Recently, I was asked to contribute a chapter for a book called "What To Do When You Don't Know What To Do", compiled by Tendai Jordan. Her topic is very timely and important, especially now, when we humans are facing change at such an extraordinary level and pace. We're often left overwhelmed, not knowing what to do next.
When I query people in the personal development seminars I lead about their purpose for attending, a majority of participants respond with some variation on the following:
-I feel lost.
-I don't have a direction for my life.
-I just got laid off. How do I start over?
-I know where I want to go. I just don't know how to get there.
-I know what I don't want, but I don't know what I do want.
-I don't even know where to begin.
Sound familiar? Join the club. It turns out this is territory many of us know well. Most people are first faced with this "what do I do with myself now" challenge in their early to mid twenties, as they enter adulthood and expect to begin careers. It used to be that after one finished high school, college or the military, one could expect to secure a good job and begin building a life. Forget about that today.
High school grads that can't afford to go to college have increasingly looked to the military to provide the next level of education and training to equip them with job skills. But the sustained economic crisis has changed everything. According to an article in the Washington Post, unemployment among young vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars hit 21.1 percent last year as many returned home to find their jobs had been eliminated due to downsizing while they were deployed.
Young adults, ages 18-24, are the hardest hit in this prolonged recession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites the unemployment rate at 18.3 percent among Caucasian men, 30.1 percent among Blacks and 20.1 percent among Hispanics in this age group. So clearly, there are a lot of folks who don't know what to do next, and there aren't a lot of open doors beckoning them to enter.
But this phenomenon is not reserved only for the young. Across a lifetime, nearly everyone reaches a place where, in order to go forward, it requires letting go of what no longer serves or works, and reinventing oneself anew. In fact, given the amount of rapid change characteristic of the times in which we live, men and women all across the age spectrum can expect to re-tool several times during a lifetime.
Sometimes it happens out of necessity, as in the current jobs crisis. Perhaps that career no longer has the promise it once had due to companies downsizing or going out of business altogether. Many new college graduates find themselves with a degree in a field that now has little opportunity, and are happy to find anything just to survive.
Sometimes we find ourselves starting over because we've become disappointed or disillusioned in a career we thought was going to be a perfect match, only to discover that reality didn't match our expectations. Women who left a career to raise a family might now suddenly find themselves back in the job market because of divorce or just plain economic necessity.
Reaching retirement age is another stage of development where retooling becomes paramount. People used to think retirement meant sitting back, taking it easy, sleeping in late, and finally having the time to pursue those long lost dreams you left behind in the rat race of having to make a living.
Well, for many of today's retirees, that's also pretty much a myth. Many people of retirement age, having lost substantial life savings and investments in the stock market crisis, can no longer afford to retire, and perhaps have even lost their homes in the mortgage crisis. Furthermore, age discrimination in this jobless market is a major issue for people still needing to work and people are finding few opportunities available.
Some people are fortunate enough to have adequate financial resources and have the luxury of being able to choose when and if they want to stop working or change careers midstream. Many say they know they don't want to keep doing what they've been doing, but they don't know what to do next.
But not all dilemmas of not knowing what to do next are necessarily career related. Relationships offer up another domain of big challenges in this area. People find themselves stuck in a marriage that long ago lost its luster, yet don't know how, or can't afford to, get out; or they don't have the skills to make it better. And sometimes, career and relationship challenges clash and then things really get intense.
In situations like these, what do you do when you don't know what to do?
It's human nature to want predictability. We're creatures of habit, seeking comfort and not well equipped to deal with the uncertainty that comes from finding ourselves at a dead end or in a cul-de-sac. We're not taught how to look beyond whatever is obscuring the path in front of us, or how to look within to find the inner resources necessary to grow larger than the obstacles we face. When faced with roadblocks that appear to be immovable, not knowing how to tap into our own resourcefulness, it's easy to get caught up in fear and anxiety, both of which are disempowering and render us even less capable of dealing with the crisis at hand.
Change doesn't come easily for most people, not because it is inherently difficult, but primarily because of what we tell ourselves about how difficult it's going to be. Reinventing oneself sounds like a big deal, and therefore it must be hard and require a lot of suffering. Right?
Not necessarily. Change requires suffering only if that's the conversation we're living inside. If we let fear choose for us, then we'll contract. In our misguided attempt to protect ourselves from what we've already decided is going to be painful, we armor ourselves by pulling back and being resistant to life as it's flowing in the moment. We're set up to suffer because that's the condition we've prepared for. And guess what? We'll be right. Suffering will be our experience. It's guaranteed.
Even under the most challenging of circumstances involving a great deal of pain and hardship, suffering is not required. There is a Zen aphorism that says, "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional."
Consider the experience of Jose Rene "JR" Martinez, currently appearing as a contestant on "Dancing With The Stars." In 2003, JR, then with the U.S. Army in Iraq, was driving a Humvee whose left front tire hit a landmine. He suffered severe burns over 40 percent of his body, including his head and face. He spent the next 34 months in a military hospital recovering from 33 cosmetic surgeries and skin grafts to rebuild his face and badly burned body.
JR told his story publicly for the first time on Monday night's episode of DWTS. After his injuries, when he woke up in the hospital and asked to see his face in the mirror for the first time, he broke down and started crying. In the weeks that followed, he became severely depressed, filled with regrets and blame, and told himself it would have been better if he hadn't survived. He cried himself to sleep many nights. Then one day his mother was at his side as he was crying and she said something to him that changed everything. She told him that whoever was going to be in his life would be there because of who he was, not because of how he looked.
In that moment, something clicked inside JR and he understood he had a choice. He could go on being a victim and drown in his own self pity, or he could pick himself up and find a reason to go on. He chose the later.
Talk about reinventing oneself. Since that fateful day when JR chose to make his life have new meaning, he's become a sought after motivational speaker. He travels all over the country speaking to veterans groups, non-profits, corporations and schools, bringing his message of resilience and optimism. In 2009, JR was honored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) with the Veterans Leadership Award, given in recognition of his dedication to our newest generation of veterans.
But wait. There's more. JR has launched yet another career as an actor, being cast in the ABC Daytime drama, "All My Children." He plays a character was also injured in combat while serving in the military.
So getting back to our question: What do you do when you don't know what to do next?
Here are 10 suggestions, but this list is just a beginning:
1) What's your "story?" Become aware of what you're telling yourself about your current situation. Is this a "problem" or an "opportunity?" How you frame it will determine how you experience it. If you're having a "problem" chances are you're reacting from fear. If you choose to see this moment as an "opportunity," new possibilities and doors open. They were always there. You just weren't prepared to receive them.
2) Notice your body sensations. What is your body telling you right now? Is your throat tight? What about your stomach? Notice the sensations in your chest. And what about your breath? Is it shallow or deep? Slow or fast? The body has its own wisdom. It's rarely ever wrong. Learn to tune into it and trust it. It will tell you what to do, even if it's still. Become silent, and do nothing. Follow it.
3) Notice your feelings. Do you feel anxious, nervous, panicky or manic? Do you feel quiet, calm, serene? Follow whatever you're feeling. Look at what lies beneath. And what's underneath that? Keep following your feelings. You may have to go so deep into the feeling realm that the only way out is to go all the way through and out to the other side. This will sound counterintuitive at first. You mean to allow yourself to feel even more depressed? More sad? Yes, and when you do ...
4) Ask for support. It's a good idea to have a trusted ally nearby. A therapist, a coach, a clergy member, a friend, a family member, someone who is skilled enough to help you hold this experience and support you to move through it. Remember, JR's mom was the catalyst that helped him moved beyond self-pity to making a conscious choice about how he wanted to live.
5) Get moving. Move your body: walk, run, dance, go to the gym, get a massage, do pilates. Do whatever feels good and right for your body. Get those endorphins pumping, and you'll have a whole new perspective on what wants to happen next.
6) Trust the process. Know that you're in a process and that you're right where you need to be. How do I know? Because if you were supposed to be somewhere else, you'd be there. So give yourself permission to relax into it a bit and trust that even though you might not yet be able to see light at the end of this tunnel, you are making your way one step at a time. And on that note ...
7) Be here now. Just take this one step at a time. You didn't get here overnight, so give yourself a break and allow the process to work on its own time. Yes, it's frustrating to feel stuck or lost and not know what's coming or which way to turn. The fog will settle when you're ready to see. Besides, the answers you seek aren't "out there." They're right where you already are. So look within, be still and know.
8) Open up. Open your eyes, ears, heart, mind, soul and life, to the possibility that something wonderful is being birthed in you right now, even if this moment is painful. Then remember #6.
9) Take a seat, and take a deep breath. And then another. The answers you seek lie in the breath. Breathe in love, acceptance, courage and peace. Breathe out fear. Developing a meditation practice where you simply observe the breath will allow the mind to clear and become focused.
10) Find something larger than yourself to serve. JR began by visiting his fellow burn patients in the hospital. His example gave them renewed hope. You have something worthwhile to give to others. Find those who need what you have to give, and then give. Know that what you are seeking is seeking you.
This list is not exhaustive. I'd love to hear your ideas too.
Lastly, remember JR. I'm rooting for him to win that mirror ball trophy. In case you missed his amazing performance last time, here it is:
And I'm rooting for you to win whatever is there for you to claim and own as your own prize in this life. What you are seeking is seeking you.
What's worked for you to move on to the next stage of your life? What did you do when you didn't know what to do?
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