Some changes come swiftly and with their own momentum, and you wonder how the new wasn’t there before it feels so right and familiar. And some changes come kicking and screaming and hanging on to the door jam as you try to coax them through.
Career transition has felt like the kicking and screaming kind for me.
As I sat on the threshold of leaving my solid, challenging, rewarding, stressful, ‘important’, clever and yes, well paid, job I found I could easily switch from coaxer to stubborn mule stay-put-er in a moment. Even as the ‘me’ who longed for something new and who worked towards that something new began to dream that something new could be possible, when I switched perspectives and imagined actually cutting the ties, I felt bereft. Strong, confusing feelings would surface, in a primal pre verbal way. And they would be accompanied by tears, snot and some sobbing for good measure.
What were these feelings? Grief and sadness to be sure. Grief at the saying goodbye to an old identity, sadness and longing for the old half-dreamt dreams which now would not come to fruition within that role, grief at saying goodbye to a community, a familiarity and stability.
There was a tiny bit of regret and guilt for letting people down, but mostly I had felt and exhausted that one previously, when choosing to take leave for a period of time to recover my energy and consider change. By now I knew that they could do without me, and they were getting on fine.
The something deeper, as I dug around asking ‘What is this? Why am I feeling so upset?’, emerged as the feeling that I had failed. Strong grief and some shame at the idea that I had not managed to make work something that I could enjoy as much as others seemed to. I felt like I was somehow not good enough – had not tried hard enough, was not resilient enough, was not resourceful enough – to take on the challenge of my job and find a way to make it work and to thrive within it. I had failed. I was a failure.
The paradox was that this thing I felt I had failed at was something I no longer wanted to do. I had done enough work with a good therapist to see that I was wanting a fairly significant shift in my relationship to work, to creativity, to stress, and to productivity. I could see that almost 10 years of trying different ways within my role hadn’t created the lasting shifts I was hoping for. In addition, what I cared most about, what I was excited about learning, and my understanding of what I felt ‘drawn’ to do had changed over the years. I could see that this role didn’t light up my interest anymore or feel like a way of working that was compatible with maintaining good health, for me.
But despite this, the litany of failures ran on in my mind: ‘failure to manage your stress, failure to endure, failure to make it work, failure to be a normal person, failure to be efficient and productive, failure to excel, failure to put aside your personal issues to do something for the good of the world, failure to be spectacular, failure to be respectable and admired, failure to be glossy and shiny and professional’. Imagine this litany accompanied by bass notes of sniffs and chorus of keening.
Never mind that for almost 15 years in my particular field I had done OK for myself: contributed to valued work, helped others, been promoted, been praised for what I had done. Never mind that I was leaving entirely of my own volition, after years of hard work and a list of projects so long it made my eyes hurt. Still I felt like a failure.
On the one hand, work I no longer wanted to do: that I was burntout from doing, that I was bored and stressed doing, that caused me bodily and emotional pain, but somehow kept the inner gatekeeper happy, satisfied that I was a valuable member of society and was worthwhile.
On the other hand, the great unknown: pursuing my interests (unstable fluttering interests that made no promises to stick around), stepping out into a new tribe that I wasn’t wholly sure would accept me, hoping for pieces of work that I wasn’t sure would come or that I would be good at.
It felt like:
Stability versus the fear of chaos.
Established versus beginner.
‘Worthy’ versus ‘self indulgent’.
‘Distinguished’ versus ‘dabbling’.
Credible versus ‘on whose authority?’
On the Heroes Journey map in art therapy we talk about the ‘medicine’ that can be found right in the deepest darkest moments of our descent into the unknowing. That here, as we sit in the pit, the nadir, we need to experience the metaphoric death of a part of ourselves (for example the leaving behind or changing of a mask, a way of acting, a way of seeing the world) and grieve that loss, and at the same time recognise that loss can be the medicine that helps us move up and out of this dark place and returns us stronger, more whole, and more authentically ourselves.
For me, I knew that next to this absolute fear of change, and the grief and feeling of loss at stepping out of this role and identity, would be my medicine.
Who am I without this thing I cling to?
What do I see about myself when I see I can exist without this part of my identity?
What judgements about myself do I need to gently release to be able to move forward?
These weren’t easy questions. This wasn’t an easy time.
I had said yes to the new, but was not yet ready to say no to the old. I was carrying them both within me. It took time (months). And more time (months). And more tears, and a bit more uncertainty before I was ready to take the final step in the transition.
It also took love and support from people close to me, a cheer squad of fellow coaching students, and taking big tangible steps to follow through on building a new professional identity to feel confident enough that there would be something waiting for me on the other side if I did the unthinkable and left my old field.
Having come through the other side of this now, recent enough that these feelings haven’t faded in my memory, I know that I have learned a powerful and visceral lesson through experiencing this change. I now understand down to my very bones (in a way I didn’t before) that big life transitions that people struggle with are complex and have subterranean elements involving dreams for the future, family stories, personal identity, social identity, a struggle between hope and fear, grief and loss for the old, safety and security, and much more.
While it was happening I was very aware of the caterpillar-butterfly metaphor, and in particular the messy part in the middle where inside the cocoon the caterpillar disintegrates into cells and is a caterpillar-y soup before it is reformed back into butterfly. I kept thinking ‘am I still in soup stage? Have I grown my wings yet?’. That image helped me understand the feeling of unfamiliarity in the mist of change, and the inability to move, the need to be curled up safely while this change is taking place at the deepest most fundamental levels of ourselves.
Now that it has happened and some time has passed, I think more of a bridge in a mythical landscape. I see myself standing in a place where I once wanted to be but have grown tired of, looking out across dark waters and a rickety bridge to a slightly hazy and indistinct future me. The future me waves and a slight smile sits gently. She looks calm. To get there and become that version of myself I have to somehow make it across the bridge, even though I am scared and feel like I will die to cross it, and I can’t even know 100% if the vision of myself over there is real or a mirage. I stand there wondering, ‘will I stay where I am and be safe, or will I go over the bridge even though the drop to the waters below terrifies me?’
And now maybe my gift from the other side, as well as a new landscape to explore and that gentle smile that comes from having honoured my own wishes, is the powerful deep empathy for others exploring change. In therapy and coaching I will forever be attuned to these big symbolic changes, that can look straightforward or even mundane to the outside observer, but that take such courage, support and sometimes just time, for the person making them.