I sat at my desk with my laptop open in front of me. The desk hid a box of unsold books and other boxes of resources and gifts for events that hadn’t happened. My microphone lay off to the side reminding me that I had skipped recording a podcast last month. Emails arrived in my inbox with disappointing news of low conference registrations, disengaged leaders and continuing decline in numbers for the organisation. That niggly voice in the back of my mind asked how much longer we could go with my business bringing in so little income. I was ready to shut it all down under the weight of discouragement.
The dominant emotion I have been navigating this year is discouragement. I know I’m not alone in that. Ongoing uncertainty. Increased demands. The need to innovate and pivot constantly. General disengagement from others. It is no wonder that we feel heavy and unmotivated (and that’s not even including extended lockdowns and restrictions that so many of my friends have been dealing with.)
For me, it came down to a sense of pouring out so much energy, effort and thought for so little return. Was it worth it? What’s the point? I found myself seriously contemplating resigning from leadership, shutting down my business and finding a job where I could just show up, work and go home with little responsibility. I recognised the red flags of potential burnout.
It’s at this point that you are probably connecting with that underlying feeling of discouragement and rehearsing all your own reasons. I’m guessing you are feeling pretty low at this moment. That’s why I chose to skip the blog and podcast last month. I knew that I wasn’t in a place to take myself or anyone else past this point. We all would have sat in a funk reinforcing the discouragement without a way forward together.
So, what do we do? I don’t have all the answers. There is no one solution that will fix this overnight. I can share a few things that are helping me take steps forward. Part of me hesitates to share these as I am inconsistent and a work in progress. I share from the messy middle.
Such a basic need and yet one that we often overlook. My mind and body cannot function well when I neglect sleep. This isn’t always easy when there are factors beyond our control, like children who wake during the night or insomnia. I can’t control everything but I can influence my sleep quality with choices around screen use, techniques to quiet my mind and the time I get into bed.
Stop the unhelpful story
The US National Science Foundation did a study in 2005 that showed an average person has between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day. 80% of those thoughts were recorded as being negative with 95% being repeated thoughts. (No, I have no idea how they figure these things out but it rings true to my own experience.) I keep rehearsing the same negative thoughts over and over again. They form this story in my mind that reinforces this feeling of discouragement. That story colours my perception of everything that happens.
When I become aware of this story at play, my aim is to change that thinking pattern. This is where I hit a tension point though. I don’t want to swing to the other extreme where I am pretending everything is wonderful, stuffing down my feelings and ignoring hard realities that I need to address. Neither option is helpful.
I find this is where I need other people I trust in my life to talk through it all. Express my disappointment. Share the situations. Release the pressure valve. It is often in the process of talking about it that I see more clearly where an actual issue lies rather than the overinflated version I have created in my mind. My safe people can also point out where I am taking things personally that aren’t personal or blind spots I have.
Start a new story
Once I have interrupted this ever-inflating negative story, I can create a more helpful one. It will still have hard realities in it. I may still feel disappointed. But I don’t get stuck in that place. I can pull in truth that spurs me forward. I can choose to focus on that little bit of positive feedback I get. This new story creation helps me to reassess what is actually important and what area I want to put my energy into for the days and weeks ahead.
As I rehearse this new story in my mind, my perception shifts. Moments that would have sunk me deeper into discouragement might not impact as strongly. I am quicker to see things I am grateful for and the little results that I may have overlooked. This helps to grow and reinforce those more helpful thinking patterns.
Stick with what’s important
I have been asking myself some tough questions in all of this. I have been reading a book called ‘Sacred Rhythms’ by Ruth Haley Barton. Early in the book, she suggests a journaling exercise to uncover your wants and desires. I found this so confronting but valuable. Do I really want to keep writing and producing a podcast? Do I have anything of value to say? Am I really wanting to run this leadership development program for teens? What do I want my marriage and family to look like? Is this leadership position what I wanted or drifted into? How do I want to spend my days?
These questions are luxuries in many ways. I recognise how privileged I am to be in a position where I am not just trying to survive and can dig into these things. They are needed for me at this moment though. The answers helped me to redefine what was important in my life and what was an optional extra.
Then I need grit and stick-with-it-ness. If these things are truly important to me, I need to be willing to endure and sacrifice to make them happen. I wonder how often we give up too early and miss the breakthrough? If I had given up at that lowest point not that long ago, I would have missed the opportunities that have opened up in the past few weeks. That box of unsold books has a lot fewer books in it. The program that seemed to be going nowhere has interest. A new income stream came out of the blue. A conference feedback comment reminded me why I put in the work. Discouragement doesn’t get to take me out of the game. Let’s keep going.
Want to help make a bigger dent in that box of unsold books?