Six years ago, British-Asian author Lena Shah, 41, left a high-powered career in account management, having worked for international travel and payment tech companies, to retrain as a French and Spanish teacher as well as a Mindfulness coach and Yin yoga instructor.
Whilst she gained a lot from her work and made numerous life-long friends, she became increasingly unhappy with her lifestyle, feeling unfulfilled with the ‘soulless’ and faceless corporate nature of her roles and yearning, instead, to share her true self more authentically by working in a more humanitarian sector.
However, she felt trapped, not knowing how to make an effective change while continuing to take comfort in the security and success corporate life provided, ignoring the serious impact it was having on her health and wellbeing. And with many of her peers within the wider Indian community frowning upon those working in fields viewed as less prestigious, she felt pressured to keep up a pretence. This constant unhappiness and pressure almost led to a breakdown. Finally, however, she found a new way forward.
Now, the languages teacher, mindfulness coach, and Yin yoga instructor has published Impetus – No cover up, a transformative book of healing poems and prose that relay her experiences to help other professionals who feel trapped in their jobs or personal life circumstances.
You had a high-powered career yet felt unfulfilled. You, however, chose to ignore this because of wider social expectations. Do you think this is a common scenario for professionals, and what are the main general factors at play in their choice to stay in an unhappy situation?
I can best answer this by breaking it down, as follows.
Circumstances: I know it is common for many of us to make a compromise due to our situations and circumstances. Having dependents and other financial commitments can mean any short-term changes involving changes in income or lifestyle are very challenging.
Limiting beliefs: As psychologist Dr Rick Hanson says, “We have a brain wired to take in the bad and ignore the good making us worried, irritated and stressed instead of confident, secure, and happy.” Our ancestral and limiting beliefs constantly re-play old stories and attach on many occasions a false meaning to experiences that are not actually the reality of today. Our automatic knee-jerk reactions, thought patterns and consequent behaviours (life choices) to situations throughout the day are often based on traumas from the past. We are in a constant state of auto-pilot—“We are human beings, not human doings”, as the Mindfulness UK organisation puts it.
Addictions: When we think a desired situation or goal is not achievable, we have a (often subconscious) tendency to take refuge in addictive behaviour. Addictions take many forms; drugs and alcohol are well known. However there are many other addictions which are even more common but easier to hide and deny: addicted to thinking and strategizing, fear, control, pleasure seeking through mindless activities, whiling away time on the phone or the internet, gossiping and comparisons.
What I see happening, and what was beginning to happen with myself, it that we compensate for the unfulfillment we experience at work with activities that are not wholesome or fulfilling. We cover ourselves up with other things that will always lead to a break up of sorts in the long run, whether it be mental health, physical health or a breakdown of a situation or relationships.
Lack of time: This is one of the biggest myths we create for ourselves. Being open to having a coach, therapist or mentor who can help you challenge these beliefs can help you get out of a negative mould, and provide the space and time to dedicate your thoughts, time and life choices to things more aligned with your true inner desires, leading to a greater sense of joy and fulfilment.
In your case, you say that there were additional social expectations being a British-Asian woman. Can you briefly explain this, and how common do you think this scenario is among British-Asian female professionals?
The only way I can describe it (and how I realised my own blocks) is that we put our own happiness in the hands of people/society/role models who are often not involved with our lives in a direct way. The Asian community is strong and powerful, both for the good and bad. At times, it can mean someone becomes surrounded by people who cast judgements without wanting to know a person or situation in any meaningful way. We create a false, supposed moral society to live up to and then chastise ourselves for not conforming to superficial ideals.
If a professional feels unfulfilled in their current career, what can the consequences be if they remain?
There are many things but from my personal experience, unhappiness and a false way of living were the main issues. In time, this can become harmful to an individual’s wellbeing, necessitating an urgent change of scenery.
Since listening to my inner voice with respect to work, my network of friends and pass-times have evolved as a consequence. I downloaded a new perspective and found another kind of richness. I decluttered!
What key advice would you give to any professional in an unhappy career?
You need to ask yourself a series of questions:
Do you love yourself enough to accompany yourself to make the change both practically and emotionally?
What are you prepared to give up to do it?
From a financial perspective, what expenses are controllable?
Where can you gain time?
Saying no to certain social things that are not fulfilling might be tough but is it worth it to you?
If you ask yourself these questions and decide that you cannot (or don’t want to) give any of these things up, then there is no longer any reason to be unhappy because you have made a conscious choice. You are less likely to feel like a victim.
Or, perhaps, the questioning makes you realise you are actually unhappy in another area of your life, or that in fact you DO want to make a change, making you feel less resentful of the things you are giving up.
What key advice would you give expressly to British-Asian female professionals?
The same as I would to anyone else, with the addition that you need to be prepared that moral and emotional support might be harder to gain. Be prepared to go it alone.
You retrained as a mindfulness coach. How did this meet your needs as opposed to your former career?
My former career served me at a certain point in my life and I have gained a lot from it both materially and in terms of some wonderful friends but I am in another place in my life now.
Being of service to clients 1:2:1 is a privilege—it is one of the most responsible, precious and fulfilling ways to live and work and I see it as a true blessing to be in a position to help others in this way.
I have a vocation now, not just a job.
As a mindfulness coach, what would you say are the main benefits to professionals of receiving mindfulness training?
Mindfulness can help achieve a greater sense of workplace and general wellbeing, leading to an improvement in productivity. Benefits to professionals and employers include:
- Reduced absenteeism
- Improved productivity
- Reduced employee burnout
- Improved communications
- Increased creativity
- Enhanced solution-based thinking
- Improved team work
- Improved workplace wellbeing
How do you think mindfulness can be incorporated into the wider corporate structure, and why would this be of benefit to companies?
A common reality in a busy and stressful workplace is having too many things to do in too little time.
This isn’t always true but there is a strong argument to say that unless top management are interested in promoting mindfulness to its employees, such programmes won’t work.
Another potential pitfall is that group mindfulness sessions in the workplace may not be conducive to a sense of stress reduction and wellbeing if you are not having an easy time with your colleagues in any case.
It is also important that the inertia to take on mindfulness comes from within each person and is not viewed as an authoritarian tick-box exercise. It should be seen as an effective way of exploring practical, voluntary and realistic ways for staff to find their own impetus to regain centredness and help reduce short-term stress and overwhelm versus having enforced mindfulness sessions after work or during lunchtimes.
It is important employees feel equipped with mindfulness tools that they can implement on their own during the work day. There might be different tools that work best in different workplace scenarios.—i.e. whilst running between meetings, feeling overwhelmed during a meeting, during lunchtime or before or after work.
Enforced meetings on wellbeing run the risk of making people resentful when they already may feel that work has taken over their time and mind. They can of course, in some company environments, be very welcome so it really depends on the particular organisation and its atmosphere.
You are also a Yin yoga instructor. Why would you advocate that yoga becomes part of every busy professional’s regular routine?
It helps centre and set one up for the day, both physically and emotionally. At the end of the day it serves as a letting go. Even one minute of breathing is beneficial if that is all one can manage, but make it count.
I have a five-minute yoga routine (which can be done in bed!) at the start and end of the day. It brings me back to a state of calm if I have had a troubled sleep or busy day. The sequence is available on my website.
Your new book, Impetus – No cover up, shares your own journey of liberation and connecting with an authentic self through poetry and short prose. How do you think it will help other professionals?
I hope my book helps other professionals feel a sense of liberation, as I did. We often get so bogged down and become two-dimensional. I hope my book will enable professionals to stop and take an expansive, calming breath into their imagination and perhaps find a more creative outlook.
Here is an extract from one of my poems within the book, ‘Picking me up’, that is pertinent to our experiences as professionals and the need to find a path to authentic living:
Picking up my pieces
with sensitivity and compassion.
Binding them with gold