Have you ever felt like Marty McFly in that photo where he was gradually disappearing? In that Back to the Future scene, Marty knew he was able to do something about whether he would continue to be erased or not.
Yet, how often have you truly believed that you too can rescue yourself from feeling anymore like a shell of your former self? You have multiple reasons not to believe that you can rescue your formerly strong-willed self. You’ve force-fitted yourself into workplace norms just to survive. There have been those chest-pounding “neighborly” conversations that can spring up in any grocery aisle. Then of course there have been plenty of energy-depleting adult activities like having to suck it up every once in a while during a Zoom meeting.
I get it. The bills have to be paid. However, no one said you had to pay them with your mental health, youthful spirit, quirky personality, or spirit of adventure. It’s been pretty saddening from my end as someone who once coached people into their death sentences. Oops, did I say that? It’s somewhat true in that I shouldn’t have had to sell the idea of bringing your talent to an employer and getting paid damn well so hard. Yet it was. Ultimately, executives already know what personal and professional sacrifices come with getting paid the big bucks. I get why the cynicism exists around finding the perfect job. I’ve seen people pre-corporate and post-corporate.
To put it bluntly…
You enter your career this fun-loving exuberant human with some spunk and eventually become a robot (think: Short Circuit) who could really use some oil. I mean: where did the guy who would sing on stage with a mohawk go? He likely got wrist-slapped so often for whistling at work that he just stopped offering up his wrist and tunes. Who wouldn’t activate this level of self-preservation? Force-fitting yourself into a mold or playing the part is the name of the game.
So here is my take as someone who decided a long time ago to break that mold and knows how to self-generate her own zest for life.
What you are experiencing if you feel like you are a shell of your former self is not languishing as Adam Grant suggested in a New York Times article. He speaks of you who feel “meh.” This is different. I am speaking about those of you who feel like your body has been snatched. You forgot that you once hustled hard as a young entrepreneur who landed a $3M client. You forgot you once loved singing music on a stage as a lead vocalist. You haven’t pitched something you believe in as you once did during your gap year. Many of you felt this way before the pandemic. You told that person to calm down and grow up. However, you may actually need that person again, and here’s why:
Many 40-somethings are acting like they are in the lulls of learned helplessness. I first heard of this concept in a Psych class back in 1997 but I witnessed it at home since I could recall. All of this to say: this has been my subtle nemesis since I began coaching people. Seeing others with the ability to rev up their engines to exceed work expectations not using the same power to preserve their zest for life…that bothers me.
It’s like pouring all of your energy into bending the universe to exceed KPIs yet not having a drop of energy left to even go outside to explore life that could exist outside of your window; the things in life that could add to your own existence and fulfill you.
It’s always baffled me how people who came to me so docile had actually been badass early in life and just could not get back into that identity after a couple of decades working for someone else or following an entrepreneurial setback. I hurt for you so read on to find out how to find that cooler you that you once were.
Let’s begin by understanding learned helplessness and why this concept is personal.
So what is learned helplessness? You know when people talk about weakness in a person by saying: hey, that dude can’t find his way out of a paper bag? Well, learned helplessness is at play if that guy previously tried to get out of the bag, got shocked/experienced pain, and now won’t even try to get out of the bag even if the shock or pain is no longer relevant. Got it?
So is your paper bag your job?
Is your paper bag literally a bag of greasy chips you can’t stop eating?
What’s your paper bag?
Now on how to get out of it…without meds, pouring anything into a glass, nor taking it out on your dog.
Quickly: so why would anyone get irritated by a Psych term? My mom has lived a lot of her life feeling helpless. This is comingled with a mental illness and I witnessed enough as a kid to know how to avoid that learned helplessness trap personally. So here’s an idea I’ve perfected for myself and I can teach you.
My trick has always been to follow my sense of exploration. I’m a damn curious person and it’s served me well. I have figured out how to reactivate my spirit time and time again. The key for me has been to immerse in situations where I had to rely on my imagination to experience and where I relied on my courage to be my real self. These life-giving situations personally for me have been anything from taking a fairy mapmaking class in Sydney to taking a Tiffany lampshade course in NYC or fasting for a day and meditating as if my life depended on it. This approach is perfect for self-starters who want to use this trait to feel hopeful and plugged into life’s possibilities as they once did. Personally, cultivating these experiences even as a mom has kept my skills active, senses engaged and shaken things up. It’s never a one-shot deal exactly like the gym. You’ll need to continuously add gas to your tank. However, here’s my criteria for anyone. Brainstorm situations in which you’ll feel like a fish out of water or a wedding crasher. Pick your favorite metaphor. P.S. these situations are also ones that my podcast guests have inspired. You should tune into Diane Bell or Theo Travers episodes for some last-minute wacky change of plans inspiration. Back to you.
My belief is that you have a toolbox that you can rummage around to find that exact wrench you’ll need to get out of a funk. It may not feel that easy but the reality is that you have just been fed messages to think you need a lavish trip to feel great or a pill to feel nothing. So here are some quick ideas to get you started….try any of these on for size. You may think they are odd but they work!
Walking (Not Just Strolling) – You can take a stroll down the main street and just walk like a human. That’ll work for someone who is boring as hell or you can try this instead. If you are an otorhinolaryngologist close your eyes. Blast music in your earbuds. Imagine yourself dancing in a music video. Flips? Somersaults. You can do both without hands and land like Simone Biles. Your imagination has no gravity. You can be on Mars except with a whole lot of oxygen. Walk faster! If you are a city slicker like myself then play this game. Follow a sidewalk crack and see if you can hold your ground. Chances are other people will move around you. How’s that for seeing how you can regain control over your mood? Playing pranks does not get old. Stop adulting. We all know you are still that 18-year old somewhere inside hence why TikTok is hot…it’s not only 12-years old bugging out on those micro-videos.
Write On A Sidewalk With Chalk – Avoid zoning out. Get in the zone instead. The goal is to shift your focus from distressful emotions to more resourceful ones. Write on the sidewalk. You can write someone else’s quotes or your own. I got this idea from bike lessons with my kids in Sydney, Australia. The bike coach created an obstacle course on the ground for kids learning to navigate the street with their bikes. We adults took this pavement art seriously. We too avoided walking on the fake lakes and kids quarreled over whether to add a secondary pathway to get around. We respected her creation. A second earlier we were riding freely but then we started abiding by these chalk rules.
Pick your poison. Wake up your spirit!
The point in these unexpected activities is to do something that gets others to see you and change their behaviors based on your actions. It’ll be an easy reminder that you do have some control over the outside world. It’s like slapping learned helplessness in the face and doing so in a safe and free way just because you can.
Back to you. You don’t have to just watch yourself disappear like Marty McFly nor do you have to quit your job to relocate to Tulum. It’s just a matter of knowing what you need to wake up the former you. The former “you” has just been exiled to your own personal Siberia for a while. Give yourself the gift of just sending in your troops. Got it? So, don’t just stand there watching yourself disappear. Grab your pick and just start playing your favorite guitar riff. Something will strike the right chord.
I am Melissa Llarena. You can count on me to help you reawaken your spirit. Join me so I can help you explore your curiosities with the creativity (you didn’t realize you still had) and courage (you once relied on) just like you once did when you were 18. Let’s design your own reawakening adventure so that you can reclaim your former high on life self. Sign-up for my weekly newsletter called 18 Again! (TM).