More than 10 years ago, Lesly Devereaux made a mistake. While serving as the chief of staff for the New Jersey commerce commissioner, she was indicted and found guilty of committing official misconduct, theft and tampering with public records. She spent 10 months in state prison for her crimes.
Devereaux was determined not to let a temporary fall from grace keep her down. The Howard University Law School graduate and Doctor of Ministry used her time to reflect on the behaviors and choices that led to her incarceration. Her flaw, she discovered, was a tendency to enable those around her at her own expense.
Using the power of words, Devereaux rallied herself and her fellow inmates using nothing more than a pen and a sticky note. She shares her transformational journey in her book, “Breaking Codependency: How to Navigate the Traps that Sabotage Your Life,” so that women in and out of the workforce can overcome personal challenges and find success.
Below are edited excerpts from Devereaux’s interview with Diversity Executive magazine.
How did you stay positive while in prison?
When I was away, I knew had to try and chart my next step. I had to be forward-thinking. I started doing that by using post-its. We could not have glue or scissors while we were incarcerated. All we had was a pen and a legal size pad of paper. I would take the paper and cut it into little post-its, and I would write power words every day, a word that inspired, transformed and motivated me so that I would move to the next level. I started sharing those post-its with the women, and every day we would post a power word. “I’m an achiever.” “I’m an overcomer.” “I’m a good person.” “Strength.” “Resilience.”
How have you adopted that technique to help women on a larger scale?
I have these little pen and post-it parties for women and women’s groups. We sit and talk about the power of words. Words have the power to transform. Words remind you that you can get done whatever you need to get done. I’m a living witness that you can get things done and you can move forward with your life no matter the obstacles.
You write about being an enabler and giving into other’s needs at the expense of your own. It’s something many women in the workplace can relate to. How did you overcome that?
For me, it was all about boundaries and clearly defining the space where you end and I begin. You have to have healthy boundaries when you’re dealing with people. When you see that people are coming into your space in a destructive way, you need to adjust that space so people cannot get in.
Sometimes this means detaching from an unhealthy relationship. You may have people around you that you can’t handle and who cause you to act in ways that go against your character. It’s not enough to disengage and still be around them. You really have to move from the space all together and detach.
What is your best piece of advice for women starting to make this transformation?
You have to look at self-care. It’s OK to take care of yourself first. If you’re not healthy and you’re not yourself you can’t help anybody else.
And above all, know that “no” is a complete sentence. N-O. No. You have to be able to say know to people that you love and to be okay saying no and not feeling guilty about saying no, especially when loving them is hurting them and hurting you.