Consider this puzzle: we crave to accomplish something so deeply all our lives, but when we get close to achieving it, we find a way to lose it. It's so hard to believe. When you witness it happening to someone else, you shake your head in disbelief. But when it happens to you, you deny it until you crash into the lowest depression you've ever been in, feeling unworthy, even crazy.
A young woman confided such brain-sickness to me. Since she was seven, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. She watched Court TV and other shows, read about the law, and saw every movie she could find about lawyers. She chose a fine university and declared herself pre-law. She graduated with high grades but she did not apply to law school. Instead, right after college, she went to work for the county, and over the next twenty-three dispirited years rose from a clerk to manager. At forty-three, she experienced an awakening and dusted off her dream. She studied for the LSATs, got accepted to law school, and excelled. She passed the difficult bar exam on the first try. But the old terror settled back down, like a fog. Is she lawyering? Far from it. She went back to her old job, the same one she had before law school, and with her diplomas in her bureau drawer, she is still managing her county office.
It's not that she was happy in her old comfort zone. Not at all. It felt like she was swimming in a sea of failure. She began drinking heavily and didn't stop for 40 days, like the biblical flood but without Noah's ark to float her. On the forty-first day, she checked herself into a hospital for a special alcoholism program. She left sober but scared to death. What can she do now to keep herself at the least, safe and alive, and at the most, happy, she asked me. Here are my thoughts.
If she can view her breakdown as a window to her basic terror-- not being good enough or worthy enough to succeed-- she has a chance. Facing the terror starts the healing process. Numbing or denying it keeps you shackled. She deviated from the one dream that she really wanted and fell back to something she could easily do, something, however, far less than she knew she was capable of. Working as a lawyer seemed monumental; her self-doubt left no room to even try.
Our goal was to break the overwhelming dream of lawyering into achievable steps, just as the curricula of college and law school had. In the same way, she must take small steps, beginning from zero to one, to climb up into her ambition. But how?
This process requires courage of a different kind than taking exams. It takes resolve and near-daily support to risk linking herself to people who have access to an appropriate job. This is deceptively easy; do not underestimate it. She might have to write a script asking for what she wants and why she is competent and then call her law professors and former classmates, county associates and lawyers, and friends. It demands believing in one's own abilities. I had her read her own resume and law papers out loud to herself and to me to absorb how outstanding her work was in law school and in the county on projects of public interest. She has to recognize that she has already built bridges; now she must start crossing them. She has several choices for starters: the private side that cor¬responds to her government work as well as the more obvious choice of government law.
Can she do it? The biggest problem for her is not just breaking into law as it is for so many other law graduates. Her problem is liv¬ing through the terror of it. In the past, her drinking, just as any addic¬tion -- even turning on televi¬sion instead of doing the necessary project -- serves to quiet and distract tidal waves of terror, Addiction works-- for a while. Essentially, it pacifies you by not letting you feel afraid, and, further, not letting you ad¬vance. So you stay "safe" -- stuck with your addiction and quiet in your old job. Addiction may make you comfortable, but it robs you of your life. In this losing proposition, you trade short-term numbness for long-term grief.
If you can identify with sabotaging your own success too, here are seven suggestions on how to separate your desperate feeling of no confidence unworthiness against the reality of your abilities so that you can live through the fear and get on with your true life:
1. Find a career coach or buddy and name your goal. Estimate the chances of reaching it, and then list the necessary steps to achieve it.
2. Don't get overwhelmed by the entire process. Instead, write down a list of actions to reach your goal and break them down into steps to do each week, and then each day.
3. Use your coaching sessions to make phone calls to set up appointments, and then later to read and listen to your progress reports, pushing you forward, encouraging you along the way, over-riding your resistance.
4. Beat your addiction by joining a therapeutic group (i.e., Alcoholics, Overeaters, Debtors Anonymous) but don't substitute just joining for using the group and making progress.
5. Reward yourself after each step taken with something unfamiliar, like improv acting, photo or dance workshops. Push other boundaries of belonging and skill-building.
6. Learn how others achieve, for most of us struggle silently far more than anyone knows. Read and listen to biographies of people in the field you aspire to so that you can emulate their fear-defying maneuvers. Read how-to books for support.
7. Investigate professional groups to join. Attend lectures. Associate with those living your dream to bring you closer to it, and yourself. Don't wait for invitations.
8. Don't wait until you feel ready. Nobody ever feels totally prepared before they start. To begin, you begin.
Shakespeare said it best: "To thine own self be true." Apply that to finding the truth of your talents and abilities.
Make your luck happen!