Have you ever found yourself asking, "What is wrong with me?" And then you turn around and blame your work dissatisfaction on external factors like your pay, your coworkers, or your boss? Maybe if you're feeling particularly self-reflective you'll question whether the problem is you.
At the peak of my burnout, I couldn't shake the feeling I wasn't the person I wanted to be, but I refused to even entertain the possibility this misalignment was within my control. It took a marriage retreat to realize I'd been doing the same thing in my marriage. "He needs to be more appreciative, He needs to do more, He needs to ...." was the refrain in my head most days.
Dissonance is that nagging feeling that arises when we're out of alignment with our ideal selves. This disharmonious way of perceiving the world will affect 100% of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
But how do you know if you're out of alignment? At our marriage retreat, we learned this happens when we're "in the box" with our thinking.
Signs you're "in the box" (aka, if the problem is you):
Negative feelings, often out of proportion to the circumstances. Your body will produce negative sensations when you're making up stories to justify your perceptions of the world around you. Example: Your coworker is running behind, so you get asked to see a walk-in patient (again). You feel your body tense up and you feel angry and resentful. Your heart rate might increase and your facial muscles tighten.
You bring in past memories as evidence to support your stance. You recall how often your coworker has been late in the last year, how often you've had to pick up her slack, how she's sipping a Starbucks today: proof she has her priorities wrong.
You make up a story in your head about what's going on, including what she's thinking and feeling. She's inefficient, lazy and doesn't care that she runs behind. She only cares about herself.
What does "in the box" thinking have to do with burnout or job dissatisfaction?
What if your unhappiness is entirely within your control? What if I told you 100% of your dissatisfaction is because of your thoughts about the situation rather than your situation itself? Ever heard this: Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.
Ask yourself again, Do you like who you are? Are you the best version of you? Would the you from ten years ago approve of who you've become?
If you were your partner, would you choose you again? Would you want to get to know you, to marry you, to spend your life with you?
If you were your boss, would you hire you again?
If you hesitated, you might be experiencing dissonance. Most of us have the desire to be a good person, right? But then something happens. A comment, an irritation, an unexpected turn of events. At this point we're enter a fork in the road. We can choose to honor our desire to move towards our highest self or we can take the other road. This other road betrays our original desire and leads us towards dissonance and unhappiness. How do you know which road you'll end up on?
It's simple. Choice. The choice is ours and ours alone. If we choose the road of betraying ourselves we start making up stories, and we start blaming others.
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author of Man's Search for Meaning, observed that even in the more dire of circumstances when everything was taken from the prisoners: loved ones, food, time, and sleep, there was one thing the guards couldn't take: the freedom of choice. Every minute of every single day, Dr. Frankl had a choice. He chose to see the humanity of his fellow prisoners, he chose to look outward at others instead of wallowing in how horrible his own circumstances were. And he realized he could choose his reaction. The guards couldn't take this from him. What a powerful reminder of how we suffer because we allow it.
Dissonance and being in the box often become more evident during periods of burnout. We forget we have a choice. We become victims to our circumstances. We choose the road that leads to suffering by betraying who we want to be. Do you want to live for the weekends, then spend all day Sunday dreading the work week? Do you want to live your life for one day when you get to retire? Are you blaming external factors and using a magnifying glass to look for evidence to support your powerlessness? Why not pick up a mirror instead? Turn it towards you and spend time in self-examination.
Self-examination is hard, if not impossible, in the moment. It's usually only a second or two after something happens before we start making up stories. Setting aside a few minutes each day in silence or journaling can be a great way to recall how many times we're "in the box".
The Choice to Get Out of the Box: Just like no one can "make" you mad, no one can put you in the box or get you out of the box. Only you can put yourself in the box, and only you can get yourself out.
So, how do we get out of the box?
It starts with self-awareness. Recognize when you're in the box, admit your thoughts and your feelings. To use the example from earlier, I might notice "I am so irritated about my colleague running behind again because it means extra work for me". I might notice my body is tight and I'm not breathing deeply. My story has already spun out of control about how unfair work is and what a crappy person she is.
Make up an alternate story, even if it's fictional. Your goal is to shift your perspective and choose different thoughts. Remember, your suffering is a result of your chosen thoughts, not external circumstances. Even if you're right, you can still make up a story to get you out of the box. Let's say it's true, your colleague is often late, and you do have to pick up her slack. What if you found out she's been battling cancer and she's exhausted from chemo? And her husband is cheating on her and her son is failing in school and she's about to lose her house? And you found out she didn't stop by Starbucks, her nurse bought it as a surprise. Would you be as hard on her?
Choose to respond rather than react. The difference is choice. Remember, if you don't like who you've become, or if unhappiness is permeating your existence, look within. The choice is yours. Life gives us dozens of opportunities each day to decide which fork in the road we'll take. You get to choose.
By embracing self-awareness, making up alternate stories, and choosing your thoughts, you can break free from dissonance and start living a life more in harmony with your highest self. The power lies within you to transform your perspective and, in turn, your life.
Still stuck and unable to see your role in your unhappiness? Reach out and we'll do a session together. email@example.com