The biggest obstacle

The biggest obstacle to successfully transitioning from your corporate career to a new lifestyle “After the Mothership” is not money, or connections, or any of the other obstacle that you imagine are in your way. It is shame.

It is the shame you feel when you have been ‘let go’,  or have taken the package, or agreed to ‘explore pastures new’. Even though you are told it is not about you, it is the company that has to change, it is the position that has been made redundant, the story you tell yourself is “I am useless, I am a failure.”

Brene Brown defines shame as the fear of rejection, the feeling that we are not worthy of love and belonging. It’s not the same as guilt, it’s much more powerful and dangerous. Guilt is saying “I did something bad”, shame is saying “I am bad”. Guilt is a focus on behaviour, shame is a focus on self.

Shame needs three things to thrive: secrecy, silence and judgement. When we deny it, when we don’t speak about it, when we try to hide it because we are worried about how others see us, we are unwittingly cultivating it. It thrives and grows and invades every part of our being and leads to depression, addiction, aggression and worse. Shame can destroy us, our relationships, our lives.

We deny it because we are probably the only one in our peer group that is in this position. At best, we will be one of a few. We already have been rejected by the corporation we used to work for and now we find we do not belong in our social group. We stand apart because we are not in a ‘normal job, we stand apart because we are going through a major life transition whilst they are all (seemingly) carrying on much as before.

At the very time shame rears it’s head and fuels our fear of rejection, we feel rejection. At the very time we fear we are not worthy of love and belonging, we feel estranged from those closest to us and that we don’t quite belong any more. So our response is to ignore it, to pretend that we are still the same when we cannot possibly be. And we withdraw, we avoid awkward social situations where we might be asked what we do, where we might feel our worth is being judged. We go within ourselves, we cut ourselves off from the groups we belong to, cut ourselves off from the love that is available to us.

As we push ourselves deeper into our shame, it runs two tapes in our head. The first is “You are not enough – not good enough, not smart enough, not anything enough”; and the second is “Who do you think you are?” These put our self-worth in a vice-like grip and squeeze the life out of it, draining us of the very resource we need to get through this life change.

Our generation, now in our 50s, is not good at talking about these issues. We lack the language, we are uncomfortable addressing our emotions, we don’t share them and support each other with empathy as routine. Men are particularly bad at this and also feel the greatest shame in this situation. We feel very strongly the obligation to be the provider and protector to our family and so we feel an acute sense of failure when, through no fault of our own, we are unable to fulfil this role. Even if intellectually we know it is a shared responsibility with our partner, we still hold on to this at an emotional level and it is a big trigger for our shame. So we try to bury those feelings and pretend we are the same as before.

It’s not unusual for people to get depressed after their corporate career ends. It’s also quite common for people to self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs, or to have a bit of a melt-down. This causes further isolation, more withdrawal and deepens the sense of not belonging. For many people it is just a passing phase and they come out of it and get back to their normal level of mental health but for others it persists and for a few it develops into a significant mental health issue. But we don’t talk about this. We let shame take over and we keep quiet, letting it grow even more.

I believe shame is the single biggest issue for us to address when we leave our corporate careers and the hardest for us to deal with. It is essential that we do, though, because it is the barrier to our progress. Shame has no place in transformation, which is our objective, so we must resolve it.

The good new is that there is an antidote to shame and that is empathy. When we share our troubles and our feeling with others we allow them to innoculate us with their empathy.

Brene Brown tells us how to do this when she says

“Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we talk about it, it loses it’s grip on us”.

It’s time we starting talking about shame.

Mind the Gap

After you leave the Mothership, you have a big transition to make so that you can be successful in whatever you choose to do (and however you choose to define success). You have to adapt to a very different environment and there are a number of changes you have to go through.

Some of these differences are obvious, like not having a regular salary and other benefits but also being able to decide your own priorities and work habits. Some are good, some bad.

There’s also a lot of less obvious stuff, to do with your mindset and perspective. For me, these are the important differences, this is the real gap that you have to jump across.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time and I see it as more of a continuum between the fully-paid up company stormtrooper at one end (that’s the employee) and the full-on, unconventional, creative businessperson (that’s the entrepreneur) at the other, rather than a divide. Off the top of my head, I came up with this list of attributes (about 7 years ago, in fact) and found that these two extremes were almost complete opposites.

Employee Entrepreneur

Hardly any of us are at the extremes, by definition, and you could say they are caricatures. However, on the Mothership we tend to be nearer to the employee end and, to survive and thrive after the Mothership, we need to move more to the entrepreneur end. That’s the journey we face.

We’re often told to focus on our goals and so you might ask yourself how far towards the entrepreneur end you need to get to be successful. This is not the right question because you won’t actually know until you get there. Trying to be as ‘entrepreneurial’ as you possibly can may be setting yourself up for failure and there’s a distinct danger the attempt will nearly kill you!

Instead, the really interesting question is to ask yourself where you are starting from, how far along the continuum are you?. If you are honest with yourself, the answer may shock you.

Now I was a bit of an intrapreneur when I was on the Mothership, so I placed myself quite a way towards the entrepreneur end, maybe even around the middle. I didn’t buy all that corporate bullshit and risk-aversion and conformity. No way.

This was a mistake. It made the gap to being a successful entrepreneur look small and so I got frustrated when it seemed to be taking me so long to make these minor changes.

What I now see is that I totally underestimated the impact of being in that corporate environment for so long. All the time you are being pulled towards the employee end, being pressured to conform and rewarded for behaving like a good corporate stormtrooper. Er, I mean, employee. I just didn’t realise how far that way I had been dragged.

With the pressure from the organisation and your peers, you just can’t help being dragged that way. We know the power of peer pressure from  Asch’s psychological studies in the 1950s but more recent work by Berns in 2005, using brain scanning, found the startling truth that peer pressure actually changes the way you perceive a problem. In other words, it changes the way you think, so that you are gradually being pushed away from your beliefs and intuition without you realising it.

The result is that you just can’t help looking for risk-avoidance rather than opportunity; using process in preference to intuition and creativity; playing by the rules instead of breaking new ground. And it all seems perfectly natural.

On reflection, I can see that my starting position was much nearer to the employee end of the continuum than I was aware and, frankly, comfortable admitting to. So the gap was way bigger than I thought and it was going to take a lot more time and effort to get across it.

You need to know where you are first before you can get to anywhere else. If you are starting your journey from the wrong place, you are not on your journey, you are lost. Be really, brutally honest with yourself (perhaps get a friend or a coach to help you). You might have to admit you are not quite the person you thought you were but only then can you see what you have to do to become the person you want to be.

Picture by Clicsouris (Own work (Photo personnelle)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Going from Zero to Hero

When you get made redundant (or ‘let go’), you are told “It’s not you that’s redundant, it’s the position”. But what you feel is, well, redundant. It feels personal, whatever platitudes they spout at you. To feel otherwise is to accept that it happened without any reason, that you were just the victim of misfortune and the capricious cruelty of the world. As humans we seek reasons, explanation, cause and effect. That’s why we ignore reality and assume we are at fault, that we must have, in some way, deserved it.

So, we don’t feel like heroes. I know I didn’t. I felt rejected, a failure, inadequate, weak. Quite the opposite, in fact.

But we will be. We will be the hero of our own story because we have to. It’s the only way we get through this and out to the other side. So how do we do this?

Well, lets consider the concept of the hero’s journey, as introduced by Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and developed by other writers since. This is the basic narrative structure of many myths and stories including those of Buddha, Moses and Christ. You’ll recognise it from many novels and popular films, and has three main stages: Departure, Initiation and Return.

This extract from Wikipedia explains the structure:

In the Departure part of the narrative, the hero or protagonist lives in the ordinary world and receives a call to go on an adventure. The hero is reluctant to follow the call, but is helped by a mentor figure.

The Initiation section begins with the hero then traversing the threshold to the unknown or “special world”, where he faces tasks or trials, either alone or with the assistance of helpers.

The hero eventually reaches “the innermost cave” or the central crisis of his adventure, where he must undergo “the ordeal” where he overcomes the main obstacle or enemy, undergoing “apotheosis” and gaining his reward (a treasure or “elixir“).

The hero must then return to the ordinary world with his reward. He may be pursued by the guardians of the special world, or he may be reluctant to return, and may be rescued or forced to return by intervention from the outside.

In the Return section, the hero again traverses the threshold between the worlds, returning to the ordinary world with the treasure or elixir he gained, which he may now use for the benefit of his fellow man. The hero himself is transformed by the adventure and gains wisdom or spiritual power over both worlds.

Well, “Departure” is covered. It might have looked a lot like being chucked out, or it could have been a pleasant affair with wine, canapés and speeches, but it’s done. You have departed the corporate world, you have left the Mothership.

So now you have to go through “Initiation”.  You have to journey through this “special world”, which is really yourself. The “innermost cave” is your true self, your essence, and the “ordeal” is the inner struggle of understanding and acceptance. The reward is self-knowledge, which will be the foundation for your future life and success.

The “Return” is when you begin to create your new life and career, armed with a new-found resilience, understanding and acceptance. The personal growth you have experienced has transformed you and given you the wisdom and spiritual power to move forward and succeed in your goals.

The key here is that the pain and discomfort, the uncertainty and anxiety, the disorientation and anguish are all a necessary part of the “Initiation”. The way through is to look into your inner self and question yourself deeply so that you become more self-aware. That’s what makes you the hero in your own story. It’s the hardest but most important part.

You can get trapped in this “special world” for a long time, which is why I write this blog. I want to be one of your helpers who gets your through it and returns you back to the outside world.

So, put on your poncho and chew on your cheroot. Or jump in the telephone box and put your pants outside your trousers. Get ready to be a hero!

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(If you’re a regular reader of the blog you might have noticed another three stage model I’ve spoken about, Bridge’s model of Transition. Well, that’s because Bridges also looked at ancient rituals and ceremonies of native tribes. There is much wisdom to be learnt from the ancients, it seems.)