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As I floated my hands in the air and twirled around the temple with my retreat partner, I felt a sense of pride and belonging for knowing the dance moves appropriate to the country I was in, halfway around the world. I could feel the eyes of the locals and our travelers frozen on us, impressed by our courage and willingness to step out in front of an audience of hundreds to dance for all to see.
That evening, we attended a Kirtan on our inaugural retreat to the Golden Triangle of India. A Kirtan is a full Hindu prayer ceremony, which includes multiple prayers, chants, and rituals in the temple. It didn’t seem to matter that none of us could speak the language used during the ceremony. The message that transcended the language was that we were wanted there. We were intended to be there. We belonged.
I frequently reflect on the fact that, as we age, it can be harder to find a sense of belonging. Life changes. People move, pass on, and we can come away from those experiences feeling like visitors without a homeland. Generating community is important to experience belonging. Finding that community can be both terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
While we were at the Kirtan, for example, when the prayers ended, a group of women started singing and created a drum circle in the middle of the temple. We watched from the sidelines with fascination until one of the dancers invited my retreat partner, Megan, and I up to dance with her. Then she promptly sat down, leaving us in front of three hundred people alone with everyone’s eyes on us. Everyone clapped and sang as we let go and danced to music we had never heard before. Many photos were taken from the sidelines. In that moment after the initial wave of fear had passed, we felt such a deep appreciation and delight at being welcomed and accepted regardless of our dancing abilities.
My pride only turned to embarrassment later, when I learned that the choreographed dance I had attempted in the circle with Megan (one that I knew from prior holiday celebrations with my partner’s family), called Bhangra, wasn’t supposed to be danced in the temple. It was a celebratory dance rather than the spiritual dancer our soloist had demonstrated for us! While my automatic response had my face turn a deep shade of crimson with shame and embarrassment, instead of being judged or reprimanded for our party dance moves set to religious music, we were met with an overwhelming sense of acceptance and belonging. They cheered us on with knowing looks and appreciation for our misguided attempts. I was struck by the deep sense that who we were being was enough. Getting it right and looking good were not prerequisites for belonging, but, rather, self-expression was an access point.
I interviewed Carolyn Jo Silas (C.J.) about her career trajectory and experience of being self-expressed in a highly male-dominated industry. C.J. grew up in Suburban Los Angeles with a dream to be the first woman to play shortstop for the Dodgers because her grandma told her about a man named Jackie Robinson who fought through everything to play the sport he loved while making a living as the first man of color to play in the then-Caucasian-dominated Major League Baseball.
C.J. has now been in sports radio and television for thirty-two years. She began her career on the TV series Fame and later worked for the local NPR station, WAER Radio, for three years while finishing her degree in sports broadcasting. While in New York, she began her career as a baseball stadium public address announcer for minor league affiliates of the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees. She became the first woman in that position in professional baseball. She went on to work for ESPN, including covering the OJ Simpson trial at the LA courthouse daily for eight months.
I asked C.J. to share her story. Here’s what she said:
“Growing up, Jackie Robinson was kind of my Jesus. He was the first person of color to do what he wanted to do. And I knew as I got older that I could deal with whatever came my way, because nothing could be worse than what he dealt with. As I was entering high school, I realized that my biological father wasn’t coming around. I was performing and doing well. I played every sport. I was in all the plays, and I did musical theater all the way through college. Even in college, I played sports. I went to USC and ran track and now I play roller derby. I’ve always been a very competitive person—partially to get my dad’s attention as a little girl, even if I wasn’t conscious of it. I wanted to be good at something because not being good wasn’t acceptable.”
C.J.’s story is common. Many of us reckon with the need to achieve external validation or love through our achievements and looking good. There are both positive and negative consequences to this way of being. One positive is that it often leads us to produce and be high performers. C.J. shared,
“It has given me the ability to drive and push through very uncomfortable situations, whether at home or in the workplace as the only woman in the room in sports broadcasting, in the locker rooms and clubhouses, and on the court and the sidelines. It started as being competitive and trying to get my dad’s attention. And then it shifted to being the best no matter what I do.”
But I see more and more often how we set ourselves up to play a game that never ends. No strategy will allow us to win at a game where we must constantly achieve and look good in order to earn someone else’s attention, love, approval, or affection. Furthermore, this game does not allow us to be at peace with or be approving of ourselves either. If we constantly must perform and achieve to feel good about ourselves or love ourselves, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and heartbreak. C.J. shared her experience of this:
“Now, I’m working through that and reconciling with the idea that being the best isn’t always exactly what I need to be happy with myself. I’m not looking for affirmation on the outside but coming from the inside. In early 2018, I decided to spend a year doing whatever I could do to truly love myself. I wouldn’t succeed if I continued to spend all this time and energy winning Spartan races, roller derby, and CrossFit. For me, it was always about putting a ton of energy into being physically fit and being the best at everything. When I pulled back on that, things started to really open up in my career.”
When I asked C.J. what she attributed this to, she said, “I think the exercise is in really truly loving yourself and not looking for confirmation or asking for permission from the outside world, whether it’s from a parent, teacher, coach or a boss. It’s about finding it within yourself to love yourself and what you offer to the world.” I deeply resonate with C.J. Silas’s sentiments. I’ve discovered through my work that we so often do not know what loving ourselves and not needing permission from the outside world means. Choosing to express ourselves fully and live in alignment with our core values is a powerful place to start practicing.
TAKING ACTION: EMBODYING BELONGING
When we are fully self-expressed in our lives, having a sense of belonging is inherent. Living in alignment with our values helps us fully express ourselves and make empowered choices in our lives. My mentor Christopher once shared a story that while out at a bar one evening, he approached a table of women and invited one of them to dance. The woman quickly encouraged him to dance with her friend, as she hadn’t yet been invited to dance that evening. The gentleman, of course, said yes and invited her friend to dance. However, he was struck by this woman’s sense of kindness and later asked for her number. Having recently distinguished that kindness was his most important core value, he was struck by her demonstration. A desirable bachelor in his day, my mentor later married this woman.
We make choices every minute of every day. Aligning those choices with our values is an access point toward becoming fully self-expressed and embodying a sense of belonging. Today, we will do an adapted version of the exercise that my mentor shared, which continues to impact my own choices to this day.
Journal below the names of three people you admire, whether you know them personally or not. For each of them, journal what qualities you admire and in what experiences they have specifically displayed these qualities. For example, on my list is my namesake, my great aunt Catherine. I remember vacationing with her to Canada every summer and how she always had time for me. She was so generous with her time with us and always prioritized us. I always felt important in her eyes. Journal now:
Next, revisit what you wrote above and underline all the qualities and values. Create a list of four to six core values that you hold based on the qualities you listed above for each of your three individuals.
Finally, rank them in terms of importance. Go through each of your four to six core values and identify whether the first or the second is more important to you. Complete this process with your entire list until you have a fully ranked list of your core values.
Today, print and post these core values somewhere where you will see them. Practice making choices in alignment with your core values. What difference does it make? What is the impact of making choices in alignment with your core values?
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article series about my bestselling book, Belonging: Overcome Your Inner Critic and Reclaim Your Joy. If you’d like to get a copy, you can find it on Amazon — here is the link. I’d love to connect! You can reach me via email, my website, or connect with me on social: Instagram, LinkedIN, or Facebook.