The State of Being Stuck
Like modern cars with interconnected systems and computers, our lives- and careers- have become increasingly complex. Although our sensors are robust when it comes to signaling feelings of dissatisfaction, many of us lack the specialized tools for diagnosing specific issues and making the necessary adjustments to get us back on track.
Serving simultaneously as drivers and technicians of our own lives can seem daunting. But if we accept the importance of this duality, we must begin to assemble the appropriate tools that are designed specifically to address the nuanced ways in which we find ourselves stuck or off-track, and can lead us toward greater satisfaction and fulfillment in our current and future roles.
Through my background in Cognitive Psychology and my professional experience in Higher Education, I have come to understand the various heuristics or short-cuts in reasoning that can undermine our growth and satisfaction. Regardless of the merits or constraints of your professional situation, these limitations can collectively undermine success and happiness. Luckily they can all be addressed through a deliberate “reprogramming” process, but they are critical to recognize and bring into awareness before such progress can be made.
While I usually try to keep my posts short and pithy, I will make an exception and provide more extensive details below. From my vantage point, the pervasiveness of “stuckness” in the workforce when coupled with the underwhelming job market makes these types of posts and strategies more important than ever, but I am curious to know whether readers are ready to embrace this type of assistance (see my request at the end of the post).
Consider the importance of labels in our lives. We give them to people, objects, and places, almost anything that can be described or categorized. We even label ourselves, describing our jobs, lifestyles, philosophies and political views. Labels fulfill many purposes. Although each of us experiences the world in slightly different ways, labels provide a sense of consistency across variation, allowing us to communicate, connect, and operate on common terms. They also allow us to make inferences and guesses, helping us to process information quickly and efficiently. Clearly, without labels life would be unmanageable- a barrage of specific, personal experiences with limited opportunity for reflection or sharing.
In the workplace labels can be especially powerful. Even though individuals bring a wealth of experience, skills, and abilities to any position or role, they are often viewed through a narrow band of features and competencies most closely associated with their labels. They may only be invited to certain meetings or given assignments associated with these narrow bands, even though their talents and competencies extend well beyond. In this way, our titles and labels begin to define us and how others view and respond to us, resulting in pigeon-holing which in turn can feel constraining and tight, contributing to feeling stuck and underutilized.
While others tend to reinforce this narrowing of identity, we are largely responsible for doing it to ourselves. Many of us are eager to assume new roles and titles, wanting to be viewed as competent and successful, giving our employers exactly what they want. We may, especially in the beginning, stick with expected skills and activities, hesitant to offer insights or experiences outside the narrow band of expectations. Although this pattern may be more pronounced in lower level roles that are more defined and constrained, we can see it across all levels and domains.
The good news is that we can change these patterns, both for ourselves and those who view us. This tendency to label, and to do so restrictively, is only a default setting that allows us to make some assumptions and best guesses. We know that secretaries at minimum have administrative skills and expertise, so we can assume that they will be helpful with certain types of tasks. We also know that counselors tend to have good interpersonal skills and are trained to help people with problems, so we might seek them out if we are experiencing a personal crisis. But nowhere does it state that these are the only skills that people possess, or that we can only draw on specific activities or expectations associated with these narrow bands of features.
Chances are that every person with whom you meet or interact possesses skills, experiences, and talents well beyond their traditional duties or responsibilities. Virtually no label fully defines a person’s skill-set or what they have to offer or draw upon in any given situation. At any time we can surprise ourselves and others by bringing forward new skills and ideas, changing the ways that we are perceived and treated by those around us. But be forewarned, doing so can upset the delicate balance of relationships and expectations, and should be implemented with caution.
In addition to constricting our space with narrow labels, we also set our gaze too low, forcing ourselves to stoop, eventually stunting our growth. Think of your mind as a web of interconnected layers of labels, concepts, and ideas. At the lowest levels are your actual experiences, things that are happening or have just happened- individual conversations, images, or thoughts. These low level experiences are highly personal, charged with emotional details and content connected in turn to other personal experiences that are similarly charged. As you travel higher in your web, you find more general and abstract labels, ideas, and beliefs that have fewer personal details. While lacking in emotional content, these higher level labels can offer rich guidance, helping us to understand complex situations and make strong decisions through reflection, reasoning, and higher order thinking.
In the professional realm our highest levels might include strategic priorities, mission aspects, or general beliefs about our work and what we do. This level tends to be the most resistant to change, regardless of new leadership or contextual influences, our highest level ideas serve as anchors providing us with consistency and guidance through periods of change and uncertainty. In the middle layers you might find strategic goals and objectives, or threats that are of immediate concern. And at the very bottom are our day to day meetings, activities, and interactions.
Of course each of your layers and networks combine and interconnect, making up a complex web of information, thoughts, ideas, and memories with various levels and sub-levels. As human problem solvers we have total access to this universe of connections. We can work from the top down or bottom up depending on our needs and situations. We can jump between layers and sub-layers, connecting disparate experiences, deepening our learning and understanding towards better decision making.
And yet despite this expansiveness, we tend to stay at the lower levels, focusing on immediate experiences that are emotionally charged while offering little insight. Just like junk food that gives us a quick fix but little else, these low levels perpetuate a hunger and craving for more stimulation. Just walk around a coffee shop, shopping mall, or other public venue and listen to the conversations of passers-by. You will hear play-by-play accounts of conversations and experiences, emanating with emotion and interpersonal drama. Since low-level details are emotionally charged, they easily trigger other experiences and past dramas, creating patterns and priming reactive responses. Although staying at this level can provide immediate validation and temporary relief, it does little to create movement or open the way toward greater growth and fulfillment. Instead, it keeps us stuck.
In the workplace, this tendency plays out in different ways, causing employees to perseverate on low-level tasks and activities without seeing the larger picture or goals. They may focus on being busy, seeking validation, looking for respect and growing frustrated when they feel undervalued or appreciated. Others may fixate on interpersonal relationships with co-workers or supervisors, complaining about how they are mistreated or about the toxic environment in which they work. Although people universally crave growth and respect, they often look to be given it through opportunities, titles, or responsibilities. And in doing so they may fail to access the universe of possibilities that surrounds virtually every choice and decision they make.
As problem solvers we are notoriously lousy at seeing the world through others’ perspectives. Researchers have long studied the limitations that accompany human cognition. Many of the classic studies focus on young children, who, depending on their specific developmental stages can make some surprising errors, being fooled by the way things look. They tend to focus on the most obvious dimensions, believing that a taller and thinner vessel contains more liquid than one that is squatter, or a stretched out row of pennies contains more money than one that is close together. As adults it’s easy to smile at these errors, dismissing them as endearing examples of children’s naivete and innocence. But the truth is that even adults get fooled by appearances, trapped by our own perceptions and perspectives.
How we view the world and the decisions we make are largely influenced by our personalities, experiences, and cultural backgrounds. What comes into our sensory systems in terms of images, sounds, or stimulation is interpreted by our minds which activate concepts and labels in our interconnected networks to give them meaning and context. Our languages help us make sense of the sounds through perceiving words and sentences; our religious and moral frameworks help us interpret right and wrong; and our individual cultures and families help us discriminate between opportunities and threats. Even though we understand at some level that others may have different views, we are quick to believe the veracity of our own interpretations and experiences, jumping to conclusions and diving back into the weeds.
Luckily there are some powerful ways to gain insight into others’ perspectives. They involve moving ourselves out of the lower layers to find more powerful frames and labels with which guide our insights and specific perceptions. We should recognize that is only through the understanding of others’ perspectives that we can adapt our own behavior and decision making to be maximally effective and impactful.
We expend a great deal of energy trying to preserve ourselves in all of our facets. We are wired to see threats, both literal, in the coming to attack you sense, but also more subtle emotional kinds. Once we perceive someone or something as bad or somehow “against us”, we begin to interpret their behaviors and actions through this lens, which in turn becomes highly charged and primed for activation.
Categories associated with dangers and threats are of a special kind. Even at the highest levels of our networks they elicit fear and strong emotional responses. Some have theorized that these labels are necessary for survival and are rooted in a fight or flight response. But regardless of their origins, they seem to have a uniquely loaded nature, heightening our negative reactions once ideas or labels are associated or connected. Another way of looking at this is through the idea of thresholds which are levels of activation necessary for a label to be “fired.” Although many high level concepts require significant thought and reflection to be accessed and understood, categories like danger, fire, or enemy activate more quickly and easily, as soon as a threat is perceived.
Because we exert a great deal of energy to preserve and feel good about ourselves, and our tendency to see the world through our own perspectives, we are likely to assign others to enemy-related categories in the face of conflict. Especially when we are engaging at our lower levels where emotions run high and thresholds low, we are quick to trigger the danger response. Unfortunately, once these labels are triggered, our openness shuts down, in essence turning of the lights and missing out on the other information and details that could lead to other decisions and perspectives.
In addition to danger-based labels, we all have other categories and frames that are easily triggered and activated. Some of us are especially sensitive about our appearance, our families, or some other characteristics that make us feel threatened, vulnerable, or inadequate. We might also bring perceived threats from our childhoods or pasts, situations that made us feel weakened or small, that set up permanent triggers that remain ready to be fired. Once triggered they result in a shutting-down or darkening, mobilizing our resources for self-protection and defense. In this mode little growth and movement can occur. In the next chapter we will explore techniques for guiding ourselves through perceived threats and dangers in order to maximize learning and maintain our movement. But for now we should begin to consider the power of threats and triggers and how they can force us to shut down in the face of perceived danger.
Confronting our Fears
Take a moment to put these tendencies together- too tight; too low; too close; and too dark. It’s not surprising that collectively they elicit negative feelings. In fact these same words could easily be used to describe a torture chamber befitting a horror movie, the idea of being trapped in a tight and dark chamber without room to stretch or breathe. This scenario automatically triggers feelings of vulnerability and helplessness and makes us long to turn on the lights, and escape from danger.
The irony is that when it comes to stuckness, we are all trapped by our own doing. The same systems that allow us to be constrained- the network of interconnected levels, labels, and ideas- will also allow us to move and grow. It is completely our choice to override our pre-programmed tendencies and stretch beyond. I am happy to share some new tools that can help us more fully utilize our systems toward greater movement and growth, if there is an interest. Please reply if you find these types of posts and information useful…..-Mara