December 1, 2020
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. This month, we have the honor of sharing the Extra(ordinary) journey of Karina Furga-Dabrowska, Europe Chief Mindfulness Officer with Dentons LLP in Poland. Here, we had the privilege of being present in powerful moments of vulnerability as Karina shared her path to mindfulness. Karina took us through her childhood, giving us insight to the highly intuitive and intellectual mind that crafted her career path at a young age; her success as an empowering Tax Partner with international rankings; the rock-bottom moment that defined her discovery to self-awareness and emotional regulation; and her eventual ground-breaking work with Dentons’ NextMind program, where she leads her firm’s lawyers and professionals through techniques to develop emotional intelligence and resilience. Karina’s courage in leading with vulnerability will inspire other organizations across the globe to cultivate a culture where high performance is founded on compassionate leadership, authenticity, honesty and respect.“
I was born in a small town in Zgorzelec, Poland. It was on the border with Germany. Half of the town was German, and the other half (divided by the river) was Polish. It was a relatively small environment.” She begins sharing. “My mother was a kindergarten teacher, and my father was an actor and director of performances at a place called Culture House. It promoted culture and art, and he organized events, while also directing some performances. But, because we lived in a small town, there was no theater - no real place where he could actually do his job. So, he was never fulfilled. My family was not wealthy. We had just enough money to live from the first to the last day of the month. Sometimes, it was not quite enough; but, somehow we had to live,” she recalls. “It was a very difficult time in Poland as we were in the midst of Communism. I would say that it was not comparable to living in the United States or elsewhere in Western Europe. The country was poor; there was almost nothing in the shops. It was quite sad at that time”. Karina shares memories of her sibling. “I have one brother; he is 15 years older than me. We were two children, who didn’t have a close sibling relationship. When I was born, he was almost an adult. He left home to study when I was only three years of age. Basically, he became more like a family member who was visiting us from time to time, than a sister-brother connection.”
Karina offers insight into her relationship with her mother, “When I was born, my mother was 34 years of age; which, for that time, was relatively late to have a child. My appearance was a nice surprise for my parents, albeit unplanned and unexpected. My mother was very caring, but treated me like her toy. She was doing everything that, in her opinion, could make me happy. But, I discovered later she was attempting to meet her own unmet needs, which she had from her own childhood”. Karina continues, “My mother was born during the second World War. Her father was killed during the war; so my grandmother, who was very poor at that time, had to send her children to an orphanage after the war. My mother was raised in this orphanage and she had very little. Her basic needs were not really met, especially her emotional needs. It was a very, very difficult childhood for her. Because of this, when I was born she wanted to ensure my childhood would be different. My mother saw me as someone with similar needs to her own. But, unfortunately, because she was in this orphanage and had a life that was quite difficult, she didn’t really learn how to recognize and show her emotions - she had to freeze her emotions, be quiet and follow the rules.”
Karina discusses the difficulty her mother faced as she lost attachment with her emotional life. “It was difficult for her to show love. She simply didn’t know how. Though she loved me tremendously, and still loves me very much, expressing emotion openly was not easy for her. Emotionally, I would say she was very cold, even frozen. At the same time, she had a lot of aspirations for me, and imposed a lot of restrictions on me. I couldn’t have friends because she kept me at home for herself. She had a difficult time sharing me with others. As a result, I was raised alone and became very lonely at home; very separated from other children”, she discloses bravely. “My mother was constantly afraid that something would happen to me. In her eyes, the world was a very dangerous place. Therefore, she wanted to protect me. Her intention was positive; but she didn’t realize that her actions were actually hurting me. I felt very lonely and very sad as a child, as a result of my upbringing.”
Once Karina attended school, she discovered her interest in learning and education. “I was a really great student. I studied everything and allowed things to resonate - it became my entire life. It was almost like an escape from the restrictions that I had at home. Education was not restrictive and available to me; so, I learned as much as I could and I really enjoyed it”. She smiles as she recalls her dedication to schooling, “I read a lot of books; I was studying, studying, studying...and studying! Because of my dedication, I became the best student in the town. Once I finished high school and graduated, my results surpassed all graduates that year. As a result, I became ‘famous’ in our town as someone who was extraordinarily talented. But, looking back at it now, I think it was not talent; it was really hard work. What I learned from my childhood was that if I worked hard, I could achieve anything. So, I applied to university. At that time in Poland, there were only two career paths with credibility to earn good money and be successful: a lawyer or a doctor. At first, I considered becoming a doctor. But, I realized that I was actually a very highly sensitive person, and it would probably be very difficult for me to deal with people suffering and in pain. So, I decided to study law. For me at that time there was no other way.”
Karina then began her legal education, moving away from home to a bigger city in Poland. “I didn’t entirely live alone, as my parents, especially my mother, expected me to visit home every weekend. But I met many friends in university. I could breathe more freely, and be more independent. Still, I think that because of my early childhood experiences, I was very careful, very fearful. I still remained a good student; but I had friends, and really started to build connections with other people”. She continues, “I studied a lot in order to win a scholarship, which I did. I worked hard for my great grades, and received funding from the university, which was a relief also for my parents. When I graduated from law school, I received an offer from my university to study abroad for a postgraduate Masters of Law degree in the Netherlands. I was one of only two students in Poland to receive this offer! I was scared, and thought, ‘Me!? Alone!? How could I possibly manage going to a different country on my own...’ But, it was too great of an opportunity to turn away from, and it became my first bold decision.”
With courage, Karina persevered and moved away from the only home she had known, starting a venture that would eventually open many opportunities for her successful path. “It was a great decision because I made many international friends with whom I keep connected to today. I opened myself up to life, to the world, and began to see a lot of opportunities around me”. She is humble as she discusses her early success. “I was offered a role as a consultant in PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC). This is how I started my career as a tax lawyer; working as a consultant in the field of taxation - basically, tax law and tax regulations. My hard work quickly paid off. I recognized that if I really placed my energy and effort into what I believed in, I could achieve anything. I don’t know if it was talent or, again, hard work, but, I was making very, very fast progress and my career was developing very quickly. After three years, I was offered a role with another consulting firm, Ernst & Young (EY). They invited me to join them and help develop their Life Sciences team. I was shortly promoted to a managerial position, and deemed very successful.”
Karina begins sharing her initial steps toward emotional intelligence and discovery. “I was doing well, had my own family now, and continued to focus on both my family and my work. I didn’t really think about my emotional life - especially with what was starting to brew inside me - because I was not taught to recognize my own emotions. I didn’t know that I was struggling emotionally, or that something was going wrong”, she recalls. “When I received an offer to join Dentons (formerly Salans in Europe), my current law firm, it was an incredible opportunity to build the tax team in Warsaw from scratch. I was asked to become the head of the Tax practice, and build the Tax team in Warsaw from scratch. The opportunity for my career development was tremendous, and very different than what I was doing prior. I took this risk and, of course, benefitted. After just one year, I built the team - a wonderful team. We had great business, a great practice. We were very happy. It was very successful. I was promoted to Partner at the age of only 33. My team grew year by year; and our results climbed higher and higher; everything was very successful.”
Karina continues, “I was a happy mom of two children, a happy wife, a happy tax Partner; everything looked perfect. But inside, something was missing and I was feeling unhappy; I was slowly burning out. These were the first signs that something was wrong. I was more and more exhausted, sad, and nothing was giving me joy. There was emptiness inside; I felt hollow. Empty. This happiness and success felt like a facade; it was not really there”. At this time, Karina was diagnosed with clinical depression and burnout. “I will say that this was the darkest part of my life. For several months, I was unable to work. I was in a dark place. I couldn’t focus my attention on anything. My team was already very well-developed, so they went on working without me and they survived, even thrived! But, they were aware that I could not give them my support at that time”.
Karina discusses the course of action she and her medical professionals had decided to pursue. “Antidepressants were a disaster for me. I could sleep the entire day and night, again and again, day and night. I was like a plant. No feelings at all. I felt numb. I actually did not want to take antidepressants; but nothing else was helpful. So I slept. I barely spoke. I slept some more. And took medication. This is when I decided to go to a mental health clinic in the United Kingdom. I felt too ashamed to enter a local clinic in Poland. It wasn’t something anyone talked about. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was going through. There was this stigma about mental health. I didn’t really want to reveal my struggles. So, I decided to go to the UK, and it was at this clinic that I started professional psychotherapy.”
“It was very, very powerful”, she reveals. “Working with my emotions, discovering the source of my core beliefs and the source of my fears. At a time when I was thriving in life in every avenue! It was during this discovery process that I started understanding how my childhood impacted my adulthood. The isolation. The ownership. The inability to speak or feel what my heart and mind were feeling and thinking. Again, this was very, very powerful learning. And it helped me. I grew stronger and stronger with each day”. Karina continues, “It was also at this time that I was introduced to mindfulness. I started to practice mindfulness and simply loved it from the very first session. I was a perfectionist who wanted to recover from depression in the most perfect way. But I began learning to be more patient with myself; to be more self-compassionate; to lower my inner critical voice. Combined with cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness worked very well. I soon began regaining my energy and my positive outlook on life”. Karina is candid; she is raw as she explains her thoughts at that time, “I wanted to live. I wanted to live again. While in depression, I had dark moments and voices that kept me from wanting to move forward. They kept me from wanting to live. I couldn’t see a future for myself at those darkest moments.”
“This therapy, the time, and the mindfulness practice helped me regain my passion for life, and my passion for working and being with people again. I learned how to recognize my own emotions, and how to regulate them, so that I wouldn’t burn out so easily,” she states. “When I returned to my firm, after a couple of months I realized I was no longer satisfied with being a lawyer. Although I had achieved a lot - and my Tax team continued to grow, I wanted something different. At that time, I became interested in exploring how I recovered and how mindfulness played a role in my recovery.” Karina takes us through her curiosity and growing interest in neuroscience. “I started to read about mindfulness, neuroscience and cognitive therapy. When I had returned from therapy, my colleagues and other lawyers who knew my story began to share their own struggles with me. They confided in me, asking for advice. My peers wanted to talk to someone who had hit rock-bottom and found her way again, which resonated with them. This was inspiring for me because I really started to think that maybe this is an avenue I needed to explore. I wanted to help others be okay with exploring their emotions, and help them recover from stress or mental illness. I started to think, ‘maybe this is something for me; maybe I should complete some qualifications in mindfulness and I should offer mindfulness classes in my law firm’.’’
Karina decided to complete MBCT teacher training through the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. “I recognized how people could struggle to deal with their emotions - I understood they were suffering, and that sometimes their actions were not reflective of who they were as people. Once I identified the need to support others, I started to research whether there was already information about mindfulness in the legal profession worldwide. I found some articles, and learned that a few famous lawyers and CEOs were practicing mindfulness. So, I did several teacher trainings in mindfulness in the workplace with the goal of creating a business case to lead and teach mindfulness at my firm.” She is excited as she takes us through the actions that led to Dentons’ NextMind program. “People knew me as a lawyer - as a very good lawyer, and a very good leader. But, they didn’t know me as a mindfulness teacher. So, I really wanted to obtain some credentials in this area. It was the beginning of this idea in my head that long-term, I could shift my career from being a lawyer to helping our people with their problems and enabling them to flourish. I wanted to guide others in their own self-discovery.”
“I went to the United States to complete my teacher training in MBCT. Thereafter, I traveled to Oxford to complete further training. It was fascinating and I felt great about doing this. From a shy girl, I became this very courageous woman. I knew what I wanted and understood what was going to give me real satisfaction from life. In the past, when I was a practicing lawyer, especially at the beginning of my career, I think my dreams were more connected with having enough money, achieving high status, being recognized, and so on. From my journey through those darkest moments to discovery, I eventually understood that success and happiness come from within, not from external things.”
“How do I measure success? I measure it with the level of my own inner peace. That’s it. It is simple”. She smiles and continues. “I chose to start over, from the very beginning, in a new field. I knew that I had to do this. There was an internal voice telling me, ‘This is real. This is exactly what you need, what you want, and what you should be doing.’”
She continues, “The first mindfulness session, which I organized in our Warsaw office, was back in March 2018. Within six months, we developed the incredible 8-week NextMind program for lawyers and legal professionals that continues to improve”. Relying on principles of neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology, Dentons’ NextMind program uses regular mindfulness meditation to develop self-awareness, emotional self-regulation, social skills and empathy. “When I started this mindfulness initiative, I didn’t know where it would lead. I knew that I simply wanted to implement and teach mindfulness. In March 2019, our program became a part of our global talent strategy. And in August 2019, I was named Europe Chief Mindfulness Officer. I work a lot with people: my peers, my colleagues. I see so much gratitude from participants of this program. This gives me such satisfaction; I feel so happy and humble because deeply inside, I have always wanted to help people - to help people thrive, to have better lives. As a lawyer, I helped my clients. But now, I am helping people as people - as humans.” She shares thoughtfully, “I’m authentic. Sometimes, authenticity was very painful for me because I was too honest for some people. But over time, I can see that it was worth it. What has always been important for me is my personal growth. I want to grow as a human being, and therefore, I am a constant student. For example, I started an Inner MBA Program through New York University’s MindfulNYU. This 9-week personal development program is based on mindfulness implementation, and also focuses on changing organizations into mindful workplaces. There are over 1000 people around the world enrolled in this program, and I am thrilled to be part of it. I am bringing what I am learning into my daily role, supporting my personal growth and deepening my practice.”
Karina pauses for a moment to reflect. “It was a long road to love myself. I was inspired by Pema Chödrön, whose teachings are amazing. She has this book: Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown. She shows that we are fallible, we all fail, but there is nothing wrong with failure. Next time, just fail better. It was a long road for me. The first step I would encourage others to consider is to befriend themselves, and to use mindfulness to be aware of what is going on inside our minds, as far as our emotions are concerned. We need to start noticing and recognizing emotions. We need to become more self-aware. This is the starting point for building the better world. And it comes with practice. ‘What we practice grows stronger’ – as Shauna Shapiro says.”
Vulnerability is a powerful tool toward self-awareness and leadership. Karina’s journey shows bravery and humility, leadership traits that continue to drive trust, rapport and admiration. It takes immense courage to be authentic and lead by example. In our interactions today, people value and respect who we are, rather than what we have accomplished. Karina emphasizes that lawyers are not taught to notice their own emotions. Lawyers are taught to focus their development on discovering their practice of law through application and action...but lawyers are “not taught to notice their own emotions.” We consider this powerful statement and allow it to resonate, while appreciating the many gifted skills lawyers acquire through practice:
Stoicism when litigating.
Logicize in proceedings.
Analyze the silence.
Notice clients’ emotions...but lawyers are not taught to notice their own emotions.
The relationship that matters the most is the one we have with ourselves. We must invest time and commitment to that relationship. Karina’s strength and determination never left her side through her darkest moments and her most difficult decisions. In her path to self-awareness, she encountered both fear and excitement, and ultimately discovered who she wanted to become…
billable mindful hour at a time.
“People can experience some of the worst moments of their lives and still recover through self-compassion. I believe that being brave, sharing your story, and showing vulnerability really helps other people understand that they can also be vulnerable…they will become better lawyers, better leaders, better professionals, but also better humans. It is OK not to feel OK sometimes.”
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar, Founder & CEO