There aren’t many things as likely to make me feel alone and stuck in one place, as a New Year.
January is a slow month in my business. As a consultant, project manager and trainer, January is a time when organisations are not organised, staff are slipping slowly back to work, everyone is waiting for kids to go back to school, and the Australia Day long weekend beckons as the final escape before reality hits once more.
When there isn’t a lot of work booked in, my motivation drops. The extended break provides too much time to sit and think about the work that isn’t happening. Sometimes I get stuck in this place of navel gazing, lost in my thoughts and unclear how to move forward with purpose and positivity again.
There are a million books and blogs on the topic of motivation, so rather than discuss that, let’s talk about our fear of being stuck. How do you feel when your feet seem glued to the spot? Do you feel anxious when the phone doesn’t ring or the orders stop coming in? Does the very thought of having to sit and wait for things to pick up seem impossible to contemplate? Or does the fear talk start in your head? Maybe you wonder, ‘What if my business never picks up?! What if I’m stuck like this for the whole year?!”
Stuck feels like feet in concrete
In the middle of January I had an empty diary for the month. Booked engagements had suddenly been cancelled and I was wondering how long this was going to drag on for. I was sitting quietly with my eyes closed and I had a picture form in my mind of me standing in an empty dirt field, with my feet buried in concrete. I was up to my ankles in it but thankfully not sinking to the bottom of a river!
I looked around but there was no one else in sight. I realised that it was going to be up to me to figure out how to get out of this mess, immobilised as I appeared to be in this fixed block of rock-solid concrete.
Seeing an image of myself embedded in concrete was a revelation. It perfectly summed up how I had been feeling over most of January. Not only did I feel frozen to the spot, I was also clueless as to how to shift myself out of this situation!
The ‘fight/flight’ response
Brains don’t like uncertainty. Having a safe, predictable world is of primary importance to your brain because keeping you safe and away from threats is one of its most important functions. However, when you don’t know when your next job, client or product order will turn up, your brain recognises that there is uncertainty about your future.
Any negative emotions such as worry, stress and a low mood also send a message to your brain something bad is happening. The amygdala (the part of your brain that detects threats and rewards), identifies this information as a threat and suddenly you find yourself in a typical fight or flight response.
If your typical reaction in times of stress is to fight back, then you might feel tempted to throw everything you are working on away and start again. You might yell in frustration and say business was a stupid idea and you knew it wouldn’t work out! Having an angry or frustrated response can feel like something is shifting but it’s often just a reaction to the stress of feeling stuck in this situation.
However, in a flight response, you are more likely to say, ‘Nothing will work, there’s no point trying.’ Or you might actively avoid facing the feelings you have by staying distracted and disengaged from the job, losing motivation to check emails, write blogs or in fact, do much at all.
“Where there is great doubt, there will be great awakening;
small doubt, small awakening;
no doubt, no awakening.”
The relentless drive to be busy
Feeling that I was stuck in a downward slide was very stressful but I also knew not to panic. I’ve been in this uncomfortable place many times over my 15 years in business. I knew that the answer to feeling stuck would arrive if I just waited for it, because it had in the past. The trick was not thinking that I had to do something to make the answer appear faster, but trusting that it would just show up when I was ready.
So, I sat with the discomfort and waited. And it was very uncomfortable! The drive to produce in your own business is relentless. The push to deliver, to create, to engage, to network and to market, is in large part what keeps us motivated in business. Without this constant activity you can feel as though you are not living up to your end of the bargain.
But when you don’t make the sale, get the clients, produce the goods or post on social media, it can feel as though just being committed isn’t enough. As women then, we often ask ourselves, ‘What more should I be doing?’ Feeling the financial pressure when the income doesn’t come in just adds to the belief that we’ve lost control. This is the ideal scenario for a threat-focused brain to send you into a downward spiral of negativity that can be very hard to get out of.
Rather than be led there by your over-protective brain, it’s important to find other ways to reframe the situation and see it differently. Reframing is a proven neuroscience technique to low the threat response in your brain and help you see solutions that your fear focus didn’t let you see before.
Here’s how I did it.
The answer for me, lay in metaphor. In the same meditation where I saw my feet embedded in concrete, and I was looking around to see what I could do to get out of this weird situation, I also saw a stream spring up underfoot. As the water started bubbling and splashing up from the ground it washed over my feet and the concrete simply dissolved. My feet were free to move, and the water just kept on splashing down the hill away from me.
The whole picture was over in a second, but I got the message. Water is a free-flowing element that is constantly shifting, changing and moving. Water is the opposite of concrete, which is hard, fixed and immobile. Water moves on, concrete stays in one place. I decided to reframe my stuck feeling by asking myself if I was choosing to stay fixed in something that maybe I knew it was time to move on from?
Asking yourself a reframing question can open up a wide range of possibilities, none of them better or worse than another. It’s simply a means of tapping into your inner wisdom about whether the feelings you are experiencing are related to something deeper than what you see around you in this moment.
For me, I realised I was holding tightly onto work that I have skill or professional status in, which makes it hard to let go of that work. Feeling competent at something can put us in our comfort zone but might also keep us trapped in work that we would like to leave for something more fulfilling. Maybe we feel obliged to keep doing it because it pays the bills? Maybe trying something new is very scary so we cling to what we know we have skill in. This is the safe choice that can sometimes feel like a concrete weight around our ankles.
Have you outgrown your prison?
Anything becomes a prison if, after you have outgrown it, you allow it to keep you fixed in one spot. To free yourself, you also have to also let go the belief that you won’t survive financially without it. A new belief may be needed that when something old flows out, something new will flow in.
Deep down, I recognised this was true for me, but it still came with problems. I was not in a position to simply walk away from skills that provided my primary source of income. So, I started small, practicing ‘letting go’ rather than ‘clinging on’ to see what would happen.
I encouraged myself to jot down ideas for new work and then rub them off the whiteboard at the end of the day! These were ideas that were shifting and moving, and they didn’t have to be useful or useless. They were simply flowing out from me like water. To judge them as ‘good or bad’ just created pressure, so I let them go. If they had any worth, they would flow back in.
I made a new commitment to the things that I know I love to do, like this blog and this website. When the feeling behind the work is freedom, excitement and movement, you know you are doing something worth doing, at least for you.
And I gave myself permission to explore ideas that I have previously resisted because they require skills that I do not feel competent in. Believing that I have to have a predefined skill before I try something new, shuts down my creativity and reduces the flow of ideas that could lead somewhere interesting.
Don’t let your ideas dry up
All business ebbs and flows. The longer you stay in business, the more you realise that you will have wildly successful years but also lean and maybe even desperate years. There will months where money pours in and months where it dries up. Yes, you need an understanding of cash flow, but sometimes the issue is that it is you who are drying up and the business dries up with you.
And when you dry up and your ideas stop or your heart is no longer in it, your inner wisdom might be trying to tell you to take some time out and reflect on where you need more movement.
Did you know that the word ‘affluence’ is from the Latin root word ‘affluere’ which means to ‘to flow to’? The definition of the word ‘affluence’ is ‘an abundant flow or supply’. I like the idea that the concept of money is related to water, to circulation, to flowing out to other people and things.
We all feel stuck at some point in our business. But rather than see that stuckness as a sign that you are doing something wrong, or you are not cut out for business, ask yourself if you need to get more flow or movement into your thinking. Explore a new idea, take up something you have no skill in and see if you love it, release the pressure somewhere and take a breath.
All water flows downstream, maybe it’s time to sit back and watch where it goes.
“Be soft in your practice.
Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall.
Follow the stream, have faith in its course.
It will go its own way,
meandering here, trickling there.
It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices.
Just follow it.
Never let it out of your sight.
It will take you.”