Part of the following post is used in my Kindle book, Working with Stress and Fear: Your Guide to Feeling it and Rocking the Job Anyway, in the chapter “Falling Down the Emotional Bottomless Hole.”
If you (or a friend or coworker) are struggling or suffering, you are not alone. A feeling of being ‘in the hole,’ feeling like everything is just too hard, or feeling like nobody cares can strike without warning. There is a way out.
That image of a pit comes up frequently in creative expressions of human struggle:
- Portia Nelson’s poem Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.
- Hank Hill’s description of the pit in your stomach (“Every time you have a feeling, just stick it into a little pit inside your stomach…”
- Leo’s West Wing story (told to Josh) about a guy falling in a hole.
- Brené Brown on empathy.
- The Princess Bride’s Pit of Despair.
- A blog post, the one from which the image above comes.
- A curving graph known as The Emotional Cycle of Change.
- Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s roller coaster of change:
I was introduced to this image about two years ago as I prepared to offer leadership development training to a local congregation’s board. I learned that all of the experiences on the downslope (shock, mourning, guilt, loss, detachment) are emotional experiences. These are reactions to a change, initially welcome or not.
One such experience of change happened for me at work. We were moving from a paper-based system to an electronic system. At first I was excited about all of the paper we would be saving, and our ability to simply “run a search” to find what was needed and where it was in the process at any time–even from home.
A few months into the project I told someone that I felt like I was “sliding backwards downhill in the dark.” I had gone from feeling like I knew how to do my job to feeling completely incompetent. The system was far less intuitive than I’d hoped, and so “running a search” was much more challenging than I’d expected. Rather than everything being closer to hand, everything felt buried, hidden, lost. I felt lost.
Fortunately, into this ‘pit of despair’ materialized a toolkit for understanding change. It was as if a friend jumped into the hole with me and said, “Don’t worry. I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.”
The emotional cycle of change was part of that toolkit, and just having that image in mind has been helpful for me. Sometimes I’ll find myself feeling overwhelmed and stuck–which can last for a few hours or a few days–and then I’ll remember the emotional cycle of change, which offers a map for how I got in (something changed, and I’m having a understandable/normal reaction to that change) and a path for how I will get out.
For me, the path back out is not emotional reactivity, but acknowledgement, validating, recognition, and accountable choice. At the fulcrum in the above graphic is “DECISION,” but I believe that just before that decision comes empathy, as described by Brené Brown.
This has been an important insight for me. Empathy is that friend jumping into the hole with you. That’s a metaphor for feeling what you are feeling. That friend taps into their own experience to say, “I’ve been here before.”
I believe empathy is what helps us find the bottom of the hole. Without empathy, we keep falling. The hole is bottomless.
Brené Brown believes this is always a social experience. I’m not 100% sure about that. I have had the experience for myself of finding the bottom on my own through self-empathy. If I realize “I’ve been here before,” that can be enough. It’s Chapter Three in the Autobiography in Five Short Chapters:
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
With my eyes open, I find my feet, and that helps me start finding the path out.
I offer these thoughts for two reasons:
One, you might be in the hole right now, and I want you to know you aren’t alone. You have lots of company, in fact, whether or not they are talking to you right now. Also, the pit does have a bottom, and you can get out, and you’ll probably be in there again. You’ve maybe been there before. if so, take a moment to assess–what is familiar? What is new? Did you experience a change which triggered your slide? And, finally, don’t be in too much of a rush to get out. It’s painful to be in the hole, but you are still okay. This happens.
Two, you might know someone who is in the hole. Perhaps they’ve been stuck in the hole a long time and you want them to be out. This desire for them to be out of the hole is understandable. It’s caring. It shows you want the best for them, and being in the pit is obviously not the best. However, they will not get out on the merits of advice or benefits or purpose or even problem-solving. They need, first, to be understood. Do what you can to spend some time on their side, seeing the world from their perspective, to where you can simply say, “I’ve felt like that. I get it.” Resist the temptation to follow that with “but, you gotta get going with xyz.”
They’ll get there. You will. We will.
Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for people to have the impact they want to have. When you align your true best self with your actions, you make the best possible impact.
Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on management, culture, employee engagement, customer relations, and work-life balance.
Amy works with leaders to increase their self-awareness and make the adjustments they need to align their best selves with their decisions and actions. She creates the time and space they need to reflect on and learn from their experience. Connect with Amy on Facebook, Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.