Five Steps for Navigating Career and Personal Challenges (Especially During a Pandemic)
By Wendy Gordon-Hewick
Life is bumpy and there is no crystal ball to show you the future. But perhaps the Serenity Prayer can help when times get rough:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
The Serenity Prayer is a powerful tool for navigating challenges – whether they are personal, professional, or blurred, as is often the case for folks facing sudden job loss, long-term unemployment or underemployment, and even career change. Add in the coronavirus pandemic, when our go-to sources of support are often virtual or greatly reduced, and now we have challenge on top of challenge for lots of people.
For coping strategies during this unprecedented time, please see CDC’s Stress and Coping. For urgent help, contact the Crisis Text Line (text “HOME” to 741741) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255 or via LifeLine Chat.
Back to the Serenity Prayer – the “wisdom” part can be tricky and can be layered with emotions, thoughts, and behavior that influence how we respond to life’s bumps. Maybe this is because in our society too often what we do for work is closely tied to how we view our own self-worth. Other people’s judgments and attitudes also can influence how we feel. Maybe, just maybe, these things can change (or at least soften), with so many folks out of work due to the economic impact of the coronavirus.
Potential silver linings from the pandemic aside, my suggestion for navigating challenges is to employ a five-step framework I read about in Yoga Journal a few years back (article by Joelle Hann). Here is my own personal story that illustrates using the Serenity Prayer and this five-step framework:
Several years ago, I accepted a job that paid a huge chunk more than I had ever made before. But every day at the new position felt like I was trying to move mountains. There was minimal on-boarding, training, and managerial support.
It took me a while to figure out what I needed. But when I did and asked for what seemed reasonable things, feathers were ruffled to the point that I felt reluctant to ask for anything else.
After a month I realized my boss knew of procedures in place since before I arrived that violated privacy best practices. That was the final straw. I resolved the privacy issues and then resigned.
I had made a huge mistake accepting the job. And it felt like a failure. Now my family was not only without my salary but without health insurance. Luckily, since we live in Massachusetts, the health insurance piece was fairly easy to navigate, and I had some savings. But the emotional experience was overwhelmingly unhappy and difficult.
Here are how things played out in my story and how the five-step process helped:
1. Step one of the five-step framework for dealing with “failure” is “Sit with the misery.”
In my case, feelings of disappointment, anger, shame, embarrassment, and fear set in after I resigned. I was hugely disappointed in myself. I think these are common feelings for many dealing with the many bumps that come with losing employment, prolonged searching for opportunities, and even career change.
In particular, I stewed about what I might have missed in the interview and negotiation process that should have waved red flags to stay away from this job. And I worried about whether my savings might run out before another job opportunity happened.
Yoga helped me enormously to sort through my emotions, and also to take a break from them. In this step, it is helpful to remember that unhappy emotions are a normal reaction to an unexpected outcome, such as a lay-off, firing, argument with a boss (or anyone important, for that matter), or in my case, a decision to leave a bad-fit position.
The key features of this step are acknowledging the situation and the emotions – be they fear, anger, shame, etc. – but not reacting. Another is providing yourself breathing room before any decisions are made because in most cases, high emotion equals low rational thought. Another is practicing mindfulness: Meditation, yoga, walking, taking a shower, whatever it is that can provide time for the emotions to be experienced and coherent thoughts to begin to develop. In other words, experience the emotions, but then figure out what mindful way can allow you to take a break from the onslaught of them before figuring out what to do next.
2. Step two is to “decouple your ego from your action.”
The Serenity Prayer helped me tremendously to separate who I am from what happened. Consider this: it’s nearly impossible to know the culture of a new workplace until you are there a while (accept the things I cannot change). I decided to leave despite income loss (courage to change the things I can) because my professional and personal integrity are more important than money (wisdom to know the difference).
Self-forgiveness and self-compassion for not seeing red flags, and for loss of an increased income, took some time, but my perspective eventually shifted to appreciate the context of the situation; that is, the culture was not a good fit. In this step, reflective thoughts on the situation and how it harkens back to the Serenity Prayer is important.
Some things to consider during reflection: What in a tough situation was in your control? What wasn’t? What did the wisdom to know the difference look like? At times, especially with job loss (or furlough) or search, nothing about a situation is in your control. There are so many external factors – from budget to nepotism to internal candidates to bias and discrimination.
But even if in retrospect your decisions, language, interactions with others, etc. did influence the outcome, it is critical to realize that behavior is not the same as personal integrity. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are more difficult for most people than how we forgive and show compassion for others; however, it is critical to separate who you are from what happened.
3. Step three is “Ask for a recap.”
The more I told the story of what happened to an inner-circle of people I trusted, the more I realized that not only was the culture not a good fit, but that it was toxic. Folks who worked in the same industry also thought the expectations of the role were unreasonable given resources and deadlines. These two external ideas were pivotal in creating a more nuanced narrative for myself.
After reflection, I believe it can be very useful to talk through your experience with trusted people in your life. Think about it: you’ve probably talked through difficult things before, with a parent, best friend, mentor, etc., and just the act of doing that creates small glints of light or sometimes giant glaring brilliance of change. In other words, telling the story creates an opportunity to hear it back in other people’s words and perhaps re-frame your experience based on feedback from others with different perspectives.
4. Step four is “Keep sharing.”
As I extended my network and kept talking about what happened, I was able to put more distance from the intensity of my thoughts and emotions and begin to figure out what to do next. So in this step, perhaps with a revised story, continue to talk to others. This step can help normalize your experience, leading to less-intense emotions such as shame, and, over time, provide a foundation toward gaining traction to get ready to move on. Here, thoughts, emotion, and behavior are beginning to align.
5. Step five is “take risks.”
Eventually, I started my job search again. I joined a jobseekers group to not feel alone in the struggle. When I started to apply to jobs, I leveraged my personal and professional connections early (before application submission when possible), to be informed about the culture of the company, the team, and the management style. I learned that recovery from feelings of failure is possible. And that perhaps what happened was not failure at all, but bad luck – being at the wrong place perhaps at the wrong time. Maybe no time would have been right at that place.
In this final step, making a thoughtful plan is the hallmark. Based on your experience, what did you learn? Are you too firmly attached to your comfort zone? Might this be an obstacle for moving forward? One example: you might not be into social media, but LinkedIn might be just what you need to move forward.
Do you need to brush up your networking skills? Perhaps you should join a jobseekers support group. Or take workshops to improve skills. Or meet with a career coach. Or, if financial security is not a concern, consider ditching the job thing altogether and do something you never had time for before: volunteer, travel, learn to juggle, etc. (For ideas on what do to during the pandemic – when lots of companies are not posting opportunities anyway, see this link).
In conclusion, life’s bumps are inevitable. How we process them – especially around things often tied so closely with identity and personal integrity as job security – is powerful. Perhaps in time by practicing the Serenity Prayer and the five-step framework (and of course staying healthy!) the future can begin to look a little clearer.
Reference: Joelle Hann, Yoga Journal, September 8, 2014: 5 Steps to Cope with (and Conquer) Failure.
Wendy Gordon-Hewick, M.A., enjoys supporting students to navigate challenges. She is a case manager at Brandeis University and an adjunct faculty member at North Shore Community College. Wendy also works part-time as an executive-function coach and blogger at Beyond Booksmart. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.