“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives—choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” —Aristotle
You might start out, like I did, in a relatively content place. You enjoy many aspects of your life. Your career is in a good place. You are financially stable and have a well-paying job. You might even be in a relationship that you adore and enjoy. Your family is supportive, caring and nurturing at least some if not all of the time. On all counts, you are successful and content with everything you’ve accomplished up until now. In other words, you’ve made it.
The Wake-Up Call
But for some reason, things aren’t sitting well lately. Restlessness sets in. You feel drained several times throughout the day. Cracks are beginning to appear around your seemingly comfortable life. You realize your rock-solid foundation may not be so rock solid. Your current situation has been what the external world considers successful, but perhaps you forgot about your own satisfaction and fulfillment. You were too busy going for the next thing. Maybe you felt obligated to please others. Maybe material gain was your primary goal, or at least one of your top motivators.
I invite you to take a deep breath—a pause, if you will. Ask yourself, What is going on with me internally and emotionally? Is it matching what is happening externally in my environment? In other words, are you aligned? What does that do for your sense of spirit? Maybe you aren’t feeling as successful as you once used to, or you lack the motivation you once had. It’s what some might call a rut.
As I began to consider my own pause, I realized there were five major signs or clues that screamed, Danger ahead. Proceed with caution. Initially I ignored every one. But each sign served a little more to tell me I needed to change. I needed a pause. If even one of these signs has shown up for you, congratulations! You just received one of life’s perfectly well-timed wake-up calls to assess your own environment and correct your course.
Sign 1: You used to love your job; now you loathe it.
Do you no longer enjoy what you do despite having been excited and invested in your job previously? Does it feel like you are no longer fulfilled by what you do or you’re experiencing burnout? If your responsibilities have not changed but suddenly the perception of your performance at work has deteriorated, clearly something isn’t working. Taking a pause, or intentionally shifting your behavior, is one way you can help yourself enjoy what you do again.
Your not-so-positive career shift could be for any number of reasons. Eventually you experience at least one self-deprecating thought, which might spiral into many more before you know what happened. Thoughts such as, I can’t do this anymore or Why am I so bad at this job? become the new norm and can no longer be ignored.
Does any of this—commonly known as burnout—sound familiar? What causes burnout? When you deprive yourself of emotional and personal nourishment in the present moment, eventually burnout might become a serious side effect.
Physically and emotionally, you feel tired, weak and drained. I am all for working hard, but it needs to be balanced with meeting your deeper hungers—called yearnings—while doing so. Maybe you connect one-on-one with someone and give or ask for a hug. Maybe you spend some time being 100 percent present with a loved one, child or pet. Don’t be afraid to be present emotionally, make mistakes as you experiment and really engage with others. All of this helps to avoid burnout.
Sign 2: Your boss tells you it’s not working out.
There’s nothing like being on the receiving end of this message. In my case, my boss told me she felt like a broken record giving me specific examples, time after time, of where I was failing. We had words about my lackluster performance on several occasions.
Maybe you got a similar message from your supervisor. Many times this message comes with the proverbial pink slip and a personal escort from your desk to the closest exit. But it also might appear as a subtle note in a performance review, a seemingly casual meeting with your boss or feedback from someone who sees (or hears) the writing on the wall.
It is easy to be in denial as I was, when you’re not ready to accept something. Each time my boss offered feedback, I shrugged it off as something only she noticed. Each occasion was a mini problem, and the reality was I wasn’t resolving anything. I rationalized that she couldn’t see all the value I was providing. I was convinced that she simply “was mistaken” and didn’t recognize all the terrific, incredible work and results to which I was contributing. My ego was having a blast feeding me stories. It was a case of “me versus them” and “they” had it all wrong.
Without taking a pause, I would have continued this pattern in any future job—or any area of life, for that matter. Pausing is a gift. When you can shift your behavior, your passions and strengths will emerge and help you align with a more suitable environment for you. If you consciously and objectively look at your situation, your awareness will deepen, and change is more likely to occur. Taking a pause is a prescriptive way to shift your mindset so you can move forward and find where you can thrive. Pausing is an opportunity to shift what isn’t working for you and take personal responsibility, without jumping into the next activity, role or job and repeating your pattern all over again.
Sign 3: An intervention separates you from your work or technology.
Chances are you have access to the internet at some point during the day. You can check updates on Facebook, tweet on Twitter or browse your friends’ photos with abandon. You most likely engage with technology in some aspect for your work or personal life and, like most people nowadays, you might be getting a little too much screen time. In other words, you might need a technology intervention.
Why are you attached to a given device or application? In my case, I realized that I wanted to fulfill my hunger to matter. Someone emailed or messaged me—hooray! Despite my failures on the job, these technology interactions were little signals to me that I did matter. I was placating my feelings through casual connections on social media sites and answering emails.
What I didn’t know then was that I was shortchanging myself. I was using surface-level means to connect and feel plugged-in with others to meet my deeper hungers or yearnings. If you feel the urge to repeatedly check your messages, you might not be attuned to your yearnings. This is when you need an intervention, even if it is a self-directed one.
In their book The Heart of the Fight, Judith Wright, EdD, and Bob Wright, EdD, define yearnings as “adaptive mechanisms that initially developed for our survival.” The Wrights explain how every individual—all 7 billion of us—is hardwired to yearn, and this is what drives us to relate, to bond and to commune with others as well as to develop ourselves. Do you want to be safe? Or be seen? Do you yearn to be loved or to matter? Do you yearn to make a difference? These are a few universal hungers or yearnings.
As humans, we are designed to yearn, and it happens throughout our lifetime. Evolution rewards us: When we follow our yearnings, we get a flood of feel-good neurochemicals in our system. In any given moment, we might have one of five primary emotions: fear, hurt, anger, sadness or joy. Our emotions are directly connected to our yearnings. The more in tune we are with how we feel, the more able we are to express our feelings and fulfill our yearnings.
How many times have you wanted to say something or share how you feel, but decided it wasn’t worth it, or didn’t follow through? Every time you decide it’s not worth it, you are on some level saying you aren’t worth it.
This is why technology interventions are important. When we do not fulfill our yearnings, they surface in other ways, like checking social media to feel connected through technology. If you learn to discern surface wants (let me check my email) from deeper yearnings (I want a hug) in any given moment, you can focus on fulfilling your underlying yearnings and feel more satisfied. Our surface-level actions indicate our deeper yearnings. I’m all for social media, but when you substitute technology to feel more connected, an intervention can help get you back on track.
Where in your life are your yearnings being met, and where aren’t they? If you had to intervene in a specific area of life to follow more yearnings, what would it be? By taking a closer look at where you are or are not meeting your yearnings, you can change your behavior so that you can make choices that lead to greater fulfillment and satisfaction in your life.
Sometimes it is difficult to identify what we yearn for if all we see or think about is on the surface. Pausing is one way you can raise your awareness and align with what your deeper yearnings are. If you’re in need of an intervention, chances are you might be off track. A great way to uncover yearnings is to employ what Bob and Judith Wright call the “so that” test.
Think of something that you want, like a vacation (or a pause). If you apply the I want X so that… format to this desire, you can uncover a new layer.
- I want a vacation so that I can feel less stress.
- I want to feel less stress so that I can relax and snorkel at the beach.
- I want to snorkel at the beach so that I experience the thrill.
- I want to feel the thrill of snorkeling so that I can feel alive.
- I want to feel alive…
- I yearn to feel alive.
What do you yearn for? Are you using a surface action to placate your deeper yearning(s)?
Pausing to identify your yearnings is a great way to shift to align your surface-level actions with your deeper-rooted yearnings. It doesn’t require an intervention; you can pause and identify your yearnings at any time to align with what really matters.
Here are just a few examples of universal yearnings:
- To feel alive (to experience fully, to create, to express, to learn and grow)
- To be secure (to exist, to connect, to trust)
- To be loved (to love, to feel appreciated, to belong, to connect)
- To matter (to be valued, to contribute, to make a difference)
Sign 4: A major life event, challenge or change happens.
Change is inevitable and pausing to assess your options is a prime opportunity to choose wisely. Pausing is one way to allow yourself the space to evaluate your choices and align with what matters to you. It could be driven by your yearnings or what is most important.
The point is, when you allow yourself the time to pause, even if it’s for one breath, you create the opportunity for a new thought, emotion, yearning or behavior to emerge. Pausing or shifting your behavior can have a profound effect on what follows.
Noticing Change in Seven Areas of Life
Ever wondered how one change can create ripples that affect all parts of your life? Alfred Adler is considered one of the top influential thought leaders of modern individual psychology.
Among his many contributions (there are entire schools dedicated to teaching his practices), he created the concept of exploring situations in the main areas of life: work, social and relationships. Bob and Judith Wright expanded on this concept to include seven areas: body, self, family, career, relationships, community and spirituality.
If I were to examine my initial situation and the changes to the different areas of my life that resulted from the intervention, here is what it would look like:
- Situation: I had little to no boundaries at work and felt compelled to prioritize work at all times. When I worked, I felt important.
- Limiting Beliefs: I don’t matter unless I’m working. I am not good enough unless I’m working.
- Yearnings: To matter and feel connected and present with others (versus my devices).
- Action: I could choose when and how to use technology, prioritize my personal relationships and give them full attention whenever possible.
When I took this action, I saw the following changes in these seven main areas of life:
- Body: I felt more relaxed and less stressed. I slept better and my body was rested.
- Self: I was more comfortable knowing that my work felt manageable. I felt my sense of self was developing as I focused on my own satisfaction and how I worked, instead of looking outside of myself for this affirmation.
- Family: I had more time for my family. I prioritized my family. I matter in my family.
- Work/Career: I had specific times to focus on work. I had worked with my manager on what boundaries worked best for me and my team.
- Relationships: I was more present in my personal relationships. I felt happier and more connected.
- Community: I felt more present with others. When I walked down the street, I smiled and said hello.
- Spiritual: I felt more connected to my inner voice. I asked for guidance if I felt compelled to change my boundaries or in one-off situations.
Now think of a situation that you want to change. How do you envision your life differently in each of the above areas? Regardless of what life event or challenge happens, it is an ideal opportunity to recalibrate and pause. You can tune inward and pay attention to your inner voice. Ask yourself, What primary emotion am I feeling in this moment? Too often, the emotional reactions to change are underplayed or glossed over, especially if we think an emotion isn’t good to express. It’s often not the feelings that are the real issue; it’s that we tend to avoid expressing those emotions we’re not comfortable with.
Take inventory of your last 12 to 18 months. Did a significant event happen? Did it affect anyone else in your life? Choose to be in the present moment and express how it has affected you. Let it sink in without rushing off to the activity, event or responsibility. Avoid going through the motions and getting on with life as if nothing had happened. Life is handing you an opportunity to recalibrate. It is a gift. You are a gift. If you have experienced a life change, maybe it’s a gift in disguise or an opportunity to embrace the experience, rather than avoid it, and express yourself.
Once you start to think about any life change as an opportunity or gift, look to understand the deeper meaning and how you can use it as an opportunity to do something different.
Sign 5: A new opportunity reveals itself.
Is there an opportunity you’re thinking about but hesitating to act on, such as taking a big trip, changing careers or starting a project? Life really is short. Why live in the future? A pause allows you to live in the present and make better choices. It is a time to check in with your emotions. Do you primarily feel fear, sadness, joy, anger or hurt when you think about this opportunity? What yearnings are behind your motivation to seize it? You can create a pause to check in on a deeper level and evaluate.
The Obvious, Unmistakable Opportunity
Opportunities can present themselves in irresistible ways. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
- You receive a spontaneous invite for a weekend away with your friends.
- You have a sudden urge to travel somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit.
- You hear from a friend you haven’t heard from in a while who suggests getting together.
You might reflexively respond to any of these scenarios by saying, “I can’t do that!” But quietly you start scheming. You ask yourself, What if?
When you start considering an opportunity, focus on the emotion that accompanies it. Feel it in your body. Often you will instinctively know or feel that it’s the right thing to do. It is what you want to happen to move forward in your life.
The Contemplative Opportunity
Inevitably, doubts arise when things aren’t right at work, at home or in other areas of life. Each one deserves its own quiet time for deeper thought. Perhaps you feel a change stirring. You might need to hear it a few more times, but it’s there and often shows up as a question that crosses your mind:
- Is this the right place for me?
- Is this what I really want?
- What am I doing here?
- Should I be spending time doing this?
- Is this relationship making me happy?
If any of these questions come up for you, it’s likely a sign to look closer at a situation. It’s your wiser self telling you that you aren’t happy in your relationship, you aren’t in the right job or you don’t want to do what you’re doing. This is what I call “the contemplative opportunity.” It doesn’t mean you need to make a drastic change; it means a pause or a change in behavior might help you get clear about your situation.
The High-Risk Opportunity
Time is ticking to make a somewhat risky plan. It sounds like a whisper in your ear: Revisit me. I think you will enjoy this. Spend more time thinking about me. You can ignore it, fear it or forget it. After all, it involves risk. It requires time, courage or money, and you are uncertain you can handle it, let alone succeed.
- What is your high-risk opportunity?
- Is it a lifelong dream or passion of yours?
- What’s the reason you haven’t done it yet?
- Is the fear of failure holding you back?
- Or is it because it’s unfamiliar territory, outside of your comfort zone?
Taking a pause might be what’s needed to find out how serious you are about setting course on a risky idea. By setting aside time to be with your plan, you create space without the distractions of everyday life. A weekend getaway or doing something outside of your routine is the perfect pause to learn more about it. It might be exactly what you need to figure out the first step to get there.
The Pause Paradox
Each one of these opportunities is a paradox. Is taking a pause really meant to be time spent to think? Or is it time to stop thinking so the wisdom and answers have ample room to surface? How often have you stressed out about a specific situation or were stuck in the decision-making process because you couldn’t make up your mind? Overthinking can kill just about everything.
Taking a pause isn’t so you can think more. It’s to do the exact opposite. It’s the perfect excuse to step away from your everyday life and not focus on what is ruling your thoughts. Without the time to step away, you don’t have the opportunity to sit with the idea. Have you rushed into a decision only because you were obsessed with an idea? Would your plan change if you took a five-minute pause instead?
Evaluate Your Signs
Think about your experiences over the last year and whether your outlook, output or surroundings have changed. If you find yourself in any of the above situations, you are a prime candidate for a pause.
Maybe you pause to create some space so that you can figure out what is the best next step for you. By allowing yourself the space and time to pause—and to do it with purpose—you are allowing yourself the freedom to be present. When you are present, you’re in alignment with knowing what is best for you. You are choosing to take action by not taking action. This is your sacred pause with purpose.
Pausing can help you discover who you really are and what you are passionate about because you are present and in alignment with yourself. You aren’t distracted. Rather, you are operating from your own presence and stillness. This can create the space in which to do what matters to you, bringing you more joy in your day-to-day life.
Do you think you are currently present and in alignment with your yearnings? Go one step further. Imagine how other people’s lives are affected by your choices. Are you as present as you would like to be in your personal and professional life? Who else in your sphere of influence would benefit from what you learn by pausing?
Excerpted from Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break by Rachael O’Meara, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Rachael O’Meara.