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Creativity and Boundary-Setting, Part 2: The Limits of Responsibility

In the last post in this series, we talked about how developing the ability to say “no,” and protect our time, is important for making the kind of progress we want in our creative work.

In this post, I’ll discuss how it can help our creativity to set another kind of boundary — to stop blaming ourselves for how others experience the world.

As I’m sure you’ve learned firsthand, when we let people see our creative work, we risk getting criticized.  But criticism by itself, I think, isn’t a problem. It only becomes problematic when we take responsibility for the critic’s suffering and anger.

My Criticism Fantasy

I’ll give you an example from my own life.  While I was writing my book, I had a nagging tendency to imagine ways people might attack it.  A very specific “worst-case scenario” kept coming to mind.

The scenario involved me speaking at a bookstore.  During the question and answer period, a man stands up and launches into a tirade.  “This book doesn’t solve any real problems,” he shouts.  “I’ve got two kids, a wife and a mortgage, and no job — how does this book help me with that?”

I thought for a while about why I kept imagining this situation, and why it seemed troubling to me.  Eventually, I realized the problem was that I was taking responsibility for my fictitious critic’s suffering.

In other words, this man was basically blaming me for his situation and his emotional distress, and I was buying into his story.  But in “reality,” I didn’t create his financial problems, abuse him as a child, or do anything except tell him about my book.  When I recognized that, my body suddenly relaxed — tension I hadn’t noticed before melted away — and the fantasy no longer seemed so worrisome.

Releasing Your Responsibility

I’ve found that this kind of fantasizing is common among people who are having trouble putting their creative work “out there.”  Often, these are compassionate, empathic people.  They want to heal others’ suffering — not bring more into the world.

Unfortunately, people with this mentality (myself included, sometimes) also tend to have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for how others feel.  If someone else is hurt, they assume, I must have hurt them, and it’s my job to make it better.

The paradox is that this attitude actually prevents people from playing the healing role they desire.  Their fear of hurting others causes them to shrink away from giving their gifts to the world.  If they wrote that book or started that business, they think, somebody might get mad, and then the world would be worse off.

The key, I think, is to recognize that it’s possible to care about people without “merging” with them – without taking all of their hurt, suffering and fear upon ourselves.  Breathing deeply, and sensing the pressure of our feet against the ground, I think, is a helpful way to remember our separateness from others, and our solidity in the face of their upset and distress.

I know this was a liberating realization for me, and I hope it also helps you find the sense of ease and flow you may be seeking in your work.

Are You Really “Trapped”? (Part One)

(This is the first in a series of articles about transcending the feeling that we’re “trapped” in what we’re doing right now, whether in our careers or elsewhere.  If this article is helpful to you, you’ll probably find Part Two and Part Three useful as well.)

It often amazes me that so many highly-educated, highly-paid and high-powered professionals tell me that, although they want to change careers, they’re “trapped” in their current jobs.  They cite many reasons why making a transition would supposedly be impossible for them.  Some have entered into large financial commitments based on their expectation of a continuing huge income—they’ve taken out big mortgages and loans on expensive cars, enrolled their children in expensive schools, and so forth.  Some believe that they can’t take any financial risks, for fear of running out of money to support their kids.  Some believe they’re too young or old to start down another career path.  But whatever reasons they give me, I usually don’t buy them.

I can definitely identify with how they feel; I used to feel that way about my old career as an attorney.  I thought, for a seemingly endless list of reasons, that I’d effectively locked myself into being a lawyer for life.  I feared that all the skills and goodwill I’d accumulated in my four years of practicing law would “go to waste” if I did something else; that people wouldn’t take me seriously in my new career; that my family and friends wouldn’t respect me anymore; that I was “selling out” my future children; and so forth.  Although I wanted a change, the barriers to making a transition seemed impossibly high.

Interestingly, my perspective changed one day when a minor earthquake occurred in my area.  Luckily, the earthquake didn’t hurt anyone or destroy much property.  But it did prompt me to wonder what I’d do in the event of a disaster so severe that it completely changed my life.  What if an earthquake, nuclear attack, or some other catastrophic event destroyed everything I had and forced me to survive in the wilderness?  What kind of life, if any, could I create for myself?

Strangely, when I pondered how I’d react to such a disaster, I didn’t feel the anxiety that arose when I contemplated changing careers.  I imagined myself learning how to find food and shelter and protect myself in the wilderness, and eventually building a stable, tolerable life for myself.  I saw that I’m resourceful enough to do these things if I ever have to.  The prospect of leaving the legal profession, it seemed, was scarier to me than the thought of being forced to become a hunter-gatherer in the woods.

When I had this realization, it became clear to me that my fears of career transitions had to be overblown.  If I have the adaptability and determination to survive with nothing, I recognized, I must have enough of those qualities to get me through a job change.  Armed with this knowledge, I was able to make the transition I wanted, and it’s been just as enjoyable and fulfilling as I predicted.

I’ve asked clients who feel trapped in their present careers to play out this sort of disaster scenario in their minds, and consider how they’d handle it.  When they do this, they usually come to understand that making a career transition wouldn’t be so earth-shattering for them after all.  The realizations the exercise brings up about the real reasons these clients feel trapped are even more interesting.  Often, when they recognize that they could live—and even thrive—after a serious calamity, they understand that they aren’t really afraid that they won’t survive a career change.  Instead, they tend to see that they’re actually worried about one of two possible outcomes.

First, they may recognize that, although they want to pursue their true callings, they’re staying where they are because it’s comfortable.  They’ve been telling themselves they’re “trapped” in their current careers to avoid the feeling that they aren’t living up to their full potential.  When they acknowledge that the idea that they’re trapped is just a convenient story they tell themselves to justify staying comfortable, they feel more freedom to make the changes they desire.

Second, they may grasp that they’re actually worried about their loved ones and friends disdaining them for their decision.  They fear that they won’t be able to travel in the same social circles; that people will condemn them as irresponsible; that they won’t impress people as much when they describe what they do; and so on.  When they comprehend that nothing more than fear of others’ disapproval is driving their reluctance to change, they feel more empowered to pursue their goals.

If you want to make a career transition, but you’re stuck with the nagging feeling that you’re “trapped” in your current situation, I invite you to try the exercise I described.  Imagine that some massive calamity wiped out civilization as you know it, leaving you to survive in an unpredictable and often dangerous wilderness.  Get in touch with the part of you that could survive, and create a livable existence, in such an environment.  See how the problems you’d face if you changed careers pale in comparison to the challenges you’d encounter if you had to build a new life from scratch.  And yet, you have—right now—all the resources you need to meet those challenges.

Likely, this exercise will infuse you with a feeling of freedom to pursue your goals, and help you recognize—and, hopefully, overcome—the fears actually motivating your avoidance of change.

But You’ll Be “Unemployed”!

I have a friend who would like to start her own business as an interior designer, and leave her current 9-to-5 job as a computer programmer.  She’s convinced that she has the skills, the startup capital, the contacts and so forth to make it happen.  But she’s still too scared to make the change.  Why?  Because, she says, if she leaves her current job she’ll be “unemployed.”

At first glance, my friend’s belief seems strange.  If she makes the transition she wants, she’ll be the owner and CEO of her own company, with total control over the operation of her business.  She’s saved up enough money to pay her expenses while she builds up a client base.  And she’ll have made a career out of doing what she loves.  Why would she think of that situation as “unemployment”?

The answer is that my friend simply can’t accept the idea that it’s possible to have a career that doesn’t involve going into an office every weekday, remaining there between at least 9 and 5 o’clock, being gradually promoted through a large corporate hierarchy and drawing a steady salary.  All the jobs she’s held during her working life have had those features.  Anything else, to her, is “unemployment,” and her family and friends—having had the same type of work background—are likely to feel the same way.

When I told people in my life I was leaving the legal profession to be an author and success coach, I learned that some of them shared this attitude.  “How’s unemployment treating you?” one asked.  “So when do the unemployment checks start rolling in?” another teased.  I explained to them that I was not “unemployed”—I was simply going into business for myself.  They smiled and nodded, but it was clear what they were thinking—“yeah, make all the excuses you want—you’re still unemployed in my book.”

“Unemployment” has nasty connotations for most of us.  We often associate it with being lazy, not being good enough to “make the cut” at work, being on the government “dole,” displeasing our families and friends, being unattractive to potential mates, and so on.  Thus, for many of us, the fear that we will be perceived as “unemployed” is enough to keep us in conventional 9-to-5 jobs and prevent us from doing anything entrepreneurial, even if the latter is what we truly desire.

If you’re thinking of leaving your current job and starting your own business, I don’t want the fear of “unemployment” to stop you.  If you’re struggling with this fear, take a look at the observations I make below and see if they do anything to change your perspective.

First off, if going into business for yourself makes you “unemployed,” the “unemployed” of this world are quite a distinguished bunch.  The founders of Apple, Google and Microsoft—who, as most of us know, are now some of the wealthiest people in the world—were also “unemployed” by this definition during the startup phases of their companies.  If they’d worked conventional 9-to-5 jobs instead of striking out on their own, their ultra-successful businesses wouldn’t be around today.

My larger point is that no conventional 9-to-5 jobs would even exist if no one had been willing to start a business in the first place.  If no one had taken that initiative, there would be no companies to employ the massive legions of salaried office workers in our society.  Someone’s got to take the financial risks associated with entrepreneurship for our economy to operate at all.

I think that, on some level, most people who fear entrepreneurship because they view it as equivalent to “unemployment” are aware of this.  It’s not that they think going into business for oneself is inherently bad or impossible—they simply think it would be “arrogant” or “unrealistic” to believe they could do it successfully.  They predict that, if they started a business, they would end up in the circumstances we typically associate with unemployment—i.e., broke, “on the dole,” having nothing in particular to do, and so on.  “Bill Gates may have done it,” they think, “but I’m not Bill Gates.”

In other words, people who suggest that they’d be “unemployed” if they started a business are really just expressing feelings of inadequacy about themselves.  And if someone says the same about your entrepreneurial aspirations, they’re probably motivated—at least in part—by envy or resentment.  Because they don’t think they have what it takes to strike out on their own, they feel that you’re acting like you’re superior to them by doing what they couldn’t bring themselves to do.

But what if you recognize this feeling of inadequacy in yourself, and it’s preventing you from pursuing your business idea?  I recommend that you start by contemplating what would happen if you started your own business venture and it failed.  Suppose your company consistently failed to generate enough revenue to cover its costs.  What would be true about you, and what would happen in your life, if that worst-case scenario came to pass?

I’ve asked this question in the past to clients who were considering career transitions.  Interestingly, their fears surrounding failure don’t usually concern their survival or their financial circumstances.  They’re not afraid that they’ll starve to death, be unable to support their children, lose their homes, and so forth.  Whatever happens from a financial perspective, they’ll probably find ways to get by.  Instead, they’re afraid of others labeling them in hurtful ways.  They envision their loved ones, friends, acquaintances and others saying or thinking things like “I always knew he’d never amount to anything,” “see, she’s nothing but a bum,” “he’s like a daydreaming child with no common sense,” and so on.

However, people usually don’t examine why they are trying so hard—even to the point of stifling their career aspirations—to avoid the possibility of others’ disapproval.  When I ask them what would happen if their business failed and someone else attacked or ridiculed them for it, they typically give one of two answers.  Sometimes, they can’t quite pinpoint what bad things would happen if someone disapproved of them—they just have the gut feeling that they need everybody to like them.  At other times, they find themselves coming up with an answer that is irrational or ridiculous on its face—for instance, that they’d die if someone else disliked them.

Either way, when people seriously consider this question, they usually start to doubt that their fears of “unemployment” are a sufficient reason to avoid going off on their own.  Understanding what they’re truly afraid of gives them a feeling of freedom to explore career possibilities they hadn’t thought were open to them before.

I invite you to try this exercise.  Ask yourself what you’re really afraid will happen if you start a business venture and it fails.  I think you’ll find that your fears surrounding “unemployment” aren’t as reasonable or convincing as you’d thought.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Success and Abundance Mindset, located at http://www.thehomebasedbusinesscenter.com/blog/success-and-abundance-mindset-042408.htm.)