Are you in that space of wondering what to do with your life, or maybe making a big change looking for something better?
That can lead to wonderful things. It can also lead to long periods of uncertainty and beating yourself up.
I was propelled on to that journey five years ago when my mum died. It naturally led me to that place of questioning and awareness of untapped potential and limited time.
It’s been a twisty path. I’ve learned a lot and met some great people who’ve helped me along. But standing here now it still hasn’t fully crystallised into a recognisable form of ‘success’, and with that unhelpful sharpness of hindsight I’m wishing I’d been wiser, and kinder to myself.
Of course, I’m only where I am because of the journey I took. The awareness I have now comes from time served. And I don’t know what might be round the next bend.
If you’re beginning a similar process, I want to tell you what I can to make it less hard on you.
You may be thinking of spending a short while looking around and exploring, then having the revelation of understanding The Answer to what you should be doing with your life, then getting on and doing it, then achieving success (whatever that means for you).
That’s natural. Our brains like simple views of things and processes that are easy to understand. But for most people it doesn’t happen that way.
Most likely, you’ll look around and take stock, then set off in the direction that seems best, then after a while find you need to make a small course correction or a big change, then go on a bit further, then change again.
It’s all navigation.
It’s about journeys and island-hopping and what you uncover along the way.
Human beings aren’t like big maps that you can unroll and see the landscape spread before you. We’re more like collections of bric-a-brac spread out among drawers and boxes.
Once we’ve been adults for a while, our minds have set aside a whole bunch of ideas, interests and experiences to let us get on with life as it ‘should’ be. If you open the attic of self-discovery you’ll gradually reconnect with parts of your life story and assemble the oddments into a piece of art that reflects your deeper identity and self-satisfaction.
If you get attached to The Answer and it persists in not emerging in easily applicable form, you can spend a lot of time locked in frustration. Been there.
Better to assemble a few navigational clues, head out, spend that time in motion and learning, hold your direction lightly, and look for the core elements you can catch and keep.
Value ease and wellbeing
If you’re setting out to be of service to the world, I honour that and send a wish for that service to bring us help.
But you’re not just here to help us. You’re here to look after yourself and enjoy life too. So be honest about what that means to you, and don’t forget it.
I’ve just had the experience of having a sort-of-conversation with the part of me that lives in my gut, which was kicking up a fuss. The word that surfaced was ‘security’ – it wanted to be looked after and had been neglected too long while I hunted about in the undergrowth. There are always reminders eventually, but they’re not always much fun.
My suggestion for you is to schedule a monthly time to check in with yourself, on your own or with a coach or a wise friend. Look at where you’re at and whether you’re happy with it. Have you got caught up in patterns that need to change?
Another part of ease is to not get too fixed on a particular vision of how you want things to happen. Be open to people with new opportunities and forms of help. Maybe you’re fighting for one thing when you could just step into another that’d take you in more or less the right direction. That relates to authenticity too, because if you’re wrapped up in trying to be someone you’re not, you’re less likely to catch on to things that would help your real self.
Take a crash course in personality types
I learned this stuff gradually as it popped on to my radar. But the info is available now in a way it hasn’t been before, and if someone points it out you can devote a block of time to it early on.
This might be one of the most useful things you can do for yourself.
Understanding your personality biases gives you a framework for making sense of your behaviour when it’s weird and you’re frustrating yourself. It points you in the direction of approaches that will work for you, and away from approaches that will bring you stress.
I’ve found that some people have an instinctive dislike of personality tests. I think I distrusted them myself to start with. Here’s a wise thing I say now:
It’s not about putting yourself in a box. It’s about seeing yourself through a window.
And it’s not necessarily about tests either. A lot of people will think first of Myers-Briggs with its 16 profiles. It hasn’t really turned me on, but by all means check it out. There’s at least one website using that work to give a free test, whereas the official site charges. This graphic on Wikipedia gives you a pretty clear idea of the types, and you can probably locate yourself, but the blurb on what that means would be helpful.
I’ve liked Wealth Dynamics by Roger Hamilton, which tells you what kind of work activities/modes suit you, and therefore what sort of roles will put you in ‘flow’. For instance I come up strongest in Mechanic – looking at how things work and finding ways to do them better. There’s a small charge for taking the test, but reading the profiles is interesting in itself.
A big personality thing to understand is the scale between introvert and extrovert. That’s basically about what drains your energy and what recharges it. Do you like large groups of people and lots of sensory stimulation? Or do you like quiet time on your own? Without that awareness, it’s easy for introverts especially to do the things they think society expects and end up drained and frustrated. This topic has got much more awareness in the last couple of years, and that’s helping people to design their work and home lives to support them in being their best.
Related to that is the concept of highly sensitive people (HSPs). They process things more deeply than most, and are more affected by environmental factors and the emotions and behaviour of people around them. This is now being recognised as a real psychological thing. HSPs are more likely to be introverts, but not all are. Here’s a site about that by Dr Elaine Aron – perhaps a little academic, and books may suit you better.
I’m an HSP introvert – in my particular shade of what that means. Looking back, understanding that at any time in my life would have made a huge difference to my future. As someone struggling to fit into jobs, or an awkward student, or even if my parents or teachers had been able to guide me on it.
There’s a bunch of other stuff out there on understanding your own psychology. Basically, know what works for you and head that way rather than being blown around.
Be ready for resistance
You can save yourself a lot of confused questioning by understanding that not all parts of your mind are pulling in the same direction.
There is an internal force, most often called resistance, that seems to sabotage us when we try something bold and new. I’ve also seen it called the gremlin or top dog.
It generates self-talk that tells us we’re not good enough, who are we to do this, it’s bound to fail so why bother, and so on.
Nick Williams’ book Resisting Your Soul is a good easy-read round up of this. He draws from perhaps the core work on it, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. (Those are affiliate links.) Lots of other folks have written about it too.
Resistance is actually a system for keeping us safe, but like some of our other old programming it applies itself badly for today’s world.
It sees stress and social disapproval as threats, and all it knows how to do is avoid threats. Unfortunately we seem to keep running toward them! So it uses a mixture of manipulation and brute force to try to keep us small and out of harm’s way.
As Pressfield says so eloquently, resistance can be very nasty and it never goes away. It doesn’t care how much it hurts our dreams or confidence in pursuit of its goal. The more we try to create great stuff and expand our limits, the more it rises against us. The ‘war of art’ is about the fierce persistence to push through anyway.
I’m sorry if that’s a bit of a downer! The point of saying it is this. If you experience resistance without knowing what it is, you’re likely to buy into it and go down its path. But if you have that awareness, you can say, ‘Oh, there’s that resistance again’, and choose not to invest in it.
Actually it’s not quite that simple, because sometimes you’re sending yourself a message that you genuinely don’t want to do a thing. Developing the intuition to tell the difference is a project of years.
But in the meantime, if you find your internal talk is attacking your self-worth and stopping you in your tracks, you can protect yourself by putting it in perspective.
Find a group – then find another
It’s really helpful to find a collection of people who’ll support you as you try to move forward. In person, ideally – not just online, though that’s useful too.
You want people who you have something in common with, who are in the neighbourhood of the same sort of questions as you, who are kind and open-hearted. You can share your problems in confidence and cheer each other on.
I was lucky to find a group like that at the time I needed it. It helped me a lot. It’s just wound up, having reached a natural end.
But, with that hindsight again, I made a mistake with it. I felt safe, and I stopped there.
My suggestion is that you’re looking for a group to get you to the next level of adventure, where you can open out further.
Maybe you need to heal or integrate stuff, which means a period in recovery mode with low activity and lots of support. But you’re doing that so that you’ll be able to stretch again.
Each group has its own nature. Some will be for you for a long time, and some for a short time. Some you’ll engage with deeply; others might just be a source of skills or contacts. The people you meet along the way, likewise. Hopefully you’ll form lasting friendships, as I did.
Do always engage honestly, and make sure your energy can sustain real interactions that will help others as well as yourself.
If you’re in the early stages of exploring your self and your contribution – or spiralling round to look at it again from a more experienced perspective – you’ve got enough soul-searching to do and hurdles to jump.
If you can get through parts of the learning journey quickly and put yourself in a stronger position, you’ll be better for it. And the rest of us can benefit from your gifts all the sooner, and see you happier doing it.
This post originally appeared on my site The Upward Path.