Feeling Stuck At Work? How to Handle a Personal Downturn

Feeling Stuck At Work? How to Handle a Personal Downturn

There is a Buddhist/Taoist story of an old farmer who had been working his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“We’ll see.” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“We’ll see.” replied the old farmer.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“We’ll see.” answered the farmer.

A week later, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“We’ll see.” said the farmer.

I love this story because it sums up many of the patterns that we can see in our own lives and work. When we can stand back and have more perspective. That’s often the problem, though, how do we get that perspective and how do we know when we’ve stood far enough away?

The raise and promotion that initially seemed like your dream come true, can turn into a nightmare after a re-org that leaves you separated from your department and heading a hostile team.

The time you got fired or let go which was first so humiliating has led you to dig into a job search you delayed for years because it wasn’t “that bad. . . “ Now you find yourself working at an exciting new company where they value your skills and experience and you enjoy the people and culture.

If these versions of the story hasn’t happened to you, I’m willing to wager that you have your own story of shifting perspectives on an initially good or challenging event.

Are you someone who’s right now facing a challenging work situation? Whether it’s hostile relationships, feeling stuck and undervalued, or even lack of work opportunities when you’d like to be working, (and maybe something completely different,) first of all let me acknowledge that’s hard. Hard, frustrating and perhaps even lonely. I’m sorry about that.

There aren’t easy answers to seemingly intractable problems. And I’m not going to bullsh%$t you and pretend I have “3 easy-to-implement fixes.”

But here are 3 possibilities for keeping your perspective when you might have lost some:

1. There’s A Time And A Place
When I was 15 and melodramatic (though maybe that hasn’t changed), my boyfriend and I broke up. And I cried. . . A LOT! Finally my mother told me that I could cry all I wanted to at home, but I would use up all my friends’ goodwill and needed to “save up the crying” from them. This was excellent advice that probably saved my friendships (thanks Mom!).

Often times bad feelings and events can take over our thoughts and emotions. The temptation for some is to emote frequently while others ‘seal the lid’ and never express their emotions.

The key is to make sure you still keep feeling those challenging thoughts and emotions, that you don’t attempt to disconnect from any part of your experience. And that you don’t let those negative thoughts and feelings override everything else in your life.

You never benefit from walling off a part of yourself, but it’s also important to have perspective in each moment to know that what’s happening is not the entirety of who you are or the life you’ve built.

“My mind is a bad neighborhood I try not to go into alone” – Anne Lamott

2. Find At Least One Healthy Mind-Numbing Activity
Hey sometimes you just need a break from what’s going on. I’m not advocating you drink (a lot) or overeat but if you can build in mental breaks for yourself, it allows you to come back to center.

So maybe you increase your workouts and take advantage of a ‘runner’s high.’ Or have silly dance parties with your kids which end in giggles. Maybe your escape is reading fiction or volunteering to help others at a soup kitchen on weekends.

Find a non-regrettable way to flip the off-switch in your brain from whatever is taking over part of your thoughts and days.

**In no particular order my personal faves are: hiking in the Berkeley hills, singing a comeback anthem at the top of my lungs in the car, watching (or reading) a mindless romantic comedy, coffee dates/laughing with friends**

3. Map Your Work Life
This is an exercise that can be used with individuals, teams and organizations. Come up with a timeline of your work life (Was it 16 with your first job or many years later?) On the X axis are the years and on the Y axis is your happiness level (or engagement level) with your job. If you’re human, you’re likely to see ebb and flow, a roller-coaster effect of sorts.

See if you can pinpoint what changed from the downs to the ups. How did you pull yourself out of slump the last few times? What interventions were helpful?

Sometimes how you traversed the past can give you great wisdom for how to go forward into the future. (P.S. It’s also a great way to reflect on things that “took you out” in the past so you can avoid the same pitfalls in the future.)

Comment below and let me know which of these three ideas seems like it might help you?

And if you don’t need one right now, it’s good to think ahead and keep a strategy in your back pocket for a rainy day.

I’m not a fortune teller but the chances are pretty good that how you feel right now will change. If you’ve been feeling that things have felt hard for awhile though – would having a great coach help?

And if you’re feeling good right now. That’s awesome! Take a moment to sense and enjoy that feeling.

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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