I spent 18 years in corporate life that had some great high points, but also a number of very significant challenges that turned into full-blown crises. These serious crises included sexual harassment, gender discrimination, chronic illness, narcissistic bosses, financial hardship, toxic colleagues, unethical leadership and more.
When I look back now, I see that my entire corporate career was riddled with repeating challenges that were not, in fact, random. I didn’t understand why at the time, but the truth is that these crises seemed to follow me wherever I went, no matter the job. I’d ask myself, “How can this be happening again? Why do I continue to have terribly challenging leaders, bosses and work cultures?”
After a brutal layoff in the days following 9/11, I reinvented my career, and became a marriage and family therapist, and later, a women’s career and leadership coach and writer. I began to research extensively — both quantitatively and qualitatively — the full array of challenges I was seeing in front of me that were, in fact, serious professional crises that women face regularly. I felt compelled to understand more about why women are experiencing these crises so frequently, and how to bring new, effective solutions to the table.
In 2007, as I was doing research for my book Breakdown, Breakthrough, the findings indicated that 7 out of 10 women studied were experiencing at least one of the 12 hidden crises I’d identified, and on average, they were experiencing 3 at the same time. Eleven years later, in the work I do with women now, the surveys my clients have filled out reveal that needle on these crises has not yet moved.
In earning a master’s degree in therapy, my eyes were opened about what we’re really going through when we experience these chronic, repeated challenges. I learned how our personalities are formed in childhood, and the ways in which we learn to cope with stress and pain are often not healthy or productive. I learned too about how self-confidence and self-esteem and our ability to advocate for ourselves can be crushed by family and cultural programming, especially when parents and authority figures don’t understand how to raise and nurture children effectively so that they can live self-reliant, independent lives based on their own authentic values and ideas.
And I learned this: The chronic challenges we face as professionals are most often not random, and not about our “careers.”
If your serious challenges (or more aptly put, “crises”) repeat over and over again, no matter what job, career or relationship you pursue, or what employer you sign on with, then the problem is most likely not the situation itself but how you are seeing yourself and operating in the world, and what you expect for your life and believe you deserve. And it’s your boundaries as well, and what you find acceptable and tolerable.
The reality is that you are, unconsciously, co-creating and contributing to the perpetuation of these problems in your life.
When I say this, I am not (as a few women have accused me of) “victim blaming” or blaming the sufferer. I’ve suffered terribly myself through these crises, and know firsthand that there are a great many outside factors and influences that perpetuate the pain and mistreatment women experience.
I’m a proponent of helping people rise above a victim mentality, and learn to claim their power so they can shift what’s happening to and around them. If we don’t take – and leverage – that power, we abdicate authority over our own lives.
How do we address these challenges so they never repeat again?
It’s a journey (sometimes a lifelong one) that takes time and effort, not a quick-fix, but there are key steps you can take today to stop in your tracks, understand what’s happening for what it really is, and take empowered action to change it
The first essential step is to assess if what you’re experiencing is a chronic crisis or just a rough patch. In other words, is it an incident or an issue?
People will tolerate the intolerable for far too long in their lives, often because they can’t discern if what they’re facing is just a hard time or a true crisis.
Below are the 12 most common crises thousands of working women (and many men) face today that are often misunderstood as just temporary situations when they’re not, along with what you need to look more closely at to begin to resolve this challenge. These crises fall under four key categories: empowerment with self, others, the world and what I call your “higher” self.
The top 12 professional crises:
Empowerment with Self:
#1: Suffering from chronic health problems that won’t abate: Failing health — a chronic illness or ailment — that won’t respond to treatment
Look closely at: What is your body saying that your lips cannot?
This may not seem like a “professional” crisis, but it is. For instance, I experienced four years of chronic, serious infections of my trachea which doctors simply couldn’t understand or help. But from the minute I was laid off from my toxic VP role after 9/11, the infections vanished. They simply disappeared. Why? Because I had spent years not speaking up for myself or saying what needed to be said, and was so exhausted and stressed every day that my body was trying to communicate what my lips couldn’t.
#2: Experiencing a loss you can’t recover from: Losing a position, role, relationship, loved one or facing another loss or setback which you can’t overcome.
Look closely at: What parts of yourself or your life experience are you grieving the loss of?
When we lose something that fed our self-esteem, such as a job or a relationship, it often devastates us in a way that we don’t recover from. And that’s because we’ve overly-identified with that one thing that gave us self-esteem. In other words, we lost parts of ourselves that we now need to regain.
#3: Failing yourself, and losing your own self-respect and self-acceptance: Chronically behaving in ways that make you feel ashamed of or let down by yourself
Look closely at: Where exactly have you given up your power in life, work and relationships, and how are you behaving that is beneath you, and hurting yourself and others?
If you look at how you’re behaving both personally and professionally, and don’t like or respect who you are any longer, it’s not about your job or career. It’s about how you’re operating in the world.
Empowerment with Others:
#4: Failing to speak up and stand up powerfully for yourself: Contending with a crippling inability to speak up — unable to be an advocate for yourself or others, for fear of criticism, rejection, or punishment
Look closely at: Where you learned (most likely in childhood) that it wasn’t safe to speak up for yourself, and defend what you need, want and believe.
An inability to speak bravely for what you need and want is a problem I work with clients on literally every single day of the week. If we can’t communicate what we need in a powerful way, we’ll lose more than just opportunities. We’ll lose everything that makes us who we are.
#5: Facing repeated abuse or mistreatment: Being treated badly, even intolerably, at work — and choosing to stay
Look closely at: How old is this issue of being manipulated or mistreated, and what are you afraid of losing if you leave?
If you were manipulated in childhood by parents who gave you only conditional love and demanded that you be a certain type of person to be loved (especially if you had narcissistic or emotionally manipulative parents, teachers and authority figures), you need outside therapeutic help to support you to heal and thrive beyond those crushing lessons that this manipulation taught you.
#6: Getting crushed by unrelenting competition: Feeling like no matter what you do it isn’t enough, and you’re sick to death of trying to prove your worth
Look closely at: Why “winning at all costs” has become a regular part of how you’re living and working, and what the true costs of that approach have been in your life.
If you can’t feel any level of comfort or joy at being collaborative, inclusive, or accepting – and feel you always have to be “on top” — it’s time to explore if at the root, you simply don’t feel good enough and where that came from.
Empowerment with the World:
#7: Feeling trapped by financial fears: Remaining in a negative situation solely because of fear of money
Look closely at: How you’re relating to money, and what your money story is and has been.
It’s astounding how many people will stay in demoralizing and unsatisfactory conditions simply because they’re too afraid to take even one small step to explore improving their situation, because of their intractable money fears.
#8: Wasting your real talents: Realizing your work no longer fits and desperately wanting to use your natural talents and abilities differently
Look closely at: Why you believe that you’ll go broke or destroy your life if you pursue a new direction where you can leverage your real talents.
I’d be very wealthy if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen, read or heard people saying that to pursue a new, more fulfilling direction will make them go broke and lose everything. It’s simply not true, if you pursue career change in the smartest, more effective way possible.
#9: Longing to be of help in the world, but feeling your job won’t allow it: Knowing in your heart that you’re meant to do something meaningful and purposeful that helps others, but not seeing any way to make that happen
Look closely at: What do you think it takes to impact the world? Do you assume it has to require tremendous ability, money, or time? Can you reframe that (as so many others have) that you can start making a small impact in the world with tiny, powerful actions that are doable in your life, one step at a time?
We can make a difference in the world in many ways, perhaps through our work, but also through our volunteering, hobbies, or contributing our time and effort to a cause that matters. Where can you be of use to the world today?
Empowerment with your higher self:
#10: Everything is falling apart all at once: Experiencing pain, hardship and suffering in not just one domain of your life but in many, and it’s extremely hard to manage all the struggle in a functional way.
Look closely at: The degree to which you are and have always been connected to struggle, and in some ways feel more “comfortable” in struggle than in ease, and where that connection came from.
I’ve worked with hundreds of professionals and leaders over the years who seem to be more “comfortable” when things are hard, painful and chaotic. When life eases up, they sabotage it because easy and joyful seem somehow “wrong.” Until you can get to the bottom of why struggle and pain feel better for you, and can let go of your need for it, struggle will be a regular part of your life experience.
#11: Striving unsuccessfully to balance life and work: Trying — and failing — to balance it all, and feeling like you’re letting down everyone and everything that matters most
Look closely at: What are your top life priorities, and how comfortable are you to honor those fiercely and confidently, starting today?
I’m a mother with two grown children now, and I’ve lived what so many parents have experienced – the deep challenge of striving to be the parent or caregiver they dream to be, while simultaneously making a significant impact in their professional lives. I’ve found too in coaching women who need and want more balance and control, that it’s all about identifying with eyes wide open your highest priorities in life, then mustering the boundaries, bravery and determination to pursue those priorities without hesitation and regret.
#12: Doing work you hate: Longing to reconnect with the “real you”—and do work you love
Look closely at: Why you believe there are no feasible ways to shift your professional life to a direction that will be more fulfilling and rewarding for you.
Your career is within your control, but so many people today have abdicated their own control and power, staying stuck for years or even a lifetime in work that demoralizes them.
If you’re facing any of these crises, have hope. Thousands of people have engaged in the internal and external work to shift out of these crises, and dramatically improved their lives and careers. There’s no reason why you can’t be one of them.
For hands-on help from Kathy to “find brave” and improve your life and career, read her book Breakdown, Breakthrough, work with her in her programs and Amazing Career Project course, and download her free Career Path Self Assessment.