Facing the void. Coming to terms with what’s really holding us back.

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diving board

[Original image by Kat. Made available via CC licence: https://flic.kr/p/5JBC2K]

I’m a major believer that with a bit of reframing we can get more fulfilment from most situations, including our jobs.  But sometimes tweaks and attitude adjustments just aren’t enough.  Sometimes things just aren’t right, and we have to take a leap and make a major change. But for some reason we stay where we are.

About a year before I left the United States to move back to the UK, I remember having a phone conversation with my Mum. It was a familiar one, where once again I debated out loud whether we should stay in the U.S. or take a major risk and move to the UK – we’d been retreading this ground for about a decade. I’d lived in the USA for 15 years, it was where I’d spent my entire professional life. I had an American husband, 2 American children to think of too.

I remember something she said that stayed with me: “you’ve been jumping up and down on this diving board for quite a while now, sweetheart– at some stage you’re going to have to decide to dive in or walk off.”

The fact is, any time we thought we’d come to the conclusion that we would stay, that life was more than good, the urge to leave never quite left. Coming home was unfinished business, but I feared making the leap.  In the U.S. I knew who I was; I’d forged my adult identity there (teacher, academic, wife, mother, friend).  Who was I in the UK any more?  So back to the edge of that diving board I’d go, before a tentative job search turned into an offer, and I found myself finally leaping off.

Recently I met with a client who is poised on her own diving board. She’s in a job that she knows is not working for her. Her friends and loved ones are urging her to leave, and she has since heard from people who had the role before her that she is not alone in her experiences.  This just isn’t about her.  She’s done what she can to make the position work, but she’s come to that realisation that she’s reached the limits of what she can change or influence – what needs to really change is out of her control.  She is also fortunate to be in a financial position where leaving without another role to go to is a completely viable option.

But still finds herself resisting making the final decision to leave.

So what is holding her back?.

We started to peel away the outer layers of that resistance, and the reasons she immediately came up with will be recognisable for most of us:  she doesn’t want to let her colleagues down, her reputation might be damaged, people may judge her for walking away.

We talked through how real those concerns were, and how much they were stories she was telling herself, and how she might address them through some fairly simple steps. She got there quickly.

We also worked out what wasn’t holding her back – i.e. an underlying passion for the work, a belief it and she could make a difference if things were to change somewhat. Even though the ethos of the organisation is aligned with her values, she knows that she’s reached the limits of her ability to help them succeed, and she either accepts that or walks away.

But committing to leaving is clearly something she is struggling with. When I asked her what else was holding her there, she was silent for a long time.

“It’s fear of the void”

And there is the root of it. It’s the root of it for most of us. It’s why leaping off that board is so terrifying, because we are leaping in to what feels like an empty void.

We don’t always have the luxury of moving toward something rather than away from something.  Sometimes we have to make the decision to leave one situation even when we don’t know what really comes next.  For some, it can feel thrilling to have such endless possibility. But for most of us it will paralyse us with fear.

Stepping into that void feels like becoming unanchored.  We give up a familiar routine that gave us structure and purpose, even if it didn’t give us meaning.   And our imagination goes into overdrive – it’s the place where our worse fears or negative beliefs about ourselves can come true. It’s where we’re found out for the impostors that we are.

No wonder many of us avoid taking the leap.

Stepping into the void

A while back I wrote about how we can cope with uncertainty, and much of what I wrote there can be applied here too: acknowledge your emotions, tap into your resilience, remind yourself how adaptive you are, and focus on practical, actionable steps, not outcomes. I also believe that uncertainty – the void – is life itself (and that to live in constant certainty is a kind of death).

But stepping into uncertainty requires a bravery that some of us haven’t yet tapped into, the courage to move away from something that’s hurting or limiting us, even when we don’t know what comes next.

A few weeks back, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a powerful post on Facebook: ‘Not This’. “Not this” defines that moment where we know that something is very wrong or off kilter with our lives. We don’t know the answer, but we do know it’s “Not This..”  

“But your brain can’t bring itself to say “NOT THIS”, because that would cause a serious problem. The problem is: You don’t have a Plan B in place. This is the only life you have. This is the only job you have. This is the only spouse you have. This is the only house you have. Your brain says, “It may not be great, but we have to put up with it, because there are no other options.” You’re not sure how you got here — to this place of THIS — but you sure as hell don’t know how to get out…”

 

There’s an old addage, run to something, not from something. I try to live by this sentiment, and it’s something as a coach I help people to work out – where they want to be headed.  But sometimes, just sometimes, we have to rely on the pain of ‘not this’ to move us forward, even if we have no idea where we’re headed. “If you keep ignoring the voices within you that say NOT THIS, just because you don’t know what to do, instead…you may end up stuck in NOT THIS forever.”

If we’re going to get unstuck and find movement and growth and joy again, then sometimes the void is the only place to go.

 

 

 

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