Why do you stay? Why don’t you say something? Has anyone ever asked you those questions? I bet they have. And I bet you’ve asked others, including yourself, one or both. The fact is, we all stay in situations that we no longer have the use for, that we no longer belong in, or that cause stress and even fear. Inertia, Newton’s first law of motion states that an object at rest will remain at rest and an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by some external net force (that is, a push or a block). A big challenge for humans is that we are not just objects, we have both inner and outer forces holding us in place or setting us in motion.
Let’s consider a timely subject. There is an awakening happening today, in terms of people reporting inappropriate sexual assault or harassment in the workplace. Many people wonder, “What took them so long to say something?” Or, “Why did they stay?” While there is not one answer, it is easier to understand if you ask, “what stopped them from leaving or speaking up?” How strongly does paralyzing fear hold a person in place? What perceived to be more powerful external forces block the exit?
When asked, nobody in the #MeToo movement says, “I stayed because I loved my job, it was a great place to work, the people were so friendly; just sometimes too friendly.” Instead, we hear comments like:
o I didn’t think my voice was important or would make a difference.
o I didn’t want to explain things, I was too ashamed.
o I was afraid of what would happen to me after he said, “I will kill you, don’t think I can’t.”
o I was just starting my career and I was afraid that I would never get another job like this one, especially if I was fired or quit and refused to say why.
Fear, shame, uncertainty, self-doubt, are weighty internal anchors. Add to that the belief that your pain is your problem and not important enough for anyone to care about; nobody ‘out there’ will help. Or, the belief that “they” would judge or punish you. Those beliefs about the cold external world are perceived forces pushing hard against empowerment to exit. Even if those beliefs turn out to be true, it is possible that there are ways to work around or move on past them.
The fact is that many of us get stuck in far less fraught circumstances. It could be something as simple as not being able to start a new project at work or something more complicated such as leaving a job you don’t like or a relationship that is empty. Part of being stuck is not trusting the truth of your own voice; it is the one muffled underneath the stories we tell and confirm in our own heads about what everyone else would think or say or tell us. Sometimes, we really believe with absolute certainty that we can predict the outcome. It is also possible that we don’t even know which voice is our own. The irony is that the voice that is most committed to our survival and well-being is our own. We are biologically and neurologically wired to save ourselves.
For me, I had a number of potentially great careers. I have practiced law, worked in government and in government relations, and earned a master’s in psychology. I went to law school in part because my father is a lawyer and highly regarded in every aspect of his life. I value him as a role model and parent. In my twenties, I wanted to be successful in the way he was. Many people said, “you are just like your father; you should be a lawyer.” I liked hearing that, so I believed them even though I was more motivated by things I was learning and experiencing in a different field. Did I like law school and the practice of law? Absolutely. But in retrospect, had I valued and listened to my own voice, as opposed to inflating the importance and correctness of what others were telling me to do, I would have chosen another career. What got me stuck and pulled me increasingly further off my path, were the consequences of my capitulation and the situations that followed. It just kept getting more complicated each time I made a decision within a decision that was off the mark. My choices just felt wrong on the inside but, admittedly, did look sound to others on the outside. Powerful circumstances and expectations grew around and within me, that held me in place.
How do we get unstuck?
In my opinion and based on my experience with change, you get unstuck when you recapture the wonder, curiosity, and joy you once felt when you did the things you liked to do the most and you did them well. Whether it was school, work, sports, music, people, research, or staring at the stars, that capacity for delight and curiosity still exists within. If your days are empty or unfulfilling, if your job makes you feel undervalued and fatigued, then question those inner voices, remember what you enjoyed most, and revive those feelings in order to get moving again. As adults, it is time to parent ourselves, encourage ourselves to be courageous enough to make changes that enable us to express our best selves. Take another look to find out who you are, have a sense of humor and adventure, then accept what you find, take responsibility, act, and stay on that path.
We can learn to work within our limitations instead of living a life defined by them. When I left my job in government relations, I told everyone that I was going to get certified and start an executive coaching practice. And of course, I heard skepticism, surprise, praise and “good for you for making such a big change.” The thing is, it wasn’t a surprise to me and I didn’t experience it as a big change. I was finally getting back to who I really am. Over time, it became more difficult and soul-crushing for me to stay in any career other than one that required from me what I was best at and loved doing the most. Getting unstuck involved recognizing, listening to, honoring, and following my own voice, over others’.
The dilemma: stay where you’re unfulfilled or step into the unknown.
Is it getting harder to stay than to leave? Is procrastination becoming uncomfortable and in the way? Stop looking for that parachute or for that someone else to save you. Trust that you are fully capable of saving yourself and you will do what you have to do to find that soft landing. You know what your future is likely to be like if you stay or continue to do nothing. If you leave, you may not know what the future looks like, but you will gain the opportunity to be a more fulfilled, happier, and confident self. Unstuck means taking self-aware charge of you and your situation; it’s a rebirth when you replace uncertainty and fear with the freedom of knowing that you do not have to give others the power to define your life, your identity, and to limit your opportunities. Who knows? You might even start a movement if your reasons for leaving or speaking up give voice to others in similar circumstances.
Think for a while about where you feel stuck. What are you telling yourself that gets in the way of leaving or acting, or speaking up? How do you feel when you think about doing something different? What do you believe the impact of a change would have on the people around you? Whose voices do you hear loudest when you think about making a change? What is your biggest challenge? If success were guaranteed, what would you do?
I offer you my thoughts and ask that you go someplace quiet and listen for your voice. A gut feeling is also a form of intelligence and a great thing to attend to if you hope to get unstuck. Change takes time. Recklessness is not recommended. However, knowing when and how to leave or change something only comes once you are in touch with the self-assured, best version of you.
Beth Masterman is an Executive Coach who helps leaders get ‘unstuck’ from what may seem simple or from complex challenges. Leadership, professional, and team development. www.mastermancoaching.com