In Sheela’s shoes: Overcoming Fear to Pursue Your Passion

Name: Sheela Pai

Hometown: New York, New York

Where do you live?  New York, New York

What does it mean to have a voice?  It means accepting and finding the beauty in all parts of yourself and your history

How did you find your voice?   When I fell in love with running after over a year of struggling emotionally. I not only found a healthy outlet  for all those feelings but I also met so many people in the incredible NYC running community who openly and eloquently shared their life challenges, making me feel comfortable to do the same. 

What event or series of events led to you finding your voice? 

In the summer of 2016, my life dramatically changed.  I was working at a law firm after over 10 years of plugging away at firms all over the city when I finally started to realize lawyering was not what I was meant to do.  I hated how adversaries created disputes just for the sake of making my life difficult and ensuring I never had a weekend, vacation, or holiday in peace. I hated the work environment of never knowing who was going to throw you under the bus.  I hated the string of bosses I worked for who put me down day n and day out for how I looked, spoke, wrote, and thought, just to make themselves feel better about their own unhappy lives. It was a necessary realization, but also a crushing one because it was the death of a career I had dreamed about since I was a little girl.

As I was trying to come to grips with this and figure out my next steps, my dad, who suffered from various health issues, was hospitalized for over two months. I left my job to help him recover and learn to walk again.  The man I knew my entire life – my rock who gave me advice about my finances and career – was gone. He was now my child who I had to order to eat all his vegetables and coax to get some more exercise. After leaving my career to help my dad, I experienced so many emotions at once: grief, shame, anger. It felt like there was no one in my life who could relate so those feelings snowballed and made me catatonic in some ways.
Over the course of the next year, every time I attempted to move forward with my life I ended up stuck in a “why me” cycle.  I kept replaying my entire education and career in my head while trying to figure out where I got it wrong. I alienated my friends and family because I was furious that nobody else was in my shoes and I felt alone in my despair.

Tell me about when you finally found your voice.

A few days after last year’s New York City Marathon, upon the encouragement of a friend who is a running coach, I joined the New York Road Runners group training program.  I expected it to be just another workout where I’d sweat out my stress and feel better for a couple of hours. It turned out to be so much more than that. Running calmed and cleared my mind like nothing else, and it also introduced me to the warm, vibrant NYC running community so I no longer felt alone. Through it, I met athletes and leaders who shared their stories of how life challenges such as depression, anxiety, and addiction drew them to the sport.  I had been trained as a lawyer to view acknowledging your hardships as being weak somehow.  Witnessing these people who are changing the world by bravely speaking out about how they overcame their own personal trials, provided me with the tools to heal in the process and motivated me to open up.

Define “voice” and why it is important?  

Voice is speaking your truth without fear of judgment or any expectation of receiving anything in return; it is purely because your experience or epiphany could be someone else’s breakthrough.  The last part is critical, because with this shift in perspective you cease to see your past as permanently defining you. Instead it is a source of lessons to be used to empower yourself and others.

What advice do you have for someone trying to find their voice?  

Stop worrying about how you’ll sound, using the perfect words, other people’s perceptions, or whether what you will say will resonate with anyone. I promise that it will and with more people than you would expect. Just start – whether in a conversation with a group of friends or in an Instagram post.  Also, seek out people who have already found their voices. Listen to them speak and ask to meet up with them. By surrounding yourself with more and more people of that caliber, you will develop the confidence to join the conversation.

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