I was on my way home last Thursday evening when a headline in the Evening Standard caught my eye: “Recovery takes time, says PM”. A short article spoke of how the closure of two of the last three deep coal mines overshadowed a tour by Prime Minister David Cameron of the regions. The article did not state which regions, though in present-day UK “regions” is often code for “outside London”.
The headline had a resonance for me which was probably not intended by the author at a time when I feel particularly tired. I have been all too aware that, just as some of the challenges of recent months are over and just as it’s time to get back on track… just, even, as some juicy new opportunities are opening up, the weariness and the emotion I feel are close to the surface.
The thing is, I know I am not alone.
When the weariness of times past collides with opportunities to step into a new future
The recession, long and deep – biting, even – has brought with it many hardships. We’re told the economy is looking up though you may not be convinced – yet. You know, though, that it’s time to put your best foot forward… even at the same time as you yearn for rest.
Perhaps you’ve struggled to maintain your sense of perspective as you’ve sought to maintain a job in the midst of repeated rounds of redundancies. As a leader, you’ve probably had to play a role in reshaping activities, designing out valued jobs and even breaking the bad news to equally valued people. You’ve survived what looks like the last round and it’s time to prove to your bosses that you are worth keeping. At the same time, you are physically and emotionally drained.
Maybe you’ve secured a job after a period of redundancy. You may even have secured a job at a level to match the job you lost (though this is not guaranteed). You’ve noticed how the people who called when you were in a job stopped calling when you lost your job (though you’ve not let that stop you from seeking out and pursuing new opportunities.) Now you’ve succeeded and it’s time to put your best foot forward and show what you can bring. At the same time, now you’ve got a job, your body is screaming at you – you need to rest.
Perhaps you are recovering from illness. Maybe a short, sharp burst of something not-too-serious or a long and painful bout of something you could not ignore. You’ve had the time off work and everyone’s waiting for you to make up for lost time. Except that, in truth, you’re still recovering. You still need to take things gently.
Maybe you have experienced something that is completely independent of our global economic woes. You have lost a loved one – a parent, a partner or even a much-loved child. You have taken compassionate leave and said goodbye to the person you loved (maybe, even, hated) so much. The thing is, your colleagues are expecting you to get back to work but you know that you are only just beginning the process of grieving.
I wonder if you are experiencing anything similar – when the need to rest assaults you just as you feel the pressure to put your best foot forward.
Personal lessons in how not to
I can’t claim superior insight when it comes to looking after myself.
When my friend Sarah (let’s call her Sarah) was in crisis last year I did what I could to support her. (I wrote about the experience here on my blog under the heading Preventing employee suicide.) I have no regrets about the role I played… and still, I under-estimated the emotional and physical toll that such an experience would have on me.
When, soon after, I found myself on the receiving end of some heavy-handed action in a context I won’t name, I did what I felt was best both for me and for my colleagues in that context. I have no regrets about making a stand for an approach in which everyone’s needs mattered… and still, it happened just as I needed to recover from my first experience and added to my physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.
At Christmas, when I needed to rest, I said yes to a few things too many and no to a few things too few.
If you’re self-employed, anything you take on away from your work can easily eat into your work. As the year started, I was acutely aware of the need to re-focus and I’m glad of the opportunities that are opening up for me as a result. At the same time, I notice how much I am – even now – in need of rest.
Learning some lessons from my clients in how to move towards recovery
When I trained as a coach my trainers (the wonderful Ian McDermott and Jan Elfline) counselled against seeking to be perfect before coaching others. “Your clients”, they said, “will bring issues to work on that you will recognise as your own”.
In recent days, I’ve been reflecting on the things I can see so easily when working with clients and which have eluded me in my own situation. These are some things I notice:
People struggle most when they resist the truth of how things are: Lost your job and still trying to live the life you could afford as an employee? Grieving the loss of a loved-one and yet believing you should be working at your old rate of 120%? Whereas we struggle when we resist the bare truth of our situation, we can be infinitely adaptable once we notice and accept the way things are. One truth that can nurture and support us is this – whatever your situation, you’re not the only one.
We are most attached to doing things in a particular way when we lack awareness of what needs we’re trying to meet: Want to prove your worth by landing the next big job? Want to meet your need for acceptance by bringing in the best sales results ever? I’ve noticed how people can be most attached to the goals they have set themselves when they are least honest or aware about why they want to meet them. Even if grabbing the monthly sales trophy does bring a measure of acceptance, your life might be less stressful when you know it’s not the only way. Understanding why it’s important to us to achieve goals x, y and z opens up new possibilities in terms of how we achieve those outcomes we most desire.
Self-care is an essential part of recovery: Sometimes, the body gives us clear signals that we need to rest. We know that. What’s more, if we don’t attend to our need for self care, the body will probably give us louder signals – or more painful. We know that, too. But there’s more. What if the part of your job you enjoyed the most is the part that was designed out, for example? What if the source of your struggle is not in the place you thought it was but somewhere you hardly dare acknowledge? Oftentimes, it’s precisely when we step away from the things we’re struggling with that we find a new perspective – a place from which we can find a way forward towards a full recovery.
We have all the resources we need: In challenging times, we often find ourselves looking around us and longing for something to change. Surely it’s obvious to our boss that s/he needs to adopt a more reasoned approach? If only the business would let one reorganisation work its magic before embarking on the next one! As long as we’re looking outside of ourselves for something to change, we can end up feeling powerless, frustrated, exhausted. Once, though, we face the truth of our situation, we discover we have the resources we need – the inner resources as well as the outer ones – to find a way forward.
What is it we recover?
If you’ve read this far, you might want to reflect on what you want to recover. Is your answer “the big-shot job”, “the six-figure (and some) salary” or some other external manifestation? If it is, I invite you to ask yourself what it would do for you to achieve your goal? Because it’s not the goal, it’s what your desired outcome would do for you that really counts.
For my part, I know there are things I want to attend to out in the world. I’m excited about work that’s just around the corner, for example, when I shall be travelling around Europe as well as working in the City and with clients at my Sunday coaching clinic in Harley Street. I love contributing to others’ learning and well-being as well as meeting my own need for fulfilment and self-expression.
At the same time, right now, I need time to recover.
If you don’t see or hear much from me next week, don’t be surprised.