My focus used to be on helping people find fulfilling careers. Like many of us, I assumed that, as soon as we find the “right” career — something we’re passionate about, that pays the bills, that gives us a flexible schedule, or has whatever else we’re looking for in a “dream job” — we’ll get the joy we want out of our work.
After spending more time talking and working with people, I noticed something that changed my mind. What I saw was that, after they changed careers, people tended to gripe about their new jobs or businesses in exactly the same ways they once complained about their old ones.
Back when a friend of mine was working a 9-to-5 job, he used to say, when asked about his work, that he “didn’t want to talk about it.” Eventually, he started his own business, hoping to “do something that didn’t feel like a job.” Unfortunately, a few months into his entrepreneurial stint, he began noticing himself telling people he “didn’t want to talk about” how his business was doing.
Wherever You Work, There You Are
Examples like this taught me that, while we usually think we dislike our work because we have a bad job, often the problem has more to do with our relationship with ourselves. My sense with the friend I mentioned, for instance, is that, on some level, he simply doesn’t see himself and what he does as worth talking about. It’s no wonder, then, that he keeps “not wanting to talk about” everything he takes part in.
Perhaps you’ve heard this kind of talk before — “wherever you go, there you are,” and all that. What we don’t usually hear, however, are suggestions for how to become aware of, and transform, these habits of thinking and feeling. I’ll talk about an approach I’ve found useful.
An Awareness-Building Exercise
Believe it or not, in the productivity workshop I lead with a yoga teacher, one of the exercises involves sitting in front of a wall, and staring at a piece of tape for half an hour. The only thing the participants have to do is, whenever their minds wander away, simply bring their attention back to the tape.
After the exercise, we ask people what they experienced as they did it. We usually find that they had a wide range of thoughts and sensations — some felt antsy, some got sleepy, some were annoyed at me for “making them” go through this process, and so on.
But we almost always learn that, no matter what a person feels while staring at the wall, it’ll be a feeling they’ve had before. For example, if they notice themselves internally griping “there’s no point in doing this” during the exercise, that’s probably something they often think while they’re doing a project at work.
In other words, what this exercise teaches people is that they – not their jobs, their bosses, the office furniture or anything else — are the ones creating the suffering they’re going through in their work.
Just getting conscious of this, I’ve found, can create a big shift in perspective. In my experience, when we become aware of how much power we have over the way we experience the world, we often find ourselves spontaneously using that power to let go of ways of thinking that have troubled us in the past.
I’ve published a guest post at The Change Blog called “How Getting Used To Silence Can Help Your Productivity.” It’s about how developing the ability to tolerate silence helps us concentrate on our projects and get more done. I hope you find it useful and I look forward to seeing you there!
I’ve talked to a few people lately who told me that, throughout their lives, they’ve seen themselves as “supporting actors.” If their lives were movies, they would be the bit players rather than the star performers. In their minds, they exist to make sure the “stars” achieve their goals, or at least to make sure they don’t bother the main characters, rather than to find fulfillment for themselves. I’ll bet you’ve met people who have this perspective as well, and describe themselves as “a sidekick,” “behind the scenes,” “the right-hand man (or woman),” and so on.
I can identify with this perspective, because I used to have a similar worldview. I saw myself as a supporting actor on the stage of life, and others as the stars, and thus my attention would always be on making sure everyone else’s lives went smoothly. At work, I was regularly in my office until the early morning hours, and I was well known as someone who’d nearly never turn down an assignment, regardless of how much I had on my plate. I didn’t decorate or take much care of my living space, because it was mine and thus wasn’t that important. I felt reluctant to call people I knew because I was convinced they must have “better things to do” than talk to me.
For most of my life, I didn’t see this perspective as unusual—it just seemed to be the way things were. At the edge of my awareness, there was frustration about my situation and a conviction that my life could be better, but I didn’t get the sense that there was anything I could do. However, when I began taking up meditation and other practices to get more connected to my body, I started becoming aware of the strange aspects of how I experienced the world.
I noticed that, when I was by myself, I’d be pretty in touch with the sensations in my body—I’d be aware of which places felt relaxed, which were tight, and so forth. When I entered a group of people, however, it was as if I would disconnect from my body and, in a sense, try to inhabit the bodies of others. I’d become so focused on trying to get a sense of how others felt, what they needed, and what they thought of me that I would almost forget I existed. Sometimes, I’d briefly snap back to awareness of myself, as if I’d suddenly awakened from sleep. But gradually, my attention would drift back to others’ concerns and away from my own again.
When I became conscious that I was focusing my awareness in this way, I decided to try an experiment. I wanted to see if it was possible for me, by making a concerted effort to hold my attention on myself, to change my experience of the world. Thus, I practiced going out into public environments—social gatherings, train stations, stores and so forth—and just concentrating on the fact that I was there, and that I had my own emotions, wants and needs.
I was pleasantly surprised with the results. I not only found I could keep my attention trained on myself in social situations, but I also discovered that this new perspective changed the way I interacted with the world. I started becoming more able to ask for what I wanted, express how I felt and set healthy boundaries with other people. Simply returning to the fact that I existed did much to help me acknowledge and stand up for my own wishes and needs. No wonder I did so little to take care of myself in the past, I realized—I was barely even aware I was there.
I did have a nagging anxiety, in the back of my mind, that if I focused more awareness on myself others would see me as selfish or overly aggressive. In fact, however, the opposite was true. In fact, I found that others began to respect me and take me more seriously than they had in the past, and expressed more pleasure at being around me. When I placed more attention on myself, in other words, others seemed inclined to follow suit. This drove home for me how extraordinarily sensitive human beings are to each other’s thoughts and emotions, and how what we empathically sense from others—more than anything else—dictates how we interact with them.
If you decide to love yourself, you will be willing to give yourself time and attention . . . . The work of love is the work of listening to yourself. You listen to yourself by monitoring your feelings, needs and wants. You need to pay attention to yourself. This may mean learning techniques for getting in touch with your feelings. It may mean joining a share group where you get feedback. The work of paying attention to yourself requires discipline.
As Bradshaw writes, there are many different activities and ways of thinking you can use to develop love for yourself, but to my mind the most critical one is simply remembering your existence and what you’re feeling and thinking. And if putting attention on your wants and needs has you feel ashamed, reflect on when and how you decided you were less important or entitled to happiness than others.
The first step in developing what we might call more self-awareness is to notice, as I did, where your attention goes when you’re relating with people. Is any of your focus on what you want in your interactions? Or are you fixated on feeling into the other person and determining what they want from you? Can you feel sensations in your body when you’re dealing with people, or is it as if you disappear? Simply asking yourself these questions can go a long way toward helping you move up from bit-player status and take a starring role in your life.