70: From Breakdown to Breakthrough

70: From Breakdown to Breakthrough

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

From Breakdown to Breakthrough

It’s your place in the world; it’s your life.

Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.

~Mae Jemison

I spent eighteen years in Corporate America in publishing and marketing. On the outside, I looked highly successful and accomplished. My friends thought I had it “all,” and were often annoyed when they’d hear me share how challenging I felt my life was.

I worked hard, made all the “right” choices, and rose to the level of Vice President, earning great money, recognition and apparent reward. But on the inside, I wasn’t successful — far from it. While I adored my family life and children, I was unhappy, sick and unfulfilled professionally for many years, and as I approached forty, these bumps in my work life turned into full-blown crises. In the last years of my corporate journey, I experienced twelve serious crises, including gender discrimination, sexual harassment, zero work-life balance, chronic illness (a painful, debilitating infection of the trachea that reappeared every three months for four years), and most challenging of all, the agonizing feeling that I was wasting my entire professional life on work that offered no value to anyone.

I attempted for several years to find a new path, but despite my efforts and thousands of dollars in therapy, working with a career counselor, and taking fruitless career assessment tests and evaluations, I remained utterly stuck. I simply could not figure out how to apply my talents and skills in a different direction that would be emotionally fulfilling as well as financially rewarding. With two small children, I needed to contribute substantially to our family’s finances. I struggled inwardly to understand why I continued to face so many challenges in my professional life. I knew I was smart and dedicated, so why was it all so wrong? No matter what new path I explored, I couldn’t find a way to use my talents toward something meaningful.

In my thirties, I had experienced my first painful wake-up call when my dear friend Lillian died of cancer. Right before she died, she pulled me close and whispered in my ear, “Kathy, please don’t waste it. Don’t waste your time. Just shine.” I felt a terribly deep pain and regret, and such a sense of loss, yet my breakdown moment still didn’t come. I didn’t move forward or make a change, primarily because I was deathly afraid of what I’d lose (power, money, self-esteem).

But then, one month after moving to a more affluent town and a bigger home in Connecticut (meaning greater financial burdens and worries), 9/11 occurred. And one month after that, I faced a brutal layoff. During the first week after I was laid off, I got up each morning at the same time I always had, snuck out, and drove around aimlessly, dressed in my suit and high heels, desperately trying to regroup. I didn’t know who I was without my corporate VP identity. I felt like a complete loser and a failure, and I just couldn’t let anyone know. I kept my layoff a secret from everyone but my husband. Finally, I realized I could not simply go out and get another corporate job — that professional identity was dead for me.

The next week, I had a session with my spiritual psychotherapist, and was in his office crying, sharing how devastated and shocked I was at being let go. He said, “I know this feels like the worst crisis you’ve ever faced, but from where I sit, this is the first moment of your adult life you can actually choose who you want to be in the world. Now, Kathy, who do you want to be?”

That one question was a life-changer for me. Before I knew what was coming out of my mouth, I cried, “I want to do what you do — help people, and not hurt others and not be hurt!” From that discussion and our subsequent work together, I explored becoming a marriage and family therapist and a career coach.

After conducting online research, interviewing therapists and department heads at several universities, and determining it was an exciting direction for me, I enrolled in Fairfield University two months later to pursue my master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. I also learned about coaching a year later and pursued training in that as well. I promised myself then that no matter what happened, I would take control of my professional life and align it with what I truly valued and believed. Somehow, in those intensely painful times of reevaluation and reckoning, I awakened and found new energy and purpose. While contemplating the master’s program, I read over the curriculum, and said to myself, “I’m so drawn to this material. I’ve just got to learn about it. I don’t care what happens in the end — I just want to learn about this material and find a way to use it.” It turns out that the therapeutic training was the single most transformative experience I’d ever undergone.

After becoming a therapist and launching my own therapy practice, I worked with clients dealing with the darkest forms of human experience, including rape, incest, pedophilia, drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, suicidality and even attempted murder. I learned how to hold a loving space with another who was in deep pain, and find compassion in my heart for even the harshest human behaviors. While the training and experience were indeed life changing, I had another breakthrough moment when a female client called me to share that she was going to wrap her car around a tree and kill herself that moment. We got her the help she needed to stabilize her, but once again, I had to face the harsh reality that this professional identity of therapist didn’t fit with how I wanted to offer my professional talents in the world. I was ashamed to admit that, and thought, “What kind of a healer are you that you want to leave the therapy profession?” But I decided to make myself right instead of always doubting my deepest instincts. I decided to honor my belief that I needed yet another change, and this time I didn’t falter or hesitate.

I found the missing piece in 2006 as I delivered workshops to women around Connecticut about how we can learn to thrive through change. After the talks, women would line up to speak with me — some with tears in their eyes, some shaking, saying, “Kathy, I felt like you were telling my story. I don’t have anywhere else to turn, but I’m facing all the crises you experienced in corporate life, and I really need help.” From these talks, I conducted research that revealed that seven out of ten mid-career working women were as unfulfilled and miserable in their careers as I had been, and fifty percent had no idea what to do about it.

A switch was flipped. I was shocked and distressed at the magnitude of the problem for working women today, and I realized then that the serious challenges I had faced in my corporate life represented the challenges of hundreds of thousands of other women around the globe. I decided then and there that I had to be part of the solution.

I wanted to help working women and emerging female leaders overcome their challenges in the business world, and lead their lives more powerfully and passionately. I wanted to do my part to help move the needle on women’s leadership globally. And I wanted to elevate these challenges to the national conversation, and help women speak up and stand out.

At forty-two, I suddenly found a calling and a purpose that I felt was missing for my entire professional life. It wasn’t easy by any stretch to reinvent myself (twice), but the misery I felt for eighteen years before my reinventions was my motivator. I decided to turn my “mess into a message” and help other women bypass the twelve “hidden” crises I had faced in my work life. I started my business, Ellia Communications, which offers programs, resources, coaching and training all dedicated to this purpose, and I conducted a year-long national research study on professional women overcoming crisis (which culminated in my book Breakdown, Breakthrough). With this new direction, and building my own business, I finally felt that all the dots were connecting. Everything I had loved to do as a young adult, and everything I had learned in my corporate life and therapy and coaching training were being utilized in a way that felt right, true, and aligned with what I passionately cared about.

The result of my journey is that, at fifty-four, I’m working in my own business, writing, coaching, speaking and training inspiring, amazing women who long for more passion, power and purpose in their work, and who wish to play bigger and make an impact in the world and their communities. This work feels like the answer to my deepest, most perplexing life question — “What am I here on this planet at this time to do, contribute and leave behind?”

As one who was so lost but climbed back from a professional abyss, I know there is a way back from breakdown. Often this lowest point in our lives is exactly what paves the way for a true breakthrough, if we’ll let it.

As Maria Nemeth, the inspiring author of the powerful book The Energy of Money, shares: “We are all happiest when we are demonstrating in physical reality what we know to be true about ourselves, when we are giving form to our Life’s Intentions in a way that contributes to others.”

Now that, to me, is a life well lived, with amazing success and happiness. The question I’d like to leave you with is this: Can this, finally, be YOUR time to shine?

~Kathy Caprino

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