Life coaching expert Tal Fagin responds to a reader’s dilemma of feeling trapped in their job. Find out what she has to say about this not-so-unusual problem.
Dear Life Coach,
I have spent many years at the same company, and have worked my way up from the lowest rung to a senior role. My position is secure, my income is comfortable, my responsibilities are demanding-yet-manageable — but I feel utterly unfulfilled. In fact, if I am being truly honest, I feel both bored and tethered to a career that no longer interests me. Still, I have no real justification for leaving (there is no lifelong dream I am burning to pursue), and every reason to stay (a family to support!)
Most days I walk around wishing they would just fire me already. All I want is a way out. Can you help?
I Feel Trapped
Dear I Feel Trapped,
How I wish I had a dime for every person in America who feels exactly the way you do! Better yet, how I wish I could get you all into one place for a massive group hug. Because here is one thing I know for sure: You are in very, VERY good company. I have heard some version of this question from relatives, clients and friends—and at least three sets of strangers I met over Memorial Day weekend. Feeling “trapped” appears to be the hottest topic on the cocktail party circuit, second only to back pain and other physical ailments.
What to do?
Tell me — do you regularly dream about ways out, but then dismiss these escape plans as totally unrealistic, even impossible? Perhaps you discount your career woes as a “champagne problem,” or shrug off your sense of dissatisfaction with self-talk such as: “You are lucky to have this job, it could be much worse,” or “I have my health (and health insurance), and overall, a very nice life. I really can’t complain.”
Your question gets at the inherent tension between security and freedom, and suggests that you value (or believe you should value) one more than the other. What you are really asking is: Do I have a right to choose happiness over obligation, fulfillment over responsibility?
Do you? Would having some burning passion make this easier for you? Why?
You say all you want is a way out. It seems you don’t just want out, you want a risk-free, guilt-free out (hence, the firing fantasy). I don’t know you or the details of your life, so I can’t exactly grant you that.
But, what if I could?
What if I could assure you that you have done enough, worked long and hard enough, that you are free to go? Here is your cardboard box to empty your desk. There is the door. You may use it. No hard feelings. Thank you for your years of service. Be well!
Why are you still standing there?
What’s that? You can’t “just quit.” Why not?
If you are anything like the rest of us, you think the answer is money. After all, your “every reason to stay” is that family you’ve got to support. You’ve run all the numbers, examined your expenses — everything from mortgage payments to school tuition to toilet paper – calculating how your family could possibly continue to live in the manner to which you have all become accustomed without your “comfortable” income. This doomsday number crunching is about as helpful as all those Powerball tickets you’ve probably been buying, providing brief fixes of action-fueled hope, but ultimately a waste of time.
I would encourage you to look deeper.
Money may be the practical issue, but I would be willing to bet my OWN bottom dollar that there is more to it than that. There is a story you are telling yourself, a tangled web of beliefs and long-held notions about who you are (Responsible? Hard-working? Risk-averse?) and your place in the world (perhaps other people can throw it all away to live in a yurt by the ocean, but not YOU). No doubt you are too young to retire, but dread starting all over. Perhaps you subscribe to your own personal religion, one that demands such things as: Thou Shalt Not Put Yourself First; Happiness is Nice, but Security is Essential; or Responsible Adults Don’t Just Quit A Job Because They Feel Like It.
But those are just thoughts — personal beliefs that feel like hard and fast rules to live by, but are actually nothing more than self-imposed limitations. They are a byproduct of a healthy limbic system, the emotional center of the brain where the fight/flight/freeze response is located. Its primary focus is survival, and it broadcasts scary messages all day long to ensure just that.
You, however, came to me looking for MORE than survival. You want fulfillment!
As a coach, I do not tell people what to do, and I can not ultimately promise you that quitting your job is the answer. My strong hunch is you will leave, but only when you are ready, which is not quite yet. The caterpillar does not become a butterfly overnight. It feels a subtle urge for something new, something inevitable but uncertain. Without knowing why, it goes into a cocoon, wherein a process of transformation unfolds and, ultimately, a butterfly takes flight. This is a favorite cliché of the New Age set for a reason. We all go through it. So consider yourself a caterpillar in the earliest stages of the change cycle, try to relax, remain open-minded and prepare to be transformed.
In the meantime, I would invite you to try a few simple, Try-This-at-Home techniques that will provide a bit more clarity and increase your sense of well-being, without doing anything too drastic (like just quitting):
1. Do Nothing. By that, I mean spend 10 to 15 minutes a day doing absolutely nothing. Give yourself a little downtime. Stare out the window, admire the way branches sway in the wind or clouds float in the sky. In the alternative, try meditation. There are multiple apps and guided meditations available at the touch of a button. The benefits of meditation are well-established and are far, FAR too many to mention here (relieves anxiety and depression, improves attention and concentration, enhances memory and overall psychological well-being, just to name a few). So please, give it a try.
2. Do Something (other than work). You mention a lack of fulfillment, feeling bored and tethered to a career that no longer interests you. You likely derived a greater sense of accomplishment from your job as you worked your way up, and you miss that feeling of purpose now. Can you think of other ways to fill that void? Are there hobbies you’d like to pursue? New challenges to pose? Perhaps if you get engaged outside of the office—playing an instrument, volunteering in your community, learning a language, training for a marathon … something—some of those old feelings of gratification and contentment will return.
3. Set Boundaries. In our always-on, always-reachable, What-the-Hell-Happened-to-9-to-5? culture, the boundaries between work and life have all but vanished. Many of us have been swept so deeply into this constantly churning sea, we have lost sight of the shore. Take an honest look at your situation, summon some courage and get creative. Perhaps you can take Wednesdays off? Every other Friday? Take on fewer projects? Declare yourself unavailable after 5pm? Even just a few reclaimed hours each week could take you from burnt-out to balanced—plus it’s time you could use to research other jobs. Or stare out the window. Or practice your Español.
4. Get Talking. We humans are wired for connection. Companionship, camaraderie, communication — it lights us up. Make an effort to reach out to people. Schedule coffee dates, lunches, dinners or just phone calls. Think of it as networking, if that helps, or just think of it as being social. If you feel comfortable, let them know you are open to new career opportunities. You never know what might happen. Something new and exciting might present itself, and if not, it’s just quality time, well-spent.
5. Enlist Support. We all need someone to talk to once in a while — preferably an objective, experienced and insightful confidant. Hopefully you have someone like this in your life. If not, consider hiring someone. (I know a fabulous life coach who just may be able to carve out some time for you, and she works mainly by phone, so geography is never an issue.)
Last, but not least, know this. You may feel trapped, but you are not. You have not been sentenced to prison or shackled to your desk. You have responsibilities, a family to support, a lifestyle you’d like to maintain. Recognize, however, that those are choices. No one is forcing you to do anything. Many of us lose sight of this simple fact. We trudge through our days – and our lives – doing the things we think we “should” do, believing that “we have to.” This is a fallacy. You always have choices. Those choices carry consequences, and you may or may not be willing to risk them. That part is entirely up to you.
Just like reporting to work tomorrow.