| Read time: 15-20 minutes |
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
Jenny is a client of mine who, in the middle of this pandemic, found herself trying to decide whether to quit her job or not. She was beating herself up unnecessarily for “not being decisive.” In her pre-COVID-19 life, she was considering leaving her corporate gig and starting her own business.
While she was preparing for the latter, she wasn’t quite ready to leave the former. She needed the money and the benefits and didn’t hate her work. She’s been in this question, of when to pull the trigger and leave, for at least six months. In the interim, she’s struggled to stay engaged.
When Is Not Deciding Being Decisive?
Like so many of us, she’s been sheltering in place and working from home. It has become harder to separate the sense of discomfort, insecurity and uncertainty that this pandemic has exacerbated from the questions that were already in play.
These uncertainties have fueled her desire, more than ever, to make a quick, black and white decision. In the process, she imagines that she’ll feel more certain, in charge and in control. When she can’t do that, she makes up that she is being indecisive. Her inner critic starts to have a field day and fuels that manufactured truth, “I’m indecisive.” This only adds to her growing sense of uncertainty and chips away at her self-confidence. Sound familiar?
I invited her to consider a reframe – and make her whole experience more conscious.
Pausing To Make Space Is Being Decisive
I asked Jenny to hold out both hands in front of her, palms up, a gesture that’s filled with meaning for me. It’s a way to have a relationship with “this” (what’s sitting in the palm of her left hand) and “that” (what’s sitting in the palm of her right hand).
This creates an opportunity to separate the decisions weighing on us from the persons that we are. These decisions are not me. And they are not Jenny. Whether I’m being more or less decisive in any given moment is not me either. I am a person who has a decision to make, eventually. I am not that decision. This was true for Jenny too.
In That Space Is Our Power To Choose
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and Holocaust survivor once said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Following my lead, Jenny held out both of her hands to consider an important set of questions. “What if her job right now is to hold space for these two possibilities?” One (the “this”) being to stay on the job and put her business on an indefinite hold. The other (the “that”) being to quit her job now and focus exclusively on building the business. I added, “What if her actual job is to weigh these possibilities without actually acting on either (i.e., be in the space between the “this” and “that”)?”
If that’s the decision, for right now, to allow some space between these two extreme possibilities, perhaps then she could actively engage in an exploration. I know I was curious to discover what might emerge beyond the either/or that Jenny’s been sitting in.
She became curious as well.
Are You Stuck In An Either/Or Paradigm?
This is a major issue for most of my clients, who consistently find themselves stuck in either/or paradigms. It’s not their fault. We live in a culture that defines itself by dualities. As life feels more and more uncertain and major decisions affecting our daily lives seem out of our control, we want certainty and a sense of control. Unfortunately, now, more than ever, the polar nature of our circumstances is feeling more extreme and intractable.
No wonder we’re all feeling like Solomon’s baby, stuck between two mothers. Only now, no one is willing to let go! We need the ability to listen from the heart, look differently, and harness the clarity that wisdom brings. For that, we need a pause, and perhaps, an objective other, to help us to hold the tension and step into the exploration needed.
When we are stuck or don’t understand, there is almost always more to know than meets the eye. The question is, are we skilled and wise enough to become explorers during these times?
When Stuck In An Either/Or Paradigm, Yes Feels Like No
Lingering forever in an either/or dilemma was an obstacle to decision-making during my 20+ years in corporate America as well. We would get attached to “either this or that” idea. It was uncanny how quickly we would take sides. In our impatience, we either didn’t make a decision at all and felt stuck (less likely in corporate America) or we made a sub-optimal decision that we were never fully committed to (happened a lot).
In every case, this led to second-guessing and regrets. You knew this was true as yes never felt like a full yes. There were constant meetings to revisit what we were doing, stump for more funding and get people on board.
In the process, we’d miss out on the gold that surfaces during the rigor of the discovery period. We’d miss out on the possibilities that live along the continuum between this and that. This is why I became devoted to and known for the front-end and rigorous work that supports the vetting and exploration process. It’s also why, once our path to an outcome was clear, our mantra was, “get out of the way!”
Choosing Not To Go To Strategy Too Soon Is Being Decisive
What if the greatest gift Jenny could give herself right now is to be spacious? And rigorous? To actively engage in the exploration with full permission to not go to strategy too soon? Often, in the height of the kind of tension she was experiencing, it is ill-advised to make any significant decisions anyway. And, let me be clear, I am not advocating for holding the tension indefinitely. That is not being decisive either.
For virtually any decision, we can choose a timeframe and set a deadline for making it. Time-bounding a decision-making process is vital. Deadlines are essential and especially valued by those of us who need more control and like SMART goals.
Please note that this pause can last for minutes or months. If it lasts a lot longer than that, something else is probably happening and the issue may not be whether you are being decisive or not. Often, in these cases, the agreements and desired outcomes are still too unclear.
There Is No Good, Bad, Right Or Wrong – Everything Serves, If We’re Conscious
In my experience, when my clients allow for a pause and an exploration, they set themselves up for success. Another critical success factor is to stand in the working assumption, there is no good, bad, right or wrong. In other words, everything serves, if we’re conscious. This is an assumption that create space and supports an open-minded and open-hearted exploration. Inevitably, from here, clients are more able to powerfully choose between more desirable and better vetted paths forward. They get better at navigating complexity and become thoughtful, intentional and decisive.
What’s often missing, however, and leaves people feeling stuck, like Jenny, is both the willingness to be uncomfortable and not knowing how to actively engage in the exploration. This is where it helps to ask for support, where people like me come in. Bringing in a powerful partnership and a fresh set of eyes is always valuable. New questions and perspectives can reveal possibilities that delight, inspire and motivate us, as individuals and as collectives. From there, you feel more free to choose powerfully and move forward with confidence, clarity and conviction.
Permission To Sit In The Heart Of The Paradox And Hold The Tension Is Being Decisive
In giving herself permission to sit in the heart of the paradox and hold the tension, I invited Jenny to imagine not deciding and not knowing when or how to proceed. This decision, not to know or decide right now, when made consciously, is a powerful decision. In making space for a real pause, she made space for discovery, for new ideas to reveal themselves and for new opportunities to emerge.
Ultimately, Jenny realized that there was no urgency here. She did not have to make a decision right away. In fact, she was manufacturing a sense of urgency and anxiety in order to compel herself to make a decision. Yet, in truth, it was a decision she was not actually ready or informed enough to make. Trying to force it was making her miserable. And it wasn’t working.
This, alone, was a useful revelation for Jenny.
What’s Going On “Out There” Often Mirrors What’s Going On “In Here”
Once she acknowledged that there was time, she experienced a deep sense of relief. By exempting herself, intentionally, from the challenge of choosing either option A or option B right now, she made space to imagine the myriad other possibilities that live along the continuum between A and B. During this pause in the action, I helped her to explore the facts and data of her life and inner turmoil.
With gentle guidance and while honoring the job and relationships she was already in, we made space for Jenny to explore her inner landscape. She uncovered and began to build a relationship with her core values, her unique life purpose and overarching vision for her life. As is the case for many of us, the core values work was deeply life affirming. It helped her to begin disentangling from outside-in values systems, which she respected but were not her own. Knowing her core values explained a lot and was a source of strength and power. She was becoming more clear and decisive.
Using the metaphor of a pregnancy, I nudged her to make space for the thing that she was birthing.
Be Brave & Be Willing To Be Uncomfortable
Invoking memories of being pregnant, I encouraged Jenny to imagine being in the discomfort of knowing a little and feeling like you don’t know enough. She began to remember what it was like to be in that space between what’s coming to an end (life as a childless woman and married couple with no kids, the “this”) and what’s beginning (life as a family, a threesome, the “that”). In essence, she began to imagine this as a time of gestation.
For anyone who has not been pregnant, often, in the first trimester, we don’t see the actual changes that are happening. They are internal. But those of us who are literally pregnant feel them and we are exhausted. That we can’t see them doesn’t mean they are not happening. Self-care becomes a priority. We are now a container, an incubator if you will, for a real, live human being developing within.
With a few exceptions, most of the people I know who’ve been pregnant (myself included) have admitted that there is nothing comfortable about it. And the qualities of comfort and discomfort change over the course of the typically nine months we are in this process.
Being In A Growth Mindset Is Filled With Discomfort, Most Of It Quite Manageable
Remember when you were a teenager? Was it easy to learn how to drive a car? How was the transition to braces or high school? Did you like all that hair on your legs? Were you lucky enough to avoid the plague of acne? These are just a handful of examples of the things that made many of us uncomfortable during those awkward years. They are also evidence of growth.
I would argue that we are not growing when we are comfortable. Whether we’re birthing a human being, a new relationship or a new company, we are in a constant state of discomfort. When we can accept that, anticipate and embrace it, everything changes, arguably, for the better.
Don’t get me wrong, the comfort zone is a wonderful place to be. I like it there too…just not all the time. I know I’ve been there too long when I become restless or get lost in a lot of mental gymnastics. I also know I’ve been there too long when the brown couch swallows me whole and I wake up startled at 3:00 a.m. These are signs that I’m stagnating or becoming too attached to an identity, a way of being or old stories.
Are You Consciously Choosing Or Being Swallowed By The Brown Leather Couch?
The status quo can be desirable and familiar on the one hand and a kind of prison on the other. When we stay there too long, there is a cost. It’s a slippery slope, as most of us are moving so fast and are so driven, that we don’t see the cages of our own making forming around us. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, among them, the brown leather couch, like the one in front of the giant TV in my family room.
I’ve worked with so many clients who were blind-sided by their habitual ways of being. Ironically, some of these were the very behaviors that contributed to their success. The problem is when they become such a deep groove in our brains, we are no longer doing them consciously. They were so stuck in their high performance routines and unconscious behaviors that they did not realize how much they were feeling caged, constricted and stuck; like hamsters on a treadmill, running in place but going nowhere.
This happens when we become too comfortable; when we are operating in the illusion of control.
As In A True Pregnancy, Expansion Is Uncomfortable, But the Payoff Is Fantastic
As Gay Hendricks offers in his book, The Big Leap, many of us, especially the ambitious, high performers among us, get hooked on living in the Zone of Excellence, which is a very cool place to be. But, that keeps us from moving into our Zone of Genius.
Hendricks describes the Zone of Genius as that place where we can expand into abundance, success, creativity and love every day and inspire others to do the same. It’s where our upper limits disappear and we can experience the happiness that comes from being present to and excited about both what is here right now and what is possible. It’s a way of being and requires a decision and practice to live there.
I call this the “How good can you stand it?” place to be. It’s a state of being that’s available to all of us, right now. To grow, we need to push against the edges of comfort and give ourselves full permission to be uncomfortable. Along the way, we must make time for a pause, to breathe deeper and celebrate the wins.
These are a few of the key characteristics of the most consistently successful, decisive and happy people I know.
Expansion Requires A Willingness To Not Know
On some level, this kind of expansion requires that we be willing to not know. It invites us to get curious about what we don’t know that we don’t know that might matter. The only way I know how to do this is to put ourselves consciously into situations that enable us to learn and grow. Holding the tension between two big life decisions is one of those situations.
Choosing to hold the tension, engage in an exploration and stay for the impact is being decisive. It is a high-level self-leadership skill, one that requires intention, patience and a plan.
External Change & Internal Transitions Are Two Different Things
To change – and this is true for virtually any kind of change – we must nurture and tend to two things: what’s going on inside of us and what’s going on outside of us. For an external change to be meaningful and “stick,” we must tend to our inner and outer lives. We must align what’s going on in our outer lives with the internal transition required to support and sustain it. But who’s teaching us how to do this, how to turn inward, actively participate in and align with our own transformation?
What if, in the process of this tending, Jenny can learn something about herself that is relevant to the decisions before her? What might she need to know in order to explore what else is possible in that space between “this” (what is) and “that” (what will be)? I call this the space of Yes, And. This is where possibility lives. While this may be murky territory, it is also fertile and creative space.
What might be possible for you if you learn how to move out of an attachment to either “this” or “that?” If you begin to play more in the space of the possibility that lives in between the two extremes? Where in your life are you feeling stuck?
If you are feeling wishy washy, stuck or indecisive, it’s a fair bet that you are in an either/or paradigm that could benefit from a pause, an exploration, fresh eyes and a new way of seeing.
There Are Tangible Upsides Of Holding the Tension
For Jenny, one of the many upsides of holding this tension and simply sitting with the “this and that” of her circumstances was that she acknowledged that she was in a real transition. Again, transitions are about what needs to shift internally, while change is more about what’s happening outside of and around us. Knowing this was empowering and set her on a path of deeper self-discovery.
External changes are harder to manifest and embrace, maintain and sustain, successfully and consistently, without tending to the internal transitions that support living in alignment with those decisions. Inevitably, as we mature and gain more life experience, it becomes imperative to align with our core values, unique life purpose and overarching vision for our lives. In my experience, most of us don’t actually know what these are, which is another impediment to being decisive and moving forward.
Holding space makes time for the reflection, feelings, and deep truths to be revealed that need and want our attention. This is especially true at a crossroads, when we are making big life decisions. We can practice on the small stuff so that we are prepared when the defining life moments happen. These require us to be clear, committed and decisive. It is deeply satisfying when we are and a sign that we are growing and evolving. Even more importantly, holding space and paying attention makes space for making the internal exploration, integration and alignment of choices that support the external changes.
From here, yes means yes.
Make What You Are Going To More Important Than What You Are Leaving
Another source of her indecision was that Jenny had strong feelings both about leaving the security of the corporate job and about establishing a new identity as a successful entrepreneur. In the space between these possibilities and with coaching support, she began to acknowledge and cleanly express those feelings. Having a safe and courageous space – the strong container of our coaching partnership – helped her to have a more mature and vulnerable relationship with herself, her feelings and the messages they were carrying. She was learning to listen with compassion and resolve. I served as her witness.
As a result, she stopped having a relationship with her thoughts about those feelings and her thoughts about the choices under consideration. And, you guessed it, she started actually feeling the feelings and making real, tangible choices. She stopped labeling herself as indecisive and began to experience herself as decisive; as thoughtful, responsible and strategic.
Paradoxically, in the middle of the murky uncertainty that is characteristic of this space in between endings and new beginnings, she found clarity, renewed confidence and peace of mind.
A third and better possibility began to emerge.
Focus on What You Want – Be As Decisive & Precise As An Owl Hunting Its Prey
Jenny stopped looking for what’s “wrong” in the current job, which was never the whole story. In fact, it was an attitude that made being in the current job even more undesirable. She realized that she was doing this, mostly unconsciously, in order to make the new path forward feel more “right.” She’d hoped that finding faults with her current situation would make it easier to leave her job. It didn’t.
Focusing on what she was leaving and didn’t want was a recipe for disengagement, staying stuck and feeling miserable. Defining what she wanted in terms of what she didn’t want was a recipe for getting what she didn’t want, because it was exactly what she was focused on! This was a big ah-ha moment for Jenny.
Defining what she wanted in terms of what she didn’t want made it virtually impossible to stay or go, cementing her in place and exacerbating her feelings of being stuck. Like many of us stuck between two undesirable extremes, she didn’t like either enough to be decisive and began ping-ponging between the extremes, also a form of stuckness. It became a viscous cycle leading to her conclusion that she was incapable, incompetent and indecisive, none of which was true!
All she wanted now was to break out of that self-imposed prison.
How Often Do You Self-Sabotage To Break Out Of Feeling Stuck?
I know too many very smart and accomplished people who do this to themselves, fall prey to a harsh inner critic and even more punishing task master. This happens even at the heights of their success! It’s a form of self-sabotage.
In truth, transitions are hard, especially when we try to navigate them alone. With the right kind of support, we can recharge our batteries and shine the light of awareness on what else is possible. Predictably, then, the prison door swings wide open.
Thankfully, as Jenny got present, clearer and more specific about what she wanted right now (permission to navigate this transition in ways that served), her complaints about what she didn’t want (to feel uncomfortable and indecisive) lessened. Instead of feeling stuck and concluding she was indecisive, she chose to hold the tension and sit in the heart of the paradox…and be an explorer for a while.
With More Awareness & Skill, She Became Decisive
With more awareness and skill, she became more decisive. She began to enjoy her life, current situation and job again. Instead of complaining, she became grateful, resting in the comforting knowledge that she had options and a go-forward plan.
She re-engaged in her work, appreciating what it offered her right now, acutely aware of the trade-offs she was making to stay. With this awareness, she took a deep breath and relaxed into that decision. At the same time, she got into more meaningful action on her business. She took baby steps, making real progress that would support her when she was ready to take the leap full-time.
She was harnessing the power of the pause, holding the tension and being decisive all at once.
Coming Full Circle
Still in the neutral zone, that murky space between what’s coming to an end and what’s going to begin, Jenny was present, engaged and consciously choosing what to do, how to do it and who she wanted to be in the process. She had clarity about how she wanted to show up during this time between what was coming to an end and what had not yet begun.
By making space for important questions without having to have immediate answers, she made peace with her impatient self and the discomfort inherent in the situation. She was back in charge and there was movement and momentum.
Eventually, the answers came; arguably, better answers.
Moving Forward Again
Jenny’s commitment to moving forward was clean. Even though she was choosing to leave her past life, she recognized the importance of staying on for a little while longer while preparing for the ending. This enabled her to know when she was ready to move on and helped her stay focused on what she wanted.
There was more ease, grace and flow in the process.
Instead of feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and uncertain, she felt energized, excited and prepared. Instead of worrying about the past or perseverating about the future, she was present and powerfully in choice.
Now, she could spend her time, energy and resources on doing a good job at work, preparing the foundations for her business and growing herself in the process.
Get Good At Holding The Tension, Being Uncomfortable & Being Decisive
It would behoove each of us to create a new relationship with tension and discomfort. And to reconsider what it means to be decisive. It helps to unpack and disentangle the decisions we think we are making. Often, there are many little decisions inside the big ones that need our attention first.
Tension, stress and pressure are different beasts. Stress without relief is inevitably negative in its implications to our health. It can be internally or externally sourced. Pressure is typically driven by outside-in forces and can be a source of stress. Tension is mostly an inside job. Not enough leads to apathy and boredom. And too much leads to paralyzing overwhelm. All of it serves, if we’re conscious.
As in Goldilocks & The Three Bears, tension – the right amount – gets us into action, the “right” actions with the “right” people, in the “right” timing with the “right” trade-offs.
Learning How To Hold The Tension Is A Key To Happiness And Internal Calm
Learning how to hold the tension enables us to become more clear. This is true no matter our personality type or temperament, and no matter how large or small the decision. Alignment with our core values, unique purpose and overarching vision is the holy grail. It’s what helps us to be more decisive, enjoy the process and manifest our desired outcomes.
All of this enhances our decision-making in the most predictable and uncertain circumstances.
Knowing how to pause, how to not need to know right away and how to hold the tension are, ironically, keys to moving forward. We will experience more success and happiness every day, as a result, even when life is challenging. We can learn how to greet uncertainty and discomfort as the gifts that they are. They are fertile territory and leaping off points for the rest of our lives.
And they remind us that we are alive.
We must become explorers again. As we welcome the discomfort and learn how to embrace and enjoy it, we take our power back. That’s when we become the true authors and architects of our own, very satisfying and fulfilling lives.
Think of a time when you thought you only had two choices, either this, or that. What happened? What else might have been possible had you made space for more exploration?
When have you been able to hold the tension and benefit from a better decision as a result? Who did you have to be for that to happen?
How might you apply this wisdom about yourself and these skills to a current situation in your life and/or work?
Taken seriously, these questions will help you to create space for what you actually want. Embraced with curiosity, they will support you to be decisive about who and what matter most. It is my hope that they make space for the real and best pathways forward to be revealed to you.
The ability to create space, hold the tension and get curious are all aspects of the journey to self-mastery. The ability to be decisive rests on these and is possible in the best and worst of times. This is true in all of your roles in all parts of your life, at any age and stage.
Here’s to you becoming masterfully you!