Mindset

Unemployment & Living with Limitation

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While I was healing from a foot injury this spring, I spent a lot of time thinking about the similarities between injury and unemployment.

 

You're moving along, living your life, getting things done, and then all of a sudden everything screeches to a halt. Your life feels smaller and more constrained, defined by the things you can’t do. Your only option is to be patient and do things that support getting better.

It was a frustrating month, but the experience surprised me with some hidden gifts that I want to share with you today.

8 lessons learned from a month on the couch

  1. Not everything happens for a reason, but you can create meaning to reduce suffering.
  2. Don’t force gratitude, but notice it when it arises.
  3. Let yourself rest. 
  4. Detach from any roles you’re currently over-identified with.
  5. What opportunities does this situation present?
  6. Things may be happening behind the scenes.
  7. Learn to be okay with asking for help.
  8. Notice and appreciate your abilities when they return.

1. Not everything happens for a reason, but you can create meaning to reduce suffering.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. However, how you choose to interpret what happens can have a big effect on your outlook. Reframing an unfortunate event (like unemployment or injury) as a challenge and a potential source of growth is an incredibly powerful practice.

This doesn’t happen quickly for everyone. Depending on your circumstances, you might have to move through your grief, anger, and disappointment before you can start looking for the gold.

I would never compare my experiences to that of concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, but I often find comfort in his words: "We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation...we are challenged to change ourselves."

2. Don’t force gratitude, but notice it when it arises.

When someone tells me to “look on the bright side,” I usually feel like throat-punching them. That being said, I’m surprised by how much gratitude I felt once the worst of the pain was over. I had access to help and resources that made my situation much more bearable than it could have been.

You might not be ready to look for the positive in your situation, but I suspect that it’s there. Check out my blog post on gratitude journal alternatives for ungrateful people if you’d like a little help reframing your situation.

3. Let yourself rest.

I spent the first few days after my accident sleeping on the couch. I told myself that I was putting all my available resources towards healing. Even though I’d given myself permission to rest as much as I wanted, I started feeling restless and wanting something to do after only a few days.

If you’ve just become unemployed, whether or not it was voluntary, you might have some detoxing to do. Give yourself permission to slow down.

I think it’s likely that if you let yourself truly rest without guilt, you won’t need nearly as much downtime as you might think before you’re ready to start taking action again. Check out this article if you have trouble with guilt-free rest.

4. Detach from any roles you’re currently over-identified with.

After my accident, I temporarily lost my identity as an avid walker and hiker. I had to reconcile myself to becoming more dependent and sedentary than I was comfortable with. That didn’t feel good!

Identity shifts are a part of life, but that doesn’t mean they aren't jarring. If you really identified with your former profession, or as an employed person, you might be looking around and trying to figure out who you are without those labels.

It can feel vulnerable and awkward, but it’s helpful to remember that you never were those external markers - you just carried them around for a while. What are the parts of you that are impervious to loss or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?

5. What opportunities does this situation present?

This is the big question, the one that’s hard to ask when all you can see is lack and limitation. For the first few days after my accident, all I could think about were the things I couldn’t do.

But then: I rekindled my love affair with crochet. I spent more time learning tarot, something I’d picked up right before my accident. I hobbled to the library to check out books on neuroscience, work habits, and contemporary spirituality (also Squirrel Girl, because sometimes a lady needs a break).

What opportunities are you being given here? Unemployment often comes with the gift of time. You can’t spend 100% of the day researching, applying to, and interviewing for jobs. What are you going to do with the rest of the day? Volunteer, cook, build something, take a free class?

I understand that you have to be at a certain place mentally and emotionally before you can even start contemplating this stuff, but know that these options exist for you when you’re ready.

6. Things may be happening behind the scenes, even if you can’t see them.

The first week of wound healing is dedicated to the "inflammation period," when it looks like nothing is happening. My toe looked just as terrible on day 5 as it did right after the accident. But by day 7, it didn’t just look a little better - it looked a lot better.

So little of the job searching process is in your control. Sometimes it feels like you’re constantly waiting for people to get back to you. When you get frustrated, it can be helpful to remind yourself that you’re planting seeds to see what will sprout.

One of my clients got invited to an interview for her dream two months after she applied. Another didn’t hear back at all and it turned out to be because they were rewriting the description to something that actually suited her better.

This is a good time to let go of what you can’t control and focus on areas where you can make a difference. Brush up on your skills, take a class or a training, or throw yourself into a personal project. Satisfy your need for progress in another area of your life while you’re waiting for this one to bear fruit.

7. Learn to be okay with receiving help, because sometimes you don’t have a choice.

I’m an independent person. “No problem, I can do it” is a personal motto. There was a lesson for me here, too. My husband cleaned and dressed my wound twice a day. He also brought me things, helped me shower, and listened to me complain.

Receiving without giving back brought up a lot of emotions: humility and frustration with my limitations, guilt that I wasn’t able to reciprocate, fear of being too much of a bother - and then finally gratitude and appreciation.

The bootstrapping myth is strong in our culture and it can be difficult to overcome that conditioning. But I’ve seen over and over again that the fastest way forward is by getting help. Practice asking for support, information, advice, an introduction. It feels vulnerable, but the worst you’ll get is a “no” and the potential payoff is enormous.

8. Notice and appreciate your abilities when they return.

I’m newly appreciative of things I'd taken for granted before: wearing normal shoes, walking to the end of the block, showering without standing in a plastic bucket.

Humans are quite adaptive and I’m sure I’ll be back to showering bucket-free without a second thought in no time, but for now I’m reveling in the novelty of ease.

When you do return to work, take the time to notice what becomes easier in your life. It may be financial breathing room or a sense of stability, security, and personal value. It might be the pleasure of meeting new people and learning new skills.

What did you miss about having a job? Let yourself enjoy having those things again.

Who knew limitation could be such a profound teacher?

If you’re feeling discouraged, I hope there’s a useful takeaway or two here for you! And if you liked this and could use some extra support with your career exploration, I've got you covered.

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4 Alternatives to Gratitude Journals for Ungrateful People

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I'll tell you a secret: I'm allergic to gratitude.

If you’ve spent any time in the self-help world at all, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal. This practice does nothing for me. I understand why it might be useful for some people, but I don’t love it.

I've spent so much time telling myself "You should be grateful for [x]" that the word itself brings up feelings of irritation, resentment, and guilt. If you look up gratitude in a thesaurus, you get synonyms like indebtedness, obligation, and requital. Ugh. No thanks. I'm done with trying to force myself to feel a certain way.

However: humans are wired to give more weight to negative events. It makes sense to somehow emphasize the positive ones and balance out your worldview. And there is a lot of evidence out there that a (ugh) gratitude practice has a meaningful effect on your life.

So how can we do this without it feeling fake, forced, or obligatory?

Four Alternatives to the Gratitude Journal

1. Change the word

If you hate the g-word as much as I do, how do you feel about appreciation? While one of the definitions of appreciation is gratitude, another is recognition of worth. This feels so much more empowering to me. It's a choice I've made to recognize the worth in the world around me. A gratitude journal may make me want to gag, but an appreciation journal feels a little more doable.

2. What went well?

This exercise comes from Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology.” According to him, three weeks of doing this had a positive emotional effect on test subjects up to six months later.

At the end of your day, simply note down three things that went well. In his version, you can also add why you think they went well.

The language of “what went well” accomplishes three things: it takes the gratitude label out of the equation, leaving you free to feel appreciation, satisfaction, relief, or a spectrum of other positive emotions.

Secondly, doing this exercise helped me realize that the majority of events in my day happen without a hitch. I got better at putting the occasional glitch in perspective.

Thirdly, it gave me a body of data to look back at and see what I thought was worthy of labeling as “going well.” I frequently mentioned time with friends, time spent creating, and time outdoors. Sometimes I’d list a memorable meal or a workout.

Something like binge-watching Steven Universe, while technically going the way it was supposed to, didn’t make the list. This gave me some great insight as to where I’d like to put more of my time and energy.

3. What do you want to remember?

This was inspired by a Seth Godin article. So many things happen to us throughout the day, most of them forgotten by the next. Unless we do something to tell our brains “This is important,” it tends to get lost in the shuffle.

We already do this automatically with painful, stressful, or embarrassing things because we’d like to be able to avoid those kinds of situations in the future. But what about the sublime, the cozy, the just-right? What happened today that you’d like to remember five years from now?

4. Noticing what you’d like to continue happening.

For one day, make a mental note of everything that happens to you that you would like to keep happening in the future. This can be anything you can perceive with one of your senses. This exercise comes from Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. When I do this, I find it easier to stay in the present and appreciate life's small pleasures.

Don’t worry about sticking with it indefinitely.

A lot of gratitude journal proponents will tell you that you need to do this every day. I agree - up to a point. Like any routine, it’s meant to support you. When you don’t need it, you can let it go. It will always be a part of your toolbox, after all.

Start with committing to one of these exercises for 1-3 weeks. As Martin Seligman showed, even this brief amount of time can have positive repercussions far into the future.

To document or not to document?

The gratitude journallers will tell you that you need to physically document your list. In the case of the "what went well" and "what do you want to remember" exercises, I think that a written record is helpful for the reasons I mentioned above. The last is more of a mindfulness practice and doesn't require the same level of documentation, since you're looking for many small moments throughout the day.

If you have a smartphone, keeping a record is incredibly easy. Set an alarm for the evening and when it goes off, use your favorite note-taking app to list three things that went well or that you want to remember from the day. That’s it - the whole thing might take you five minutes. Of course, you could use a physical notebook or a voice-recording app if that's more your style.

Let me know how it goes!

I’d love to hear about your experience with these exercises or your own favorite gratitude journal alternatives.

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A Better Question Than "Why Can't I Do This?!"

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I don't care who you are, at some point you're going to try something hard and get frustrated when it isn't working the way you want. It's easy to question yourself when that happens, which means all forward progress grinds to a halt. "Why can't I do this?!" tends to be one of my first questions. It's actually not a great one because all my answers tend to be judgmental and mean. (Because you're lazy! Because you're dumb! Because you're just not cut out for this! Etc.)

Sure, it's possible to answer the question with kindness (e.g., "Because you don't know enough yet, sweetie!"), but if I'm already frustrated, self-compassion isn't my default response.

It's time to start asking better questions. In fact, here are 15 to try instead.

  1. If my fairy godmother were going to take over for me, where would I tell her to start?
  2. How can I break this down into smaller chunks? What's the first chunk? Can I make it even smaller?
  3. How can I set myself up for success? What resources do I need to succeed?
  4. What's the story I'm telling myself, and is it true?
  5. Who can I ask for help?
  6. What are all the reasons I don't want to do this?
  7. What am I afraid will happen if I mess this up?
  8. If I were a scientist gathering data on all the ways to do this, what would I try next?
  9. What are my assumptions? Is it possible that some of them are wrong?
  10. Is it possible to re-frame this as a mystery, puzzle, game, or quest?
  11. What would I have to think and feel to be able to move forward?
  12. What is my end goal, and are there any other ways I can accomplish it?
  13. Where am I succumbing to black-and-white thinking? What's behind Door #3?
  14. When have I done something similar in the past and what lessons can I take from that experience?
  15. Why can I do this?

Our brains love questions, but we have to ask the right ones.

When you ask yourself a question that piques your curiosity, you are more motivated to find the answer. Asking yourself why you can't do something is often a shorthand for "What's wrong with me?" which is mostly rhetorical and not fun to answer.

The questions above are phrased to help you move from self-recrimination into problem-solving mode. It's impossible to be both judgmental and curious, because the curious mind sees all data as useful. Add in some self-reflection and perspective, and you're well on your way to giving your mental wheels the traction you need to move forward.

What question would you add to the list?

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Using Self-Kindness to Help You Get a Job

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A couple of weeks ago, I suggested to a job-hunting client that she spend a few minutes every day sending herself some self-kindness. She looked at me a bit skeptically. "How will this help me get a job?" she asked. Good question.

When you're focused on improving your career situation, taking time to be gentle and understanding towards yourself probably isn't a top priority. However, the truth is that self-kindness has a positive impact on every stage of the career transition process.

Read on to see how it can improve your confidence, motivation, creativity, and even your resume-writing skills. Then you'll learn a four-step process for building your own self-kindness habit.

4 Ways Self-Kindness Improves Your Job Search

1. It builds confidence.

Do your inner voices tend to be cheerleaders or inner critics?

If you're a recovering perfectionist, your inner peanut gallery is probably happy to point out the ways that you're falling short, missing opportunities, not fulfilling your potential, or just plain screwing up.

This relentless inner monologue can really affect your attitude towards your job search. If you're not convinced of your own worth, why should you try to share it with others? If you don't think you can do the job, why should your prospective employers?

When you consciously cultivate a habit of self-kindness, you're providing a needed counterpoint to those voices. You're taking a stand and saying, "I'm a person who has a lot to contribute. I know I can do this."

Which attitude do you think makes it easier to land a new job?

2. It improves motivation.

Inner critics often masquerade as motivational speakers, which is why so many people are reluctant to shut them down. "If I stop being hard on myself, I'll never get anything done!"

This is a lie. Don't listen to it.

Constantly trying to prove to your peanut gallery (or your prospective boss, in-laws, ex, parents, etc) that you're good enough is exhausting.

What's more, your inner critic makes it so you can't win, no matter how hard you try. 

  • You work on the thing and it succeeds. Your peanut gallery: "You probably got lucky."
  • You work on the thing and it fails. Your peanut galley: "You suck and can't do anything right."
  • You ignore the thing and numb out with your substance or behavior of choice. Your peanut gallery: "You're so lazy! You must not want this that much."

See how you never get to feel good about yourself?

Mindful self-kindness turns this scenario upside-down. Rather than saying, "I'll do the thing, and then I'll feel good about myself," it posits that if I feel good about myself first, doing the thing will become easier.

It can feel scary to abandon your carrot-and-stick philosophy, especially if you think it's what's gotten you this far to begin with. Don't take my word for it - try it with something small and see what happens.

3. Self-kindness increases creativity and problem-solving skills.

If your peanut gallery has a habit of shutting down every idea before you have a chance to explore it, you're missing out on your natural creative abilities.

Letting yourself dream big, crazy, and impractical before you pull yourself back to earth is a vital part of the process. That's why writers have rough drafts - if we needed every word to be perfect from the start, most of us would never get anything down. Give yourself some creative breathing room!

4. Self-kindness improves your interviewing skills and application materials.

The human brain is capable of processing millions of bits of information a second, most of which happens subconsciously. When you talk to someone, you aren't just listening to what they're saying - you're tracking their body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and many other small cues. And they're doing the same to you.

This means that no matter what face you deliberately put forward while in an interview or writing your resume, the person on the other side of the desk is picking up a lot more than you might intend.

If your habitual messages to yourself are critical and harsh, you will speak and write about yourself differently than if you feel secure in your innate value.

To change the message you send to other people, you have to change your own internal programming first.

So how do I start practicing this self-kindness thing?

The first thing to keep in mind is that if your peanut gallery is loud and active, you won't be able to turn them into a cheerleading squad overnight. But over time, you can train your brain to travel down new (and kinder) neural pathways.

Pretend for a minute that your brain is a moving car driving down You Suck Boulevard.  Even if you wanted to back out and drive down I Believe in You Avenue instead, you can't instantly throw it into reverse - the car (and your patterns) have a certain amount of momentum. You have to hit the brakes and let your car (/brain) come to a stop, then shift it into reverse. So the first step is...

1. Slow down.

Become aware of whatever monologue is playing inside your head. Is it critical or supportive? Is it useful? You can't make any changes unless you know what's going on. Just becoming aware that this ongoing stream of thoughts is happening without your consent or control can be a big mindset shift.

2. Stop.

The best and quickest way to stop the internal chatter (even if it's only briefly) is to pull your attention into the present moment. Fully focus on the sensation of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils. Notice the colors and shapes around you. Put your hand on your heart. Act as though this is a holy moment created just for you. Experiment and see what works for you. You don't have to fix or change anything at first - just practice noticing the chatter and then bringing yourself to a place of neutral quiet.

3. Reverse.

Picture the small, scared part of you as something tiny and defenseless: maybe an animal or a child. Imagine that you can pick it up and cradle it against your heart - or just sit near it, if it doesn't want to be held. Tell it, "May you be well. May you be safe. May you be happy." Continue to send it loving messages until you sense or feel it relax. Notice how that feels in your own body. (Buddhist followers may notice the similarities to lovingkindness meditation.)

Once this part of you is completely soothed, you may feel inspired or motivated to take a particular action - or you may notice that your resistance to something you've been trying to get done has dissolved. In any case, you've just positioned yourself to act from a place of peace instead of panic.

4. Practice. Often.

You are literally changing your brain here, and that doesn't happen overnight. To your brain, the old self-critical pathways look like a six-lane highway and these new, kinder behaviors are the equivalent of hacking through the jungle with a machete. You have to keep walking that trail to keep the jungle from growing back over. Over time, you'll notice that it becomes easier to return to peace and equilibrium.

If you're looking for a next step to take, why not spend a few minutes getting clarity on your dream career direction? You might be surprised what insights come to light when you give your inner critic some time off. :-)

Image credit: Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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Your Online Dating Experience Makes You a Job Hunting Expert.

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You probably have one or two awkward date stories.

Here's one of mine - and how I used it to figure out what I really wanted.

I was sitting on the patio of one of my favorite brewpubs, wondering how long it could possibly take before our server brought the check. It was a beautiful fall day, but the atmosphere between my date and me was bordering on frosty. I thought about taking one more stab at conversation, but I didn't feel like having my opinions mocked yet again.

It turned out shortly after we'd sat down that Dude was a recreational arguer. Not only did he have an opinion about everything, he also had a list of reasons as to why all of mine were wrong. I swear, I think we got into an argument about whether smooth or crunchy peanut butter was better.

The low point had come when I thought we'd finally found a common point of interest and I recommended a great running shoe store I'd been to. When he found out where it was, he went on a multi-minute tirade about how awful that area was and maintained he never crossed the state line unless he absolutely had to. "There is absolutely nothing good about Kansas," he finished smugly.

"Well, I lived there for fifteen years, and I think I turned out okay, so."

And now we were waiting for the check.

Before, this would have discouraged me. (Okay, it still did.) But I had a reason to believe the afternoon wasn't a total waste. I was going to use this experience to help me get clearer on what I wanted.

Turning shit into fertilizer

When I got home, I pulled out my journal. I opened it to a list titled "What I Want in a Partner." At the bottom of the list, I wrote, "Listens to and respects my opinions. Desires connection."

(I could have put down, "Doesn't think opinions are a substitute for personality," but I was trying to keep it positive.)

Each date I went on during that year gave me similarly valuable information. At the beginning of my re-immersion in the dating pool, I really didn't know what I wanted. "Smart, kind, and funny, with some similar interests" was as far as I'd gotten when I first filled out my online profile. Months later, despite not really clicking with anyone, I had a much better picture of what I needed from a relationship.

What does this have to do with finding your dream job?

We've all spent time in jobs we dislike. I'm betting you've spent a decent amount of time daydreaming about something better - but what does "better" look like?

When I was feeling restless and dissatisfied with my job, one of my main anxiety loops was that I didn't know what to do instead. I had literally no idea. I had a lot of interests and a history of not sticking with any of them long-term, so I was nervous about committing to any one thing. All I knew was that I wanted something different.

Then I remembered the list from my online dating days (now, thankfully, behind me). What would it be like, I wondered, to take the same approach with my job?

Instead of trying to guess how this mystery dream job might look, I started with the things I liked and disliked about my current one. I looked at things like environment, commute, coworkers, work pace and type, and the skills I utilized. Slowly, a picture came into focus.

This was what I wrote.

I will use my whole self - every bit of my intelligence, compassion, resourcefulness, independence, and creativity - to both nourish myself and increase my right people’s well-being and happiness. Through my work, I will inspire others to do their best work, to rekindle their imaginations and engage with the world in a new way.

I will feel successful when:

  • I am working in a beautiful, supportive environment with/for intelligent, compassionate, engaged people.
  • I can see the positive difference that my work is making.
  • I have a schedule that works with my natural rhythms, instead of in spite of or against them.
  • I feel the satisfaction of overcoming challenges in a role that grows and changes with me.
  • I have the financial stability to meet my obligations, as well as fund some meaningful luxuries and adventures.
  • I can start and end the day by spending time with my husband.

It was still incredibly vague in some aspects, but it was a start.

The power of knowing what you want

As it happened, I didn't meet my husband during my months of online dating. He was someone I'd known for a decade - we'd even gone to the same high school. He wasn't anyone I'd thought about romantically before, but I impulsively asked him out on a date a few months after he'd broken up with his long-term girlfriend. It became very clear, very quickly that we were extremely compatible and we got engaged a scant five months later.

To be honest, I'd forgotten completely about my "what I want in a partner" list by then. It wasn't until we were getting ready to move in together that I found it while packing up my apartment. Frankly, it was eerie how perfectly it described him. I said a little prayer of thanks to the universe as I packed the journal away.

After my coaching practice had been active for about a year, I found the above list of desired job attributes. I read through them slowly, feeling a growing sense of gratitude and astonishment. I'd written it three years previously, hoping desperately that I wasn't asking for something impossible. As it turns out, I wasn't. Every single word of that document has come true.

Knowing what you want - being clear - has power. Otherwise, how will you know it when you find it?

Sometimes to find out what you want, you need to look at where you are now. What would you change? What are you tolerating? What feels like a struggle? What fills you with irritation, resignation, or despair?

I believe these feelings are here to do more than make you feel crappy; they are guiding you towards happiness, if you let them. It might not happen overnight - it took me three years to find that perfect job situation! - but how much easier is it to accept them and be curious about their messages if you believe they have something valuable to tell you?

Want to take this further?

This is hard work to do alone, which is why I created the coaching program Finding Your Fit.  In this three-month program, you'll get one-on-one support as you get in touch with your deeper purpose, discover your own version of success and learn the tools to get you there. Check it out here.

Image credit: Asaf R on Unsplash

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Stop Faking It if You've Already Made It.

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A Dream Deferred

When I first became a coach, I really wanted to work with people in search of satisfying and fulfilling careers. However, my own path was so convoluted that I doubted my ability to guide others through their own transitions. 

Obviously, I knew something about making decisions and trusting my heart, but I was so fixated on the specifics that I missed the larger lessons I was learning at the time. Instead, I decided to focus on the "easier" (to me) issues of perfectionism and procrastination.

It wasn't until I'd been doing this for awhile and decided to check in with some of my more successful clients that I discovered something surprising.

That thing I thought I couldn't do? I'd been doing it all along.

At the time of our coaching, these clients tended to be un-, under-, or unhappily employed. After working with me for a few months, they found better situations and ended up feeling optimistic about the future. It wasn't until I talked to several of them in a row that I began to see the pattern.

That's right - despite claiming all along that I wasn't a career coach and knew nothing about helping people achieve the same results that I had, each one of these women had crafted a path to greater happiness while working with me.

Underselling yourself isn't modesty - it's blindness.

"Fake it 'til you make it" isn't terrible advice, especially when it comes to matters of self-confidence. However, it can backfire when you've been slowly "making" it all this time but forgot to stop "faking" it - i.e., you've been improving, but your confidence hasn't.

This is when things like "imposter syndrome" (when you're perfectly qualified but feel like a fraud) come into play. You over-prepare for things, worry over every little detail, obsess over your perceived shortcomings, and dismiss your successes as flukes. You live in dread of being "found out" as less skilled than everyone thinks you are.

Once I was able to let go of my assumptions about what "career coaching" really entailed, I was able to see how my strengths had contributed to my clients' progress. As it turned out, I didn't have to know where they were going; all I had to do was help them get clear enough to figure it out on their own.

This was a huge epiphany for me.

I no longer had to fake confidence that I didn't really feel.

As much as I'd wanted to work with people in career transition, my lack of faith in my own abilities stopped me from specifically trying to reach out to them.

But when I took the time to look back and examine some of my past successes, I didn't have to have faith that I could do it, because I'd already done it. I didn't have to hold on to some nebulous "belief in myself" because the facts told me I was already successful.

Turns out, I wasn't the only one doing this.

My clients were doing the exact same thing. They already possessed all the makings of their success, but just couldn't see them. I know that sounds cheesy, but it's true. They just needed to get to a place where they could stop discounting their gifts and their intuition so that they could see that they already had everything they needed.

When you're living inside your own head, it can be almost impossible to get perspective on your strengths and abilities. It's easy to discount them because they're easy for you.

I get it: I spent years feeling that achievement wasn't valuable unless I worked extremely hard for it. Now, I'm learning to lean into my strengths and play up to them and not take them for granted.

Here's a quick and easy way to do this in your own life.

Whether or not you're interested in changing careers, I can't imagine that it's a bad thing to get new perspective on what makes you awesome.

Here's the exercise:

Take a typical day in your life and write down all the things you do, beginning with getting up in the morning and making breakfast.

Move through the rest of your day, noting down the tasks and projects you're in charge of, the things you get done, and the people you interact with.

For each of those things, ask yourself, "What did it take for me to be able to do that?"

Even something as simple as getting up in the morning can take strength of will or self-discipline. Maybe you're drawing on your innate qualities of dedication, conscientiousness, or scrupulousness.

What skills did you have to utilize to get through your day? What strengths, abilities or qualities did you need?

You don't have to get pedantic about it or take it to a level of tedium - all we're doing is bringing a new level of self-awareness to the ways you're already rocking your life without realizing it.

I think it's important to note the difference between skills and preferred skills.

Just because you're really awesome at putting together spreadsheets or meal plans doesn't mean you like them.

It's good to notice all the skills you have to draw on, but it's also worth paying attention to how much of your day you spend doing things you're good at versus things you're good at and enjoy.

I hope you found this exercise illuminating! I'd love to hear what it brought up for you. If you're wishing for a job that that uses more of your skills, check out my career transition programs to learn how coaching can help you make the jump.

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When not knowing what to do makes you crazy.

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There’s a specific mental loop that I get stuck in at times and it goes like this:

I don’t know what to do → I should know what to do → I need to do something now → but I don’t know what it is!

Sound familiar?

I ran around this loop constantly when I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life, and then again after I'd started my business and was blanking on my next steps.

If I’m not careful, I find myself going in circles, getting wound up tighter and tighter, until I get to the point where even if there is a good decision to be made, there’s no way I’m going to know what it is.

Today I want to break down this loop into its components and explore some of its implicit assumptions, which will hopefully make it a little easier to deal with (and eventually get out of!).

There are three parts: the initial thought, the judging thought, and the urgent thought. 

Part 1: I don't know what to do.

This thought is actually pretty neutral when taken by itself. It's a statement of fact. I'm pretty sure there are times when you didn't know what to do and it was no big deal.

Therefore, it's not the thought itself that makes us anxious, it's the judgments and assumptions we have about the thought. This leads us to the next part.

Part 2: I should know what to do.

This is what takes the first part and turns it into something to get stressed about.

These anxious feelings tell me that it's a really good thought to question, like so:

  • Is it true? Should I know what to do?
  • Who says? 
  • How is this thought trying to serve me? (And isn't that an interesting question!)

The reason I'm having the thought in the first place is that it’s trying to protect me, albeit in its own not-very-enlightened way.

Its purpose is to motivate me to look for new solutions and to supposedly keep me from giving up. If I don't know what to do, the reasoning goes, I need to keep working until I do.

Unfortunately, it doesn't really work that way. I usually end up just getting paralyzed and feeling ashamed, frustrated, and anxious.

Part 3: I need to do something right now.

What we want to question here is that sense of urgency. It feels like the clock is ticking, like you're wasting time. If you're a millennial like me, maybe you grew up hearing about your potential and then at some point became terrified of wasting it.

There's an implication that there's a right way to be spending your time and if you're spending it in the wrong way, you're letting it slip away. Time is a precious thing in this loop and it feels very scarce.

Again, the “helpful” reason that thought is there is to keep me moving forward and keep me from giving up or settling.

Instead, I go straight into sympathetic shock, which is a fancy way of talking about the fight-or-flight response. I start running around, doing lots of different things but not really making much progress on any of them. Nothing really gets done, and if it does, I'm more apt to make mistakes and things tend to take longer.

What you want to do when you're stuck in this part of the loop is to ask questions like these:

  • How urgent is this, really? 
  • Will someone die if I don’t act immediately?
  • Do I have to figure out the whole thing now, or just the next little piece of it?

Getting Out of the Loop

So, to recap, what we've done so far is 1) notice we're in the loop and 2) start questioning the judgments and assumptions. Now, we're going to do something about it.

1. Come up with some alternative thoughts.

What "better-feeling" thoughts can you offer your anxious, worried, harried brain?

  • I don’t know what to do yet, but I'll figure it out.
  • I have plenty of time.
  • All I have to figure out is the next step.
  • I’d like to figure this out soon, but it’s not imperative that it happens right now.
  • I don’t know what to do this minute, and that’s okay.
  • I have lots of different options, even if I can’t see them right now.
  • Relaxing helps me to see my options.
  • I’m exploring my options.
  • I’m learning about my options.

2. Give yourself a 10-minute "worry break" and reconnect with your body.

When you're in that fight-or-flight feeling, you're completely dissociated from your body and your pre-frontal cortex (the part that makes decisions and regulates emotions) goes completely offline.

Meditate, do some stretches, or take a walk. Even just feeling your feet on the ground, paying attention to your breathing, and putting your hand on your heart or your abdomen can help.

I've written a whole blog post about some other things you can try. Just give yourself a brief vacation from having to deal with your stressful situation.

3. Next, feel into your body and let this question bubble up into your brain:

"What needs to happen next?"

Like literally, the very next thing you're going to do. It might be to go get a glass of water or answer an e-mail.

But whatever it is, let it come into your consciousness without forcing. Just take that one next step, and then see what happens. Do you go back into your anxious loop, or does something else come up?

When you come from that quiet, calm place and ask what needs to happen next, you might be surprised at the answer.

If it's too anxiety-provoking to trust yourself that way, treat it like an experiment. See if you can do that for an hour. Just see what happens when you let yourself trust the part of you that knows how to answer that question.

I know this isn't easy.

The fact that you're here and reading this means that you're interested in changing your patterns. It happens a little bit at a time, so don't get discouraged if this doesn't come naturally at first.

I can tell you that if you stick with it, it becomes easier and easier to gently detach yourself from the doom spiral and trust that the answers will come.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to my newsletter and get notified about new articles. If you need a next thing to do, you'll also get my free workbook Anatomy of a Dream Job: Bring Clarity and Focus to Your Career Search.

Image credit: freeimages.com/William Ray

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You're not a failure if your Plan A falls through.

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So, your plan A fell through. Maybe...

  • you have an advanced degree but can’t find a job in your field.
  • you took a risk and moved for a job that you ended up hating.
  • you got let go and have no idea what’s next.
  • you spent years getting into an industry that wasn't the greatest fit.

These are all people I've coached. They did everything "right" and things didn't just turn out. They came to me feeling lost, frustrated, and confused - and who can blame them?

When your Plan A blows up in your face and you don’t have a backup, it's normal to feel unbalanced and uncertain for awhile.

It can be easy to start questioning your judgment or distrust your ability to make good choices. Maybe you feel trapped, stuck, or helpless. I know I did! There were also periods of hope, optimism, and relief - but that wasn't when I needed comfort or advice.

There is a time for pep talks, and there is a time for someone to sit next to you and rub your back and say, "I'm sorry, sweetie, that sucks. You're gonna get through this." This post is the latter (but check out the article library for the other stuff).

8 Things I  Want To Hear When I feel like a failure

1. It’s okay to be pissed that your nice road-map is now a crumpled smoldering mess.

For reals. The time for looking for silver linings and growth opportunities will come. Sometimes to get there you have to scream, cry, journal, or vent first. Let's face it: starting over kind of sucks.

2. You are not a failure.

People try things, and sometimes they don’t work out. It doesn't mean you made a bad decision or have poor judgment. This situation doesn’t have to define you, and you can learn from it when you're ready to look at it in a new way. (That doesn't have to happen today, btw.)

3. It’s not necessarily true that things would have worked...

...if you had only been braver, smarter, or more diligent. Perfection is not protection against life’s slings and arrows. Try not to beat yourself up for not being better.

4. You can figure this out.

You have more resources than you realize. It’s normal to be unaware of them right now because seeing your options while in a state of panic is like trying to solve a crossword puzzle...that's also on fire. It’s okay, just know that they’re there.

5. You don’t have to have everything figured out right now.

All you need to know is whatever will get you through the next day, or hour, or breath.

You may feel like you screwed up somewhere along the way. Whether or not that’s true, you still deserve kindness (yes, even from yourself).

6. It’s okay to hide when you need to.

You don’t have to act strong and smile for everyone when what you need at the end of a long day is tea and blankets and a good book. Give yourself a place where you don't have to have it all together.

7. You don’t have to try so hard.

If you’re doing your best, that’s enough. Possibilities and opportunities are easier to see when you’re not all twisted up inside, so do what you can and try to let the rest go for now.

8. You don’t have to figure this out by yourself.

You are not alone. It's okay to ask for help, or to admit that this is too much for you to deal with right now.

 

 

The people I've coached through situations like the ones in this article are all in happier, more stable places than where they started. One thing I've learned from witnessing their journeys is that you don't wait until after you've formulated a Plan B to relax. Instead, the process of calming your stressful thoughts is vital to figuring out your next steps. That's where your real work is, and the first step is accepting where you are right now (even if it sucks). After that, the rest takes care of itself.

I'll be writing more about this in the near future, and I hope you'll stick around for my next posts! If you subscribe to my newsletter, you'll get notified about new articles and you'll also get my free workbook Anatomy of a Dream Job: Bring Clarity and Focus to Your Career Search.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Zsuzsa N.K.

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When Things Stop Working

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How frustrating is it when things stop working, just as you've figured them out?

There’s something really satisfying about finding a method that works. Whether it’s jump-starting a car or flipping a fried egg, mastering a little piece of the universe just feels good. It makes you feel like you have the cheat codes to life, or something. Can I get an amen, systems lovers?

And then whatever was working...stops.

For me, it feels like logging onto one of those websites that make you change your password every three months. Just when you get to the point where your muscle memory kicks in and you can type it in quickly without thinking...it stops working. And then you either have to retype the new one a few times before you get it right, or you forget and need someone to reset it for you. Annoying and time-consuming either way.

The stuff we do to manage our mood and motivation is especially susceptible to this phenomenon.

Maybe a nap usually works, but then one day it just makes you feel fuzzy. Or the friend who usually cheers you up isn’t available. Or taking a break to read a novel leaves you feeling more disconnected than before.

(My mom tells me this happens a lot when you have small children.The magic approach that short-circuits a tantrum or gets them painlessly in bed might work 75% of the time - or it might work once and never again.)

Dedicated readers might notice that there are multiple articles here on the same kinds of topics. When I'm anxious or in a bad mood, I come over here and write my way out of it, one word at a time. Clearly, I don’t have it all figured out, or I wouldn’t have to reinvent the “feel-better” wheel every time.

I'll tell you a secret - I rarely look back at those posts and follow my own neat list of instructions to get myself out of whatever pit I’m currently stuck in. The specific techniques I use when things stop working vary depending on the situation and what sounds good at the time, but the basic philosophy is similar each time.

So, how do I know what approach will work?

How do you get to the point where you’re not following a self-help recipe?

Here are some things to try (and yes, I'm aware of the irony that this is another list. What can I say, I love lists).

1. Make friends (or at least frenemies) with your patterns.

Start paying attention to what pushes your buttons and where your internal rules and limits create areas of friction with the world around you. For me, going through coach training and getting frequent coaching turbo-charged this process and threw those areas into sharp relief. When things stop working, it's a great opportunity to question your beliefs about the way the world "should" be.

After a few years of self-study, I now know that 90% of my bad moods come from me trying to force something to happen (usually something I have no control over, but feel like I should).

2. Accept where you are right now, even if it sucks.

As long as I'm beating my fists against reality, I can't get anything done. If I can’t get to this place on my own, I call someone in my support system to help me get there. Sometimes I just sit down and write about what I’m feeling (and if it’s halfway coherent or helpful, you get to read it later).

After I'm able to get a little distance, whether alone or with a friend, I check in and see if there’s a version of the "I should be able to control this" story lurking underneath my funk. It might be disguised in a trench coat or Groucho Marx glasses, but it’s always basically the same. Sometimes just being able to recognize the story gives me some distance and relief.

3. Believe that you deserve compassion (or be curious about what you would need to believe in order to give it to yourself).

Yes, even (especially) around your imperfections. For me, this was the first step to being able to doubt my doom-and-gloom stories and collect evidence that no matter how bad my mood was, it always (always!) eventually passed. Being mean to myself didn't make it happen any faster.

The frustrating thing is that I can know all this stuff about myself, but still get fooled over and over.

And then I have to send love to my inner perfectionist and work at not getting down on myself for falling for the same trick yet again, or for wasting all that time feeling like crap when "I should know better by now.”

It doesn't say anything about you when things stop working.

This is really the takeaway I want to give you. I could go into all the various tools you could use after you get to this point, but that’s not really the purpose of this article.

It doesn’t really matter whether you try a bunch of different things to get back on track or give up and wait for things to get better on their own.

What matters is how much patience and compassion you can show yourself when things go stop working, even if it takes you a while to get there. Because no matter what other systems in your life break down, that skill will always come in handy.

Photo credit: freeimages.com/african_fi

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Systems: Their Promises and Pitfalls

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I’ve always been a sucker for a good system.

I was one of those kids who loved rearranging my books (by subject, by author, by color…). I’ve tried all kinds of different diets, productivity systems, exercise routines, organizational schemes, you name it. Following a map that someone else has traveled to get where you want to go is incredibly seductive.

At times, I imagine myself in the middle of all the flawless systems I’ve created, my life virtually running itself around me, as I effortlessly work, eat, clean, move, etc. in accordance with the careful planning I’ve done. (Yeah, right.)

The lure of the system is strong for recovering perfectionists like me and my clients - they can take on an almost fetishistic role. Follow the system, and you’ll be organized, attractive, healthy, productive, and loved by everyone. Deviate, and it’s your own damn fault when you don’t get anything done and die alone and poor surrounded by cats. (Slight exaggeration for effect.)

The problem is, they rarely work for me.

When I started working for myself, I spent the first six months going crazy because I couldn’t get a single system to stick. Not one.

As much as I liked creating structure for myself, another part of me liked rebelling against that structure even more. Whether it was hours per day or projects per week, I never met the metrics I set for myself and ended up feeling frustrated and like a failure.

It was like there were two toddlers inside me: one who liked stacking blocks in neat towers, and one who loved knocking them over. Meanwhile, my inner babysitter was getting exhausted.

I didn’t “get over it,” either. (If that’s even the phrase I want to use.) If I tell myself I’m going to take a walk every day or publish a blog post every week, that’s almost a guarantee that it won’t happen.

So why should you listen to me, anyway?

A fair point. In my case, the evidence is stacking up that following systems and getting stuff done don’t always go together. I’m goofing off more than ever these days, and my business is more successful than it’s ever been. I’m also having way more fun!

How did this happen?

It started for me when I stopped focusing so much on my beloved tools and systems, and started looking at my overall approach.

My husband still fondly remembers his high-school calculus teacher, who would limp dramatically around the room with a calculator under his arm. The message: don’t use the calculator as a crutch. If you don’t understand the underlying concepts, the tools will only take you so far.

Why don't systems work all the time?

Systems often come with a lot of rules and/or tools: eat this (not that), do this first, color-code your binders. Sometimes this is helpful (I never have to guess what to do next), but there are some major issues that come up for me.

1. It triggers the inner rebel.

I start feeling trapped and suffocated, even when it’s in reaction to rules that I voluntarily adopted. I start feeling resentful and making unhealthy choices.

The chaotic, spontaneous part of me that hates rules and structure is also the source of my creativity and playfulness, so trying to hogtie her also ends up with me feeling stressed and joyless much of the time. Boo to that.

2. It’s an easy path to all-or-nothing thinking.

“I don’t have time to organize all these papers right now, so I’ll just leave them in a pile on my desk until I do.”

“I spent an hour writing out this meal plan and shopping list, but now I don’t want to make/eat any of these recipes.”

If I can’t follow the system perfectly, I’ll often just give up entirely and end up even more disorganized and lost. Alternatively, I'll spend a lot of time crafting the "perfect" system and then never implement it.

3. When it works for a while, I think I should be able to sustain it indefinitely.

I've written about the highs and lows of energy before, and how frustrating it is to have something that worked before stop working. When that happens, my instinct is to either blame myself or the system.

In reality, as anyone who has pets or children knows, the thing that worked yesterday may not work today. It's just the way things are - there's no failure involved. But when I'm locked into a specific way of making things happen, I forget that I'm an imperfect person trying to shoehorn myself into a Platonic ideal and start frantically trying to "fix" things.

4. It can create mental myopia.

When I’m focused on doing each step perfectly, I’m not looking at the larger context of the system in my life. It’s like concentrating really hard on driving a car extremely well, but not paying attention to where it’s going. What’s my endgame? What was my intention in adopting this structure in the first place?

Some say (correctly) that the journey is more important than the destination, that you shouldn’t make yourself miserable or do things you hate in the short term to get to some far-off imagined goal where everything will be perfect and you can finally relax.

This is totally true. However, when your goal is to do [x thing] every day, or follow a certain system, it’s really important to know why you’re doing it. The act of meeting productivity goals and following rules is not, in my experience, intrinsically satisfying. Connecting it to a larger purpose or intention is.

Connecting Goals and Intentions > Systems

If my goal is to publish a blog post every week, that doesn’t really get me excited. But if I remember that I like processing my thoughts and feelings out loud where they might be helpful to other people, and that in the long run it will help me build community and connect me with people who could use my services, I feel much more motivated.

To take it a step further, if I know what experience I’m looking for, it’s much easier for me to brainstorm other activities that fill that need. When I’m not attached to a particular method of getting that experience, it’s easier for me to see other options.

When you can rise above and see the general approach or intent of a system, the rules become more flexible.

When you’ve been cooking for a while, it’s easy to look at a recipe and see which ingredients can be substituted, adjusted, or left out entirely. It’s like they say in Pirates of the Caribbean: “The code is more what you'd call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Structure still has a place. You still need ingredients to cook something! A lot of the tools my clients and I use help us get from point A to point B without reinventing the wheel. To-do lists, calendars, and coaching tools are still an integral part of my process.

The difference is that when I’m not a slave to the system, I can make changes and experiment to find out what works best for me.

My life, Post-(Strict) Systems

These days, I have very little regular routine. I wake up early with my husband and walk him to work. That’s about as far as the “I do this every day” structure goes.

The rest of the day I nap, write, meet with clients, read, educate myself in my field, go for walks, run errands, clean, cook, pay bills, meditate, do something creative...but I don’t plan when I’m going to do things (except for classes and client meetings) and not everything gets done every day.

I'm learning how to think of my life as a bigger whole, where the main idea is that if I take care of myself, everything else falls into place.

It wasn’t easy getting to this point - it was terrifying to let go of the idea that I needed a plan to be productive.

I was so scared that without my inner dictator to keep my slothful, lazy self in line, I would end up a fat drunk broke loser (yes, that’s how I talked to myself). It was so hard to trust in my innate wisdom and goodness.

And yet, here I am, loving myself and enjoying my days, and my world hasn’t fallen apart yet. And you know how I got here? By questioning my formerly unquestioned beliefs about success, productivity, and happiness - by coaching myself (and getting coached), in other words.

Now it’s your turn.

Where are you not trusting yourself these days? What areas of your life could use a little more lightness and spontaneity?

What systems do you follow religiously (or wish you could), and are they giving you the experience you’re looking for? Where could you play and experiment with your approach? What is your inner rebel saying?

Love to you and your process! Let me know how it goes.

Photo credit: freeimages.com/ela23


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Should you quit your job?

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This post is for you if you're daydreaming about quitting your job and your biggest reasons for staying are one or more of the following:

  • I can't leave - they need me.
  • Plenty of people don't like their jobs and handle it just fine.
  • It's not so bad - I should be able to suck it up and deal.
  • I'm lucky to even have a job - others have it much worse.
  • I don't want to be a quitter.

These thoughts and others like them kept me stuck for a long time. If they (or their cousins) are running around in your head, I want to give you some useful alternatives.

To do that, I need to start off by telling you about a fun little thing called the Drama Triangle.

The Drama Triangle: Disempowerment for Everyone! Oh Boy!

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The Drama Triangle is a relationship framework that involves three roles: the Victim, the Rescuer, and the Bully. I teach this concept more in-depth in my career transition program, but all you really need to know is this:

  • You can be on the Triangle with other people, situations, and even yourself.
  • You can and will shift roles during an interaction (you may start off as a rescuer and end up feeling like a victim, for example).
  • The Victim feels helpless. The Rescuer feels responsible (and resentful). The Bully is just mad (and mean about it).
  • Each role tries to feel safe by manipulating the other players with fear and guilt.

What does the Drama Triangle have to do with your less-than-lovely job? If you're anything like I was, you're probably playing all three roles throughout the day.

Take a look at those thoughts up above. I can't leave. They need me. It's not so bad. Suck it up and deal. Can you see how they all step from guilt and how they fit into this dynamic?

The problem here is that you give away all of your power to your coworkers, your boss, your job, and any stressful situations you might be experiencing. You're looking for validation from someone else that if you just work hard enough, for long enough, you're a good person whose needs will get met.

How long are you willing to wait?

I know you might be thinking, "Julia, it's not like I have a choice - I need this job." I hear you, and I would also question that conclusion. What would happen if you got fired tomorrow? You would figure out something else. It might not be fun or easy, but you probably have a few contingency plans between here and living in a cardboard box.

So I'm going to lay a few thoughts out here - see if any of them resonate with you.

1. No employee is irreplaceable.

You - beautiful you - are one-of-a-kind. Your job isn’t. In one of my last jobs, I believed (a bit egotistically) that I was the only person between them and disaster...until I quit and saw them scramble to get the help they needed elsewhere. It wasn’t pretty, but they got the job done. Without me.

2. Being unhappy is a good enough reason to leave a job.

You really don’t need to justify it to anyone else. I kept getting caught up in the thought that I didn’t have a good enough reason to leave. Just like a relationship - you don't need a reason to break up besides "This isn't working for me anymore." Don't let internally- or externally-created guilt keep you in a bad situation.

3. There is no hierarchy of pain.

Do you have a better job than a little sweat-shop kid or a coal miner? Yeah, probably. Does that mean you’re not unhappy? That you don’t deserve to do something that doesn’t make you break out in a cold sweat on Sunday night?

The world doesn’t need you to stay miserable for the sake of everyone who has it worse, it needs you to find out what makes you light up so that you can go out and kick ass at it. It might not help a child laborer (although it might!), but it will make you much more pleasant to be around.

Plus, if you have a loving partner/child/friend-group, it will make them much happier to see you happy. (Trust me on this one. My husband tried to get me to quit so many times before I finally pulled the trigger.)

4. You don’t have to wait until you’re miserable to start looking for other options.

If you start disliking your job, ask why. Is it a temporary project that’s freaking everybody out? Okay, maybe if you wait it out things will get better.

But if the problem is interpersonal relationships, poor communication, or you’re not enjoying your duties anymore (and they’re not likely to change), you might want to start putting out feelers.

5. There is no prize for being the person who willingly puts up with the most shit.

The only thing you will get is more shit to deal with. You might get some appreciation or acknowledgment, but you'll also become the person that other people think, "It's cool, So-and-so can handle it." Do you want to be that person? Do you feel any guilt for not wanting to be that person?

So you're thinking about quitting your job - what next?

If you’ve managed to move past the guilt and gotten up the courage to consider quitting your less-than-stellar job, there are probably a few things you’re freaking out about right now.

Maybe it’s money, maybe it’s the job market, maybe it’s how you’re going to tell your [people who are intimately involved in your life decisions]. Maybe it’s that you have no clue what you really want to do with your life.

This shit is scary, I'm not gonna lie. It takes a lot of guts to consider a leap into the unknown. Many people choose to stay in icky situations indefinitely because the alternative is so terrifying. I have a lot of respect for you for being willing to pursue something more.

If you're going to make this work, start setting up your support systems now. Maybe start saving more of your paycheck, start researching your options, and stick out your current situation as long as you can with the knowledge that this is temporary. Hire a coach (hi!) or get a trusted friend on speed-dial to talk you off the ledge when you start wondering if you're making a huge mistake.

You're not. I believe in you. Now it's up to you to believe that you deserve something better.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo

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Making a good decision (and why they don't matter so much)

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How often do you get tied up in knots over a decision, wanting to make the right one? How often are you presented with options that seem equally murky?

Given the nature of decisions, we’re making them almost constantly.

From the moment we wake up (get up now or hit snooze?) to bedtime (watch another episode or call it a night?), we’re constantly presented with a buffet of options, most of which we navigate without much thought or angst. So obviously some decisions are weightier than others.

I’m currently playing with the concept that none of the decisions I make have any more effect on my well-being than what I have for breakfast. If you think that’s ridiculous, stay with me for a minute.

I realized recently that I’ve been defining a good decision as one that doesn’t cause shame or regret.

I don’t want to look back at my choices and feel that way. Shame is one of the most painful emotions out there. Why wouldn’t I try to avoid it?

To protect myself against shame, I look at every possible outcome to see if it could result in me feeling that way. And then, when I’m lost in an imaginary disastrous future of my own making… guess what I’m feeling? The shame of imagining I’ve lost my life’s savings isn’t any less painful than actually losing them (and maybe it’s worse!). Not to mention the accompanying anxiety and paralysis.

This aversion technique keeps me stuck right where I am, unable to make a decision either way, and then...I feel ashamed of my indecision!

There’s got to be a better way.

My coach asked me yesterday, “What’s wrong with feeling ashamed?” and my head broke a little.

Shame means I did something wrong. It’s the crunch I hear when I back into something. It’s the curt reply to a well-meant joke. It’s the smell of burning food in the oven. If I don’t feel shame, I won’t know I did anything wrong and I won’t know better next time. Shame is good! It keeps me from doing bad things! </jerkbrain logic>

Shame poses as a helpful preventative, but it only ever shows up after the fact.

If I never know until it's too late which decisions (or lack thereof) will cause shame, there’s really no way to avoid it. If there’s no way to avoid it, I might as well stop figuring it into my calculations. I might get in a car accident on the way to the grocery store, but I’m not going to stop driving!

Shame (like anxiety, unlike a car accident) isn’t going to hurt me. It feels awfully uncomfortable for awhile, true. But eventually it will go away and I’ll still be here.

Okay, you’re here because you want to make good decisions.

I’m assuming the decisions you’re stuck on are of the murky variety, unlike “Should I go to work, or stay home and smoke crack today?” (If that is your question, I suggest going to work.)

First, set aside any pro/con lists you’ve made.

If it was that easy, you wouldn't be reading this, right?

Next, question any thoughts you have about urgency around the decision.

Is it true that you have to make this decision right now? Often, my stress comes from the perception that I have to decide IMMEDIATELY.

Can you remove yourself from the situation, even for a little bit?

Go for a walk. Listen to some favorite music. Watch the Sad Cat Diaries on YouTube. Get your head in a different space. You can’t think yourself into a good decision - you’ve already tried that, remember.

Let yourself go to your worst-case scenario, the one you're afraid to think about.

Ask yourself, gently, what you’re afraid might (or might not) happen. What if it came true? Would you still be okay? How long would it last? What resources do you have that you’re forgetting? Are you afraid of reliving a painful situation from the past, and if so, how are things different now?

Don’t spend too long scheming about every possible outcome - the point is to look at the thing you’re scared of and discover that it can’t hurt you. Do this with a coach or a friend who loves you, if it's too scary to face alone.

Once you’ve defused your worst-case scenario (or at least made it a little less nebulous and scary), check in with your body.

By that, I mean take some deep breaths, close your eyes, and mentally talk through what you know FOR SURE about each option (no speculating!).

  • Focus on those areas where you carry tension: maybe your neck, shoulders, or stomach. Do you feel constricted and tight, or expansive and relaxed when you think about your options? Be genuinely curious about what comes up, and if you find you're trying to "make" yourself feel a certain way, be curious about that, too.
  • Notice if there are certain aspects of the decision your body is reacting to. E.g., maybe your yucky feelings aren't about the money you'd have to spend on the conference - they're because you hate traveling.
  • To give yourself a benchmark, you can mentally revisit decisions that you know were right or wrong for you and observe how your body reacts to those memories.

If the choices still seem equally ambivalent, imagine an authority figure telling you that you MUST do X or CANNOT do Y. Do you feel angry? Disappointed? Relieved? Another gem from Molly: "Do you feel like you're trying to talk yourself into it or out of it?"

What decision would the person you'd like to be make?

In this TED Talk, philosopher Ruth Chang says, "We shouldn't think that hard choices are hard because we are stupid...Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they're hard because there is no best option."

Her solution when there is no best solution is to decide who you want to become and let that version of ourselves direct our choices. "When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are."

But whatever decision you make, my dear, it really doesn’t matter.

(And if that statement makes you angry - good! Let’s talk!) Your life will go on whichever choice you make, or even if you don’t make one at all, and you’ll keep doing the best you can. Besides, science tells us that we tend to overestimate how much effect a situation will have on our happiness.

Let’s remember this together (because I’m writing this for me as much as for you) - in the end, you’ll be okay. In fact, you're already okay. You’re a resourceful, intelligent person who just forgot that for a moment.

**I feel the need to add: sometimes anxiety-brain or depression-brain jams the signal to such an extent that every option feels equally pointless, urgent or doom-filled (or that there aren't any options). My heart is with you if that's where you are, and my hope is that you're able to slow way down and take exquisite care of yourself until the fog lifts enough for you to hear your own wisdom.

If you're wrestling with a difficult career decision you can't seem to get clarity on, I invite you to connect with me for a free strategy call and learn more about working with me.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Thomas Pate

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Finding peace in transition.

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In transition? Bring on the identity crisis!

This post is dedicated to everyone who's in transition and feeling weird about talking about it to other people. I can't be the only one, right?

Going to my 10-year high school reunion was surreal and slightly awkward in a way that I think is unique to that kind of event. I enjoyed connecting with some people I hadn't spoken with in years, and there were a few surprises that night (who had beards! who had babies!).

An unexpected surprise was my shyness around my fledgling coaching practice. After all, I have a website! I have business cards!

In reality, when people asked me what I was doing, I said something like,

"I've spent a lot of time doing museum installation, but, um...I'm actually transitioning into life coaching."

If I were truly comfortable with this identity, I would have just been like, "I'm a life coach, bitches." (Bitches implied but probably not vocalized.)

Finding the useful amidst the awkward

Immediately after the event, I was frustrated with how milquetoast I'd been about it. Now, I'm actually really happy that I got such clear information about what I need to work on next.

What I wish I'd done before the reunion was recognize where I still had insecurities and fears and worked to resolve those, rather than worrying quite so much about business card design. (They are really pretty, though.)

What I did was turn a blind eye to the hard stuff inherent in starting over. Years out of high school, I wanted to look established and successful. (Hello, ego, I don't remember inviting you to the party, but here you are!) I didn't want to look shaky and in the middle of transition, and in the moment I made a snap judgment to highlight my former stable career because it felt safer.

Can I just take a moment to acknowledge all the hard here?

  • It's hard to give up being an expert in exchange for looking like a newbie.
  • It's hard to let go of an old identity, even if it's not serving me anymore.
  • It's hard to explain why I wanted to leave a job that sounds really cool.
  • It's hard to claim a (slightly cheesy-sounding) profession that many people haven't heard of and don't really understand.

By trying to ignore all the lingering resistance/fear/doubts I still had around making such a drastic change, I couldn't get to a point of feeling safe and confident about my choice. No wonder I clung to my security blanket of Respected Museum Professional™.

Now, I'm retroactively writing myself a giant permission slip.

Permission to feel weird about being in transition! Permission to be new and inexperienced! Permission to not explain why I left my old career! Permission to not care what people think! Permission to be vulnerable! Permission to be scared of all the new things I need to learn! Permission to not be perfect and have it all together! Permission to not know how it's all going to turn out!

I'm already breathing easier.

You guys, starting over is hard. There will be people who won't understand. There might be people who will even take it personally. Being willing to show up and screw up is one of the scariest things out there. Letting go of an old identity can feel a little like death.

This is where I am, and that's okay (even if it sucks).

However, I've found the secret to peace in the midst of all this chaos: accepting where I am, growing pains and all. Being able to say, "This is where I am, and it kind of sucks, and that's okay," is one of the most powerful ways I've found to claim my own experience and let it be what it is. It's when I get scared and try to present myself as an expert or totally in control that things feel icky and wrong.

If you're in transition and scared of what people will think of the changes you're making, you're not alone. And if it doesn't feel safe to talk about what's going on yet, that's okay too. Your new identity is a tiny sweet thing and deserves the right time and place to emerge - which might not be a high school reunion! Share it with people who love you, who trust you to make the right choices for yourself. And when you feel that love and trust for yourself, I hope you'll let it out so the rest of us can enjoy it, too.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Kaliyoda

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Why you don't need to "fix" a bad mood.

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Earlier this week, I was in a pretty bad mood.

The problem was, I didn't know why.

Often bad moods are caused by something I'm telling myself, like I'm not good enough. But in this particular instance, I couldn't find a reason that my stomach was tight and my jaw was clenched.

I talked to my coaching partner, Alice, about it that night. After some investigation, we discovered that whenever I'm in a bad mood, I feel like I need to fix it.

What I'm learning in training is that most suffering is caused by painful (often untrue) thoughts, so theoretically finding and examining the faulty thought should help with the suffering.

Fine, except sometimes moods and emotions just show up. Is it hormones? The weather? What I ate for lunch? Who knows?

This may come as surprise, but if I'm feeling tense and anxious because of a low-pressure front, I won't be able to fix it by questioning my thoughts.

I told Alice that a bad mood seemed like the equivalent of a "check engine" light on my dashboard; a sign that something needed immediate attention or else.

When I can't find a thought to work with, I usually go into distraction mode. Let's look at ALL THE THINGS on the internet! Let's take a nap! Let's eat some chocolate! Let's try a whole bunch of stuff and see if any of it makes me feel better! (And don't forget Let's brood on my history with depression and wonder if it's a relapse! Whee!)

When we came to the conclusion that maybe I don't have to do something about every little blue spell, I felt an incredible sense of relief. You see, feeling like this mood was my responsibility to fix and not being able to usually ends up making me feel even worse.

"What do you want to do when you let go of needing to fix something?" she asked.

"I just want to be quiet," I said (to my own surprise).

One of my favorite books when I was little was called Henry's Awful Mistake. It was about a duck who was cooking dinner for a friend when he sees an ant in the kitchen. He goes to more and more extremes to try and get rid of the ant, eventually wrecking the dinner, the kitchen, and flooding the entire house. Full text here if you're interested.

The busy, problem-solving part of my brain is a lot like Henry when I'm in a bad mood. Rather than just being okay with it, my brain keeps coming up with more and more solutions, stressing me out and leaving me worse off (and sometimes prodding me into unhealthy coping mechanisms along the way).

The next time I get into one of those moods, I'm going to try not to let it mean anything about me. It's not a check-engine light, to go back to the car metaphor; it's more like a crummy part of town I'm driving through. The kind that has car dealerships and fast-food restaurants lining both sides of the road. If I just keep driving, eventually I'll be somewhere else without having to change anything.

Thinking of the fix-it part of my brain as a well-meaning but befuddled duck has some surprising advantages, too. "Oh, sweetie," I can say now. "It's okay. It's just an ant." I'm not adding self-hatred to the bad-mood fire, I'm dousing it with compassion and humor. That's the plan, anyway.

And maybe one day I'll be as wise as Henry becomes...

When Henry was settled in his new house, he again asked Clara over for supper. Just as he went to the door to let Clara in, he saw an ant.

He looked the other way!

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Stop caring so much.

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About your job. What people think of you. Your weight. Etc. Would the world fall apart? Would you?

I've been in that place, depressed and bitter because of the disparity between How Things Are and How Things Should Be (I've been in that place today, lest you think I've become too enlightened to relate to). I've broken myself trying to fit into broken systems because I cared so goddamned much.

I thought that if I couldn't change things, playing Sisyphus would at least prove something about how dedicated and awesome I was. When your entire value system is based on continuous improvement, deciding not to care is tantamount to dismantling your identity. Letting things be the way they are, without needing them to be better, feels dangerous. Like giving up.

But...is caring useful?

How's it working out for me?

Well, to quote Albert Einstein, "Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Sometimes it feels really good, in a eat-the-whole-bag-of-Oreoes way, to have a good bitch session about how a situation should be different. But showing up to that same situation time and again, thinking that somehow maybe things will change, feels kind of crappy.

The self-righteous high of anger and frustration turns to feelings of powerlessness and depression (not unlike the way I feel when I actually binge on junk food). Anger without a constructive outlet just turns into cranky cynicism.

Ironically, it's when I stop caring that my actions are most effective.

I was afraid that if I stopped caring, I would just passively accept whatever crap came my way and take it with a smile. (Instead of accepting crap and complaining about it, which I think has historically been more my style.) Not so!

Leaving the toxic job, writing the assertive e-mail, or practicing radical acceptance of my body becomes a lot easier when my identity isn't riding on a successful outcome. Areas where I do have the power to improve things suddenly come into focus.

I have to learn this lesson over and over, because I've been practicing caring to the point of pain for almost three decades and I'm still a newbie at this whole "detachment" thing.

Something that's helped is a trick I picked up from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy where I ask, "Is this thought useful?"

Another question could be, "What am I getting out of this?"

Or, "What would happen if I didn't care so much?"

The answers tend to be along the lines of Not particularly; The satisfaction of feeling martyred and/or superior; and Probably nothing too bad, respectively.

Another useful question is, "Who or what am I judging here?" I usually find out some unquestioned assumption about how things are Supposed to Be that needs to be examined.

(Man, it sucks to think of yourself as a tolerant, easygoing person and then discover how much anger and judgment you're carrying around! I mean, it must suck for those people. Ahem.)

I've tried "caring to the point of pain" for awhile and I know how it usually ends.

Maybe it's time to try something different. I have this sneaking suspicion there will always be stuff to get bent out of shape about if this whole accepting-the-way-things-are thing doesn't work out.

I'm so grateful for the work I do because it teaches me to call out my own bullshit. It shows me that a more peaceful existence is waiting patiently for me to get tired of my stuff and learn to let it go. I just have to want to be at peace more than I want to be right. Easier said than done...but I'm practicing.

What do you think? What are some things you could stand to care a little less about? How do you successfully let go of something that's not working?

Image credit: freeimages.com/Claudia Cristina Mesa P

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News flash: MY rules ≠ THE rules

When I was young, my best friend would come over to my house and say, "I'm the guest, so I get to decide what we do." When I visited her house, she would say, "It's my house, so I get to decide what we do." At five, her logic puzzled and frustrated me - but hey, it seemed pretty airtight. Later, my parents taught me how to actually behave as both a guest and a host. The basic model is that the guest doesn't ask for or criticize anything, the host makes the guest feel welcome and comfortable, and both parties do their best to be polite, pleasant, and engaged during the visit.

(Before you ask, no, this is not a randomly-placed post on etiquette. I do have a point.)

My point is that this model works beautifully as long as all the people are playing by the same rules. Everyone gets their needs met, a good time is had by all, etc.

What happens, though, when that's not the case?

As a guest, I feel frustrated when my hosts don't stick to the script I learned as a child. When household members argue and criticize each other in front of me; when they disengage and ignore me; when every mouthful that anyone takes is fair game for scrutiny and commentary; I shut down. I become a quiet-but-polite robot, staring into the middle distance, trying to ignore the perceived rudeness going on around me.

Note the word perceived.

When I willingly give control of my comfort to someone else, I disempower myself. When I'm uncomfortable because I feel like someone else should be acting differently, my needs don't get met and I get(!) to stew in martyrdom and self-righteousness (which makes me super-fun to be around, I'm sure). I end up feeling five years old again - it's not fair when I play by the rules and they don't!

Hmm, the rules, you say?

You sure those aren't just your rules?

...Dammit.

When I accept the social contract I grew up with as my cultural custom and not "the rules," I find that I have less judgment of those who act differently. I also feel more free to take care of myself in uncomfortable situations. I'm pretty sure I'm never going to get a medal for "Valiantly Sat Through A Family Argument That Was None of Her Business." I have the option of leaving the room or even *gasp* checking e-mail on my phone.

Weirdly, releasing expectations of how someone else should act makes it easier for me to take care of myself in a loving way. Usually I would worry, "What will they think? They'll think I'm so rude / such a bad guest!" But when it's clear that What Will They Think Of Me isn't the game we're playing, I can step into my sovereignty and make my own rules about what's best for me. Reminder to myself: releasing judgment first is key, since otherwise I'd be leaving the room in a huff and hoping that would get them to change their behavior (yeah, right).

Another cool thing that happens when I start thinking of the rules as my rules is that I get to decide which ones to keep. I will probably continue to play by the hosting rules I grew up with, because I think they help guests feel welcome and comfortable. Actively choosing those rules instead of letting them run my life makes them feel more meaningful. As a guest, I'll still probably stay in my default mode most of the time - but not at the expense of my own well-being anymore. Polite Julia doesn't have to equal Martyr Julia.

Now I feel weirdly grateful for those situations, because otherwise I would have never questioned my beliefs around this dynamic. I wonder where else I'm getting needlessly upset because I'm expecting others to play by my rules?

How to practice self-compassion when you screw up.

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Late one night in a hotel room three hours away from home, my husband realized he'd forgotten his business clothes. He had a suitcase full of jeans and t-shirts and a meeting at 9 am the next morning. He was so frustrated with himself. "I can't believe I did that," he kept saying. I sat with him on the bed for a few minutes while he fumed at himself, and then we got up and drove to Wal-Mart and bought some clothes for him to wear the next day.

I understood his feelings. When I screw something up, I am merciless with myself. When I misplace my keys yet again; if I misjudge how long something is going to take; if I'm late to something, the thoughts that go through my head can be so venomous and cruel. The mistake isn't just a mistake, it's a referendum on my worth as a person and my right to exist.

I don't think we're the only ones who do this.

When my husband forgot his work clothes and was beating himself up, I felt such incredible love and tenderness for him. It was inconceivable to me that something like that could make me love him even a tiny bit less. All I wanted to do was hold him and be there for him until he was in a place where we could problem-solve. I kept telling him, "This doesn't mean anything. It's just a mistake. It doesn't say anything about you."

Those moments were eye-opening for me as I realized what my husband feels when I'm lost in self-loathing. Why can't I practice self-compassion when I mess up? Why is my first instinct to comfort when it's someone I love and castigate when it's myself?

Part of it is the belief that if I shame myself over the mistake, I won't make it again, and if I do it enough, I'll never make mistakes! I'll be perfect, because that's how it works, right? I'm afraid that if I cut myself slack, I'll somehow internalize that it's okay to make mistakes, and we can't have that.

I'm currently reading Kristin Neff's book Self-Compassion (which I checked out after semi-failing her self-compassion quiz). In it, she says there are three components to bringing yourself back from the brink of hateful self-talk. These are taken from her website, self-compassion.org.

  • Self-kindness: "Being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism."
  • Common humanity: "Recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience - something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone."
  • Mindfulness: "Taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated."

Before that night, I understood that these were important and all, but I was having a really hard time believing they applied to me. I just couldn't let my mistakes slide for fear that I'd lose my motivation to do things correctly.

Until I held another human being going through the same torture and saw from the outside how unnecessary that pain was, I couldn't bring myself to truly believe there was another option. Maybe I can be imperfect and loved. Maybe being a flawed, vulnerable human being isn't such a horrible fate after all.

I'm still working on self-acceptance when I screw up. While I wish I could say, "It's okay, sweetie, you're still okay," to myself, sometimes the best I can do is to just not continue the critical internal monologue. As strong as the urge is to masochistically poke myself with all my shortcomings, I know it's not useful.

Sometimes all I can do is try to let my mind go blank and focus on my breath. My tendency during a freak-out is to either hyperventilate or not breathe at all, so I pay attention to that and try to smooth it out as best I can. If I'm feeling super-ambitious, I put my hand on my heart.

I try to let the feelings of sorrow, shame or anxiety move through me without resisting or amplifying them. All I can do is try to hang onto myself until the emotional crisis is over, and then see what I can do to pick up the pieces.

It's not perfect, but then again, neither am I.

Photo credit: freeimages.com/len-k-a

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