Owning My “And”: Embracing My Intrapersonal Pluralism

Publishing this post feels a bit risky, knowing it could be read by anyone, but it also feels important to share. Although I had planned to continue my “Top 5” series a bit longer, I have decided to depart from it because I have been inspired lately with a greater understanding of myself that I believe can help others.

As an academic advisor for undergraduate college students, I frequently hear students say, sometimes with great angst, “I don’t know what I want to do!” Until very recently, while I have empathized with them and tried to reassure them that they have time to figure it out, I have felt like I was holding on to a dirty little secret: Neither did I.

I have done several different things throughout my career, mostly in higher education and nonprofit, and, to be honest, I have held shame and fear that I was “wishy-washy” and indecisive because I felt called in different directions. Many people my age have spent 20, 25 or 30 years in a single role, in a single field or a single institution, continuously moving into progressively higher positions. Although, collectively, I have spent around 12 years at the University (not including my time as a student and graduate assistant), it has been a bit of a zig-zag path. I know that I have done work that has mattered—advocating for and supporting people living with HIV in the 1990s, coordinating volunteers for the American Red Cross and assisting and teaching college students. I also took a few years away from work after my son was born (although I tried to start a couple businesses during that time). Partly because of the anguish I felt to find the right fit and contribute to the world in different ways, I pursued a second Master’s degree, which I completed eight years after earning my first.

I have been in this role as academic advisor since 2014. (To be fair, I am working in the same department where I earned my second Master’s degree.) I know I help students. I know I make a difference for them. I have liked this work from the beginning, and I am good at it. However, for the first few years, there were several issues that created a lot of stress and unhappiness for me. I was so disappointed when that turned out to be the case several months after starting this position. I already felt (especially after a disappointment when Red Cross restructured, causing me to leave there) like my career lacked coherence and that I hadn’t accomplished what I “should” have accomplished professionally. Struggling with shame, disenchantment and a sense of powerlessness, I decided to return to a goal that I had held during my last stint in grad school and when my son was little. I enrolled in health coach school and got certified as a health coach and life coach over the next year and a half. At the time, my plan was to build my business and then leave the University. I decided I wanted out, and I didn’t want to work for anyone ever again.

In October 2017, a few months before I completed my health coach training, it all came to a head for me at the University. The pressure that had been coming every semester, due to a difference in opinion with the College administration about how I should do my job, started again. I decided I had nothing to lose because I was really unhappy. So, I wrote an email, copied to several people in administration and to my department chair (who supported me) and set boundaries about what I was and was not willing to do and what I would no longer tolerate. It wasn’t a threat, but it was clear and direct.

An amazing thing happened. The pressure stopped. And my job improved. (This was a lesson in itself about having the courage to stand up for myself and what I believe is right.) I finished my coach training and set out to grow my business, and then the torment set in for me. I had promised myself that I would get certified, grow my business and then leave the University, but I suddenly felt myself struggling because I no longer really wanted to leave. However, I still wanted to grow my business, and I wanted to do other cool things.

What was wrong with me?!

I often felt like an imposter when I talked to my students and guided them on their career paths. I couldn’t even figure out my own!

This struggle persisted, waxing and waning over more than a year.

Recently, light has flooded in for me, though, and I want to share my insights because I no longer believe I am the only one who feels this way.

I have heard several thought leaders and coaches—Kristin Lajeneusse, Tess Challis, Marie Forleo—use the term “multipassionate” to describe people who are pulled in many different creative and professional directions. When I was first exposed to this idea during the summer of 2018, it didn’t fully resonate with me. I understood the concept, but I couldn’t embrace it as a description that fit and felt okay.

In the last couple months, though, I listened to Emilie Wapnick’s excellent book How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. I happened to listen to David Epstein on Lewis Howe’s School of Greatness podcast right after listening to Emilie Wapnick’s book. Coinciding with this, I had the opportunity to attend an in-depth training on Clifton’s strengths at the University. I was not new to strengths, having participated in the University’s spring 2019 Leadership Book Club, which featured the book Strengths-Based Leadership. I had read it several years ago, and I have also been interested in Via Character Strengths for years.

However, this time, it all came together for me. My top-5 Clifton strengths are: Intellection, Input, Relator, Learner and Maximizer (Brief descriptions of these and the other 29 strengths here). As I learned more about these and thought about what I had heard from Wapnick and Epstein, I started receiving hits of inspiration and understanding on my bike. It was very exciting and very comforting. Emilie Wapnick uses the term “multipotentialite.” David Epstein talks about having a “range” of interests and activities. Wapnick offers many other possible labels and invites us to choose what works for us. Noting felt quite right, although the ideas I heard clicked. Because my best processing always occurs on my bike, I started toying with different descriptions while I rode. For a week or so, “multi-layered professional” seemed to be right. A couple weeks ago, though, I realized what really fits for me.

It is about owning my “and.” By this I mean that I was suddenly enveloped with self-acceptance and acknowledgement that what feels right for me in this season (to use a term I liked when I heard Rachel Hollis use it) of life is that I am an Academic Advisor, and I am developing an online course that I will start teaching in the spring, and I have a health and life coaching practice on the side and (going public with this for the first time—more to follow) I am writing a book. AND, I feel good about this, and I own it all.

On my bike a couple weeks ago, the term “intrapersonal pluralism” came to me and nestled in comfortably. To summarize briefly, my top five strengths mean that I am a thinker (Intellection)—very introspective. This is no surprise. I crave time in my head. I need it to survive. Having so little ability to escape noise and be alone in my head was one of the most difficult parts of becoming a mother for me. Additionally, “Input” means that I collect and organize things. For me, these are words, quotes, ideas, interests and ways to contribute in the world. As a Relator, I value and cultivate deep conversations and relationships and avoid small talk. The Learner in me MUST keep growing. And, as a Maximizer, I long to turn the “great into the superb.” All this feels true for me. And, having received the input from Wapnick and Epstein recently, it all came together. What I had perceived as lack of direction or wishy-washiness was just the way I was put together. It was how my very busy mind worked. I need to grow and contribute in many different ways. I suddenly felt that I could own my “and.”

The freedom this has given me feels so comforting. This has been such a struggle, and I have felt ashamed to express it to anyone.

“When life begins, God takes this huge jigsaw puzzle with a zillion pieces in it, messes it all up, and throws the pieces into a box called ‘your life.’ Most think the object of life is to painstakingly put that puzzle together with great solemnity–thinking that there is only one to make it fit. We’re all hoping to get that big prize at the end of the rainbow.

But the truth is, there are a zillion ways to put your puzzle together–and you get to make it up as you go along! From what I can tell, God often throws two or three puzzles in the same box, depending on what you need to learn at this particular point in time. . . And if we’re not having any fun putting it together, then it’s time to mess it up one more time and put the fun back in.” –Joel Rutledge

So, along with owning my “and,” I am owning my past shame. And, I am releasing it. Doing so has allowed me to use my new understanding to comfort and support two students already. I felt compelled to write this post because I would like to help others who may be facing a similar internal struggle. Maybe my lessons can shorten their suffering.

To use Rachel Hollis’ term for describing where I am in life, in this season, I am contentedly an academic advisor as my primary paying work. I feel like I want to settle in, help students and stay in this role “as long as love shall last,” maybe until retirement—possibly early retirement. We’ll see. I will add the online course because is an it is an opportunity to grow and learn. I have been amazed how much is involved in setting up this course. It all must be developed ahead of time and is quite different than my past in-person teaching experiences. I am going to be sharing a message that matters to me about Mind and Movement (I’ll share information about enrolling with my readers, once that becomes available.). I am still very clear that it is important to me to grow and evolve my coaching business. Maybe it will look different than I originally envisioned, and maybe it will change over time, but I am clear that I must do it. I am saving for a coaching experience of my own early next year, and I expect good things to come of it. And, the book has been calling to me on my bike and growing and becoming clearer and clearer in my mind. I thought that a book might be 10 years or so in the future. Now, I know I am supposed to start working on it. There is a message I need to share with the world, and the time has come to work toward that end.

Who knows how this will evolve and change in the next “season” of my life, or even when and what that will be?

So, for any of you who are (or who know) intrapersonal pluralists, I hope you can find peace, too. There are some of us who are just put together in such a way that we don’t decide what we want to be when we are six or 18 or 28 or 48. We want to be and do and experience a lot of things. We have so much to contribute in so many ways. (People who do pursue a single, linear career path make important differences in the world, too, of course.) Yes, we must pay the bills. The reality is that there are a lot of ways to do that honorably. We don’t have to choose just one in this season or in this lifetime. We may be busier than others. As long as we make room for the things that feed our souls—including work and creative projects that call us—I have come to realize this is okay.

As a coach, I help people live with no regrets. I aspire to do the same in my own life. I have released the baggage of shame and disappointment. Moving forward, I will own my “and.” I am no longer ashamed to have several interesting projects—including my full-time job—going on in my life. I recognize that honoring these interests is part of living with no regrets for me. I need to make room for them and embrace them fully. They are all part of how I am called to contribute to the creation of a healthier, more compassionate world.

My wish for my fellow intrapersonal pluralists is that you, too, can own your “and,” living it proudly into the world. We will all be richer for it. This requires creativity to figure out how best to combine all our interests and pursuits. One may be in the forefront during one season of life, while a different one may move into the lead during another. Some may run their course and move out of the lineup. Others may present themselves as we continue to learn and grow and are exposed to new ideas and opportunities.

We can’t do everything at once, so we have to consider honestly what we can make fit, if we should make it fit and if our current pursuits are aligned with our core values.

I have come to believe that intrapersonal pluralism may be as much a personality trait as introversion or extroversion. When we embrace it, rather than hide it in shame, we are richer humans, better able to make meaningful contributions to the world.

“Your journey has molded you for your greater good, and it was exactly what you needed it to be. Don’t think you’ve lost time. There is no short-cutting to life. It took each and every situation you have encountered to bring you to the now. And now is right on time.” –Asha Tyson

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