There was a time in my life where I felt so stuck that I could not breathe. I was in an extremely toxic relationship. As much as I always tried to remain an optimist, I felt overwhelmed with doom. I lived with a constant ache in my heart, and dull panic in my head.
At Christmas, I quietly expressed my fear to my sister in law Rose. I told her how stuck and afraid I felt, and about my elaborate plan to extricate myself from my relationship. In the month that my partner was away, I was going to organize everything, have multiple conversations to come to a peaceful resolution, and neatly tie everything up.
After a few minutes of listening to me, Rose finally said “The only thing you need to do in this next month is prepare yourself mentally to leave. If you start to organize everything, it will never happen.”
As the month drew to a close, I finally went to see a therapist (to the great relief of my family and best friend) and after hearing me describe my situation, she said “Wow, it sounds like you feel like a prisoner.”
Hearing it described that way, from someone I had never met, was actually quite a relief. I was in a prison, albeit one that I had constructed myself, after giving away my power piece by piece, until I felt I had none.
I left her office, and headed straight for a favorite childhood hiking spot, where I walked for an hour, with tears streaming down my face.
And then I got a blindingly clear message: I had to move (I swear it was the trees that told me — this was in Marin County, after all!).
It is kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?
Of course moving was the logical thing to do in an oppressive relationship.
And yet it was the one step that was unthinkable. I wanted to do anything else BUT that, because I knew that it would send my entire life (as messed up as it was at that point) crumbling to the ground.
Many of us get ourselves in situations that feel impossible.
- Your career can start as vaguely unrewarding, and turn into a straightjacket of misery.
- Your casual drink to relieve stress can turn into a full-blown addiction.
- Your relationship can turn from uncomfortable to abusive.
- Your writer’s block can turn from mild procrastination to a full blown self esteem bashing panic attack.
- Your business stress can turn from a headache into a stroke.
I realize that this may seem extreme to some of you, but in my experience, unhealthy situations escalate slowly and insidiously.
I never would have believed that the strong, independent, positive thinking young girl that I was would get caught up in a horrible relationship.
Yet there I was.
If you, or someone you love, is stuck in an unhealthy situation, what is that critical step that you are afraid to take?
The unthinkable step
I think you know what it is. And you can feel it because it shows up as slow-rising panic, when you think thoughts like:
“I could never go to the doctor and find out about the true state of my health.”
“As much as I want to, I cannot make my fingers move across the keyboard to write my book.”
“I could never tell my child who is an addict that I refuse to be codependent anymore.”
“I cannot take one hour off to stop working, because my business will fall apart and my clients will leave.”
“I cannot look up my credit score to begin to get out of this financial mess.”
“I cannot pick up the phone to call a recruiter to begin to find a better job.”
I am here to tell you YES YOU CAN.
I will warn you that when you take that step, you will not feel a huge rush of courage, but rather a big wave of nausea.
When I was packing my things to move out, in garbage bags that I had grabbed from my mom’s house on the way back from my revelatory hike, I was physically ill. I was shaking as I was packing. But I did not stop until I had gathered the very last of my things, and shoved them in my mother’s car.
When I pulled away from the curb, drove to my friend MaryAnn’s apartment, and sat down to have a cup of tea with her, finally extricated from my self-made prison, I felt a wave of joy and courage.
Courage is a symptom of taking the unthinkable step.
It was not without messiness, and consequence to many I loved. As much as I appreciated my new life, I grieved the beautiful things and people I gave up to get myself to a better place.
But it opened the door to unimaginable adventure and creativity. In the decades that have followed, I have done the best work of my life, and built a network of exceptional friends, clients and colleagues. I have grown a loving family. I have survived economic calamity, and come out swinging. Most importantly, when I find myself feeling fear, doubt or panic, symptomatic of ignoring what is obvious, I can now ask myself “What is the unthinkable step that I am afraid to take?” And with a little goading and support from friends, I take it.
Your unthinkable step
I hope that your unthinkable step is not out of a situation that is as frightening as mine was many years ago.
Maybe you just need to tackle that damned kitchen drawer that is jammed with a bunch of junk and drives you crazy.
Maybe you need to finally launch the website that you have been working on for the last 9 months.
Maybe you need to stop the mad pace of your business and take a day out to hear yourself think, and define what you need to move your business model in a more sustainable direction.
Whatever your situation, I think you know what your unthinkable step is.
I encourage you to take it.