“As you become more clear about who you really are, you’ll be better able to decide what is best for you — the first time around.”
— Oprah Winfrey
People often ask me how they will know next time around: how not to choose the wrong man, or the wrong job or the wrong path. How will they know not to repeat the same mistakes over (and over) again?
The fear is that somehow they will forget the lessons learned and be destined to suffer the same difficulties and inequities, the same heartbreak. And while I believe their new found awareness is a powerful tool for providing clarity going forward, what they’re really asking for is a fool proof way to make decisions. A way to make changes in their lives without there being any pain. And deep down, whether they realise it or not, they’re wondering whether when pain does show up they’ll continue to delude themselves and stay stuck.
That’s really the crux of all change: how long we are willing to go along with something that is no longer serving us for the sake of safety and security. For the sake of simply not having to face something we’d rather not face.
Life is a trade off on some level and we want to know how much to trade.
Why we stay stuck
As it turns out, we can be willing to trade off quite a lot. To go a long time without feeling inspired or fulfilled.
Sitting opposite someone as a boss, a coach, or friend, it’s easy to notice this. We see how long someone can be prepared to front up to a job they hate for instance, and not make a change. To get up each day and go out to work week in week out, knowing that they are bored, unfulfilled, underpaid and unchallenged by what they do – and worst of all that they are underperforming, in no way reaching their potential.
This can bring about a secret kind of disappointment, erode self-esteem and take away our very enthusiasm for our lives. How do I know this? Because I’ve been there. And at some point so have you. And yet we each will justify this unhappy state of affairs in all sorts of ways. “It’s not so bad. The people are nice. It’s convenient. I don’t know what else I would do. The alternatives are not all that appealing.’ And on and on.
While I would never take lightly the implications of leaving a job or a relationship or a life you no longer love – especially when you have a mortgage or a family to support, I would say that these very real external pressures are rarely the real reason we stay stuck.
I’m thinking of all those acquaintances, friends and especially myself; all of us who have stayed in jobs or relationships or situations that are no longer serving us, despite there only having ourselves to worry about. Those times we stayed stuck, when none of those external factors that feel so instrumental to our decision making actually applied. The fact is that we will stay for years, in all sorts of difficult situations, as our life gets smaller and smaller. Time and again we let our fear of uncertainty stymy our opportunity for learning, fulfilment and growth.
On sticking things out
It’s probably worth mentioning here something about the merits of sticking power. The very worthwhile ability to work through a difficult situation instead of running off at the first sign of trouble.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that when something is causing a great deal of suffering the first place to look for a solution is within – by changing your response. It’s often the only place we have recourse to action.
And its certainly true that whatever difficulties you are facing now will simply follow you to your next job or relationship if you’re not prepared to own up to your blind spots, stretch yourself a little and acknowledge your own contribution to office dynamics or household harmony.
Everywhere you go there you are! And so on. And so for many people a change of attitude can allow you to get considerably more out of what they’re are doing. It certainly can’t hurt to stick things out while we work on ourselves and develop a new skill set around a particular issue. Especially those issues that seem to follow us through life, reminding us of our own part in the drama.
And yet beyond all the possibilities a new attitude will bring to your situation, there’s this simple fact staring you in the face; if you’re living a life you no longer love the time has come for a change.
Love and fear
Fear and resistance to change can rule our existence. They can see us living small lives of boredom or even extreme dysfunction. Why is it that we find it so hard to go after what we want? To choose the happiness that comes with making a decision and then acting on it?
Its often said that we change our behaviour when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. But does it have to be this way?
What if we listened to what our boredom, depression, frustration was telling us and just decided to act (without all those months of suffering and indecision)? What then?
What if we made a decision to act? And it doesn’t even have to be the right decision (the late Susan Jeffers liked to refer to there being no wrong decisions) it just needs to get us unstuck. To move us beyond fear, into action, into a state of trust. To a place of knowing where we can say to ourselves that whatever comes next ‘I can handle it’. It needs to move us the distance – however long or short – that it takes to get from fear to love.
Until we take our last breath we won’t know the way our choices and actions pan out in life. What twists and turns will lead us on to the next great thing or perhaps to a more satisfying life with new challenges, learning and growth.
If we can never know which decisions or seeming dead ends will be the ones that actually invite us to reengage in the world and our place in it, then it makes sense that we embrace that most Australian of qualities and ‘give something a go’.
Make a move!
When we move out of fear and take a punt on our own very real abilities, we take ourselves beyond our limitations, from a focus on what we can’t to what we can do.
What’s important is that we say yes to life, to embracing new things and the challenges and joys they bring. It’s this very energy and excitement that comes with creating change in our lives that sets us up for new possibilities and renews our contract with living a full-hearted life.
For those times when I’m unsure what to do next I take inspiration from African American clergyman Howard Thurman who said:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is more people that have come alive.
Deep down we know instinctively that by making a change, by doing something differently, we will bring about the catalyst to move our life forward in new and exciting ways. And when we do move, it can be infectious. Suddenly all sorts of doors opens, ideas spring forth and we are overcome with an energy we thought we had lost.
Staying stuck for too long is never the best option – we’ve all been there and regretted it. Not least when we realised our fears were not nearly as bad as we imagined them to be. As the great philosopher Soren Kierkergaard put it:
“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”