How to shake up “soul numbing” as a result of long-term cube exposure

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numbAfter 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!

12 Responses to “How to shake up “soul numbing” as a result of long-term cube exposure”

  1. Another great way is to find a hobby or outside pursuit that feeds your soul. Leave the damn cube on time at night and go do what you dream – paint, a dance class, visit museums, play ball, whatever it is that makes YOU feel alive (even if it seems silly for a grown person to do whatever it is you want to be doing). It’ll spark your soul and make even the cubicle feel a bit better.

  2. D351 says:

    I find the similarities between cubicle life and minimum (and near minimum) wage life quite abundant and disturbing.

    -D351, A Gas Station Cashier

  3. Keith Handy says:

    “a gross over-simplifications” <-- this is what happens when I over-edit. You get the idea though. 🙂

  4. Keith Handy says:

    Barbara: you make a great point, though I guess calling them “intellectual” and “emotional” selves is probably a gross over-simplifications, since there are emotional *and* intellectual bases to both sides of the “should I stay or should I go” dilemma. When Pam says intellectual, it would probably be more accurate to say “rationalizing”, i.e. starting with a conclusion first (“must stay at job”) and then coming up with reasons to support it. I think what held me back were both emotional and intellectual: fear (emotional), and not having a plan yet (intellectual). Fortunately, I got essentially “squeezed out” of the company when things were at their most unbearable, and now have a few months to think things out in peace.

  5. Hi Pam,

    I disagree with the physical vs. emotional breakdown you use in the post. I believe it’s the reverse, especially in people who are actually conscious of wanting to get out.

    The intellectual self says, “This place is really dysfunctional. In fact, I understand exactly how my nutty coworker triggers my old reaction to my mom, and I’m really not interested in going there.” It’s the emotional self that buys into the irrational fears, “Maybe she’s right about me.”

    The intellectual self is thrilled and engaged by the puzzle of creating the new business or searching for the new job. The possibility of failure is part of the game, and, hey, no job is secure anyway. The emotional self wonders, “Am I a loser? Am I doomed?”

    The emotional self masquerades as the intellectual self when it’s playing dirty! Often a person who is barely making ends meet, has no retirement funds, and is rapidly deteriorating physically, mentally, and socially justifies staying put as the “responsible” thing to do. That is far from rational, as it doesn’t stand up to analysis. Such a person has very little to lose.

    Hi Barbara!

    Thanks for weighing in, and for disagreeing! 🙂

    What I was really referring to when discussing the “emotional” and “rational” selves are what my mentor Martha Beck talks about in her “Finding Your Own North Star” book as the “essential” and “social” selves. The essential self expresses our true wishes and desires through our body. When we are in a very miserable situation, our body is tense, blood pressure high, etc. When we are in a good situation, we are relaxed and at ease. This is why the body is the best “compass” at deciphering what the brain tells us.

    I totally agree that the emotions of fear are what keep us in situations that are not best for us. But I would argue that it is the rational part of our brain that comes up with clever arguments to support the fears, instead of our raw emotions which, if given permission, would run screaming for the hills.

    That’s just my take — and I like yours too.


  6. Kris says:

    Oh yes, the guilt! Thank you for addressing that.

    I find myself being crippled by guilt…”I should be grateful I have this job…a lot of people would be thrilled with this job…a lot of people in the world have it a lot worse…some people even work in coal mines…if I can just hang in there until 55 (I’m 35 now, what’s 20 years?) I’ll get a nice little pension (enough to buy some day old bread), let’s hope I don’t get hit by a bus at 54, that would be a drag”.

  7. Beth says:

    Hi Pam,

    These comments point to interesting aspects of changing ‘systems’, for lack of a better word. I mean the system we are raised in, the socio-cultural programming we absorbe from our parents, teachers, and other authorities.

    Some of these values, beliefs and/or perspectives are no longer valid for 21st century economy yet they are still perpetuated.

    I highly recommend reading Richard Kiyosaki’s books. NOT to become a billionaire in 2 weeks. But to expand your consciousness regarding money and life. Kiyosaki describes people as being in one of four possible ‘quadrants.’

    Which ‘quadrant’ you’d be in depends upon how you view money, earning money, making a living, and so on. Very stimulating ideas. I first read ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’ in 2003 and I’ve never thought about money in the same way since.

  8. Neil says:

    Fantastic article! It covers the things I think about daily lately. Here’s the point that causes me the most anxiety:
    “…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)”

    I fantasize almost daily about quitting my job and figuring out the next step afterwards. I really enjoy the fantasy, but then feel dread when I think about actually doing it. I tell myself I’m just a daydreamer and that I’ll get stuck and end up finding another job that is exactly the same. I imagine myself running out of money, or trying new things that fail and embarrass myself. Dread.

    Anyway, happy happy, joy joy. I’m sure something will come along…

  9. I definitely relate to the feeling guilty bit. It’s hard to realize that you’re in a bad working relationship that you have control over. Taking the first step is hard, but worth it! Great tips, thank you for the reminder.

  10. Rick Cooper says:

    I actually enjoyed my life in the corporate world. I “lived” in a cubicle for over a dozen years and enjoyed the teamwork and interaction with my employees and coworkers. I wasn’t much of a fan of corporate politics though.

    I launched my own company, The PDA Pro, four years ago and for anyone ready to make the leap, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Everyday, I have to step outside my comfort zone and take action to move my business forward. I make the decisions and bear the consequences when things go wrong.

    Few companies grow to the point of being sustainable long term. Read Michael Gerber’s book The E-Myth Revisited for tips on how to succeed long term.

    I admire anyone who launches their own business. Seek the support of mentors and coaches, but remember that you always have to make the final decision. Build relationships with alliance partners and create a support team. And get a Virtual Assistant; it’s well worth the money.

    While I don’t feel I had lost my true self during my cubicle days, I have grown in so many ways since I launched my own business. I have discovered new passions and I’m playing a much bigger game. There are many risks, but also many rewards.

    Learn, grow and persist. And take action constantly! As Nike’s tagline goes, “Just Do It!”

  11. Keith Handy says:

    This was a great post… the interesting thing is, when I started to reconnect to my “true self” while at work, even though I wasn’t expressing it so much outwardly as allowing myself to communicate with it internally and perceive the cubicle world as a mirage or a game, this was part of a natural “death of a cog” process that led to me losing the job. That sounds bad, but it was a profound and spiritual experience.

    The “true self” isn’t some irresponsible brat that wants us to eat Oreos and watch TV all day long; when we think of the true self in such a condescending way, that it’s impractical and “dangerous”, and that we have to suppress it for some greater purpose — that’s the kind of thinking that causes us to be stuck at our dead end jobs. Prolonging an unhappy situation is not a greater purpose. It’s clinging to a fantasy that your workplace will eventually improve if you just hang in there, and it won’t.

    By the way, the “intellectual” part of us isn’t bad, it just needs to humbly admit that it only has half the picture. 🙂 The intellect and the soul need to work *together*.

  12. Wow, what a great post Pam!

    I remember one of your early-on podcasts you did where you recommended keeping a journal for a month, and recording the news stories, articles, music, movies, and even events that make you feel happy and creative, and I did that! It helped so much with figuring out what I enjoy and what I’d prefer to do with my career! Need to keep giving my creative soul more time than my intellectual soul! =)