I’m still not totally sure why, but
I’ve been struggling recently.
Not externally, with how things are
going for me right now, which is actually amazingly well given what’s going on
in the world.
Rather, I’ve been struggling
internally, with strong waves of emotions that at one point got so intense that
I wondered if I was getting depressed again. Depression is rare for me these
days, but it does happen, and though it isn’t enjoyable, I’ve also learned that
it isn’t the end of the world.
As I sat with my emotions, however, it occurred to me that what felt like depression was really just me panicking over feeling such strong sadness and longing and grief without knowing why. And then, like a falling leaf that lands inexplicably in your hand, the thought arrived: I don’t have to.
As in, I don’t have to panic; I can just feel.
So I did, and the wave washed over me, and after some tears I felt calmer and clearer, though no more insightful than before.
Then, a few days later I went on a walk with my aunt.
She reminded me that sometimes we feel emotions most intensely when we’re breaking through to something new.
What she said reminded me of a video
I’d seen of a cicada emerging from its shell. It’s something I’d never thought
much about: the fact that these large, flying insects in the treetops that seem
so confident in their noisy song all begin as mute, wingless nymphs that spend
their time hiding underground.
In the video I saw that documents
one such transformation, the cicada has an intense look of concentration on its
face, as if it’s using all of its focus and effort to bring its body out of the
old form and into the new.
The cicada looks bewildered as well,
like it’s not quite sure what’s going on, and when it finally emerges
completely, it appears to be clutching the shell from which it emerged for dear
I’ve seen cicadas in the morning
after emerging from their shells at night, and they’re motionless and nearly
helpless for a time, perhaps because they’re still working to integrate the
incredible transformation they’ve just been through.
I find it all strangely reassuring,
with a few important insights to offer:
1. Growth is hard. For everyone.
Transformation is scary,
bewildering, and disorienting. It doesn’t help that we don’t often get to
choose when it happens.
2. We’re not left alone in our struggle.
We can be sure that in any given moment, there are millions
of other beings out there who are also working hard to expand or emerge
3. We’re built for it.
We often forget this last one,
believing that we’re supposed to be succeeding, achieving, or enjoying instead.
But the one thing that every living thing on this planet has in common is growth.
We’re designed for it, so we can trust that no matter how awkward, messy, or
overwhelming the process is, we can handle it.
I still don’t know where my
expansion is headed. But I do know from previous experience that if I can stay
with the discomfort long enough, new worlds will open up.
Speaking of change…
If you’d like help on your own journey, I offer individual and small group coaching. Find out more here.
A client asked me this question recently, and I’ve heard
versions of it before. I understand why.
If you’re miserable at work but are surrounded by people who
seem to be enjoying and/or excelling at the very same job that makes you want
to flee; if you have a recurring pattern of being unhappy in your career; or even
if you’re just a naturally introspective person, this is a normal question to
The problem with answering it, I quickly realized when I made
the attempt, is that its complex nature and the various reasons people ask it
defy a one-size-fits-all response. So today we’re going to try something a
little bit different.
Today you get to choose your own adventure.
Adventure #1: If you’re asking whether the problem lies with you or your job because you worry that you’re not trying hard enough to make it work, click here.
If you’re asking because you don’t want to quit your job, find another, and then
realize that you’re still miserable, click here.
If you’re asking because you want to know which to adjust—yourself or your
job—to find you’re looking for, click here.
If you long to jump ship but think that with a little more discipline, skill, or effort, you could make yourself enjoy and/or thrive in a job that depletes you, then your Inner Critic is probably misleading you.
Inner Critics are prone to blame and all-or-nothing
thinking. They want you to believe that either you’re terrible, or your job is.
They’ll try to convince you that you’re unhappy because somebody is screwing
something up (most likely you).
The truth is, we all have unique interests and skills that
make us well-suited for some types of work and not-so-well-suited for others.
The way I see it, this is one of life’s magic tricks, because it means that
there are people who are well-equipped to solve the many different types of
problems in the world.
Often, however, the currents of life take us away from our most
needed path and deposit us in foreign waters. In other words, for whatever
reason, we find that we’re getting paid to work on a problem that actually
belongs to somebody else. When this is the case, no amount of willpower,
talent, or hard work will make that problem ours to solve.
If this is your adventure, resist the urge to judge or make
anybody wrong for your situation (most of all yourself). You’re just being invited
to answer a question that’s larger than who’s to blame or even whether to quit
your job. Your real question is:
How is the world asking me to share
my gifts right now?
The good news is, you can share your gifts wherever you are,
so there’s no urgency to figure anything out. Over time you can observe whether
your current job helps you employ your capabilities to good effect, in work or
outside of it, or whether you’re being called in a different direction.
It takes time to build up to earning our full living from
contributing our biggest (and frequently most hidden) talents to the problems
that are ours to solve, but as long as you’re finding ways to share your gifts
and letting them guide you towards opportunities for fuller expression, you’re
on the right path.
How Adventure #1 Turns Out:
You stop using your dissatisfaction (or exhaustion,
frustration, disappointment, feelings of failure, etc.) as an excuse to doubt
yourself and instead understand them as a series of road signs pointing you to
where you can make a meaningful contribution. Paying careful attention to these
signs, you discover your many gifts, share them more intentionally in work and
outside of it, and begin to see how valuable they really are.
One step at a time, your contributions lead you towards work
that truly nourishes you, that you feel good about, and that allows you to
change the world in meaningful ways.
There’s a joke that goes:
Question: What do all your problems have in common? Answer: You.
There’s another joke that goes:
Wherever you go, there you are.
Okay, so these aren’t so much jokes as pithy statements
about life, but the point is that there’s some truth to the fact that we cause
much of our own suffering, and finding a new job won’t change that.
So if you wonder whether the problem is you or your job because you have a sense that you might be miserable no matter where you work, you’re acknowledging a difficult but important truth. If you think that means that you’re doomed to unhappiness no matter what you do, however, then you’re paying too much heed to your Inner Critic.
For most of us, breaking out of our misery requires some
external adjustments (to our current situation) and some internal changes (to how
we’re approaching that situation). This might seem obvious, but too often our
Inner Critics convince us that there’s a magic solution to our unhappiness that
lies in drastic changes to one realm or the other, and our job is to sit around
trying to figure out which it is.
In reality, all we need is to be willing to experiment a
little to find the right combination of inner growth and outer shifts that
support our well-being. (This, by the way, is perhaps the easiest way to
explain what I do with my clients, and why coaching works).
If this is your adventure, you’re not being asked to
determine whether you or your job is the cause of your misery. Rather, you’re
being asked a much more important question:
What’s the next baby step that I’m
being called to take?
Nobody’s doomed to be unhappy. Misery is just a sign that we’ve been following our will rather than our Inner Wisdom. In my experience, once you become willing to listen to the clues your head, heart, and body are giving you, no matter how small—to work less, do yoga more, spend more time outdoors, write that story that’s been floating around in your head, or do anything else that makes you come alive—you no longer need to avoid misery because you’ve learned to let it guide you.
How Adventure #2 Turns Out:
You stop trying to find a silver bullet and start
experimenting your way towards greater happiness. You let go of the belief that
you’re doomed to misery and that you should be able to figure everything out on
your own. You seek out the support you need to make small changes both
internally and externally, the results of which add up to something greater
than the sum of their parts.
One step at a time, your experiments lead you towards work
that truly nourishes you, that you feel good about, and that allows you to change
the world in meaningful ways.
Most of the time when people come to me, they’re looking for
a new job because they think that’s what’s going to solve all their problems
and give them what they’re looking for.
I don’t want to diminish the benefits that come from finding
work that aligns with and supports our truest selves. They’re big, and real. But
the truth is, there’s no job—or any external circumstance, for that
matter—that’s going to give us what we most desire.
Challenges—namely, not getting what we want—act as natural
interrupters to this cycle. So if you’re asking whether you need to adjust
yourself or your job to find what you’re looking for, that’s cause for
celebration. You’re being given the opportunity to ask the only question that
can actually reconnect you to the state of being that you long for most:
What growth or expansion am I being
invited into right now?
If you’re not sure what that is, here are three ideas to find
Pretend you’re a scientist and observe yourself. Pay close attention to what happens when you’re upset: What do you think and feel? What do you say, do, or not do? Look for patterns and then ask yourself how these are helping you and how they might be limiting you. What might you do differently to open up new possibilities?
Get an outside perspective. Ask a trusted mentor, coach, colleague, friend, or loved one what possibilities they see for your growth.
Follow Tony Schwartz’s Golden Rule of Triggers: When upset, whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t. If you feel compelled to strike out, hold your fire. If your instinct is to pull back, stay engaged. See what happens and do more of the thing that supports your happiness and well-being. (Adapted from Be Excellent at Anything by Tony Schwarz.)
If you’re thinking that this all sounds great but won’t get
you any closer to your goals, then I have one last thing to say:
Internal changes are what make the external ones possible.
We can only exert our creative power in the world once we
have the skills, qualities, and other internal resources necessary to work
through the challenges that inevitably arise when we do.
There is one important, rather big caveat, however, which is
that in order to change internally, we need to have the necessary support and
resources. If our current environment doesn’t provide these, then it’s worth
finding one that does.
How Adventure #3 Turns Out:
You commit to your internal growth, finding the support you
need through books, classes, groups, friends, mentors, therapists, and coaches
to make it easier and more effective.
You become more content with where you are, regardless of
your circumstances. Paradoxically, as you grow more fulfilled, you begin to see
opportunities to make bigger external changes, and now you have the tools and
resources to make them more powerfully.
One step at a time, your expanding sense of self leads you
towards work that truly nourishes you, that you feel good about, and that
allows you to change the world in meaningful ways.
Quick announcement: Pathfinders Group Coaching is now open for enrollment. Designed for people who want to identify the type of work they’re meant to do in the world and start actually doing it, Pathfinders of one of my most cost effective programs. Find out more and get the details here.
First of all, happy new year! I hope your transition to 2019 was a good one.
Mine, to be honest, was a little rough.
Between holiday preparations, surprises at work, the inevitable glitches of a house renovation, dentists, car maintenance, back pain, and an increasingly intense campaign I’m involved in to protect my city’s trees, I was feeling slightly overwhelmed.
Lying awake in bed one night, I was so wound up thinking about all the things I had to do that I couldn’t sleep. I know by now that such worrying isn’t helpful, so I naturally responded by obsessively creating a list of things I ought to do to calm down, forcing myself to do them, then criticizing myself when I realized that my compulsive problem-solving was making me more uptight and miserable, not less.
Only when the tension got so intense that I could barely stand to be in my own skin did I get desperate enough to admit that I had a problem and no idea how to solve it.
And then, of course, as soon as I did, my misery immediately disappeared.
There’s something magical that happens when we release ourselves from the expectation that we ought to know how to solve all our problems.
It opens us up to find freedom, acceptance, and—paradoxically—the answers to our dilemmas.
When we think that we should know something, our minds are so filled with thoughts, worries, and doubts that there’s no space to notice the solutions that are right in front of us. Only when we give up on knowing are we free to see the clues, ideas, and resources of which we previously weren’t aware.
I talk to a lot of people who are disappointed or even depressed about their work.
They can’t manage to stay satisfied with a job that may be well-paying but is ultimately unsatisfying, ill-fitting, or even agonizing. And yet because they have no idea what would be better, they give up and keep going back to a job that they know isn’t right for them day after day, month after month, and year after year.
The thing is, these folks aren’t actually stuck. They just think they are. They haven’t yet found the power of the magic words:
“I don’t know.”
We’re often told that you have to know where you’re going if you’re going to get there. While that’s true at times, it never is in the beginning. In fact, not knowing your way is a critical first step to discovering it.
In the beginning, every hero’s journey is more about asking than answering, listening than knowing, and seeking than finding. Curiosity is far more useful in the first few steps than confidence.
If you’re unsure how to let yourself not know, try repeating the following phrase to yourself and see what happens:
“I have no idea what to do right now, and I don’t need to.”
You might also sit in a quiet place and get curious as to what not knowing feels like. Admit that you’re clueless and then notice what you feel in your belly and chest. If your heart starts racing and your stomach tightens up, that’s not the feeling of not knowing; that’s the feeling of thinking you should know when you don’t. Repeat the phrase above, focusing on the second part, and try again.
You might find that not knowing isn’t as uncomfortable as we tend to think it is. Wobbly, sure, but also exhilarating; far from empty, it’s actually filled with possibility.
In my experience, the answers always come in time. But only to those humble (or desperate) enough to admit that they don’t have them.
In my next post, I’ll share some ideas for how to get answers once you’ve admitted that you don’t know or need them. (Life is full of paradoxes, no?)
Long ago, the people lived in a village by a lake not far from the mountains. The village and its lands were small at first, but eventually the leaders of the village foresaw that if they cut down more of the surrounding forest and expanded their fields, they would have more food to eat and more fibers with which to make clothes and baskets.
So they did. The expansion created much bounty for the village, and at first the villagers were happy. They enjoyed fuller bellies and warmer clothes, and all was good.
But better health for the villagers meant more children, and before long food and fiber began to be scarce once again. Enterprising and resourceful, the villagers again expanded their fields, and once again, for a time, all was good.
Until the next generation of children came and with it more hungry mouths to feed. And the children who grew up in a time of plenty now needed more and better food to be satisfied. So the villagers cut down more trees and prepared more land for sowing. This time, however, the new land under cultivation was not as rich and required more work. So the villagers had to labor from sunup until sundown and sometimes even longer in order to coax the harvest they wanted out of the land. They didn’t mind at first, but after a year or two laboring day-in and day-out in this way, they began to become dissatisfied.
Little by little, the dissatisfaction spread like a disease until before long everyone had fallen ill. Soon nobody was gratified and the Great Dissatisfaction had begun. No longer content with the food they had or the clothes they wore, the villagers worked harder and longer to expand the fields, increase production, and keep up with their desires. If they could just get a big enough harvest, they thought, the Great Dissatisfaction would end.
It was around this time that Little One was born.
They called him Little One both because he was the youngest boy in his family and because he was small. He was scarcely larger than his younger sister, who was a full two years younger than him, and his arms were no bigger round than a field snake.
His brothers delighted in reminding him of this because they knew he was terrified of snakes. He was terrified of many things, but it was his fear of snakes that his brothers enjoyed most. It was a common occurrence for them to throw a rope over the back of his shoulders, scream “SNAKE!” at the top of their lungs, and guffaw as he danced about, trying to get the rope off his back.
Little One had always been different than the others.
While his family loved working in the fields for 16 hours a day, Little One grew tired and restless. He loved to work for the morning and the early part of the afternoon. He enjoyed tending the fields, nurturing the little seeds with water and sunlight. He got excited when they first broke through the earth and proffered their delicate, hopeful leaves to the sun. He grew proud as they stretched their limbs into new territory and grew strong over time, eventually turning this strength into flowers and fruits that they generously shared with the world.
But by mid-afternoon, Little One was tired, restless, and irritated. His eyes would wander towards the mountains, and he longed to see out what lay beyond.
His family had tolerated this while he was still a child, but once he reached adulthood, they couldn’t understand his reluctance. They told him he was lazy, weak, and selfish. He did his best to stay with them morning until night, but it was torture. By mid-afternoon, his whole body would grow heavy, his eyes would start twitching, and a tightening ache would close in on his chest and threaten to strangle him.
There were other differences too.
Nobody else in the village wondered what lay beyond the mountains. Nobody had ever even ventured to their feet, let alone climbed their peaks. Nobody else was scared of insects, darkness, large animals, storms, and the possibility of drought. They didn’t spend time worrying about these things or jump back in fear every time something moved unexpectedly in the bushes.
And nobody else cried when an animal was killed, even a spider that had accidentally wandered into enemy territory.
So Little One spent lots of time alone, wondering what would fill the void he had begun to feel in his chest, beating its dark wings against the soft wall of his heart.
And then came the day when everything changed, when Little One saw the snake.
He had been weeding around a group of tomato plants and noticing how their leaves were yellowing, their limbs wilting, and their trunks listing ponderously to one side. It was as if the burden of their fruit was weighing on them more heavily than before.
“They’re tired,” came a voice from out of nowhere. “The soil is no longer giving them what they need.”
Little One looked around him to see who was speaking, but he saw no one. Then he felt something touch his ankle and looked down to see a large, brown snake with a diamond-shaped head making its way across his foot.
Little One screamed and stumbled backwards.
His eldest brother was not far away and ran over. “It’s a rattler!” he yelled, and another brother had soon run over carrying a shovel. Before Little One could say anything, the eldest grabbed the shovel from his brother’s hands and ran the pointed head deep into the earth. The snake’s head fell on one side, and its body went limp on the other.
Little One suddenly felt an ache in his chest so deep he thought his heart might be swallowed whole. His second brother picked up the shovel and turned to leave. “You’re welcome,” the eldest one said, as they both laughed walked away.
Little One sank to his knees. The snake’s lifeless eyes stared up at him, its mouth open slightly as if to ask how he could let this happen. Little One couldn’t feel the ground beneath him as he hurriedly scooped dirt over the body of the snake. He could no longer see anything except the dark, sorrowful eyes slowly disappearing beneath clumps of reddish soil. It wasn’t until he saw a drop of water land on the newly turned earth above the body of the snake that he realized he was crying. He wiped the tears away and silently hoped that nobody had seen.
That night the snake visited him in his dreams. He dreamt he was wandering through the woods for hours, not sure what he was looking for, when he finally heard a soft hissing to his left. He turned, and there it was—the same snake his brother had killed that day.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the snake said. “You took a long time to get here.”
“Why?” Little One asked nervously. “What do you want?”
“You’re not meant for thissss,” the snake continued. Its eyes were dark but didn’t seem angry. “You’ll never be happy this way.”
“What do you mean? Of course I will, as soon as the harvest comes in. I planted an extra big crop this year.” But the last words died on Little One’s lips and he immediately knew that they weren’t true.
“Yesssss, that’s better,” hissed the snake. “You can sense there’s something more.”
“Something is calling you.”
Little One considered this. He could feel a slight tug on his heart, as if it were being drawn towards something just beyond the horizon. “What is it?” he asked.
“That you’ll have to discover for yourself. You find it in the searching.”
“And where do I search for it?”
“Lisssssten,” the snake hissed.
“What does that mean?” asked Little One.
“Jussssst lissssten,” said the snake.
And then Little One woke up.
It was just a dream, he told himself, and prepared to go to the fields.
But when Little One reached the fields that day, the ache in his chest grew so intense that he could barely breathe. It felt like his heart was being crushed by a vice. He tried to work but could barely stand up. When he left early for a lunch break, he found something curious. Each step he took towards his house lessened the pain in his chest and allowed him to breathe a little bit more.
Back at his home, Little One went to get food. When he reached down to pick up an apple, a snake’s head suddenly appeared next to his hand.
Little One stumbled backward. He went to the bedroom and saw a snake on his bed. His heart in his throat, he looked at the ceiling. There were snakes hanging from all the rafters in the roof.
Little One had never been more frightened in all his life. But beneath the fear, he could also feel a slight movement in his chest, like something within him was made of steel and was moving towards the magnetic pull of the mountains beyond. He was suddenly aware of a strong desire to see what lay beyond the peaks.
He could hear the snake’s words in his ear: “Something is calling you.”
Something was calling him, something big. He could almost hear it, like a drumbeat in the distance, coming from below the mountains, from the earth itself, echoing the pulsing of his heart and the beating of the dark wings of emptiness in his chest. It had to do with him. It had to do with the snake. It had to do with the Great Dissatisfaction, but he didn’t know how.
He also didn’t know what he was looking for. Who or what was calling him? What did they want from him? He had no idea.
What he did know was that he had to find out. If the snake was right about listening, then he was pretty sure whatever it was lay in the mountains beyond.
He packed his things while he waited for his family to return from the fields. The snakes were gone, with only a rag on his bed to remind him of their presence. When his family returned and he told them his plans, they were shocked and didn’t understand why he would abandon his fields so near harvest time. They were angry that he wouldn’t be there to help them.
Little One felt a twinge of sadness about this. He was also terrified of the road ahead, as he had no idea how long it would be or where it would pass. He was thinking maybe he had made it all up, he was being irresponsible and impulsive, and it would be best to stay. That’s when his sister pulled him aside.
“Go,” she said. “They’re just sad. They don’t know it, but we need help. We’re sick, and we don’t yet realize it. Go. Find what is calling you. Perhaps it can help us as well.”
That was all Little One needed. He smiled, kissed her forehead, and said goodbye. He picked up his bag and walked out of his home, starting down a path he had never been down before. He walked away from his fields, away from his village, away from everything he had ever known.
So began the journey of the first one of us to answer the call.
Change is hard. For most of us, no matter how much part of us wants to make a change, there’s another part that for whatever reason seems bent on staying stuck in the status quo. As a result, we procrastinate, convince ourselves it’s not even worth trying, or find other ways to stay with the devil that we know.
How can we overcome this tendency in order to move towards what we want more powerfully?
To answer that question, I’m excited to share with you the story of Jeff Siewert, a former client of mine who managed to move past his resistance to change and go from listless executive to impassioned entrepreneur in a relatively short period of time.
Jeff participated in my Pathfinders Group Coaching Program, which is currently enrolling, but he does a great job of identifying what exactly was key to his transformation so that even if you’re not interested in coaching right now, you can get an idea of what to look for from other sources to help you make a similar move.
Here’s Jeff’s story, in his own words:
How Things Were
“Two years ago I was at a crossroads and needed a career change—a life change—but I wasn’t sure how to go about it.
“I was coming off two years at my latest job. I had an executive title and my compensation was as good as it had been in years. I traveled often to New York City and had made two long international business trips. On paper things were good, but I couldn’t help thinking I was in a dissatisfying spot that I’d found myself in before.
“I knew I had the talent and skills to do my job and was performing successfully, but after some of the excitement of rebuilding and creating new improvements passed, I found myself listless and less than fully interested in what I was doing. When I was honest with myself, I realized that I’d come to that same moment of truth before.”
“In some ways I was lucky to have a catalyst for change. There was an upcoming company re-org that would have meant a retrenching and starting over of sorts. This would be a good time to transition to something new, something better. However, I didn’t know what that could be.
“Was I ready to forego the regular income I had now? What did I think I could do that was better? To quote the phrase, wasn’t it easier to stick with the devil I knew? Was I ready to deal with family and friends who questioned my sanity in making a late career change? Was it too late for me to make a change? How was I going to figure this out any better than I had previously?
“I joined Pathfinders Group Coaching after researching several career counseling services. The kicker for me is that I didn’t want job placement advice or simply a list of potential corporate roles I should consider. I wanted answers regarding what types of paths I should be considering based on what my skills and talents are and for what activities I have real passion. Getting to those skills and passions first was more important than jumping to corporate business titles. I knew many of those types of corporate roles already, and the ambivalence I felt about them told me I needed to do some soul-searching work and be honest with myself about who I am and what’s important to me before jumping to solutions.
“I had inklings of some pursuits I might want to try. I decided I needed to be in a group setting, that saying things out loud to others would make my ideas more ‘real’; my group members could hold me accountable. As important, they might make the connections and suggest the actions that I was too afraid to admit to myself.”
How He Did It
“Our group started off with some baseline inventories of our skills and interests. I’d taken some similar exercises in the past, but these were at work and were never going to drive a change from that work! I enjoyed getting into the Enneagram results and those of other tests. It was great to take these at face value and not try to fit them into preconceived slots.
“As we all talked through our stories and baseline assessments, I was comforted to realize that I wasn’t the only one feeling blasé, unsatisfied, or disconnected about where I was going. We were all in that same boat. It was great that we had this safe environment in which to open up.
“However, even with our own homework pointing out new options to consider, we can be our own worst enemies, and we spent some time addressing our ‘Inner Critics,’ those voices that tell us why we cannot do the possible steps we outlined.
“A really valuable Pathfinders exercise is that each of us got to have a ‘Mastermind Session’ in which a person could self-direct a meeting to solicit help and input from others on our progress in turning our ideas into action and results. I had a list of passions and strengths and a tentative idea of groups I might serve. Still, I had trouble taking my ideas and giving form to real options.
“My teammates very quickly told me, ‘You’ve been telling us of your passion for music. You have these strengths and interests in communicating and creating. Why aren’t you writing some kind of music blog?’ They helped turn on the lightbulb I’d been shuffling to the back of my mind. Before my session was even up, my mind was flooded with ideas.”
From Idea Into Action
“I immediately started brainstorming ideas – strategic ones like what would be my vision and mission, and tactical ones like what distinguishing content and web presence should I consider. A name and a logo came to me and I began trademarking and incorporation steps as Atlanta Music Grapevine [AMGV]. Grapevine was to be a news, information, and social site, and eventually a larger Grapevine Enterprises LLC would offer additional services to artists, venues, and music businesses.
“I was well on my way when I started to uncover similar competitors I had previously missed. I wanted to launch with a big bang. I was interviewing web developers to design a super-charged site. Admittedly, seeing others doing some of what I wanted to and being far ahead of me left me feeling discouraged. I had shopped around the idea with people I knew in music and they had been supportive, but my Inner Critic was getting to me again.
“I then heard of other people about to start a similar music magazine. I got fired up and decided that I needed to start. I couldn’t let ‘best get in the way of better.‘ I needed to head off any further competition. Bigger sites were heavily outsourcing to freelancers, but I still wanted some control and consistency over the ‘voice’ and style of the magazine. I decided to customize my own website theme, and read all I could on web formatting. I would launch now and add all the features on my wish list later as I could. We put out our first story the first week of June.
“As Atlanta has nearly doubled in size in twenty years, it’s become home to many talented musicians of all genres, venues that offer music entertainment, and music businesses that make music happen. Atlanta Music Grapevine focuses on Atlanta, not on national acts that play Atlanta. We cover a broad geography, as there is great music happening in the suburbs across the metro area, just as there is inside city entertainment districts. We’ve featured folk singers, jam-band style rock bands, hard rock music promoters, jazz vocalists, and more. We want Atlantans to know the talent we have in our backyards. We’re telling the stories of venue owners who create spaces where people can go see live music. We tell the stories of luthiers, guitar pedal builders, producers, and others with music businesses.”
How Things Are Now
“Reaction from the Atlanta music community and fans of music has been very positive and supportive. I think one reason for this is that AMGV aims to tell the stories of the people behind the music. Everyone has an interesting story to share. I think the stories help make real the people in bands, those at music venues, or those managing behind the scenes. Knowing about the people makes connecting to the music a greater interest. In our short-attention span world, AMGV tends to write longer stories that emerge from interviews that are often two hours long.
“I have not yet begun to monetize the site, as the focus has been on establishing credibility. Yes, I know that it is important. Money, in fact, is a needed part of the change I wanted to make. However, people who like what I’m trying to do are sending me business ideas and offering to make introductions for me.
“Two lessons from Pathfinders come to me as I worry about finances. One I heard during Pathfinders is that if do what you’re passionate about, the money would follow. I can’t tell you how many other people tell me that same thing as I share what I’m doing with Atlanta Music Grapevine. Another lesson is that when you do something you enjoy, you have more energy, time doesn’t creep along sluggishly, and you find yourself absorbed in what you’re doing.
“While these ideas and benefits sound obvious enough, getting from where you are to where you want to be, doing the work to honestly write about your likes and strengths, and admitting to and working with your Inner Critic fears, are not as obvious when trying to do it on your own. Pathfinders gave me a needed structured approach, meaningful exercises, a sounding board, a safe environment, Meredith’s non-judgmental, encouraging coaching, and the support of team members whom I could trust.
“I revisit my Pathfinders homework from time to time and am reminded that while my current endeavors are so far distant from the type of work I did for many years, what I’m doing now is a better, truer version of what I can do. I’m thankful I learned through my Pathfinders experience that it’s never too late to make a positive change.”
As you may have picked up in a previous post, my husband and I are thinking of moving and have been looking at houses nearby.
Recently we saw a sweet one on a beautiful piece of land that was priced well under our budget, but it needed a lot of work if it was going to give us what we wanted. As we met with architects, contractors, engineers, and other experts to explore the possibilities, I paid close attention to my internal response. I meditated on what we found, journaled about it, discussed it with people I trust, all the while paying attention to my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, and listening for the subtle stirrings of desire.
In other words, I was doing my best to hear my Inner Wisdom.
What I heard, over and over, was: Yes. This is the right house, the right step to take. It’s going to be a lot of work. It may be stressful and overwhelming at times. You’ll probably run into many challenges. But you can handle it, it’ll help you grow, and you can create something wonderful on land that you’re already beginning to love. (Fortunately, my husband agreed.)
Due diligence expired, and I began to get excited. Having made the decision to buy the house, I felt energized, enthusiastic, and capable, not to mention incredibly blessed to have this opportunity in front of us.
And then, a few days before closing, my confidence evaporated. What I can only describe as a tsunami of fear crashed over me, washing away excitement and leaving only panic in its wake. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much money it was going to cost, how much work it would be, and how many things could possibly go wrong.
Doubt overtook me. We were already running into some unexpected expenses. Had we made the wrong decision? Was my Inner Wisdom wrong? Should we back out of the contract before it was too late?
A Confusing Pattern
The same thing happens to my clients all the time. They do a lot of work to come up with promising career ideas, explore them, and use their Inner Wisdom to find a possibility they’re excited about. There’s usually a window of time that lasts somewhere between an hour and a month in which they too feel enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic.
The window promptly closes somewhere around the time when change starts to get real. Then suddenly, without warning, the tidal wave comes, sometimes drowning them in fear, panic, and doubt, sometimes merely soaking them to the bone.
So what’s the deal? Why does this happen? And how can we possibly know how to navigate important life decisions when something that feels so good one minute feels so bad the next?
The key to answering all three questions is to understand exactly what Inner Wisdom is.
So, What is Inner Wisdom?
I first discovered the presence of a wise voice inside me when I was struggling with depression in my mid-twenties. I began to find that even in my worst moments, when I felt utterly alone, confused, and hopeless, I could still sometimes hear the whisper of something far wiser than me if I just got quiet enough. It spoke softly, calmly, and compassionately; gave voice to truths that seemed to come out of nowhere; and slowly but surely guided me out of my misery when everything I’d tried before had only made it worse.
One step at a time, I followed my Inner Wisdom out of depression and back to myself.
Since then, that quiet, inner voice has led me to do things that I wouldn’t have thought possible. It steered me towards building a thriving coaching practice, marrying a wonderful man, writing a novel, developing meaningful relationships, returning to my roots in Atlanta, and expanding myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It helps me make difficult decisions that turn out well when there’s no way to rationally anticipate what might be the better option. It’s no exaggeration to say that every time I follow my Inner Wisdom, I discover greater levels of joy, freedom, and fulfillment.***
So what is this voice exactly?
If you’re not the woo-woo type, here’s a scientific explanation: Inner Wisdom (or intuition) is another name for the things we know but don’t know that we know. Recent research suggests that it’s measurable and can indeed help people make faster, more accurate, and more confident decisions. What’s more, scientists have found that there’s an intrinsic nervous system in the heart and a secondary “brain” in the gut, both of which function independently and send more information to the brain in our head than vice versa. In other words, our bodies provide us with information and intelligence that goes far beyond our rational, conscious thought.
I personally see Inner Wisdom as the voice of my true self. It comes from the part of me that extends beyond ego, and that’s free from fear, constrictions, or limiting beliefs.
I also believe that it comes from a collective wisdom that we can tap into if we’re willing to get quiet and listen. Joanna Macy talks about how when we act on behalf of something greater than ourselves, we have access to the wisdom, beauty, and strength of our fellow humans and our fellow species. This absolutely feels true to me as well, and perhaps explains why my Inner Wisdom seems to know so many things that I don’t, and benefits others as much as it does myself.
How to Hear Your Inner Wisdom 101
When I coach clients in how to know what their intuition is saying, we usually start with the body. Wisdom can show up in any of our three centers of intelligence, but it’s generally easiest to hear in the body. Paying attention to physical sensations and noticing what helps your body feel more open, spacious, relaxed, or energized can give you great clues about where your Inner Wisdom is pointing.
In addition, observing the flavor of your thoughts can help you identify what’s coming from Inner Wisdom and what’s coming from your Inner Critic. I recently wrote a whole post about how to identify your Critic, and you can learn a lot about your intuition just by noticing which thoughts are the opposite of what I describe there.
To put it simply, your Inner Wisdom is usually quiet, calm, patient, loving, and compassionate. When you listen to it, you understand that you have plenty of time, you’re going to be okay, and no matter how you feel, you’re still a whole, lovable, and worthy human being. Fear and your Inner Critic, on the other hand, are generally urgent, dire, judgmental, and belittling. They make it seem likely that everything good is about to implode, most probably because you’re fundamentally flawed.
A great way to learn more about how your Inner Wisdom speaks to you is to keep a record of all the times you think you hear its voice. Write down how you recognized it, what it told you, what you decided as a result of hearing it, and how that decision turned out. If you’re like me, over time you’ll start to gather evidence that your Inner Wisdom is quite trustworthy, as well as some powerful clues for how to identify it.
How to Hear Your Inner Wisdom 201
Now here’s where things start to get interesting.
Often I have clients who tell me that their Inner Wisdom is telling them—surprise!— to stay in their current job after all because they realized that it isn’t as bad as they originally thought.
Sometimes this is actually true; more often, however, it’s a sign that they’ve run face-first into the wall of fear that usually sits just on the other side of wisdom.
Because sooner or later, our Inner Wisdom always leads us towards what we fear most. This isn’t a punishment or sign that we’re doomed to misery; I rather see it as evidence that (as David Whyte puts it) this world was made to be free in. The universe conspires to open us up and remove our constrictions by pointing us towards our fears again and again and again; that way, we have plenty of opportunities to come to terms with and move past them.
This principle explains the tidal wave of fear and doubt that I encountered with the new house, the same one that clients feel when they get into exploring an exciting career idea. Almost every time we attempt to follow our Wisdom into a new realm or on a deeper level, there’s a backlash when we come face-to-face with some of our greatest fears.
It becomes important, then, at this point in our Inner Wisdom studies, to be able to distinguish between the sensations of true guidance and the temporary relief that comes from avoiding something scary or falling back into the familiarity of an old (but unhelpful) pattern.
It takes time and observation to learn the difference. This is like the PhD of Inner Wisdom education, and those usually take what—approximately 102 years based on what my friends who have them say? The point is, try to be patient with yourself. I’ve also adopted the general rule of thumb that I have to talk to at least three people who are wiser than me before abandoning a course of action that previously felt like wisdom.
Feeling the Fear, Trusting the Wisdom
The three wise people I spoke to about the house didn’t seem to share my newfound fear that everything good in my life would turn to dust if I moved forward with the purchase. I also noticed that in those rare moments when I had some relief from the terror and felt slightly more grounded, I still felt excited and energized by the idea of moving forward with it.
So we closed on the house last week. Though I know by now that I can trust my Inner Wisdom, I still obsessed over the budget a few more times, tried to solve every problem we might encounter in advance, and made backup plans for my backup plans. Hey, that’s just what I do.
Which leads me to a final PhD-level concept: Trusting your Inner Wisdom doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair. I’ve come a long way in terms of following my intuition, but as you can see in the house example, part of me trusts, and part of me still doesn’t. The part that doesn’t is going to want me to fall back into old habits that make me feel safe (though I know by now they don’t actually accomplish much in that regard). If it helps calm me down, there’s nothing wrong with doing it, as long as I realize that’s what’s going on and participate with eyes wide open.
Because the part of me that trusts is growing. And the world is already a much freer place because of it.
***The Fine Print:
This isn’t to say that if you listen to your Inner Wisdom you’ll always get everything you crave, things will always go the way you want, or you won’t face any unexpected challenges. This isn’t Manifestation, which can so easily become about listening to ego once again. When tuning in to Inner Wisdom, I find that it’s best to let go of my ideas about particular outcomes and trust that while things may not turn out as I imagine, they’ll result in the best possible scenario for everyone involved. That may not sound very reassuring, but I can also add that in my experience, if you follow your Inner Wisdom, you’ll find plenty of options for taking care of your needs, far more opportunities for creating joy, the ability to share your most powerful gifts with the world, and the promise of serving a greater purpose even when you have no idea what that may be.
Want Help Hearing Your Inner Wisdom?
I offer individual and group coaching programs at various levels of investment that can help you get your PhD in Inner Wisdom and work through the fear that likes to lurk on the other side of it.
Over to You
When have you followed your Inner Wisdom, and what came of it?
Please share in the comments below. You might just inspire someone else to trust their intuition.
Recently I was lying in bed, anxiously tossing and turning, my mind spinning as I fruitlessly tried to relax and go to sleep. The things that usually help me calm down weren’t working, and I had no idea why I was so tense or what I could do to fix it.
After wrestling with my thoughts for what seemed like forever, I finally felt my body begin to release its frantic energy like a top that’s spun itself out. In one of those first moments of stillness a realization surfaced: I was struggling so much not from lack of effort but from an overabundance of it.
In the face of life-altering changes, developments in the health of a close family member, and really just a whole lot of uncertainty and ambiguity, some old patterns had taken over. I was trying to do everything perfectly, from searching for a flawless new home for our family to maturely handling all the fear that change brings up for me, all the while handling my normal responsibilities with ease and grace during a particularly busy time. Without meaning to, I’d raised my expectations for myself so high that despite my best efforts, I was failing to meet them.
In other words, my Inner Critic had taken over.
What Is an Inner Critic?
Perhaps the most important thing to know about the Inner Critic is that we all have one. It’s that voice in our heads that’s always looking for what we’re doing wrong, where we’re not measuring up, and what we should be doing better. It’s also probably the single biggest obstacle to finding your calling, or really just growing, expanding, or moving towards what you want in any way, shape, or form.
When we listen to the Critic (and it’s hard not to, as it tends to speak with such volume and authority that it can feel like unquestionable truth), we doubt ourselves and our capabilities. We feel like what we want isn’t possible, and what we’re doing isn’t enough. We also tend to hold onto old patterns that keep us stuck in the status quo.
There’s a reason for that. The Critic, though problematic, is actually trying to help us. It wants to keep us safe, and it believes that the best way to do that is to make sure that we stick with what’s familiar. As far as the Critic is concerned, its job is to preserve the status quo, where at least we know we can survive, whether it’s an engrained behavioral pattern or a job we’ve been in for fifteen years. And because it’s far more concerned with safety than it is with happiness, it’ll do so by any means necessary, even if that means making us miserable.
How Do I Deal With My Inner Critic?
Despite all this, the problem isn’t that we have an Inner Critic but that we believe it. The most straightforward and powerful way to avoid falling prey to it, then, is simply to recognize when it’s the one talking.
In my own example of the other night, once I realized that all my spinning thoughts were coming from my Inner Critic, they immediately lost their power. My whole body relaxed and felt more settled; I had access to a sense of my own strength and goodness once again; and I was able to let go of the thoughts that I knew weren’t helpful. They became like flies buzzing around my head; unpleasant, perhaps, but hardly consequential.
It’s kind of like how at the end of The Labyrinth Jennifer Connolly’s character, having gone to great lengths to battle David Bowie’s Goblin King the entire movie, finally defeats him simply by saying the words, “You have no power over me.”
The process may be simple, but it’s certainly not easy. Just as I had a hard time identifying my Critic even after years of working with it, I have clients all the time who tell me, “You know, I don’t think I really have an Inner Critic,” or, “Mine’s just really quiet.” Maybe so, but given what I know about human beings, it’s much more likely that their Critic is quite clever—mostly, I think, because they are.
Inner Critics get smarter as we do. As we learn to identify them, they learn how to hide from us. They can also turn anything we discover into a new weapon. The most reliable response to learning that the Inner Critic exists, for example, is to begin criticizing yourself for criticizing yourself so much.
If the Inner Critic learns as quickly as we do, then the question becomes: How can we recognize it consistently enough to continue moving towards our calling despite its wily efforts?
To be honest, I don’t have a surefire, one-size-fits-all answer. But to help, here are 15 definite clues that your thoughts are coming from your Critic:
1. The message is loud.
If the thought is insistent, authoritative, and impossible to ignore, it’s most likely your Inner Critic. If, on the other hand, you have to get quiet to hear it, it feels more like a whisper, or it takes its sweet time to surface, chances are your Inner Wisdom is talking. I don’t know why this is except perhaps that most of us have a bias that makes us more concerned with what our Critics have to say than our Wisdom, so we hear them more easily. The good news is, the more we listen for Wisdom, the more easily we hear it, and the less we buy into our Critics’ views, the less prominent they are.
2. You feel rushed.
Inner Critics tend to be obsessed with speed, even when speed doesn’t matter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like I should be moving faster and getting more done, even though I consistently find that I not only enjoy life more but am also more productive when I move slowly (or at least don’t rush). Similarly, almost all my clients worry that they’re somehow behind in their careers, too late in accomplishing whatever they want to accomplish. The truth is, we can trust the timing in our lives. We come to things when we’re ready and when the time is right. Like an oak tree worrying that it’s growing too slowly, we lose sight of the fact that it takes time to develop profound beauty and stature, and that it doesn’t really matter if somebody else does it first.
3. You have the thought, “Everyone else is ___[fill in the blank]___.”
A favorite tool of Inner Critics is setting up false comparisons to others. “Everyone else has this figured out already.” “Everyone else is more successful than I am.” “Nobody else struggles with decisions as much as I do.” Whatever the message, it leaves us feeling inferior and inadequate. The truth is, everybody excels in some ways and struggles in others. Comparing the area in which you struggle to the area in which somebody else excels is a recipe for unnecessary self doubt. Not to mention the fact that things aren’t always what they seem. When in doubt, remember the oft-repeated advice: Don’t compare your insides with other people’s outsides.
4. You decide that you can’t do something before you’ve even tried.
Inner Critics don’t want us to take risks or step into the unknown. A great way to accomplish this is to convince us that any goal we may adopt is impossible from the start. I’ve had many clients who thought they couldn’t support themselves or their families while doing what they love, only to find a way to do just that after—shockingly—actually trying. In my experience, if we’re flexible with exactly what form it takes, we can always find ways to realize what we want most, as long as we don’t listen to our Critic and give up before we start.
5. You conclude that if it hasn’t happened by now, it never will.
There’s a theory that Inner Critics develop in childhood, which I’m prone to believe because they’re often quite child-like. One example of this is their lack of patience or a larger perspective. Often what we long for most is complex and requires time to learn, practice, ready ourselves, and gather support. Our Critics tend to forget this, however, and mistakenly conclude that we’ll never find what we want if we haven’t already. They lack the perspective to see that in real life the shortest distance between two points isn’t usually a straight line.
6. A decision feels urgent, dire, or a matter of life and death.
Another example of lacking a larger perspective is the Critics’ near-constant sense of urgency and desperation. They tend to make us feel like we have to get this right, and quickly, or everything will fall apart. In truth, our happiness and well-being are supported by many things and rarely hinge on one decision. Plus, just about any course we take can either be reversed or adjusted along the way so that it works better for us. I’ve gotten to the point where if I’m feeling any urgency or distress about something, I won’t make a decision until I no longer feel that way, because it’s a sure sign my Critic is in charge.
7. You keep returning to the worst-case scenario.
If you find yourself thinking about unpleasant future scenarios over and over, you’ve probably forgotten that in general positive outcomes are at least as likely as negative ones, and the ones you fear most are almost always the least likely of all. This tendency to focus on what might go wrong or to feel like the worst outcome is the most probable isn’t usually based on facts, logic, or even previous experience. It is, rather—you guessed it—another Inner Critic trick to keep us safe in the status quo.
8. You feel guilty for wanting more.
I’ve heard so many people express guilt for not being satisfied with what others might think was a good job, or a well-paying one, that I wrote a blog post about it a while back. The truth is, longing to do work you love isn’t a sign that you’re greedy; it simply means your gifts are wanting to express themselves in more powerful ways. That’s a good thing, not only for you, but also for the world you’re going to benefit through your efforts. If you feel guilty, it’s not because you’re ungrateful; it’s simply your Inner Critic trying to keep you from taking a risk and making a change.
9. You’re focused on what others might think.
If you find yourself worrying about what your family, friends, coworkers, bosses, or anybody else will think of you making a career change (or otherwise following your heart), then your Inner Critic has taken the wheel. We’re social animals, designed (genetically and physiologically) to live in groups and thus care what others think of us. Despite this, most of us understand at least on some level that in our current world our lives and happiness no longer depend so completely on the opinions of others. Our Inner Critics, however, aren’t quite so enlightened, or else they find our conditioned fear a convenient tool to keep us in the status quo. Either way, the solution lies in noticing how much we’re focusing on others, having compassion for its physiological roots, and gently reminding ourselves that it’s no longer necessary (or even possible) to please everyone around us.
10. You’re caught in familiar patterns.
This one can be a bit hard to see for ourselves because our patterns are often so ingrained that, like fish in water, we stare right through them because they seem such an immutable part of our experience. But we all have ways of avoiding anxiety and trying to feel safe, whether it’s procrastinating, worrying, blaming, overly focusing on the needs of others, numbing or distracting ourselves, trying to be perfect [ahem] or any host of other problematic patterns. The patterns developed for a reason and serve us in some ways (if not in others), so there’s no shame in them, but they do limit what’s possible for us and usually keep us stuck in a rut. Inner Critics don’t mind the latter at all, however, which is why they see their job as keeping these patterns in place. (That’s why we experience such strong internal resistance whenever we try to change one of these core habits.) On the other hand, when you’re responding to a familiar situation in a new way, doing something you don’t normally do, or feeling scared, vulnerable, or out of your comfort zone, you’ve probably either quieted your Inner Critic or broken free from its grasp.
11. You think, “I should…” or “I have to…”
Everything we do is a choice, even the things we don’t want to do. I don’t like paying taxes, for example, but I choose to do it because I like where I live and don’t want to go to jail. When we think “I should…” or “I have to…” our Inner Critics are trying to make us believe that we have no choice but to do what they want us to do. This is never actually the case. We always have options. When you allow yourself to put all the alternatives on the table and then make a decision based on where your deepest desires and Inner Wisdom point you, you discover a freedom that’s inherent in all of us, no matter our circumstances. A simple way to practice this is to change “I should…” to “I want to…” and then listen for what follows.
12. You feel resentful.
Resentment is a great sign that you’ve denied a desire or been less than true to yourself on account of your Inner Critic. (Never believe your resentment is about anybody other than you.) As we just saw, Inner Critics try to make us do what they want, rather than what we do. When we betray our needs and desires in order to follow their dictates and do what they think will make us safe, resentment naturally follows. So the next time you feel resentful, get curious about where you didn’t stand up for what matters most to you, and how you can make a choice more aligned with who you are and who you want to be moving forward.
13. You feel ashamed.
Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Inner Critics often start with a grain of truth (such as, “You didn’t get offered the job you interviewed for”) and then generate a bunch of bogus conclusions, like:
“You’re terrible at interviewing”;
“Nobody wants what you have to offer”;
“You’ll never find a job”; or
“There’s something wrong with you.”
These conclusions generate a sense of shame and unworthiness, but they’re not actually true. They’re just designed to get you to stop trying (and thus avoid risks) or try harder (and thereby succeed). Either way, the shame isn’t helpful. Your heartfelt desires are a carrot that makes shame’s stick unnecessary, and if everybody who ever failed gave up, humankind would never have made it out of the Stone Age.
14. You feel small.
Inner Critics tend to make us feel weak, inferior, unimportant, and powerless. When I’ve been listening to my Critic, I often find that my shoulders have collapsed, my back is rounded, and I’m physically trying to take up as little space as possible. When we’re listening to our Inner Wisdom, on the other hand, we tend to feel how strong, competent, and powerful we are. We’re willing to take up space. We realize that we’re bigger than our problems, the challenges in front of us, and even our fear. If you’re ever not sure whether a thought is coming from your Inner Critic or Inner Wisdom, take a moment to notice your posture and how big or small you feel.
15. You’re in your head.
Our Inner Critics live in our minds and thoughts. Our bodies, on the other hand, are always in the present moment and free from judgment. If you’re caught up in your thoughts and unaware of what’s happening in your body, it’s very likely that your Critic is active. To counteract this, just bring your attention back to your body and whatever sensations you feel there, over and over again.
Bonus: You wish you could change something (anything) about yourself.
Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once said, “Each of you is perfect…and you could all use a little improvement.” Our Inner Critics would like us to solely focus on the second part of this idea because they think feeling bad about our flaws will help us overcome them. The opposite is actually true, and if you’re not quite sure how to reconcile this paradox, it’s best to focus on the first part first. Once you truly understand how perfect you are, you’ll naturally want to learn and get better, not because you need to change, but because you deserve to grow.
The Final Step
The more you observe your Inner Critic, the more you begin to realize that it sounds like a frightened child. Identifying its messages, soothing its fears, and finding out for yourself what’s actually true can go a long way towards freeing yourself from its power (and pain). But there’s still one more thing to do in order to move towards your calling, and that’s to listen for your Inner Wisdom.
It helps to get quiet and curious and listen, letting it arise rather than trying to figure it out. When I did this the other morning when I was having trouble sleeping, I got a very clear message:
Life is messy, man. I am messy. That’s okay. Overall, I do a good job.
I could feel the truth of that, the peace and freedom and strength of it, all the way down into my bones.
Over to You
What does your Inner Critic say or feel like to you? What helps you break free from its grasp?
A second great way to lessen the power of your Inner Critic is to talk about it with others. You can begin doing this by sharing your answers in the comments below.
If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I can’t do what most other people can.
When my sister tells me her weekend plans, for example, I feel exhausted just hearing them all. She manages them quite successfully, whereas I personally find that when I commit to more than one activity per weekend in addition to the regular cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping, I end up feeling overwhelmed and cranky.
The list goes on:
I can’t work ten-hour days. In fact, most days my brain stops working whether I do or not after a mere six.
I work slowly, and on one thing at a time. (Though I can multitask, I don’t enjoy it, and things never turn out very well when I do.)
I perform much better if I have downtime in the late afternoon—preferably a nap—and if I don’t get it a couple days in a row, things go downhill quite quickly.
I get abnormally stressed in crowds. Something about having so many people crammed into a small amount of space makes me extremely uncomfortable and agitated.
The only place I feel totally at home is in nature, and if I don’t spend time in it regularly, I literally get depressed.
I could keep going. But the point is, my preferences and needs are in such stark contrast to everything I see around me that I often feel like an alien.
A World of Limits
If I am an alien, however, I’m far from the only one.
Just last week I was talking to a client (who generously gave me permission to write about her here) who shared concerns that she wasn’t going to be able to find a job she enjoyed because she’s not adept at social media and lacks the motivation to learn. She also worries that her unwillingness to do certain kinds of work (like being an assistant to others) will keep her unemployed.
This comes, mind you, from an extremely gifted woman with terrific creative vision who is also a superb communicator, talented relationship builder, and even a skilled voice actor. Like most of us, however, it’s not her gifts that she tends to focus on, but her limits.
I’ve had other clients with similar concerns about their constraints, whether it’s an inability to stay in a well-paying but meaningless job, an unwillingness to go into an office or work standard hours, or an allergy to giving large presentations. These clients worry that their limits will keep them from finding jobs, or at least well-paying ones that they enjoy.
A Line Worth Living With
And yet we all have gifts that the world needs. One-by-one, I’ve seen my most worried clients find work that’s both enjoyable and rewarding, and that honors their limitations.
Limitations are worth honoring, not only because pushing past them creates some pretty unpleasant consequences, but also because when we work within them, we’re more productive and perform better.
Based on what I shared about myself earlier, you might think it’s a miracle that I ever get anything done. Maybe it is. Still, I find that there’s plenty of time to do what’s needed, and when I listen to my limits, I have better sessions with my clients, my writing flows more easily, and yes, on average, I also get more done.
When we see a limit from the inside, it highlights the difference between what we’re able to do and what we think others can. When looked at from outside, however, limits define and encapsulate all the areas where we do our best work. That’s incredibly valuable.
A Sign of Something More
Within the last couple of years, however, I’ve realized that our limits—along with all the things that make us different from others—point to something even more important than how to perform our best:
Our limits indicate the exact place where we can change the world for the better.
You don’t need to look at our world for long to see that it’s incredibly out of balance. I can’t begin to describe all the ways in which we’ve lost our connection to compassion, love, kindness, respect, etc., but I can tell you that each of my clients holds a piece of the puzzle that can make us whole again and restore us to harmony.
If my client from last week loved social media, she may not be so talented at creating deep and meaningful relationships that help others have a positive impact on the world. If she wanted to be an assistant, she’d have fewer opportunities to bring her unique creative vision to life. (Though social media and assisting others can be important and worthwhile tasks, they’re puzzle pieces that belong to somebody else.)
If my clients could remain in well-paying but meaningless jobs, they would never put their greatest gifts to use. If they didn’t stay true to their desires to work with flexibility, balance, and autonomy, they wouldn’t be doing their part to create a world in which these things are possible.
As for me, I’ve come to see that though the pace and scale of our culture consistently feel off to me, that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps my piece of the puzzle is to help others slow down enough to reconnect with themselves, the people around them, and the natural world. When that happens, I’ve noticed, we can’t help but make this planet a better place.
Aliens on Earth Unite
For many of us, the more different we are, the more inadequate we feel. But maybe the reverse is actually true. Perhaps the more alien we feel, the more our gifts are needed.
Imagine a bird who looks at all the humans running around below it on their long, thick, muscular legs. Perhaps it admires their ability to run fast, lift heavy objects, or simply hold their ground. This bird might look down at its own legs and feel ashamed by their spindly weakness. With such legs, it could never perform all the impressive feats it sees the humans achieving.
But, as you may already have guessed, such a bird forgets something very important. It’s built for something quite different. Its thin, unimpressive legs in combination with its extraordinary wings were designed to help it achieve the miracle of flight.
The world needs beings who can fly, who can pollinate, disperse seeds, and fertilize everywhere they go. But miraculous or not, it’s not easy having dainty legs when all the others you see around you are strong. Our brains are wired to compare. So how do we bring our gifts to the world without giving in to shame, loneliness, or frustration?
We find the places we belong.
We seek out the environments, people, and activities that bring us back to ourselves, and then we spend as much time with them as possible. Finding our true homes in the world, we go to them often to recharge our batteries and reconnect with our vitality. That way, when we go back into alien environments, we have the strength we need to continue to live in fierce fidelity with who we really are and share all the benefits that brings with the world.
In my experience, we’ll do this very imperfectly. We’ll forget our true gifts over and over again as we go back to old habits of comparing ourselves to others and trying to fit in.
This isn’t a bad thing. It just means we need to be diligent in the practices that bring us home and have lots of reminders close at hand. One of my favorite reminders is a poem by Tara Mohr, reprinted below with permission:
Sometimes the world feels inhospitable.
You feel all the ways that you and it don’t fit.
You see what’s missing, how it all could be different.
You feel as if you weren’t meant for the world, or the world wasn’t meant for you,
as if the world is “the way it is” and your discomfort with it a problem.
So you get timid. You get quiet about what you see.
But what if this?
What if you are meant
to feel the world is inhospitable, unfriendly, off-track
in just the particular ways that you do?
The world has a you-shaped hole in it.
It is missing what you see.
It lacks what you know
and so you were called into being.
To see the gap, to feel the pain of it, and to fill it.
Filling it is speaking what is missing.
Filling it is stepping into the center of the crowd, into a clearing,
and saying, here, my friends, is the future.
You don’t have to do it all, but you do have to speak it.
You have to tell your slice of the truth.
You do have to walk toward it with your choices, with your own being.
Then allies and energies will come to you like fireflies swirling around a light.
The roughness of the world, the off-track-ness, the folly that you see,
these are the most precious gifts you will receive in this lifetime.
They are not here to distance you from the world,
but to guide you to your contribution to it.
The world was made with a you-shaped hole in it.
In that way you are important.
In that way you are here to make the world.
In that way you are called.
Over to You
This is a very personal topic for me—it’s something I feel strongly and have been thinking about a lot recently. If this resonates at all with you, I’d appreciate you letting me know in the comments. In what ways do you feel like an alien? When have you felt like this might be a good thing? What are the places, people, and activities that bring you home?
“Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another stepping stone to greatness.” –Oprah Winfrey
We human beings have a complicated relationship with failure. We almost instinctively fear it at the same time that we acknowledge its benefits. We know from platitudes and after-school specials that we have to be willing to fail if we want to succeed, yet the vast majority of us still go out of our way to avoid it.
Knowing that failure is part of the game is one thing; actually being willing to do it is another. Or maybe it’s that it’s okay for other people to fail, people like Oprah Winfrey who are now successful beyond their wildest dreams, but it’s not okay for us.
It’s almost like failure is a cat and we’re the mouse. Other people keep telling us that it’s friendly, but all we see are its sharp claws and jagged teeth as it eyes us hungrily from the corner.
We do need to stop fearing failure if we’re going to be willing to step into the risks necessary to change careers or otherwise realize our dreams. But how can we befriend something that looks like it’s thinking we’d make a delicious mid-afternoon snack?
Failure: The Enigma
To do this, we first need to question our assumption that we know what failure is.
When I ask members of my Pathfinders Group Coaching program what images, words, or associations come up for them when I say the word failure, I get responses such as incompetence, shame, broken, lonely, bewildered, lost, and permanent. They share how it often feels less like “This thing I was working on failed” and more like “I am a failure”.
But when I ask these same people targeted questions about the actual results of a specific failure they’ve experienced, I get entirely different answers. Words like helpful, necessary, and freeing start to come to mind.
Here’s how you can see this phenomenon for yourself:
Recall 2-3 times in your past where you feel like you failed. Choose the one that has the most emotional charge for you.
Channeling your Inner Critic, write down the worst things this failure could say about you. Don’t hold back and include all your worst judgments.
Now write down all the bad things that actually happened as a result of this failure. It’s important that you stick to verifiable facts (such as, “I invested $10,000 and never got it back”) and not assumptions (like, “Everyone thought I was a loser” or “I lost my chance to land my dream job”).
Finally, write down all the good things that came of it. For example, what did you learn? What did you gain from your efforts? What new qualities or skills did you hone? What other possibilities did you discover as a result of your failure?
Considering everything you wrote, what are some more accurate statements about what failure is or what it means to fail?
When I ran my first online course, I spent nearly 5 months planning, creating, and launching it. I poured my heart and soul into the program, invested a lot of time and money in its development, and very publicly invited everyone and their second cousin to take part.
Sales were…disappointing, to say the least. I got less than a quarter of the number I needed to recoup my financial investment, let alone what would have made me a profit or paid for the hundreds of hours I’d devoted to the project.
I felt humiliated. My Inner Critic was yelling at me that nobody wanted what I had to offer, and that I had been foolish to think they would. It went on to tell me that this was proof that I was less capable than everyone else, that I made terrible decisions, and that I would never be successful or run the kind of business that I wanted to.
My list of verifiable negative outcomes, however, was surprisingly short. I invested thousands of dollars without seeing a return (yet). Everything else, including the sense that I had wasted my time, was only an assumption.
And when it came time to list the positive outcomes—well, it was far longer than I expected:
I learned how to create, run, and market an online course.
I grew past my fear of sharing more of myself more visibly with the world.
I got all my content in one place, which helped me see how much I had and generated ideas for other ways to use it.
I now had a product I can continue to offer in the future with minimal additional effort.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned that I didn’t really enjoy leading a live online course and prefer offerings that allow me to get to know people better individually and go deeper with them on their journeys.
It wasn’t painless; failing to meet my goals was disappointing, and I didn’t have as much money as I’d hoped. But I still had options, I managed to adjust, and the disappointment didn’t last forever.
Failure: The Impact
There’s a Zen story about a farmer whose crops all grow big during a particularly rainy season. His friends in the tea house tell him how lucky he is. He just nods and says, “Perhaps.”
The plush crops then attract a herd of wild horses, which trample his fields and ruin his harvest. In the tea house, his friends all commiserate with him and tell him how unlucky he is. He just nods and says, “Perhaps.”
Shortly thereafter the farmer’s son captures one of the wild horses and tames him. The stallion is worth more than several years’ harvest. The farmer’s friends all tell him over tea how lucky he is. He just nods and says, “Perhaps.”
The next day the stallion kicks the farmer’s son, debilitating him. The farmer’s friends express their sorrow and tell him how unlucky he is. The farmer just nods and says, “Perhaps.”
A little while later the army comes through the town, conscripting all the able-bodied men and taking them to war. The farmer’s son doesn’t have to go, as he is no longer able-bodied. The farmer’s friends all tell him how lucky he is. You already know how the farmer responds.
Though the story is about events outside of the farmer’s control, it has much to say about failure. In any given moment we may like or not like where we are, but no situation is final. Everything changes, in ways we cannot predict.
In other words, it’s impossible to ever know the true impact of failure.
Blameworthy failures come from “preventable failures in predictable conditions.” These are usually caused by deviations from routine and well-defined operations (like in a factory).
Less blameworthy are the “unavoidable failures in complex systems.” These happen where there is a lot of uncertainty at work; in other words where “a particular combination of needs, people, and problems may have never occurred before.”
Praiseworthy are the “intelligent failures at the frontier.” These are experiments conducted to establish the viability of an idea or design, or to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility.
When you think about it, almost anything we do to answer our calling involves uncertainty; it’s never been done before by us in the exact way we mean to do it. Every time we make a change or step into something new, we’re conducting an experiment. All failures in this field, by Harvard’s definition, are not just inevitable—they’re beneficial. They help us find out what’s possible and discover the best ways to realize our intentions, regardless of what limits we run into.
Failure: The Reality
If you don’t already have your own definition of failure, I recommend you do the exercise above and create one.
For my part, I’ve come to see failure as nothing more than things not going according to plan. It’s the discovery of limits so we can find ways to work within them. Or, as a Pathfinders participant put it, it’s simply stepping onto a new path tomorrow.
When we see past the jaws and claws to what failure really is, we quickly realize that what we’ve spent so much time and energy fearing isn’t just unlikely; it’s impossible.
Last Chance to Join Pathfinders Group Coaching to Find Your Calling
Pathfinders Group Coaching is one of my favorite programs because I get to coach amazing people while witnessing how the feedback and love of their peers helps them rediscover their confidence, clarify what they most want, and take big steps towards making that a reality. Things that seemed impossible become probable with a powerful community to help them out and cheer them on.
I’m super excited to get started with a new Pathfinders Group Coaching cohort in just a few days. We have only 3 spots left, and I’d love to find someone who feels they’re meant to do something more than they are now but aren’t yet totally sure what that is or how to do it to join us.
Maybe it’s because most of the people I talk to mention fear as one of their biggest challenges. Whether it’s fear of failure, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of not making enough money, or fear of something else, being afraid is one of the main reasons people struggle to change careers.
Or maybe it’s because I personally face fear a lot. And by a lot, I mean all the time. And by all the time, I mean several times a day.
Or maybe it’s because fear is actually an important key to finding your calling, especially if you’re not sure where to look.
The one Evite you might prefer not to get
Stephen Pressfield has a great quote in his book The War of Art that you’ve probably heard me use before (it’s one of my favorites):
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
My own experience backs this up. Every time I’ve gotten clear about the next step towards my calling, I’ve been absolutely terrified, whether it was moving cross country, starting my own business, or sharing words I’d written with the world.
I used to be embarrassed that I felt so afraid, but then I began to notice something pretty amazing: I’m not scared all the time. I don’t feel afraid when I’m staying small, keeping quiet, or hiding inside my comfort zone. I’m only afraid when I try to do something important, grow and expand, or engage more deeply with what I care about most.
If you believe, as I do, that we’re here to learn and develop so that we can share our unique gifts with the world in increasingly powerful ways and have fun while doing it, then fear is a really good friend who points out the best way to do just that.
In other words, fear isn’t a weakness; it’s an invitation to your calling.
Showing the fear who’s boss
Fear, however, is a fickle friend. In addition to showing you what to do, it also gets in the way of actually doing it.
But that’s okay. Because you’re bigger than your fear, and it doesn’t have to rule your life. You can’t kick it out of the car, but you can pry its claw-like fingers off the wheel.
Here are 25 ways to feel the fear and do it anyway:
Unless there’s an actual threat nearby, fear is a fire stoked by our thoughts. Focusing on your body (say, by feeling your feet on the ground or the breath in your chest) removes the kindling and brings you back to the present moment.
3. Show some compassion.
Self-compassion makes fear a whole lot less overwhelming. The three steps to self-compassion are:
Acknowledge the pain with sympathy and kindness;
Recognize that all humans are imperfect and that in any given moment thousands of other people are feeling the same way you do; and
Observe your negative thoughts and feelings with curiosity rather than judgment.
4. Give it a name.
Naming the fear and exactly what it is you’re afraid of reduces its intensity and power over you.
5. Get to the root of the fear.
When you see the fear beneath the fear, you often find that what you’re most afraid of is extremely unlikely, not truly harmful, or (more frequently than you might think) downright impossible. Ask yourself what you’re scared of, then what’s bad about that, then what’s bad about that, and what’s bad about that. Keep going until you find the true essence of what you’re afraid of.
6. Don’t believe everything you think.
Fears are based on beliefs, and beliefs are often usually flawed. Byron Katie has a powerful process that can help you discover the truth behind your fears. First you identify your beliefs (for example, if I ______, ______ will happen). Then you ask 4 questions:
Is it true?
[If yes] Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without the thought?
7. Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen?
Often your worst-case scenario is not actually dangerous or devastating. Regardless, if you can find a way to accept it, fear will have no way to stop you.
8. Determine probabilities.
If your worst-case scenario is truly terrifying, get clear on how likely it is to really happen. Of all the possible outcomes, what’s the probability that this is the one you’ll be stuck with? To make sure you’re being realistic, have an objective third-party check your numbers.
9. Calculate your track record.
While we’re talking numbers, go ahead and calculate how accurate your fears really are. Write down all your worries for one month and then go back and note which ones came true. If we take the time to do this, most of us find that we’re batting somewhere close to zero (apology for the mixed sports metaphors).
10. Become your own mentor.
In The Fear Book, Cheri Huber offers the idea of becoming a mentor to the scared part of you. It’s a brilliant and effective strategy. To use it, just ask yourself anytime you feel scared: what would a wise and loving mentor tell me right now?
11. Turn it over.
Whether it’s God, goddesses, the universe, love, your highest self, or your dog, turning your fears over to something more powerful than you are is incredibly freeing. You don’t even have to believe in anything to get started. Just write your fears down, put them in a box, and say, “I’m turning this over to you, [insert higher power of your choice].” Then let go and see what happens, knowing it’s no longer in your hands. Review the items you’ve put in your box periodically and see how they’ve turned out to find evidence that regardless of how you feel about God, you are supported and cared for.
12. Take tiny baby steps.
Fear feeds on big, overwhelming tasks. To reduce the fear factor, break your goals down into steps. Then break those steps down into smaller steps. Then break those small steps down into even tinier steps until you have a task you can do in 10 minutes. You can do anything for 10 minutes, right? Afterward, be sure to celebrate your win and plan when you’ll take your next tiny baby step.
13. Make a back-up plan.
If things don’t go as you hope, what will you do? Create a plan for how you’ll take care of yourself during any setbacks and how you’ll continue to move towards what you want, even when things go awry.
14. Share with peers.
There’s something about sharing your fears with others who are going through something similar that inevitably breeds courage. Just be sure you’re sharing with people who are actively embracing and facing their fears, not running away from them.
15. Get feedback.
In his book Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields urges people facing anxiety in the creative process to get feedback from mentors, peers, and potential end-users early on as a way of building confidence and comfort. Asking people you trust to give you feedback on your efforts can be terrifying, but paradoxically, it’s also a powerful antidote to fear.
16. Practice discomfort.
When we fail to take action, we’re not usually avoiding a theoretical bad outcome so much as the immediate discomfort of fear or anxiety. Like someone with bad breath, most of us find fear so unpleasant that we’ll do just about anything to avoid it. To stop avoiding fear, you need to develop your ability to sit with discomfort. To do that, just engage in something that brings up anxiety on purpose every day, then practice sitting with it for slightly longer periods of time. When you’re able to tolerate discomfort, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.
17. Slow down.
Kindness is wonderful medicine for fear. If your fear is overwhelming, slow down and maybe even take a break. Do something comforting and familiar, something that makes you feel good about yourself, and then go back and try again.
18. Feel the edges of the fear.
Get curious about how your fear feels in your body. Notice where you feel it, what it feels like, and how it changes over time. After observing it for a little while, start to feel for its edges and begin to notice the places in your body where you don’t feel the fear (your little toe perhaps?). You’ll start to see that fear is actually just a bunch of sensations in your body, that it too has boundaries, and that it’s really nothing to be afraid of.
19. Address the fear’s concerns.
Your fear isn’t the enemy; it just doesn’t want you to become harmed, homeless, or humiliated. You probably don’t either, so let your fear know how you’re going to take care of what’s important to you even while you take a risk; remind it that things like what other people think of you don’t really affect your well-being; and watch as your newly consoled fear steps aside so you can open the gates of change.
20. Imagine a positive outcome.
If you want to loosen fear’s grip, you need to stop playing the worst-case scenario over and over in your head. Since you don’t know what will happen, and good outcomes are at least as likely as bad ones, you might as well choose to obsess about your best-case scenario in vibrant, gory detail.
21. Talk to someone who’s succeeded.
Fear likes facts. When I tell my fear everything will be okay, it demands proof. Finding someone who’s done what I want to do and flourished is pretty strong evidence that success is possible, and learning from their perspective makes it all the more likely. My fear is smart, but it can’t argue with that.
22. Talk to someone who’s failed.
When you do this, your fear is going to want you to use it as an opportunity find all the reasons you’re going to fail too. Resist this urge. Instead, ask this person all kinds of questions about how they recovered from their failure, what they learned, what skills they gained, and what new possibilities it opened up. When we’re afraid of failure, we forget that it actually carries many gifts, and your job is to discover from this person exactly what those are.
23. Find a purpose greater than the fear.
Fear usually stems from our egos’ concerns, like not having enough money or status, or looking bad to others. These aren’t the things that truly make us happy, though. To focus on what matters, define a better purpose for any given venture, one that you can fulfill regardless of where you end up. What might you get out of embarking on this adventure that’s more important than wealth or popularity? What might it allow you to give to others? What would make this effort worthwhile regardless of the outcome?
Fear isn’t the problem; believing everything it tells you is. Meditation is a great way to practice noticing your thoughts without buying into their conclusions all the time. It gives you the awareness you need to question your thoughts and the ability to let them go when they aren’t serving you. It also gives you a way to experience fear without being paralyzed by it. An ongoing meditation practice is one of the main reasons I’m able to do things that scare the pee out of me, over and over again.
Am I repeating myself? Yes. Is it for a good reason? I think so. In addition to giving us the ability to let go of unhelpful thoughts, meditation also connects us to our serenity, wisdom, and courage. We all have these qualities at our core, but we become unable to access them when fear is yammering in our ears all the time. Getting quiet, even if only for milliseconds at a time, helps us reconnect to the part of ourselves that is always compassionate and unafraid.
26. Bonus Idea: Meditate.
I’m not being lazy here, I swear. It’s really that important.
Over to You
What helps you feel your fear and do things anyway? I’d love to know, and so would everyone else. Please share in the comments below.