Imagine you are peeling an onion, right now. Here. In this moment. Notice what you are feeling as you gently peel back each layer. Can you smell that pungent aroma wafting through the air? Doesn’t your nose curl just thinking about it? Oh, the smell…that raw, overwhelming smell. And, here come the tears! Uncontrollable. They just keep streaming down your cheeks. As you continue to peel back the layers, you feel this slimy, messy film. Just when you think you are through with the messiness, it returns. The deeper into the onion you go, the more raw, messy, and stinky the layers become. Finally, you reach the middle. The layers are thinner, smaller, more compact, and appear to be preserved and protected.

If you think of all your life experiences, good or bad, visualize the onion story and you will find moments in your life embedded in each layer.  Since layers of an onion grow from the inside out, your birth and innocence are in the older layers, and the newest layers are filled with recent lessons and growth. They are protected by many layers that form around them.

To get to the middle, you must cut through each layer, releasing raw feelings and emotions. The stench only intensifies when you uncover layers that are rotten, moldy, and unseen by the light of day. Unexpected sharp and painful emotions are released in the process of peeling back the onion layers.

When you get to the middle, after cutting through each layer with care, you will find wisdom revealed and released through each layer, a cumulative collective of every experience. A wise owl perfectly represents the journey from the onion’s outside layer to the middle, from your birth to your present. The owl utilizes its keen eyesight to see in the dark. This ability allows the owl to draw wisdom from what it sees. Your protective layers provide shelter from the elements for your innocence, which often reside in the darkness, unseen, and invisible. Much like an owl when flying through a dark forest, avoiding all obstacles, but instinctively finding food through gained experiences, good and bad, we grow, develop, and create new layers as our leadership and life journey unfolds.

I categorize these onion layers into Raw, Messy, and Stinky! Realizing that the practice of exploring each layer would be ineffective if I did not open my heart, I gave in to the process and, by allowing my vulnerabilities to be seen, felt, and experienced, the negative impact on myself and others were mitigated. Recognition of these stinky layers within myself was painful and emotional to see! I needed to process what I was noticing, how it was making me feel, and how I could develop these shortcomings and mitigate the negative impact of my flaws.

Through this process, I discovered some incredible personal strengths. Realizing the inner courage I have inside helps me to face incredible challenges head-on, even when my heart breaks in doing so.

The growth I experienced with my Cohort 58 classmates was life-changing! I am a better person and a better leader for having gone through the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program. I attribute keeping my sanity during the COVID-19 pandemic to the skills and habits I learned. When you cut through layers, from older to newer, you will experience a range of emotions because the protective layers are removed. This removal will not only expose your innermost vulnerabilities, buried traumas, painful memories, grief and loss, but also your happiest and joy filled memories.

Let us jump into the categories I mentioned above, Raw, Messy, and Stinky.

Raw evokes emotion and is painful! Throughout your life, you grow new layers of protection until your “onion” layers are thick. When you engage in coaching, your coach partners with and supports you as your vulnerabilities are revealed. Sharp, mild, and dull pain may be experienced as each layer of protection is peeled back to reveal what lies beneath.   

Messy includes unexpected twists and turns as we journey into the unknown.  When the layers are peeled back, it is unknown what will be revealed. The journey through what you discover will be messy and unpredictable. Trying to anticipate where this messy peel will lead you is futile. You must buckle up and hold on as you peel back each layer and allow yourself the space to process what you discover and uncover.   

Stinky exposes your rotten, moldy parts that reveal your shadow side. When layers are buried and protected from external factors, they rot and mold. When the layers are exposed, they represent your dark, shadow side. You have parts of yourself you wish did not exist. The challenge is noticing these parts of yourself, accepting they are part of you, and learning to mitigate their negative impact on you and others.

How do you mitigate negative patterns and behaviors revealed as your onion layers are peeled back?

I recommend the following three practices:

Self-awareness: Become more self-aware of your actions, habits and behaviors by noticing how you respond to triggers and negative self-talk. Notice what inspires and motivates you. Notice what happens when you lean into your values. Get curious and pay attention to what your inner voice is saying, what feelings emerge within you, and how you respond to triggers. Once you notice these behaviors, you can begin to mitigate their negative impact on yourself and others.

Self-reflection: Self-reflect and analyze your core beliefs, unconscious biases, and actions for the purpose of learning and growing. When you take time to reflect, you provide your mind with an opportunity to pause in the midst of chaos, sift and sort through observations and experiences, open your mind to alternative interpretations, and allow your mind to create meaning. When meaning is applied, it becomes learning, which can change our future thoughts and actions. For leaders, applying meaning to lessons learned is vital to continual growth and development.

Meditation: Meditation includes finding time to allow your mind to pause and be in the present moment. As thoughts distract you from the meditation practice, acknowledge them, but do not react to them. Allow them to pass by and continue with your practice.  If you become distracted, begin again. The more you practice meditation, the easier it becomes and the more your mind, body and soul craves it. Meditation can take many forms, such as focusing on your breath, walking in nature while focusing on the birds chirping, following a guided meditation, repeating mantras, or sitting in silence. The only limitation is your imagination!

How can you use “The Onion Story” in your personal and professional life? What came up for you when reading this post?