On effing up big & being a leader


lisa fabrega

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In the last year or so we’ve been witnessing the calling out of many public figures. If you’re here reading this, then I know you’re called to the path of leadership. Naturally, as leaders, when these things happen we think, “thank God that’s not happening to me.”

Sometimes our egos kick in and say “See? This is why it’s better to stay small. So that you don’t get killed in public every time you make a mistake.” And then we shrink. Avoid having the difficult conversations. And a small part of us holds back, afraid that we will mess up and become the focus of the wrath of the public eye.

Now if you know me, you know I’m all about empowering women leaders to be the BIGGEST most visible version of themselves. All the people in my community feel called to leadership and making impact in a big way. And usually that means you want to make a POSITIVE impact.  

Lord knows what we need most right now is leaders who want to make a positive impact. This means I don’t want any world-changers shrinking out of fear when they have good work to do in the world.

So today I’m going to share a story of a time when I really fucked up in public. And I was called out for it. And today, I am extremely grateful it happened. And grateful to the woman who called me out.

What I learned from fucking that up so badly that time is that these moments are incredible opportunities to become better leaders. NOT to be used as excuses to avoid, shrink, or hold back our impact in the world.

I hope that this serves you today.

One of the hardest and most profound lessons I have learned teaching and walking the spiritual path of leadership throughout my life is this:

Almost always, where I feel I need to defend, I don’t.

Almost always, the need to defend is coming from an inner child self who fears that because she was called out, she is going to be banned from the human tribe forever and will die alone.

It is an irrational fear. It is shame burning a fire in your throat.

But fear and shame are not places to react from when you are a leader.

As leaders, like it or not, people watch us and our actions.

We serve as mirrors. So what we mirror back to people is important. Just look at all the people who have been emboldened into hate crimes or speech since we got the bigot in chief in the president’s office of the United States. And look at all the people Nelson Mandela inspired and the powerful & positive movement he led.  

Positions of leadership have power and can sway many people.   

I get that it’s easier said than done — to say, “don’t react from fear and shame” if you’re a leader. Fear is an instinctual driver developed throughout thousands of years of human history, originally designed to keep us alive and alert us to real dangers. So it’s very hard to get to a place where that primitive, knee-jerk reaction doesn’t get triggered. Especially when we are being called out in public and it feels like the whole world is mad at us.

But as I teach all of my clients, when we choose leadership positions, or positions with lots of visibility, our biggest responsibility is to do our own inner work. So that our knee jerk reactions don’t rule us.  

And yes, while you’re doing this work, you will STILL mess up. Royally sometimes.

We are all humans with trauma and pain. We’ve all had wounds and bad experiences that create our own personal fear/trauma triggers. And sometimes clients, members of our community, or certain public reactions can trigger those old wounds.  

When you choose to be a leader you are essentially choosing to work that shit out in public in front of hundreds of thousands of people.

This is literally why my coaching business exists — I support leaders on this internal work of the leadership journey. And it is tough and BIG work to do.

It’s why I always tell people that if you want to be a leader, it better be a soul-calling, because if you are just in this for money or fame, you are going to be incinerated in the court of public opinion, and you won’t last.

As a leader, you can be next to perfect and you will still get hate mail. AND as a leader you are going to EFF UP, many times, on the path of evolving as a human.  

Sometimes, you flat out messed up and you are just plain wrong. And where you feel you need to defend, where you feel ashamed and fearful at the backlash you are getting, you actually need to listen and be quiet.

This is not directed towards anyone in particular that may have had issues recently with messing up in public — this is a general sentiment that applies to all of us who choose leadership.

Sometimes you were plain wrong and all you need to say is,

“I was wrong. I’m sorry I hurt you with my actions and words. You’re absolutely right.”

There is nothing to defend when you’re wrong. You’re just wrong.  

Yes, sometimes you were a receptacle for someone’s projected pain and it wasn’t anything you did. Yes, you must certainly have boundaries because in order to make a big impact, you have to preserve your energy and focus.

AND what if, as a leader, you end up being the receptacle for someone’s projections and you STILL can see where their pain is coming from, with compassion? This allows you to also not get defensive and understand the person’s pain is not personal to you. This doesn’t mean taking abuse when it’s really abuse. But it does mean showing up in a way that can transform the situation powerfully.

That is still an opportunity to mirror back to your community how to transform a situation with love, while holding to healthy boundaries.

I found out a few weeks ago that an error I made many years ago in my own moment of trigger/trauma reaction was causing people to message dear friends of mine telling them to be wary of me.  

It was an incident I have spoken of since and even used it as a teaching point for my clients a few times about what NOT to do as a leader when you get called out and you were wrong.  

It was a time where I showed up poorly as a leader, while I was doing my inner work. But I showed up in defense. And this caused me to lash out in a way that is not aligned with my true soul.

On that day, right before it happened, I had been crying for hours in an intense full day workshop with my mentor at the time.  

We were sitting with the archetype of the Muse and doing a lot of inner child work. What came up for me on that day was the years of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse I endured as a child for being silly, playful, or creative.   

On that day, every incident in my childhood of being abused by adults in my sphere (including the dictatorship I grew up in for a time) for telling a joke, shamed for being creative, or being silly came up. By the end of that day I was RAW. And kind of out of my body. I had processed A LOT of trauma.

At the time, my mentor and I came up with the assignment that I needed to let myself feel safe being silly. That I didn’t need to be so serious all the time. And for me it felt really vulnerable and like the right piece of homework, to be silly in public. Because that is what that inner kid who had been abused feared the most.

That’s when I totally fucked up.

Jumping on to teach a class to some clients, and still in my moment of “out of body rawness,” I grabbed a headdress my mentor had bought in Bali, from a Balinese woman. It was the closest thing to me. It was feathery and “silly” to wear. I don’t normally wear big feathery headdresses on my head when I teach.  

I didn’t for one second pause to get into my body and really look to see that it was a Native American headdress. I put it on my head and posted a pic on social media as part of my vulnerability exercise.

Within a few seconds a very brave woman called me out. She posted an article about the appropriation of Native American headdresses, and asked me where I got my headdress from.  

I KNEW that Native American headdresses are sacred items that are EARNED. It is a great honor to wear one, and usually only chiefs are allowed to don them. I knew about the controversies at Coachella with people wearing them. And it STILL totally flew over my head that it was a chief’s headdress that I was donning.  

This woman who called me out was actually trying to give me the benefit of the doubt by asking me that question. Perhaps, she later told me, I had earned it? But I didn’t see that intention at all.

Instead of apologizing and acknowledging my mistake, I reacted. I got defensive. Shared I had Native American heritage too. I didn’t listen. I argued with her.

My face burned RED when I got that comment.  

ALL of the shame I had just finished processing in that 4 hour inner child work day came up again. My ego got MEGA-triggered. All it was telling me was see? It’s not safe to be silly. The minute you do that you get slammed. And I was so embarrassed I had fucked up like that.

Then as she held strong in calling me out (as she should!), other people started chiming in and agreeing with her. And in the already raw state I was, this felt like I was being attacked. (I was NOT being attacked).

So I blocked her. Then, five other women came to her defense (rightfully so!) and I blocked them too. I was terrified. I was in complete trigger and reaction. Shame. Fear. My human survival instincts and adrenaline were on full alert. It can be a powerful leadership moment if you DON’T let that take over. But in this area of my development at that time, I didn’t model that.

What was also compounding this reaction for me was that at that time we had increased our visibility big time and I was starting to get the really nasty hate emails from women who truly just wanted to tear down. This is common when women become visible and successful. And that week of this incident had been a particularly bad one for hate mail before this incident.

So because I was in trigger, raw from the all day-abuse-processing, AND a little traumatized from the hate mail, I lumped the brave, big-hearted woman who spoke up in with that crowd of people sending hate mail. My ego immediately went to “she’s just another hater trying to tear me down.”  

Again, reaction, trigger. Not being connected to my body or my soul. Not seeing clearly, so that I can show up as who I really want to be in the world.

Had I tuned in to my powerful soul, I would have immediately known that was not her intention at all. Had I tuned into my capacity for compassion in that moment, I would have known it was probably quite scary for her to share what she did under my post.

I stayed indignant about it for a few weeks. Totally blind to what I had done. In my still survival/defensive mind I had been ganged up on and attacked.  

But then I started to think.  

This interaction online didn’t feel right to me. The way I had reacted. My soul nagged at me.
I have always been pretty good about self-reflecting. So I reflected.

Over the next few months, I came to see.  

Even though I had already read a lot about appropriation of Native American culture, I read more. I read all matter of perspectives on headdresses. I went on obscure forums and read all the opinions I could.

And I realized that I had been DEAD WRONG.  

Why had I gotten so angry about this? I kept asking myself.

Why had it been so painful in that moment to even acknowledge that I had done something completely insensitive & hurtful by not taking a moment to breathe and get back into my body before I posted online?  

Why was it so painful for me to admit that I had fucked up in my leadership in front of a ton of people? Even when deep down I knew as this was all happening that I had totally fucked up? Why continue to defend?

The answer?  


It brought up so much shame in me to have fucked up like that on an issue that I actually really cared about. And I felt shame I had hurt people with my temporary loss of self-awareness when I posted that photo.

I felt shame over the indoctrinated, colonizalized part of me that had shown her face. We are all indoctrinated into colonizer mentality. It takes a lifetime to face it and root that shit out. This was a time where she reared her ugly head.  

I also felt shame that I had failed as a leader in a public space and others had seen me fuck up.
And I felt shame that I might have prolonged someone’s pain around the appropriation of their culture.  

A few years later, I felt called to go to Standing Rock to stand with the Sioux tribe in their battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline. When I drove onto Oceti Sakowin camp the first time, I was greeted at the gate by a young man who said to me, Welcome home.  

I burst out crying at this greeting. I was deeply moved by the open-heartedness and love that I had just been greeted with even though to him, for all he knew, I was just some other light skinned woman who reminded him of what white men did to his ancestors (and continue to do).

How could it be that I, a light skinned Latina woman who grew up in Panama, was received at this camp by strangers who would be right to be wary of me. But instead showed me so much love, and called me sister on a daily basis?  

As I spent the week at camp volunteering and donating the money & food my friend Cristina and I raised, something I can’t describe happened to my heart.  

As I watched the native women sit around the sacred fire and say over and over that this was not a camp for fighting, but a camp of prayer… as I watched them praying for the police officers who had just brutalized and even hospitalized some of their children, I came to understand the true meaning of unconditional love.

For some reason, elders kept coming up to Cristina and I to chat. They sat with us to share their life stories for hours sometimes. I listened, in awe that I even had the honor to hear an elder speak to me!

On the last day, as yet another elder named Sonny was sharing stories with us, Sonny’s face looked out over the camp with a wide smile spread across his face.  

What is happening here is so much bigger than what the world sees, he said with a glint in his eye. People are coming here to heal.  

I don’t get angry that the white man comes into my camp, wanting to help. Because the first prophecy says that the rainbow people will come together. And these people who come here from all over the world, they are coming because their hearts need healing and they can sense it. That is what is really happening here. They are receiving forgiveness for what their ancestors have done. Their hearts are healing.

I knew exactly what he meant. Because something in my heart had healed here too. Something I didn’t even know needed to be healed.  

I had watched with my own eyes, the true embodiment of compassion and unconditional love right here at camp. The water protectors at the camp that I witnessed and interacted with modeled that kind of leadership to me.  

It is a leadership we have rarely seen growing up in the white male dominated, patriarchal, westernized world. It is a leadership our world desperately needs.

They were fiercely protective of their boundaries, their land and their water. You could NOT do this to them. Yet they also held deep unconditional love and compassion.    

And I thought back to the woman who had called me out many years ago on social media. It hit me even harder how insensitive it was what I had done. I felt such pain to think about it, more than the pain I had already felt for all those years.

To think that I had caused harm to indigenous people in any way at that time of my incident, when I had just spent a week with many of them at camp… it pierced my heart even deeper.

As I left the camp, Sonny said to me, you are now given the charge to go out into the world and speak of this. You are one of the ones who needs to spread this message, because you have been here.

And I took that to heart.  

That week changed me forever as a human. And I knew it was my duty to honor that education that I got there by giving my 100% best to showing up as a better leader.

But over the years, I could not find the woman I had blocked to apologize.

As fate would have it, she reached out to me a few weeks ago.
This time I had an opportunity to get it right.

I had grown a lot as a leader in the years since. And as soft hearted as I am, you know what?

Truth was, I DID make that mistake. I fully fucked up. There is nothing to defend.
I own and have owned it fully. Several times now.

So I apologized to her. I told her, I agree with you. You are right. I apologize.  

I owned that my behavior was unacceptable. I listened to her as she shared how that incident affected her and hurt her. And I apologized again, and told her I was so sorry that I had hurt her like that.

I felt the teeniest part of me want to “show” her that that one mistake was not a true reflection of my totality as a human being. That it did not make up the entirety of who I am. But I kept my mouth shut.

Because that would be defending you see?

And there is nothing to defend.

I was wrong.

It doesn’t mean I am a horrific person.

It DOES mean that on my own personal growth journey I lapsed in my leadership at that moment in time because I allowed trauma and trigger to control my reaction in that moment in time.

AND after that reaction calmed down, I really sat with myself and thought about it for a long, long time. I learned profoundly in that moment and from that moment on HOW important it is to continue my inner work as a leader all the time, to make sure I am not controlled by those things.

It can be tricky, because sometimes fear and shame disguise themselves as many noble reasons to defend ourselves.  

I had to do the work of forgiving myself for that error and I have.

Even then, will people still be saying things about me behind my back? Or asking friends to be “wary” of me.  

Probably. But I’m okay with that.

Those are the consequences we have to live with sometimes when we react from places of trigger. And being a leader means fully owning that and understanding that not all slates get wiped clean for some people because of their own traumas and triggers. And that is okay.

Not for me to judge.

I honor the process of all of us as we move through collective trauma and trigger. It is their right to feel that way.

Now, I know what you might be thinking.

Sometimes people ARE projecting. Sometimes, you didn’t do anything wrong. You set a boundary and they just didn’t like the boundary. You challenged a client and they didn’t want to look in the mirror and now blame you for everything. Sometimes there are truly people who are caught up in negative energy, they are jealous of your success and they want to play the victim and tear you down.

Yeah, those things happen. Sure.

But be very careful to not conflate those people with people who are attempting to call you in. Maybe they are doing it a little more fiercely than you’d like. But if you take a moment, you can feel the loving hands holding your feet to the fire. Even if it’s hard to hear.

Be very careful to not use “haters” as an excuse to not listen to people who are speaking the truth to you. A truth that my be hard to hear, but it is truth just the same.

My father taught me when I was young that when you make a mistake, you own it, you apologize, and you do your 100% best to make sure you never make it again.

If people still want to judge you or be angry at you about it, that is their prerogative and their right (especially if your actions hurt them), and it’s not for me to say, you’re wrong for still feeling upset about it and not getting over it.

He told me, from there on you walk with humility and integrity (without having to tear your own self down to shreds), and over time with your right and corrected actions, people will see who you really are. The truth always comes out.

(And yeah, that also means sometimes truths that are painful to look at that we need to work on come out, too).

I have always carried this advice from my father near to my heart, and it has been a guiding light for me in moments I have messed up.

There’s nothing to defend. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Say it. And then dedicate yourself to being a better person from then on.

I understand that being called out in public can make you feel like you are dying and that you are being told you are nothing but a monster. But that is just your inner child reacting.

Own where you effed up.


Do the work.

Don’t always go straight to defending


One of the most important things I learned at Oceti Sakowin is that we need models of humble leadership in our world more than ever.   

Working out our own inner traumas and triggers as leaders and doing that inner work — that is where it starts if we want to be the change we wish to see in the world (as Gandhi so famously said). And healthy boundaries — that’s an important one too.  

In the comments below, I’d love to hear if this made you think differently today.

And thank you from the bottom of my heart to Christy Buckner Foster for calling my ass out that day. Thank you for being brave and modeling courageous leadership on that day.

With love,