In 2015, Maya (name changed to protect her identity) felt completely stuck.
She was an academic researcher just beginning her career on the tenure track. She had been in charge of a group of students who had gone behind her back and undermined her to her Dean. Instead of discussing the situation with her and giving her a chance to tell her side of the story, the Dean simply took punitive action.
Aghast at how little she was valued both as a professional and as a person, Maya fell into a tailspin of questioning herself and her decisions.
She couldn’t bear the thought of being treated like she had for another 30 years. But “academic researcher” was her whole identity. Who on earth was she if she stepped away from academia?
She was facing social and familial pressure to just “be a good girl” and not rock the boat, but the stress and misalignment were undeniable.
What made it hardest to step away from her toxic job, however, was the absolute void that yawned when she asked the question, “But if not this, then what?!”
It was a real existential crisis.
A 2021 study of 14,600 employees at all levels of organizations across 13 countries by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, an HR research and advisory firm, found that 75% of people feel “stuck” personally and professionally.
The pandemic seems to have woken us up to what isn’t working about our lives, and so it seems clear that change is necessary and perhaps even inevitable.
What is less clear is what to do next.
At this point we might be experiencing a number of conflicting feelings:
As if these feelings weren’t heavy enough, our ability to make decisions that move us forward and make positive change is affected by yet another factor. Allow me to illustrate:
Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel and Columbia University examined more than 1,000 decisions by eight Israeli judges who ruled on convicts’ parole requests.
Judges ruled favourably for parole 65% of the time at the beginning of the day’s session and granted almost zero paroles at the end of the day!
But wait! There was one exception: right after a snack break, approval scores jumped right up to 65% again.
While it’s easy to assume that the judges were just grumpy from hunger, researchers found a more interesting explanation: Decision fatigue.
Previous studies have shown that repeated decisions make people tired, and they start looking for simple answers.
For example, if we’re at Costco with our kids who are bickering or pulling us in multiple directions, we’re more likely to be overwhelmed at the jam tasting station and default to the strawberry flavour we know our family loves.
Why do we do this?
Because our brains seem to understand that change requires analysis and weighing multiple (possibly complex) factors against each other. In the case of jam, making a mistake would cost under $10. But when it comes to switching vocations or careers, that price tag jumps – financially, emotionally and socially.
In the case of the judges, as they sensed their building fatigue, it’s likely that they weren’t harsher in their rulings; it’s that they defaulted to the safety of the status quo. These weren’t sentencing hearings (where they’re deciding how long to put the guilty away), they were parole hearings (where they had to decide whether to let criminals out before their sentences were fully served).
When one doesn’t have the mental capacity to process all the information, it feels safer to just leave the criminals in prison. This choice, while devastating to the individual prisoner, has fewer potential repercussions on the public at large (and on the judge themselves).
In other words, we tend to default to the simplest decision.
In the case of workplace dissatisfaction, this might make our choices seem more limited than they really: shut up and deal or… quit. As if there’s nothing in between.
So how do we make big, scary changes – especially when our numbness or overwhelm might be getting in the way of us feeling into what we really want?
In Maya’s case, she used two main strategies to help her find her way forward: She saw a therapist and she started journaling.
The therapist helped by gently pulling her out of a tailspin every time her thoughts would spiral into helplessness. She often did this in two ways:
- By helping Maya cultivate relaxed awareness – a state where she could examine the facts without drama or catastrophizing. Relaxed awareness allows us to consider the negatives and the positives of the situation and get a more nuanced understanding of our role in creating it.
Think of it as “neutral awareness” – where nothing is good or bad. It just is. And we can calmly assess whether we prefer it or not without any blame or shame.
As you can imagine, this state takes practice. Which is why having a therapist to hold space and guide us can be extremely helpful. If you’re attempting the journaling prompts below and are having trouble cultivating relaxed awareness, trying slowing your breath.
Breathe in for 3 counts expanding your ribs and belly.
Hold for 1.
Breathe out for 5 counts, fully emptying your lungs.
Repeat until you feel calmer. Do not fight tears or anger that might well up – the whole purpose is to free up the emotions so you can think clearly again. Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel and keep breathing.
Answers that come from relaxed awareness are often significantly different from those that are products of anxious thinking (that usually come with a side of blame, shame and guilt).
Relaxed awareness is the space or “mental room” that we enter when reflecting productively. And journaling or talk therapy or self reflection is what we do once we’re in that room.
- Maya’s therapist helped unlock her insight and intuition by posing interesting questions for her to reflect and journal on.
- If you had all the money and all the skills you needed, what would you want to do?
- What specifically would your job description be?
- How would you spend your time and what feelings (emotions and physical sensations) would doing your ideal work create for you?
Focus on the process rather than outcomes – in other words, if your goal is to become a full time blogger, your primary should be focus on the process of creating your blog rather than your subscriber count or revenue.
Once you’ve fleshed out your dream process (it’s not uncommon for this job will to not exist yet), we can add some caveats:
- How much money do you absolutely need to give yourself runway to succeed?
This number isn’t your goal income. In fact, it’s the opposite – it’s your baseline for survival. You might even need to curb some costs to make this number work knowing that it is temporary and the purpose of it is to buy yourself time to bring your dream job to life.
This step might require you to take a look at your finances. Work with real numbers rather than emotions.
Often we shoot down our dreams because we don’t yet see how they can bring us the revenue or security that our current (toxic) circumstances seem to give us. This is a myth. The internet is studded with folks who, by leaning into work they absolutely love and would probably do for free, have become millionaires. This takes dedication, passion and most importantly- time.
But it starts with permission. Permission to actually look at all the pieces calmly before making any decisions.
Looking at our baseline numbers might create a deep sense of relief – that number is often smaller than we thought it was. Also, feelings of failure or shame can be mitigated by assigning a purpose to the downsizing – you’re buying freedom and joy, not cutting expenses because you “should”.
- How willing are you to give yourself as much time as is needed to make this dream a reality?
Feel into your willingness as well as any resistance that surfaces. Return to your breath if you find yourself spiralling. Remind yourself that you’re merely exploring in your journal – you don’t need to act on anything right away (or ever). You’re merely allowing yourself to see what’s already there so you know what you’re dealing with.
And should whatever you’re dealing with exceed your ability to deal, get professional help.
- What skills and abilities do you bring to the table? Make a ridiculously detailed and comprehensive list of things you’re good at and love doing and can do for others. Mine your memory for things and come back and add to this list over the course of days and weeks because new thoughts will surface given time.
- What is a tiny step you can take to bring me closer to my goal? This might include research online, reading a book or three, conversations with folks in the know. Often, when we put down the drama, we will already have a clear idea of what a next baby step should be. And taking action changes things – not only does it alter the data and enhance our perspective (even when things don’t work out), but it helps cement our identity as someone who is willing to be in control of their life.
Does journaling and self reflection actually help?
In Maya’s case, she came up with a startling job title for what she wanted to do: Spiritual qualitative researcher. She realized she wanted to combine healing modalities with her research tools to create a more holistic experience both for the researched and the researchers themselves.
At first this seemed impossible – it had never been done before and seemed kinda, almost contradictory… deeply analytical and also woo.
But she started taking making phone calls. She hired a coach. She made that list of all the things she could contribute to the world, both big and small. Slowly a picture emerged.
Today, seven years later, Maya has blazed a trail and is indeed making more money as a “spiritual qualitative researcher” than she dreamed possible. Her work satisfaction is through the roof not just because she spends a bulk of her time doing things that were on her list of ways she contributes to the world… it’s because her contributions are being made to people who are hungry and grateful for them.
Maya escaped a toxic job and started building her dream life before she really knew what she wanted. And using the prompts I shared above, you too can take that first baby step in moving away from what isn’t for you any more and start discovering what is.
Does this mean you’ll get unstuck the very first time you journal or even the 10th? There are no guarantees – but self reflection with neutral or relaxed awareness will almost certainly give you some insight you can act on.
And then it’s up to you to keep exploring.