Shelby Leigh is a coach and psychotherapist. She is a trained trauma specialist who supports the healers and feelers of the world so they can support their clients, children, friends, and most importantly, themselves. Shelby helps people to hold more space, create larger containers for creation, and manage trauma in a way that allows for massive healing.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up mostly in Portland, Oregon just south of downtown about 20 minutes. From the outside, my childhood probably looked ideal. We lived in big houses on the lake, I rode horses every day after school except on Mondays with my mom from age 5 through high school. We traveled often for horse shows and vacations. I was a pretty quiet kid and loved reading books and hanging out with my brother who is 18 months younger than me.
Because we had so much, certainly more than we needed, it took many years for me to understand that I was feeling so anxious inside because of the ongoing trauma I was experiencing at home. There were also times I felt great – I loved my friends at the barn and I loved coming home to bake cookies after school, and I’d love the sweet time I got to spend with my mom riding my bike while she ran or grooming our horses together.
This interview is much too short to hash out the details but let’s just say that what was also happening was that I lost my dad to drug abuse at age 3 and had a string of other replacement dads, one of which was incredibly frightening. My horse trainer also screamed daily at me and my mom – insults, threats, demands, etc – I call it shame training. None of these things were ever acknowledged or cared for by anyone in my family so it left me feeling quite alone.
While I was super sweet and pretty shy, I became increasingly introverted and nervous. The repeated daily experiences of feeling on edge and afraid and like I had to do everything perfectly took a pretty big toll on my self-esteem, my health, and my connection to my sense of belonging and support. Having an emotionally disconnected mother and carrying the loss of the relationship with my father was more than I could wrap my mind and heart around.
I ended up smoking starting at age 11 and drinking and using drugs regularly not too long after that. I developed an eating disorder and all sorts of coping strategies trying to manage feeling so disconnected.
I am so grateful I ended up graduating a year early from high school and finding a lifestyle where I could adventure in the outdoors and be in nature. I ended up falling in love with being a raft guide in my 20’s and I think that experience has influenced my work in my work as a therapist and coach.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I would have known I was experiencing symptoms of trauma decades ago. For so long I thought trauma was the event instead of the result of what happens inside in response to an event. I compared myself and thought because I had so much, it wasn’t trauma I had experienced. I felt like a guinea pig with doctors and therapists for years with them trying to treat the symptoms instead of me as a whole being who had experienced emotional neglect and terror from such a young age. I wish we all had understood the toll that kind of stress takes on the body, heart, mind, and relationships.
I wish I would have found Somatic Regulation and Resilience within the trauma world and understood developmental trauma and how to care for it more fully. Working somatically in this way has been a game-changer – both for me in my own healing and for my clients and students. It’s incredibly gentle and incredibly effective in helping in the resolution of trauma and in support of moving past survival all the way to thriving.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
So many. My #1 pet peeve is when care providers (coaches, therapists, etc) give advice instead of practice “being with” people in their healing and growth. I trust that my client’s deepest wisdom is the most important thing in the room – I’m just there as an added support to help create enough safety for that wise part to emerge. It also makes me laugh because it’s so much easier to “be with” instead of having to be the expert – I used to waste so much energy doing that!
Hearing people talk about digging things up from the root. Everything we need is right here in the present moment living in our bodies. When we can tend to right here and right now, it impacts the root. There’s nothing we need to go in there and fix. We’re already whole. When we add presence and nervous system regulation it illuminates everything that is calling for our care and we can welcome all of our parts in a loving way – we don’t need to go looking for what’s wrong.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I lived in Bali for two and a half years a few years ago. My father, who I hadn’t spoken with in over a decade had committed suicide. It had been over a year yet the grief that I carried was impacting my ability to really slow down and be. I was ironically moving very fast in Bali – working online over 50 hours a week some weeks. Working fast, driving fast, eating fast, not resting enough. I was increasingly anxious and not aware of it. I had made so many good friends there yet couldn’t allow myself to sink into the connections. I had also had an intimate relationship ends abruptly and it wasn’t pretty.
I was consulting for a really big gig as a teacher and my perfectionism and pleasing were pushed to their ultimate limits to avoid the constant pressure of that team. Also ironically, I had moved to Bali partially as a celebration of my health – I had been healing from many chronic conditions for years and finally feeling well enough to really travel.
I started not feeling well and went to see a doctor. The first doctor falsely diagnosed me with cancer. The second one told me my immune system was at 30% and I needed to leave Bali because they didn’t have enough medicine to treat me how I needed to be treated. She also recommends I leave work for a few months. I experienced suicidality more strongly than ever before even though it was something I was quite familiar with.
Something really woke up in me.
My inner knowing told me if I didn’t stop, I would likely get cancer. I realized how used to stress I had become. It was the fuel that kept me feeling alive in many ways. It was familiar to me and I hadn’t ever realized just HOW much stress and adrenaline I was still running. I got the best Somatic Psychotherapist who was trauma trained as I could find and surrendered as much as I could to her (which was not something I had known myself to do). I knew enough to know what I had been doing wasn’t working. I let her teach me how to go slow. She taught me how to feel my feelings more compassionately and clearly. She taught me about the safety of being in connection with a trusted other. She taught me how I spend so much energy terrified of expressing myself fully so as not to disappoint others. She taught me about anger and that it’s an emotion I that it’s an emotion. Learning to feel, in the presence of an attuned and loving other has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. I had had therapists before but there was something about her that really let me see myself and know myself on the deepest levels AND love what I saw in a new way. Not so ironically, my health improved and so did my ability to be more at ease and at peace in myself and the world. It’s not an all-the-time thing… but it’s much more of a time thing.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Probably walking or adventuring in nature nearly every day. Taking time to breathe in goodness and know that it’s enough and I’m enough has been so invaluable. Letting nature teach me how to be present and grateful is something that has impacted everything. As a super introvert, being out there I feel very held and in good company, especially with my dog Luna walking with me.
What is your morning routine?
These days I wake up at 6:30 or 7 (which took FOREVER to get to). I let myself and my body move slowly. I cocoon in my comfy bed and look at the trees outside and say hi to Luna and then take a couple of minutes to write down some things I’m grateful for. Then I take a quick 15-minute walk with Luna and then make breakfast and matcha or coffee and write out in my priority journal what my top 6 or 7 tasks are for the day and how much time I think each will take. I even include naps in there and other things I know I need to do to support my energy. Then I get to work! On my days off I love to go to my favorite coffee shop and work on a creative work project and then head out into nature.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Calling a friend to share what I’m feeling. Whether it’s to celebrate something or share something that feels challenging. I am so used to doing life on my own and I learned to not let people in. So I’ve really had to learn to lean in, to share, and that it’s safe to share everything from the highs to lows and I’m a lovable human. I think that’s so funny because so many people in the spaces I facilitate share how it’s one of the only places in their lives where they feel free to show up expressing every part of themselves. That brings tears to my eyes when I write it. Feeling so grateful.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I use The Five Minute Journal right before bed and waking up and it is the start to getting clear about my day and what would feel really good. Then right before I get to work I use the Productivity Planner. They’re both from the same company and honestly, I’ve tried other things and these are very motivating, simple, and easy for me.
I also use some mindset strategies. I remind myself “everything I’m doing is working” and “there’s always more time” and “everything is a win”. Things that soothe my inner self that never feels like she gets enough done. When that is soothed, I actually get more done.
I lean into the wisdom of my body and sink into pleasure and ease. When I can feel my warm hands or soft belly or enjoy the sounds of my typing fingers I stay much more focused on what I’m up to each day. I have to find ease and pleasure in some part of it, otherwise, I’ll feel daunted by it.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
All three of these books together put the puzzle pieces together for me around how to understand the trauma that I carry and how to heal it and love myself more deeply in that process. The impact of this ripples through to my clients and students – when I am feeling whole, clear, compassionate, and regulated they feel my presence more and in turn feel safe enough to be with themselves in a more connected way.
Experiencing so much early trauma left me feeling pretty alone and lost with my symptoms for a decade. It was like a breath of fresh air learning that the way I am, and how I feel are direct correlations to how I learned to be in a relationship early in life. Learning to support the people who come to me for care with a strong emphasis on creating a safer, empathic, and consistent connection helped me feel so much more at ease in my work and like we could both be so much ourselves.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“It makes so much sense.” I say this a lot. Once I started understanding trauma and its impacts, nothing felt out of place anymore. It makes so much sense that each of us copes in our own particular ways. It makes so much sense that we feel and express our emotions the way we do. It makes so much sense many of us don’t feel much or express much.
Folks with trauma are often given the message that how they’re being is not ok or out of the norm. They’re often shamed or blamed or invalidated for what’s happening and how they’re feeling. When we understand how trauma responses show up in each of us, we can know that we’re all doing our very best to survive. And even if the behaviors aren’t working so well, there is always some part of what’s happening that really makes sense.
When we take the time to genuinely try to see what’s making sense, we also offer a layer of compassion that is so often needed. This helps us to “be with” others and ourselves instead of jump right to fixing and figuring out which can be a habit that so many of us carry that tends to be more disconnecting than connecting.