Changing Career and Saving My Life
Growing up, British-Asian author Lena Shah, 41, says that there was an expectation within her community that women needed to marry well at any cost to be considered to have ‘succeeded’ in life or be recognised as worthy. The more the social pressure mounted to conform, the more she threw herself into her corporate career in a bid to protect herself and earn the respect of the ‘tribe’. Trying to please others for so long led to a growing alienation from her core self and desires, leading to a near breakdown in her mid-30s—a wake-up call to break through and regain control over her life and destiny.
Now, Lena has reinvented herself as a poet, mindfulness coach, yoga instructor and French and Spanish teacher, living a more creative and fulfilling life than she previously thought were ever possible. She has also just published her debut book, Impetus – No cover up—a beautifully designed, fiery, and transformative book of healing poems, prose and vibrant illustrations—to provide comfort and support to others.
From an early age, British-Asian poet, mindfulness coach, yoga instructor and French and Spanish teacher Lena Shah felt separated from those around her. Born into a progressive Jain family in the East Riding of Yorkshire, her parents were keen for her to integrate, encouraging her to live a non-traditional life. To ensure that she received a high standard of education that they had not been able to obtain, they sent her to private school, where she excelled. Back then, the school had little ethnic diversity and as she entered her teens, Lena found herself caught between a clash of cultures. She did not feel comfortable behaving the same way as many of her predominantly white peer group yet, at the same time, was seen by the wider Indian community as too Western, not fitting in anywhere fully.
This “ancestral baggage”—as Lena now understands it to be, through her own work as a mindfulness coach—became a bigger problem as the years rolled on, as she realised marriage was expected at any cost. While many of her close community were happy to follow a traditional “Barbie Doll bride” route, succumbing to domestic life in their early 20s and living largely off family, this wasn’t the life that Lena wanted for herself. With a gift for languages, she studied International Business with French and Spanish at university and upon graduation moved to Nice in the South of France to work for a global travel technology company.
Being offered a more senior role, she was invited to relocate to the Spanish-owned company’s commercial HQ in Madrid in 2004, aged 24, where she stayed for two and a half years. The Spanish capital was, back then, not as culturally diverse as today, and when Lena was offered a new, more senior position in a travel technology start-up in London, she decided to take it. At the time, Lena had imagined that being in the UK’s cosmopolitan capital would allow her to reintegrate into the British-Asian community. However, seemingly her East Yorkshire-based upbringing, European influences and her status of “not being validated by a man”, as she puts it, meant that she was socially shunned by some within her community.
Now in her late 20s, Lena found that most of her community peers had settled down and, while still relatively young, she was rapidly reaching the traditional Indian cut-off point of 30, being considered ‘too old’ to marry. Looking back, Lena says that this is when the negative self-talk and self-deprecation linked to “outdated ancestral beliefs” began.
She said: “Within the wider Indian community, I saw some families spending thousands of pounds on education and even sending daughters abroad to study, but the aim was always to find a man and get married, not to use the education and never to bring it into the home! I saw these same educated women acting like stay-at-home housewives, which terrified me. I just couldn’t understand this way of thinking or why it wasn’t possible to have a balance of both. It looked like such a miserable black-or-white choice.
“I saw first-hand how young Asian women who were highly educated would only work for one or two years before marrying for economic prosperity or by being financially provided for, in some cases being gifted expensive mortgage-free properties from their family or working under the shelter of a family business only to attract a husband. I, by stark contrast, was proudly paying my own way through life from leaving university and yet my financial independence and career success were looked down upon instead of being celebrated by some within the community.
“Working was regarded as ‘bad karma’, which is the belief that whatever happens to you in this life is a result of good or bad deeds in your past and, by associating with someone perceived to have bad karma, you risk their energy rubbing off on you. This belief is one of the contributing factors to the caste system in India.
“Needing to work meant my soul wasn’t attracting wealth in the form of a rich husband! I’ve worked by choice since the age of 16 and I witnessed from an early age how not having independence can make you more vulnerable to emotional abuse and bullying.
“My family gave me the freedom to benefit from an amazing education and never forced an arranged marriage on me, for which I’m extremely grateful. But, despite this, the belief of a woman’s status only being linked to marriage is still very strongly engrained in their belief system. As is common in many South Asian families, there was never any emphasis on happiness or emotional support. When I tried to speak out about the depression and anxiety I was experiencing, I was always told to just get on with it. I have been humiliated in public, with a community elder even telling me I was ‘jinxed’, and have been made to feel worthless and lacking, seemingly all because I wasn’t able to produce a typical ostentatious Indian wedding and portray a Facebook plastic photo life even though my life may have been full in many ways.
“Feeling like another path was calling me in terms of career, I felt lost, not knowing how to change and feeling unsupported. It was engrained in me to keep a good job at all costs. Doing something for my soul that may not be lucrative was a big ‘no-no’, especially without the validation and protection of a husband to offset the lack of career status. I remained trapped in a job that I felt I needed to leave, and also in my own thinking of being a failure by not marrying, not truly fitting in with my heritage or the Western world and feeling emotionally dismissed by many whom I love and, at the time, trusted.
“I look back now and think how I have wasted many years of my life self-judging myself with disdain and even self-hatred based on many of the community’s limited views. I was trying to gain love and approval in the wrong places.”
Into her 30s, Lena was becoming tired of the “relentless spreadsheet and numbers-based nature” of the corporate world and felt that her true calling may lie elsewhere. It was a crisis point, and one that almost resulted in Lena having a breakdown, which she also calls a “break-through”. Professionally advised to seek hospital care and detecting that she was rapidly spiralling into illness, determined to heal herself without the need for a hospital intervention, Lena knew this was a wake-up call to take effective action.
She sought out counselling connected with bodywork and mindfulness in a bid to deal with the many internalised issues that were threatening to overwhelm her. She said:
“It’s no exaggeration to say that mindfulness and counselling saved my life. Until then I’d been carrying all these tribal expectations and self-deprecation around without ever truly processing and dealing with them. From the outside, my life looked great. I was paying for my own home and lifestyle, and holding down a successful career where I was recognised by senior leaders and which afforded plenty of opportunity for travel and a competitive income. Perhaps more importantly, I’d achieved this all by myself. However, I realised at this point that I was using the job subconsciously as more of a shield, whilst inside I was yearning for a lifestyle change.
“Mindfulness allowed me to become aware of my post-traumatic stress, re-triggering moments, subconscious behaviour and self-sabotage related to beliefs around external expectations and judgements about what success means. This awareness enabled me to stop reacting and, instead, channel my anger and resentment constructively to make better choices, withdraw from toxic relationships and take effective action in my life versus feeling helpless, depressed and anxious. When I did this and truly let go, ‘free-falling’ and trusting in the process, new people came into my life. Destructive relationships were replaced with mutually-respectful and nurturing ones.”
Lena now runs her own mindfulness consultancy for individuals and organisations, Metaworks Coaching.
She is also a qualified yoga teacher, specialising in Yin where she works on 1:2:1 with clients and small groups. Lena also teaches Spanish and French part-time at secondary level in schools. And with a view to sharing her path to assist others across all ages and genders who may be facing their own ordeals, especially other women, she wrote her debut book during lockdown 2020, Impetus – No cover up. The book, released earlier this year, is a powerful and soothing collection of poems and prose detailing her own healing journey through poems and acting as a bridge for those who want to explore their own paths further.
Lena added: “One of the big issues I faced when younger was that talking about feelings and was not encouraged. It took a near breakdown to find my own support and to stop living under a cover up to please others.
“Thing have improved in the British-Asian community but many young women people still find themselves beholden to outdated, traditional tribal beliefs and downtrodden by many of the community because, like me, they are seen as rebelling against an outdated status quo. The shame and self-blame we carry can lead to serious mental and emotional health issues. It is never too late to make a stand and make a change.
“Through my poems and prose, I aim to encourage self-inquiry to realise when we are holding our own selves back. There needs to be more understanding around what compassion and understanding are, and how to embody them with others and our own selves, rather than this authoritarian ‘divide and conquer’, rivalry-based approach to life that still exists. Being bullied ourselves, many of us end up becoming bullies to our own selves and others as a subconscious pattern which affects the quality and longevity of authentic, reciprocal relationships. Within many communities all over the world, there is still a lot of stigmas associated with talking about mental health issues. I am passionate about these kinds of repressive, outdated beliefs coming into the open so we can, as a society, heal ourselves and change for the better.
“My new book, Impetus – No cover up shows through poetry a journey through angst and despair to a place where hope and possibility still exist.
“The poems, prose and illustrations are universal and can apply to the challenges in many situations—isolation, fear, social shunning, career challenges—and provide the necessary drive we need for change and to find a path of self-assurance, hope, joy and possibility. A percentage of profits from the book will go to a charity close to my heart, Scottish Love in Action, who support vulnerable children in India obtain an education.”
Impetus – No cover up by Lena Shah (Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd.) is out now on Amazon, Waterstones, Barnes and Noble, or via the publisher’s website in paperback and eBook formats, priced £14.99 and £9.99 respectively.
For more information on Lena Shah’s mindfulness coaching including routines and tips, visit www.metaworkscoaching.com. For more information about Impetus – No cover up, visit the author’s website here.
EXCLUSIVE POEM FROM IMPETUS – NO COVER UP BY LENA SHAH
By the kind permission of the author, we are pleased to share one of the transformative poems within Lena Shah’s new book, Impetus – No cover up.
Meeting myself for the first time
It’s a part of my history
an old habit
that knee-jerk reaction.
My biological programming
taking over my mind
as if they are
the whole essence of me
and it becomes easy
to read all the signs:
the repetition of history
from so long ago
based on ancient wars
ancestors brutally fighting for survival
brutality laid in our memories
carrying itself through
descending across worlds and generations.
I am having a huge
I am beyond this!
And by the way
“The story is no longer just his,” I hear myself say
I am the author of my life
I realise my limiting beliefs
are no longer my friends.
A renewed mind, my parachute.
open to the idea of a new possibility.