business coach; with her guidance, I founded Campus Calm to help other stressed out young perfectionists reevaluate their lives, exercise the courage to self-care in a world that values self-deprivation, and feel confident leading authentically in the skin they’re in. I became an author, speaker, leader and change-maker all before my 30th birthday.
All good, and…
Although I had successfully tackled parts of my perfectionism, my medical struggles remained. After years of being doubled over month after month with period cramps, popping ibuprofen like Tic Tacs, I underwent laparoscopic surgery when I was 26 years old and was officially diagnosed with Endometriosis. I was also diagnosed with insomnia, Celiac Disease, chronic idiopathic constipation (sorry for the TMI but someone has to talk about this stuff!) and multiple food, chemical and environmental allergies. I was allergic to paints, pollens, pesticides, pets, grasses, molds, gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and the list went on and on and on. In short, my highly sensitive immune system was depleted.
I wanted to step inside a protective pink bubble!
I was tired and scared, looking at two options that my sympathetic and slightly bewildered doctors presented me with—options that included the possibility of multiple surgeries and drugs for life, or lifelong chronic pain. I looked at those two seemingly no-win options and remembered the vow I made at my grandpa’s bedside to lead a different life.
I chose another way
I found a path with no drugs, no multiple surgeries, and no debilitating side effects. I did it all by connecting to my highly sensitive gloriously intuitive body, and taking myself seriously.
I became my own health advocate. I read countless books on natural healing and hormone balance, and interviewed naturopathic doctors and other healing practitioners until I found the ones who were the right fit for me. I learned how to cook and trail-blazed a whole new way to detox my body from years of antibiotic use and feed my body with an anti-inflammatory diet rich in whole foods. I learned how to connect with my body and honor its messages instead of fighting it every step of the way. I invested my resources and time, and slowly but surely my immune system strengthened. I began sharing my health journey with my friends, colleagues and family, opening myself up to RECEIVE love and support without feeling ashamed.
I chose resilience and extreme self-care through the toughest moments of adversity in my life.
I enrolled in iPEC’s certified coach training program and found the additional tools I needed to make monumental shifts in my life, and empower others to do the same using my expertise in a coaching process called Energy Leadership. Coaches walk their talk in order to be authentic partners for their clients. So during my coach training, I worked with my own life coaches. Through iPEC’s core energy coaching process, I learned how to shift myself out of the fear, pain, anger, shame and remaining perfectionism that I had been carrying around inside of me and to embrace my beautifully-sensitive self.
Next, I enrolled in the Institute of Transformational Nutrition so I could empower my sensitive clients to transform their bodies and their lives through the power of holistic nutrition like I did. I learned to see the challenging moments of my life as gifts because they grounded me in what’s truly important in life—for me, that’s health, inner harmony, faith, peace and love-based connections with others.
Seeing My Sensitivity as My Superpower!
While my health isn’t 100% perfect today, and while I still experience the pressure to be perfect from time to time, I am so grateful because I have more energy, confidence, resiliency and vibrancy than I ever did fifteen years ago, and my immune system is growing stronger everyday.
I now know how to help the members of my family in the most loving way possible—by choosing to disentangle myself from the drama and create new relationships that better serve us all. Since I’m an empath who has a family history of anxiety, depression, addiction and incarceration, learning how to stop absorbing the pain of people I deeply love freed me to reclaim my own positive energy. I rediscovered the Truth within myself that it’s not my job to be responsible for other people’s journeys as I can only be responsible for mine. Instead of seeing our family’s issues as “bad” or as “a crisis,” I’m now able to see them as God/Universe’s (whatever you believe) way of moving our family toward discovering love and faith in the process of change for ourselves. I can increasingly respond with love instead of judgment or anxiety. Now I get to empower my highly sensitive clients to do the same!
I stopped caking on cover up many years ago when my acne-prone skin cleared up, but only now do I feel confident enough to strip away the layers of my own cover up and connect with you using my full humanity as a coach!
I’m discovering through working with clients that my sensitivity is my greatest strength now that I’m empowered by it instead of it overpowering me!
Maria has a powerfully accessible way about her and she tells her truth in a way that invites others to see their own.
Julia Overton Healy, Director, Career Development, SUNY Plattsburg, former director for the Judson Leadership Center, Alfred University
Embracing My Support System
In addition to being blessed with family, friends and colleagues who love me for who I am, I consider myself the most fortunate woman in the world because I get to be married to the funniest, quirkiest, most laid back, loving and compassionate man in the world. He’s crazy talented too (as evidenced by this gorgeous website that he designed, coded and photographed for me!). My husband Shaun and I have been dating since we were 17 years old, and will soon celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. He created a safe space for me to begin to flourish as my authentically sensitive self at an age when I needed it the most. He’s my rock, my best friend and my inspiration. And while we drive each other nuts sometimes (I more than him… especially when I sit next to him and tell him what to do when he’s designing stuff for me), our relationship, just like life, is most perfect in its imperfections.
Ten years ago, I created Campus Calm® to help young women lead happier, healthier lives. After years serving the campus community and the opportunity to leave a legacy to them through my gold-medal winning book Campus Calm University, countless articles and blog posts, interns I had the honor to mentor, my Campus Lead Her Success Kit, keynote presentations and workshops at college women’s leadership conferences across the United States and my TEDx Talk, my heart is calling me to grow!
I’m taking a leap of faith and honoring my heart’s message. I’m reinventing myself with this new coaching brand and expanded vision to serve clients who are highly sensitive AND motivated to lead a different life like me!
Because sensitive women rock, we roll and we lead!
Disclaimer: I may receive affiliate compensation from the resources and websites mentioned on this website.