After reading some of the comments on my last post, “If you are stuck in a cube and dying to get out, how does it specifically feel?” I was compelled to write about a common phenomenon I encounter in some of my clients: soul numbing.
Barbara caught my attention with her grisly but powerful description of life in a cube:
“I felt as if the blood was being siphoned out of my body. Not enough to put me out of my misery, just enough to take away my will to live!”
This is such a common feeling that I sometimes wonder if cube furniture comes with a strange chemical pheromone that actually draws your life force out of you. Maybe it is activated by fluorescent lights?
Whatever it is, I know from first-hand experience as a consultant in hundreds of corporate environments that some long-time employees, who by their nature were never meant to fit into corporate life, develop a serious rift between their emotional and intellectual selves. This manifests in:
- Not being able to identify what makes them happy
- A feeling of numbness and emptiness
- A feeling of burning rage
- A feeling of powerlessness and loss of self
- A sense of loneliness and loss of direction
Richard’s comment sums it up nicely:
“I feel as if I don’t have a soul anymore. I feel like I am mostly machine and all traces of humanity have been sucked out of me. As my wife says “You used to be fun, but now you suck!”
Why does this happen?
As humans, we are made with both emotional urges and rational thoughts. Our emotional self, which resides in the realm of our physical body:
- Wants to speak the truth
- Wants to be creative and playful
- Seeks out pleasure and comfort
- Is stimulated by beauty
- Recoils from unhealthy relationships
Our intellectual self, which resides in the ether between our ears:
- Is influenced by ideas
- Wants to appear rational and reasonable, not emotional
- Can “suck it up” and bear tremendous emotional and physical pain
- Thinks about the long-term consequences of actions (like ending up homeless and on the street if you quit your job with no next step)
- Is very influenced by what is “right” and “responsible”
In order to make it through modern day corporate life, you have to quash your emotional desires in order to survive. The intellectual self reins supreme. The reality is, we are not meant to sit in meetings for hours and hours, hashing out technical details that everyone knows will be changed next week anyway. We want to run from unhealthy relationships, but when our boss (who we often did not choose to work for) is a manipulative and political person, we choke down our feelings and stay in the unhealthy relationship for fear of backlash to our annual review or bonus. And when our job responsibilities call for us to perform a task that we find meaningless and trivial, we choke down our urge say “that is absurd, and I won’t spend my valuable time that way!” and do it anyway, in order to be responsible and a “team player.”
There is nothing wrong with being responsible. It is just that if you continually repress your natural desires, you will find yourself in a permanent “living dead” state, so used to choking down your emotions that you can no longer access them.
What can you do to shake up your numb soul?
- Do not beat yourself up for feeling this way. Many people feel lots of guilt for complaining about a steady job, good paycheck and honest living. You should be thankful to have a paycheck that sustains you and your family, but don’t confuse this with accepting that this job is the right fit for your creative soul. I wrote about how the wrong job feels like an ill-fitting shoe a couple of months back.
- Begin to reconnect your emotional and intellectual selves by exposing yourself to creative environments or activities. Remember that your emotional self craves truth and beauty, so look for ways to express both. Nature is great for waking up the emotional self, as is music, art and really sensuous food.
- Track your thoughts in a journal or online diary. Pay attention to what excites or inspires you in any part of your day … what you read online, in books, or in conversations. Martha Beck talks about the “urge to merge” in her excellent book Finding Your Own North Star. This is a powerful feeling of attraction to people or things which gets your heart racing and your emotions bubbling. Who are you naturally drawn to? What ideas get your inner fire going? And by “merging,” I am not referring to simple animal lust, although paying attention to the type of person that you are physically attracted to will help you understand yourself. Often, they exhibit characteristics that you crave in your life such as strength, spirituality, creativity or humor.
- Keep close tabs on your “inner meanie” voice. As you brainstorm areas of interest and business ideas, the voice inside which has been shaped by your corporate life, parents, religion, and the media will say things like “you will never make money at that!” or “only granola eating liberals want to write poetry!” These voices are extremely unhelpful at the initial stages of brainstorming. If you find yourself blocked by such thoughts, turn to them in your gentlest of voices and say “thanks for sharing sweetie – I appreciate the thought!” and keep moving forward. Whatever you do, do NOT bow to their judgment and authority, since in reality they are weak and are only projecting your fears.
- Rest. Sometimes, what your emotional self wants most is to snuggle under the covers and take a long nap. It is tiring to repress yourself for so long, so you may need to do a bit of temporary hibernating in order to figure out what moves you.
- Surround yourself with supportive people. Your bitter, repressed cube mate may not be the best person to confide in if she is stuck in the complaining stage and not ready to take action. In fact, many people who finally do work up the courage to leave the cube are surprised by the negative reaction of former colleagues. You may think they would be happy for you, but many feel resentful that you actually made the step while they are still unhappily slogging away. You may find more support from an enthusiastic software developer in Prague that you meet through an online forum than your next door neighbor who you have known for years.
- Make time for the creative journey. If you really want to figure out what moves you, you need to devote time and energy to the pursuit. If you allow yourself 13 hours a day to check email and create PowerPoint slides and 7 1/2 minutes to think about your creative soul while you are using the restroom, guess which side will win? Take some time off from work, cut back on non-essential obligations and make figuring out the next stage of your life a priority. You will not regret it!