4 Ways To Grow From Professional Hardship
More than 33 million Americans have lost their jobs to the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands more have been furloughed. Many of those who have kept their jobs now work from home, forced in short order to carve out whole new roles and methods for doing work. This is one reason the pandemic has been so emotionally, mentally, and physically challenging.
As a leadership coach, I hear stories every day of people trying to balance parenthood and work, of juggling toddlers while fielding important work calls. Some clients feel unmoored in the absence of former routines. Some feel like their careers are stalled or stuck in glue. Some are angry and scared. Everybody is tired.
The good news is that professional hardship can—and often does—lead to transformation and reinvention. It can allow us to see things more clearly and find strength and opportunities we couldn't have otherwise. Of course, the idea of joyous, care-free transformation is offensive to the very real struggle, exhaustion, and in some cases trauma many of us are going through right now. But there are ways to turn hardship into growth.
Following these four steps is a good place to start.
Step 1: Build a new foundation.
When something happens unexpectedly, such as our jobs changing overnight, we are likely to experience psychological shock. We go into fight, flight, or freeze mode as stress hormones surge through our bodies, stopping us from being able to think straight and increasing feelings of anxiety and fear.
This stress response is completely normal. It takes time for the energy to work through us. We can't wish or will it away. It's easy during this time to experience feelings of insecurity, which, in turn, can lead us to exaggerate ramifications or go into catastrophic thinking. This, in turn, fuels more stress and leads to even greater anxiety. Around and around it goes.
In order to break from this cycle, we need to help ourselves build a new foundation. Start by engaging in a self-awareness exercise by asking yourself, "What can I incorporate into my daily routine that will give me a sense of stability?" Stability is created from structure, and structure is created from taking repetitive action. Make your bed, take a shower, cook some breakfast, engage in physical or mental exercise, do something that engages your imagination and creativity, prioritize doing something just for fun. Talk with one friend a day. Bake a loaf of bread.
Be careful not to overwhelm yourself by focusing on big ticket items that you can't immediately do anything about. Instead, provide yourself with a sense of accomplishment by focusing on a task that is within your control to complete.
Step 2: Summon stamina to keep going.
One of the toughest parts about COVID-19 is that no one knows how or when it will end. That's like running a marathon with no finish line. To survive, we all need stamina.
Think about the things in life that support you to keep going—to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter what. The size of the step isn't what's important; it's the fact that you took a step at all. Make sure you are surrounded by people and environments that support you. Ask yourself what you need to continue to feel or strive for a sense of calm, determination, or purpose.
I hear all the time how even though we know what will help us work through stress and keep going, it is very difficult to motivate yourself to engage in these behaviors. So it is paramount to help yourself do the small things that break down those barriers. For example, instead of saying to yourself, "I am going to do a 20-minute meditation!" instead say, "I will sit here for 30 seconds and do some breathing exercises." Or instead of forcing yourself to go for a 10-mile run, tell yourself just to put on your running clothes and jog around the block. This stops you from feeling overwhelmed and instead gets you moving forward down a path that gets easier to move down each time you summon the energy to take a simple step.
Step 3: Turn trauma into growth.
Once we find stability and stamina, we can start to ask ourselves questions about our future and how we want to grow. For example, what actions can we continue to take to gain closure from our old reality and start fully engaging in a new one? What activities make me feel purposeful and alive? What kind of future gets me excited? What are the values I want to live by, and how can I make decisions with them in mind?
Writing is a great way to find these answers. When we experience trauma or psychological shock, it can feel like our own story has been usurped and someone else has taken control. By keeping a journal or writing down our thoughts and feelings, we put ourselves back in control of our own narratives. It also can lead us to answers about what we care most about and how we want to live and work moving forward.
If you don't like to write, try going on a walk or talking out loud to yourself. Experiment with drawing or using your hands to create something while letting your mind have a dialogue with itself in a non-pressurized environment. Tap into your imagination and be curious about where it takes you. Ultimately what matters most is that we create the space for ourselves to work through this process, have a fruitful and nonjudgmental inner dialogue, take notes, create an action plan, and support ourselves to stick with it.
It is important to reduce self-judgment and increase self-compassion in this process in order to reduce the power of the trauma and increase the ability to grow and evolve as a human being. Take a moment to notice your negative self-talk and see where it is coming from. What limiting beliefs do you hold about yourself? What is your inner critic telling you that is detrimental to your ability to move on and grow?
Remind yourself that taking a traumatic experience and using it as fuel to grow into a wiser, more fulfilled, purposeful, and authentic human being is what life is all about. When we judge ourselves harshly, it directly impedes our ability to move on.
Step 4: Reinvent yourself.
Now is the time to start thinking more broadly of the ways that we can use traumatic experiences as opportunities to reinvent ourselves, our lives, our careers, and our relationships. Focus on creativity, imagination, experimentation, curiosity. Shift your perspective from traditional productivity to one of exploration. Go on a journey of digging into what is meaningful to you and how you would like to be in the world.
I sometimes give my clients an inner mentor exercise in order to help expand their perspective, work through challenges, build momentum to grow through adversity, and be excited about things to come even when the present moment is challenging. Our inner mentor is a future version of ourselves that is wiser, more experienced, and has our best interests at heart. Just spending 10 minutes closing your eyes and going on a journey to visit your inner mentor and asking him/her questions and listening to the responses can give you guidance and motivation.
Asking ourselves questions like "What have I got to lose?" and "What's the worst that can happen?" can be helpful when we feel stuck or afraid to take action. Give yourself the space to test things out. Focus on building the courage to put yourself out there or try something new. As adults we often forget that not everything we do has to be productive. Sometimes we can do things just for fun. What would you like to do purely for enjoyment's sake? It might hold key information for you in determining how you want to reinvent yourself, your lifestyle, and your career.
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