Kathy Caprino & Ellia Communications, Inc.
FINALIST: Breakdown, Breakthrough: Claiming a Life of Passion, Power, and Purpose

After sixteen years in the workforce, I had achieved what many professional women dream of, but I was miserable. A corporate VP with a lucrative and high-powered job, I was blessed with what seemed like a great career, a loving husband, two beautiful children, and a charming house in a quaint New England town. I had all the signs and symbols of "success" in life. I had it all. Or so it appeared, until I awakened suddenly at age 38 to a burning question. I asked myself over and over, "Why am I so unhappy?"


My family life had always been fulfilling and satisfying to me. I loved being a mother and wife, and I experienced these roles as enriching, filling life with meaning, joy, and satisfaction. But personal fulfillment has never been enough for me, for reasons that are deeply rooted in my experiences as a child and teen. Since I was 16, I have known that being an accomplished professional was something I deeply wanted, and having others view me this way was also important.


But in midlife all professional joy and satisfaction withered away, and my traumas at work began to "bleed" into my personal world. Strange, unsettling things were happening. My husband one day broke down in tears out of the blue and said, "I'm not sure I can take this anymore. You're just so angry and hostile all the time." I was shocked and hurt but realized, suddenly, that he was right. I had become addicted to taking out my intense work frustration and resentment on him.


I'd been suffering, too, from a serious chronic illness—a condition called tracheitis—which for four years hit me every four months or so without fail. It was debilitating, painful, frightening, and, in some inexplicable way, infuriating to me. I'd lose my voice completely and suffer from sharp, burning pain in the throat and chest. Fever would consume me, along with aches and exhaustion. Doctors couldn't find a cause or a cure. Due to all this sickness, I was constantly angry and resentful, and I felt depleted all the time. Things were truly falling apart, and a "breakdown" was emerging.


I began to grapple with the all-important question I read somewhere, "When I am 90 years old and looking back, what do I want to have accomplished, experienced, and given in this lifetime?" My contemplation made me recognize I hadn't a clue what I wanted my life to stand for, or even the type of individual I would hold up as a role model. I did know, however, that I was drowning in a sea of wasted opportunities, and time was running out. I looked everywhere for guidance—books, assessment tests, consultants, career coaches, mentors, colleagues, friends. But despite my many efforts, I remained stuck, unable to move forward in a meaningful way. At the suggestion of a friend, I sought psychotherapy to help me get to the bottom of why I was so unhappy.


The Breakdown Comes

After years of dissatisfaction and feeling inauthentic every day at work, the final strawbreaking blow came. Right after 9/11, I was laid off from my high-level position in a way that was brutal to my ego. It left me shattered and disillusioned. My wake-up call had arrived.


Cast out from my job, I lost my corporate identity and self-worth. My sense of security was gone, and I felt depressed, disoriented, and alone. The experience felt like a sort of death, and with that "death" came denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance, the same stages of death and dying that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross uncovered. This type of crisis affects the whole self—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. No single approach or technique is "the answer" when it comes to moving through breakdown to breakthrough.


A Breakthrough Emerges

I chose to look at this crisis as a chance to turn my life around. I took a hard look at what led me into professional hell and became a student of life, relationships, work identity, and change. I jumped into earning a master's degree in marriage and family therapy, received coaching training, and became a psychotherapist and coach. I also studied hundreds of books, research studies, articles—anything I could get my hands on—about concepts of life change, professional crisis, transition, midlife staging, women's development, spirituality, and more.


Along the way, I was startled by the number of women I met who felt as overwhelmed and miserable as I had. I needed to understand why.


To learn more, I conducted a national research study on Women Overcoming Professional Crisis: Finding New Meaning in Life and Work, co-sponsored by the Esteemed Woman Foundation. Within the first thirty minutes of announcing my study via email, I received twenty responses from women across the country and outside the United States asking to participate. This work had hit a nerve! The research confirmed something quite amazing: in epidemic proportions, professional women are feeling disempowered and deeply dissatisfied in their professional lives, which in turn leads to other life crises. New avenues for help must be found. I decided then that I wanted to contribute to a new movement for women…a breakthrough movement to help women bypass the 12 "hidden" crises they face.


The Power of Stepping Back, Letting Go, and Saying Yes! to Yourself

I discovered through my research that amid the thousands of women who are suffering from a lack of professional empowerment, many have taken courageous steps to face and let go of their limitations and fears, choosing a new path that leads to a life of passion, power, and purpose—in short, success and joy on their terms.


Compelled to help other women bypass the 12 common crises working women face today, in 2007 I founded Ellia Communications, Inc. ( – a coaching and consulting organization dedicated to empowering and advancing women. I'm now a career consultant coach and speaker on women's issues, and have written a powerful book for women called Breakdown, Breakthrough (Berrett-Koehler, Nov 2008,, which presents inspiring accounts of professional women who have lived through breakdown and have overcome their challenges to reinvent themselves in creative, expansive, and meaningful ways from which we all can learn.


My work presents the valuable insights and lessons learned by hundreds of women who have taken these three powerful steps toward life and career transformation:


Three Key Steps to Breakthrough


1) Step Back – to gain an empowered perspective of your situation

Get help to gain an expanded understanding of the potential root causes of or contributing factors to your situation. Is it boundaries in need of strengthening, or a need for you to speak up? Or does it involve your needing to relax, and realize that it's not all up to you? Think about what your situation may be telling about what needs to be addressed and modified.


2) Let Go – of the thinking, actions, and beliefs that hold you back and keep you stuck


Begin today uncovering where you are less than powerful - any pessimistic or negative actions or beliefs you hold that may be remnants of others' worldviews. Let go of what keeps you feeling small and powerless, including toxic relationships, limiting beliefs, and faulty assumptions.


3) Say Yes! – to yourself and your compelling life visions, and to accessing your power to achieve them


Say yes! to yourself. Believe in your spirit's creative and expansive nature. If there is something that you can't live without doing, than do it! Find a role model or mentor who says, "I dare you!" and believes in your future vision. Stop making excuses, and move forward on the path that compels you.


After breakdown can come breakthrough.


A professional crisis is telling you that change must occur—now. That doesn't mean it will be easy—most likely, it won't—but, one step at a time, you can create your own breakthrough. The time to start is now.