I hear from a lot of you who are on the struggle bus. Marriage, kids, job: they all seem to win us a ride on the struggle bus. Very few of us willingly buy a ticket for this bus. In fact, we want to get off as quickly as possible, even if it means throwing ourselves into the road while the bus is zipping along. Yeah, yeah, yeah, maybe there are lessons in all the hardship we're going through, but we aren't interested. No lesson for me, thank you very much. Just get me off this damn bus so I can get my life back in order. Am I right?
My daughter just started middle school. This is her first time earning number grades. In fact, she had no idea an 80 was one point away from a "C" or even what a "C" meant. "So, that's almost an A, right?" was her calm reply when I told her she had to watch it or she'd be getting a C in math. Tests were given in elementary school, but they weren't a big deal, and kids certainly didn't study. There was no last minute cramming, no crying over grades, and no comparing your grades to your bestie. All that has changed, which got me thinking about tests in life and how we handle them.
We can all agree struggles are inevitable. But what if you could shift your brain and see the struggles as lessons or tests. And not just awful tests like AP US Government tests, but tests to help you grow into a better version of you? Before you start rolling your eyes, do you absolutely love everything in your life? Is your life perfect? Do you want it to stay exactly as it is? Without tests, you can't grow or move to the next level. If nothing changes, nothing will change.
Without burnout, or job overwhelm and uncertainty, nothing in your worklife would change. You wouldn't put up boundaries, you wouldn't question whether you truly want to be doing what you're doing, and you'd stay on the struggle bus riding around Stuckville forever.
When my husband and I went on our first date in college, he put me a few tests to see if I was his kind of girl. I only found out about these months later when he confessed he'd wanted to see if I was snooty or down-to-earth The first test was picking me up in an old dirty farm pickup truck instead of his restored CJ 7 jeep. I didn't care about the truck, I cared about the cute guy driving the old truck. He also took me to a true hole-in-the-wall bar to see how I'd react. His bartender friend offered us shots when we walked in. I passed that test with flying colors.
The "date test" memory came back to me this week because Chase surprised me on our weekly date by taking me to a new place: a pool hall. This pool hall wasn't filled with preppy college kids drinking craft beer. The dozen or so tables were unoccupied except for us, a high school couple, and a group of guys in their early 20s. The bar, however, was full. Every seat taken by a crowd of folks who appeared to be chilling after their work week and who all turned to look at us as we walked into the dark low-ceiling room.
We felt out of place and had no idea what to do. Do we walk over to a table, do we go reserve a table, do we get a drink first? I felt like I was being tested all over again. Part of me was tempted to drink beer just to ease the social awkwardness, but I'd just brushed my teeth, and we were planning to drive to a restaurant later. The 45-year-old me decided I didn't want a drink, nor did I care if anyone stared at us. I took a deep breath, I belonged in this place as much as anyone else. I shifted from "This is so awkward and I want to leave now" to "well, at least we get to hang out together" It turns out the music was great, no one gave a hoot about us, and pool isn't so bad when you don't care how silly you look. By the time we walked out I felt like a stronger version of me.
Think about what tests you're going through right now--where's your biggest point of contention, what are you thinking about constantly? What's on your mind before bed and when you wake up? Is it your job? A person? A hardship you can't figure out a solution to?
Seriously, pick something that has you super charged up. We're going to see if we can shift how you see it.
Now, imagine this person or situation is a test.
What you should know about tests
Life will give you tests. Lots of them, and often when the timing is awful. But, these tests are exactly what you need and they happen exactly when you need them to. Wait, before you throw a punch at me, see if you can be even a teensy bit open to the possibility that whatever you seek is seeking you. What if it's boundaries you need? The Universe is going to put a person in your life who runs all over you, like my boss from 10 years ago. It took me a few years and workplace misery, but thanks to that test, I now know all about boundaries. What about gratitude? Maybe you've been taking your life for granted. Life will find a way to show you how to be grateful. When I first moved away to college, I was so lonely and homesick I'd cry at night. I wanted to quit and move home, but I made myself go hang out at the student union to study. I saw a sign for "adopt a grandparent" and went over to check it out. I ended up meeting a cool little 90-year-old lady and received the lesson of getting out of my comfort zone, connecting with someone I thought I had nothing in common with, and shifting how I saw the town I now call home.
You don't have to score perfectly on these tests, you only have to pass. Are you holding yourself to impossible standards? Just like my daughter said, a "C" is still close to an "A". While we're talking grades, stay in your own lane, with these tests of life, we're each traveling our own path. What someone else is going through or how they handle it is inconsequential to you and your test grade. When we went to a marriage retreat, it was hard not to speculate who had the best and worst relationship. I realized by the end, however, we're not in competition, we're each on our own journey and dealing with our own unique tests.
Whatever test or hardship you're facing, try sitting quietly and imagine the problem. Then, ask yourself what is it you need to learn from this? If you were to get past this obstacle, setback, or struggle (hint: you will, you always will), and look back on this in 5 or 10 years, what might it be trying to teach you? With burnout, I sort of knew what the lesson was deep down, but I didn't want to admit it. The first time I experienced burnout, I knew the lesson was that I needed to leave the job. It was toxic and my efforts had all failed. I needed to get up the courage to look elsewhere. With my second burnout episode, the job and coworkers were great, as was the pay. At first I couldn't see any point or purpose for my burnout. With time, I realized I was being pulled in a new direction. I wanted to grow my skills outside medicine. I wanted to write, try public speaking, or maybe teach. The point of the 2nd burnout was that my job couldn't fulfill all my needs, even if it was a great job. I had to look outside my job for ways to spark my creativity or give me a sense of purpose.
What would make this experience easier, more fun, or at least not as awful as it feels? How are you making this harder than it is? We tend to make things much harder than they are. Sometimes writing it all out or talking to a therapist or coach helps you see a solution you hadn't thought of. I ran into another Physician Assistant at a baby shower once. I was moaning about how awful my job was and how I couldn't leave because I had this two year non-compete. Without missing a beat, she said simply, "Oh, you just need to come work with us and drive to one of our satellite offices for two years". Something shifted when I heard this possible solution to the problem I'd been convinced had no way out. I did go work with her and I did drive back and forth for two years. I was making the problem much harder than it was and I'd convinced myself nothing could help.
Are you being true to yourself? Or living your life based on what you think other people think? Tests are often very revealing. I had a client who was staying at a job because she couldn't stand the thought of disappointing her father who had worked at the same organization for his entire career. She was trading her discomfort and her dad's disappointment for her LIFE. She was willing to stay at a job she hated just to avoid feelings that may or may not have actually happened. I, too, stayed at a job too long because I knew my boss would become angry and feel betrayed. I'd seen it play out over and over with previous coworkers. I finally had an ah-ha when my therapist asked me, "So when are you going to put your needs above hers? What do YOU want and need?"
Whatever it is that's testing you, how are you reacting emotionally? Are you shutting down? Are you falling apart? Or are you filling up the need with other stuff like food or alcohol rather than process what's going on? Again, tests are very revealing. Maybe the whole test is how you're handling the test.
What if this test were happening to someone else, would you see it the same way? We have stories in our heads, elaborate stories we weave about whatever's going on. These stories produce feelings in our bodies. Imagine me finding out one of the kids was hanging out with a group of kids who does drugs (I promise this isn't the case, at least not yet). I'm going to make up stories about how he or she will end up addicted to meth with no teeth and in jail before age 17. I'll feel fear and panic in my body. But, if I heard about a distant friend of a friend who had a kid in this situation, I wouldn't feel stuff in my body, nor would I make up a whole story. What if you could set your story and your emotions aside for just a few seconds. If you were emotionally neutral as if you were watching this play out in someone else's life, what might change about the situation?
We handle tests according to how we see ourselves. What do you believe about yourself? What were you told growing up about how you handled challenges? If you were the "brave one" or the "calm one" what might you do differently?
Ask for help. When I participated in one of those "Escape the Space" places, I realized I hated tests, especially timed tests. The guy told us before he locked us in a tiny realistic-looking submarine that we could call on the walkie talkie and ask for clues. I, however, didn't want to ask for clues. Why was that? I think it was this inner voice that said I was weak if I had to ask for help. My "win" wouldn't count as much if I had to ask for help. Is that true for you? Are you going through an awful time and yet you won't call on the walkie talkie and ask for help? Do your friends know what you're going through? Do your coworkers? What are you making it mean about you if you ask for help?
My 10th grader had something he wanted to test out this year. His high school is close to the University of Georgia campus, which has free buses for college kids. The bus route conveniently runs along his cross country training route. My son decided it would be fun to hop on a college bus while he and his fellow runners were training, ride it for a few stops down Milledge Avenue, then hop off and rejoin his friends. Yesterday he finally timed it perfectly. The doors to the bus opened just as he neared the stop. Without hesitation he hopped on the bus. The bus driver said, "can't ride without a shirt, dude" and kicked him off. My son was disappointed, but he'd passed the first part of the test, actually stepping onto the bus.
How can you use these steps to help you see your struggle in a new light or handle it differently? Are you on the right path or do you need to consider different career options? If you're on the struggle bus and want to talk about what's going on, reach out!