Welcome to Leaders Rising, where we explore the journey of leaders who’ve risen from the ashes of adversity, examining the gifts born from their experiences, the challenges that have held them back, and the moves they’ve made to transcend hardship and openly face the ragged edges that still remain.

It was a hot summer afternoon of running errands. Seven-year-old Laura was sitting in the backseat of her mom’s car when a familiar Bon Jovi song came on the radio.

This Romeo is bleeding / But you can't see his blood  
It's nothing but some feelings / That this old dog kicked up  
It's been raining since you left me / Now I'm drowning in the flood  
You see, I've always been a fighter / But without you, I give up

Moved by the music Laura, buckled in next to her little brother’s car seat, began to gyrate. Her whole body lit up as she belted the chorus – wailing at the top of her lungs:

And I will love you, baby always/ And I'll be there forever and a day always 
I'll be there till the stars don't shine/ Till the heavens burst and 
The words don't rhyme/ And I know when I die, you'll be on my mind 
And I'll love you - Always

Her mom adjusted the rear view mirror, glared at Laura in the back seat, and barked “Shut Up! That’s too much! You are too loud! Stop singing so loud!” Shocked by the outburst, Laura’s body sunk back and, in that moment, the message seared into her bones: You are too loud. That is too much. You are too much.

“I can remember in my body feeling ‘Oh, my God, I did something wrong.’” Laura reflects. As her body began shriveling up inside, her arms tingled. She wanted to cry but was afraid to draw more attention to herself. Anxiety started to rise that if she made another wrong move she would get into more trouble.

This message of too muchness rattles inside of her still to this day. “I struggle with being 100% me. I’m very powerful, and I’ve accepted this, but it’s been very difficult for me to truly step into that. Anytime I get a little closer to the sun, I shrink back – and wonder maybe I’ve gone too far.”

Born to young, teenaged parents, Laura’s father struggled with addiction and left the family when she was two years old. Not knowing him, she always felt a huge piece of her life was missing.

When her mom married Laura’s step-father, the family moved. “My childhood was traumatic. We never had any money. Our dinners consisted of frozen turkey in a bag. We would put it in a pot and boil it and then eat it on top of Wonder Bread. My mom ran a day care out of the house and was actively doing things, but we were always ten steps behind where we needed to be.”

“There was no physical abuse. But my mom, navigating the effects of her own traumatic childhood, had very intense anger issues. I could write a whole pictorial book about the objects she threw at me – lamps and dressers – breaking my stuff when I didn’t play with my brother enough.”

The oldest of four children, a great deal of responsibility was given to Laura. She babysat, fed them, and changed their diapers. “It was to the point that people outside of the home noticed I was raising these kids.”

When Laura got her first job at fifteen, the financial burden shifted to her. Wracked by guilt and responsibility, she carried the weight of making sure the younger kids got fed, the electricity stayed on, and the car worked so they could get to school. “At that point I was basically an adult.”

A highlight of her childhood, when Laura was a little girl, she would round up other kids in the neighborhood and lead adventures. Pirates and princesses, or whatever the theme of the day, she would make up stories of imaginative lands. While this may have been an afternoon of fun for her friends, for Laura it was her escape from a difficult home life.

“Being a vulnerable leader doesn’t mean you don’t have weak moments, it means knowing how to constructively use those to lift everyone around you.”

Those early adventures in escapism grew into a gift Laura brings to her leadership role as CEO and Creative Director of Worx & Co., an urban branding studio that creates purpose-built brands to drive business growth. As described by a client, “Laura and her entire staff are so wickedly creative it is scary.”

With an intense drive to never give up, Laura always knew there was something more for her. This drive has sprung into gifts of determination and resilience. “I will fall down and boohoo for a hot minute, and then I’ll come back swinging.”

Working with a coach recently Laura realized that she associates success and responsibility with stress and anxiety. “Anytime I’ve had any level of responsibility it’s because I’ve been in some sort of turmoil. It’s the paradox of the thorn and the rose. I’m succeeding but I’m royally stressed out. When I try to raise to new heights, or take on new responsibilities, I just automatically worry ‘It’s going to make my life worse,’ so I make myself smaller.”

Last year she launched a “Liberation Week” with her team. They each identified core negative beliefs holding them back. Seeking to publicly expose these beliefs as a way of transforming them, each day they wore a t-shirt with one emblazoned on it. No surprise, Laura’s were “I’m too much. I’m not enough. I’m worthless. I’m unworthy.”

Every day for a week they wore these t-shirts – to the store, to client meetings, to lunch, to kids events. “Being a vulnerable leader doesn’t mean you don’t have weak moments, it means knowing how to constructively use those to lift everyone around you.”

It’s actually when Laura’s in her “too muchness” that she’s at her best. “When I’m living an abundant life, I’m a blessing to others. I’m wonderful to be around. I’m happy and excited. Things are happening. And then everyone in my circle is rising with me.”

Laura is now acutely aware when she begins to work from that place of smallness and “not enoughness”. She retreats, she pushes off decisions out of fear, she hides her light. When she senses this shift, she’s learned to actively tell herself to pause, evaluate the situation, and push through.

Her latest project, The Gutsy Podcast, is a good example of this. Two years ago it would have been too much, yet this is where her greatest energy is now. In its first fifteen months it’s been downloaded 17,000 times and, just last month, it landed on Podcast Magazine’s Hot 50 list and was highlighted by Forbes.com. “This tells me my too muchness is wildly accepted!” In this way her podcast has been very healing for her. Every week she gets to practice being too much and she’s learning the more she stretches and pushes, the more she is freed.

Another way she’s stepping into her light is the launch of her personal brand, LauraAura, aimed at helping female entrepreneurs take their power back and expand their businesses. She defines LauraAura as her adult Laura’s reconnection with her three-year-old self. “When I’m in that space, I’m the girl who used to run around on that playground, who use to make adventures up and lead explorations, who use to jump on rocks and swing from vines. LauraAura gives me the pull I need to step in the fullness of myself because it gives me something to attach to.”

“In my leadership journey I’ve learned a lot boils down to not letting your circumstance define who you are. Just because this thing went wrong, this relationship was poor, that doesn’t write your entire story.”

Laura describes her next growth edge as healing her reactivity around money, which can also suck the energy from her LauraAura. “I can get stressed and anxious and feel locked down. Running through scenarios in my head, it feels like the sky is falling. Healing is a layered process. I not only see glimpses of the sun, at times I’m living it. And then these old haunts around money can come and seize it away, swiping me into a place where I feel the need to suit up. Like I’m in a fight club but, really, I’m just fighting with myself.”

Eventually, Laura reconnected with her father and has been reconciling her relationship with both parents. “I love them, and I’ve had to learn to love and release them.”

“When I had a son of my own it was beautiful and it hurt very bad because I thought ‘How could two parents hold me and not have that same kind of love?'”

“I realized what a parent’s love could be and it was the beginning of a long journey of disconnecting from what I thought a parent’s love should be. We would have a bad day and I’d hold out hope things could get better, it’s fine, and we’ll be a family. But that wasn’t my path.”

Having boundaries in place opened up freedom and strength for Laura, affirming that she can stand up for herself.

This reconciliation had helped Laura get clearer about what she would and wouldn’t accept in both her personal and professional life. “Everyone needs to be fighting the same battle for the same win. If we are not aligned, we can’t be on the same field together. I’m very clear about this upfront. And when you do work with me, I’m going to see something in you and I’m going poke at it and scratch at it and then I’m going to help you heal and transform it. It is not just about making a business card and designing a logo. It’s like, ‘Hey what’s going on with you today? I can tell you are a little bit off. How can help you work with this? How can I help you step into your fullness?’”

Like in the Bon Jovi song she belted as a young girl, Laura has always been a fighter. “In my leadership journey I’ve learned a lot boils down to not letting your circumstance define who you are. Just because this thing went wrong, this relationship was poor, that doesn’t write your entire story. It’s a part of you and trickles in – and is part of my story as an adult. By healing myself I’ve gained my own power back, knowing that yes those things happen and I get to write the story.“

You can connect with Laura Wallace at linkedin.com/in/laurafwallace.


Know someone who’s risen from ashes of adversity to become an amazing leader – learning to leverage their gifts while continuing to soften up the rough edges?

Maybe it’s you?

Message me. I would love to explore highlighting your story in my Leaders Rising blog series!

Originally published at https://www.trueformleadership.com on May 6, 2020