It’s amazing how one small comment at the beginning of your career can have an unprecedented impact on your actions from that point onwards – especially if the comment came from an authority figure or someone you respect. You see, we are limited by the stories we play in our own minds.
If we don’t spot them and resolve them, they become the narrative that plays on repeat and holds us back. Early in my career, I sold software in London. I had a female boss who was nothing short of a bully. She favoured the boys in the team, gave me menial tasks, regularly put me down, and reprimanded me in front of the office. Her overall leadership skills were questionable.
I will never forget the day she called me into the office and said, “Go and grow the Middle East market. Make it work or I will have no choice but to get rid of you.” I still recall the shock and fear that ran through my body at that moment. I felt sick to my stomach. My career and that job was everything to me, but she had tried to set me up to fail. I had never even been to Dubai before, and yet she wanted me to fly over with a laptop, all alone, and ‘make it work’ – or risk losing my job!
What she didn’t realise is that I thrived under pressure and, with the fear of being jobless, I had two choices. Option one: defeat. Let her win and become jobless? I think not! Option two was really my only option. I got a plan together, utilised resources such as LinkedIn, and somehow made it work. In hindsight, the task was unachievable and somewhat spiteful, but what followed was a beautiful ending. Not only did I make a mark in the Middle East, but my appetite for Dubai also grew. After a while, I left my old job and rainy London, and moved to Dubai. My journey wasn’t without its challenges, but now, eight years later, I have my own rapidly growing business that focuses on empowering women.
But how did I get there? Let’s go back to my previous story. For my first trip alone, I had managed to organise over 25 new business meetings. I think my boss was amazed. I was a business development professional and used to sales pitches, but not conducting large, stand-up presentations to groups. Oh, the nerves! My palms used to sweat profusely and my voice would quiver at first. My female boss ‘coached’ me (or in other words, bully me) in preparation for this trip. She repeatedly told me, “You will never be really very good at this. You shouldn’t present to or address an audience.”
The truth was that, yes, I was nervous and not that polished, but I was no way near useless. I needed coaching to be better. No one starts something and is automatically good at it! That one single comment not only smacked me across the face, but also sunk so deep into my DNA that it took me years to break through it. Imagine how damaging it must have been to a young woman carving out her career, how demotivating it must have been to hear that as I was about to leave for a foreign country. I am not sure she ever even realised the bullying she subjected me to.
The point is, I adopted the belief that I was useless at presenting and should never speak in public because of her comments. Whenever an opportunity arose in my career for speaking or presenting, I would shy away and say, “I’m not good at presenting and speaking. It’s something I can’t do.” That narrative stuck, on repeat for years and years, after that ordeal. But by working with inspiring leaders who taught me to believe in myself, I eventually overcame this limiting belief and, ironically, I now not only act as a keynote speaker, but also moderate panels and lead my own events as a motivational speaker. I even coach other women on how to present with impact! I overcame the limiting belief, broke the pattern, and rose to the challenge.
It’s imperative that we leave the past behind. I work closely with women to uncover their limiting beliefs, negative narratives, and the fear instilled in them that hold them back. Often, many women don’t even realise they have a limiting belief or where it first originated. We can drift through life not even knowing what holds us back. When I first sit with a client, I listen with intent. I repeatedly hear statements like “I can’t do that because…” and “The market is saturated, and they are better than me…”. In truth, these are stories made up in our own heads and from our past experience. This single-handidly will hold you back, keeping you playing small and not reading your full potential.
How can we take ownership of our lives and leave the past behind?
Try this transformative exercise. Set aside some time, grab a notebook and pen, and get honest. Ask yourself:
What do I need to leave behind?
Dig deep. Did a teacher make a throwaway comment about you not being good at something? Did a parent criticise you for not being good enough? Did an old boss or authority figure mislead you into thinking you couldn’t achieve something?
What thoughts, self-judgment, and littleness is holding me back? What stories have I got on repeat in my mind?
Once you’ve written down the answers, it’s time to replace your ‘I can’t’ with ‘I can, and I will.’ Replace your limiting beliefs with new empowering beliefs. Always remember, what the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve. If you tell yourself that you can, you’re halfway there!
Emma Burdett is holding a WILD Woman Transformational Leadership Day this March for women who are ready to achieve new levels of success. Go to wildwomenlead.com to learn more.