Throughout my life, I’ve experienced times when things were truly falling apart (or so it seemed), and nothing I did improved it or turned it around. One of those times was at the end of corporate life 17 years ago. I was chronically ill for four years (with a serious infection of my trachea), depressed and exhausted, dealing with narcissistic bosses and toxic leaders, as well as sexual harassment and discrimination, and nothing I tried improved the situation. In fact, it all just got worse. I know why that is now, but back then, I didn’t have a clue.
Another time in my life where I felt helpless in shifting my situation was when I became a therapist and began working with clients who were dealing with some of the darkest experiences in human life – rape, incest, pedophilia, suicidality, substance abuse, attempted murder and more. I was so new at being a therapist (I was a just an intern at that time) that I was regularly at a loss as to how best to help my clients whom I cared deeply about.
But deep at the root of it, I began to realize that this was not work I wanted to be focused on for the rest of my career. Unfortunately, I was just not brave enough at that point to admit to myself that this therapy direction and professional identity wasn’t right for me. While the training I received was life-changing and I loved it, I had to face the fact that dealing with these extremely dark emotions and situations was not what I wanted. But the idea that I’d made another mistake in my career after having spent so much time and money earning my master’s degree, was just too scary to face. Until I did, and was then able to revise my life once again.
Each week, my clients and course members come to me too sharing their frustration and even despair over how hard they’re trying to turn things around, but they can’t seem to on their own.
Over these 13 years of being a career and leadership coach for professionals around the globe, and applying the therapeutic principles I’ve learned, I’ve seen that there are powerful beginning steps we all can engage in to help us feel more empowered and hopeful so we can turn our negative situations around.
I’ve found that asking yourself these three critical questions can open the doorway to shifting things when nothing else works:
1. What is the repeating pattern here that needs to change?
If you dig deep enough, you’ll most likely find that what you’re experiencing today is a reflection of a pattern that has been repeated over and over in your life for many years. Whether you’re not earning enough, or you’re being mistreated by a horrific, narcissistic boss, or you’re exhausting yourself to the bone trying to do everything and get an A+ in it, you’ll probably see that this experience today is something that’s followed you through your adult life, and even earlier, but you never recognized it.
Tip: We can’t better our situations or improve our lives if we don’t know ourselves deeply, and don’t understand how we were shaped and formed in our early years (childhood and onward) that contributes to our being who we are and how we see ourselves and our lives. Take some time this weekend to write down everything you can think about that has shaped who you’ve become, and also the critical messages and treatment you received in childhood (from authority figures and others) that influenced you. Think on the one most pivotal event of your life, and how it impacted the direction you took. Then figure out which of these messages and experiences are potentially harming you now that you’re ready to release.
2. How am I not valuing and appreciating myself?
When we’re experiencing negative situations and relationships that are all about being disrespected, devalued, or treated unfairly, it often stems from a lack of valuing yourself – not recognizing your worth, and not possessing self-confidence, self-acceptance and self-love.
A belief that you’re not worthy, valuable or capable in life wreaks havoc on everything you do and touch – including your relationships, your parenting, your work, volunteer efforts, physical and emotional health, finances, and much more.
Tip: If you realize that you don’t have a positive self-concept and don’t believe in yourself or your worth, it’s time to change that. We can sometimes do that by self-help means, but I’ve found that the best approach is getting outside help, for instance a great, experienced therapist who can support and guide you to 1) recognize why you see yourself as “less than” and not worthy of appreciation, love and respect, 2) release the pain and trauma from past experiences that reinforced your negative self-concept (and those can be as simple as being fired or laid off, or passed over for a promotion), and 3) build new thought and behavioral patterns that will reveal to you how talented, valuable and important you are in the world.
3. What state are my boundaries in?
Boundaries are the invisible barriers between you and your outside systems. They regulate the flow and input of information to and from you and those outside systems (including your family, your workplace, your bosses, your religious institution, your authority figures, friends, etc.).
Having well-developed, healthy boundaries is a critical dimension of a successful, happy life and career. Boundaries ensure that you’re protected from behaviors and actions that will hurt or disrespect you. Without healthy boundaries, you can’t recognize your limits, or enforce them with strength and authority.
And without “finding brave” – rising up, speaking up and standing up for yourself and your life – you’ll find that your situation cannot and will not improve, until you can take a brave stand.
Those who have insufficient boundaries, I’ve found, have almost always experienced some form of emotional manipulation or trauma in their childhoods and upbringing from parents who demanded certain behaviors in order to be “loved” and accepted. Children who’ve been abused or mistreated (emotionally, sexually, physically, etc.), for instance, experience a violation of their boundaries before they had the power or ability to advocate for or protect themselves.
But it’s not just people who were overtly “mistreated” in childhood who are harmed. Interestingly, hundreds of my clients and course members over the years who have come for help with their careers also have ineffective boundaries and allow mistreatment in their lives, but had never recognized why. They never understood just how damaging the parenting they received was. They hadn’t seen (until learning more about what truly loving, effective and supportive parenting looks like) how much they’d been diminished and damaged by parents who showed only conditional love and were manipulative and controlling.
Unless we recognize this later in life, and do the necessary work to strengthen our boundaries (which can be very frightening for those who were raised not to stand up for themselves), we will experience ongoing mistreatment and negative behavior from others, and our situation will not improve because we’re, in effect, not allowing it to.
Tip: There are some critical steps to take to strengthen your boundaries, but the very first is to ask yourself “What do I desperately long for?” Define it as clearly as you can, and figure out what elements of life you need more of.
In the great book The Energy of Money, the author Maria Nemeth shares that there are six energy forms in life and when we’re blocked in one, we’re usually blocked in at least several others. She explains that the six energy forms are: money, time, vitality, enjoyment, creativity, and support of others.
Which of these do you struggle with most today?
Examine where you feel thwarted, angry, resentful, drained, and undervalued in your life.Most likely your boundaries need bolstering in these situations. Is your boss demanding that you’re available 24/7? Is your spouse ignoring your requests for help and for sharing equally the work at home? Is your friend selfish and critical, unable to treat you in a caring way? Is your parent horrible to you?
Once you recognize exactly what you need that you’re not getting, and what you’re allowing that is no longer acceptable, and start setting clear and unwavering limits that allow you to say “No more!” – both out loud and to yourself – your situation will change for the better.
Answering these questions above will start you on your way to recognizing what’s blocking your path to dramatically improving your career and your life.
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