Why It Takes Courage To Lead From Our Scars


We carry our past like baggage. The worst of of the pain is the heaviest. We try to keep it close to us, wearing it like a backpack. While we try to simultaneously hide and/or ignore it, there are times when it just can’t be ignored.


The #metoo movement exposed my backpack. I chose to unpack it while facilitating a workshop on courageous leadership on Oakland’s International Women’s Day Festival.

This is my #metoo backpack.

The contents of the backpack represented the layers of pain I’ve internalized over the years of carrying it.



I’ve learned that, only when we decide to stop ignoring the pain, and start unpacking it, can we see how full we’ve packed it.


When we say #metoo, we stop ignoring our backpacks.


We have a choice of how to unpack: we can unzip the pack, turn it upside down and dump the contents out into the open for all to see, OR we can unpack with intentionality.


Dumping it is a form of emotionally vomiting on the world, a way of saying, “Here! You deal with this sh*t. I’m tired. I don’t want to deal with it.” Just another form of giving away your power.


Carefully unzipping and unpacking, however, we discover along with the pain, its constant companions of shame, rage, confusion, guilt, despair, self-loathing, doubt, fear, hate.


Every moment, every feeling we think we shouldn’t feel, we shove it in, filling all the little nooks and crannies, finding more and more space till it is bursting at the seams. We’re conditioned to do this.


As you unpack it, it can start to feel like the never ending scarfs used by magicians. Where will it end?


We cannot forget our experiences. We cannot unlearn our conditioning. From harassment to assault, this is our experience.


Each item I unpacked, I felt the emotions related to each instance: the cat-calls on the way to work, having my drink spiked, and the worst experience–sexual assault.


Until I took the time to reflect in this way, I hadn’t realized how many conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings had been stuffed into my backpack of pain.


But I refused to continue to hide, ignore, or stuff away my feelings anymore. Healing was important for me to learn to lead from a place of strength instead of pain. I sought professional help to move through my healing process. I cannot recommend this enough (finding a therapist/healer that you connect with and trust makes the world of a difference).


The emotional contents are the invisible tensions and pains from the past. Like carrying a too heavy backpack for too long, it weighs on us, affects our physical and mental well-being. It’s prolonged pain and left unattended, those wounds infect all areas of our life.


Inside the backpack in that small, deep pocket, I found some really useful tools: compassion, acceptance,and forgiveness.


Compassion for ourselves. Guilt and shame will not serve us in healing. There will be moments when we struggle to forgive, love and feel joy. And let’s be real, sometimes a good cry is deeply cleansing, especially over a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Doing that every day, though, is a symptom of something deeper.


Acceptance for what is. We cannot change the past. We can choose to shift our perspective, focusing on the positive versus the painful. We can tell ourselves a different story instead of staying in a place of victimhood. We can help others who are hurting (and in the process help heal our own wounds through our kindness and compassion).


And forgiveness, starting with ourselves. We tried to hide and ignore how we feel for a long time. But we aren’t anymore. We must offer self-forgiveness for all the times we chose to not speak up or the times we looked the other way. They’re in the past now. For all the times we self-harmed and turned our pain inward on ourselves instead of seeking help and loving ourselves a little more. We didn’t ask for these painful experiences. They’re in the past now. We get to choose the future.


This is how to transform the pain, to lighten the load, and to plug into our personal power. This is how we become conscious, courageous leaders.


And this is only the #metoo backpack. We walk around with other invisible backpacks and bags of wounds, painful experiences, and biases connected to intersections of our identity (racial, cultural, gender, sexual identity, physical health, and more). We delve into the topic of intersectionality in depth in my other blogs and workshops… 


But the bottom line is this: people are carrying a lot of pain from the past.


And it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out. We need to make time to process, grief, heal, and learn to live fully so we can lead at our best. 


To be powerful, courageous leaders, we must be brave with ourselves first. 


And I’ll always be a work in progress. This work never ends.


If you are ready to start unpacking layers of your invisible backpack, I invite you to join me in contemplating these questions:

  • To what do you say “enough is enough”?
  • What’s at stake if you continue to lead with your overflowing backpack?


You do not have to leave a comment answering these, but I hope you will join me in considering them with care.


If you want to watch a video clip of me unpacking my backpack, you can check it out here. If you’d like to talk about unpacking your backpack with intentionality and/or explore what this all means for your leadership…we might be a good fit to work together in some capacity. Just email me, and I’d be happy to send you more details on my offerings.


Rachel Rosen, the founder of S.P.A.R.K. Community and S.P.A.R.K. Leadership, is on a mission to start a global conversation about inclusion, courageous leadership, and racial equity. With a Masters from Stanford, and extensive training in leadership, coaching, organizational development, S.P.A.R.K. experiences are grounded in theory and practice–all in service of making the world a better place. With love. For justice. 

Comments Off on Transform Pain Into Power