In my own recent transition, I experienced a tremendous weight of confusion accompanied by paralyzing feelings of stuckness. I knew the place and position I was in needed to change for my own emotional well-being and growth. I was not thriving or utilizing my gifts to the fullest in my current role. When I was able to break out of my limited landscape and gain a bird’s eye view through the help of outsiders, I could see clearly I was developmentally in a growth lock-down! I began to see how restless and stuck I had felt for years. Was I really wiling to admit this? If I stayed where I was, I most certainly would feel the ongoing discontent and likely would stunt any potential growth. If I took a courageous step of faith to explore the unknown, the possibilities were unlimited, risky and uncertain. Change seemed inevitable. Scary. And hard. Yet I was the only one who had the power to shape the trajectory of my future.
It has been said, that a person, similar to a company or an organization, needs to shift focus periodically in order to achieve healthy growth for the long haul. When organizations reach a certain size, they must rethink their strategy for overall effectiveness. When the strategy changes a different skillset in a leader may be required in order to guide the company where it needs to go. This is basic organizational growth knowledge. Yet when it comes to the change that individuals must make, the way forward feels shaky. The recognition of change and the aftermath to come that will most likely affect a greater community outside of ourselves often causes great caution and avoidance.
Change and growth is a natural part of all of creation. I find it fascinating to consider that all living things have an innate measure of adaptation. Without this ability to adapt no species would survive! Yet we are hard-wired to fight it as we find great comfort in the familiar. Here we feel a sense of protection. Moving from the known to the unknown is what our animal instinct fears most.
Moving from the known to the unknown is what our animal instinct fears most.
While I’m drawn into nature and perplexed by the mystery of natural instinct of all living things, no one has ever described me as animal lover. (I say I have my favorites - but too many scar stories to love them all!) Oblige my tangent to offer as an example. During graduate school, I applied to work at the catering department at a zoo. During our first day of orientation a group of about 30 of us all sat around a circle to discuss next steps. I was aware all of us mostly in late 20’s and 30’s were just needing a paycheck. The majority of the work would be service-oriented in the gift shops, restaurants or small vending carts. In reality we all just needed money but the common denominator was really the love of animals - all except maybe me! I quickly learned many had hopes that this would be their big chance to get their foot in the door of animal care. As an ice-breaker we started with going around and answering: “What is your favorite animal at the zoo?” The answers and the speed of which they responded fascinated me. Animals I had never even heard of were mentioned. These were clearly people who loved animals more than me. When it came to my turn, I blurted out, “My favorite animals are people!” Everyone laughed. I was in a league all my own. And yes it was humorous, but truly I couldn’t think of a single animal I was excited to work with more than the humans I would interact with in large catering events! I still got the job - but was probably watched a little more closely as "the animal hater” in the group.
So why am I talking about animals as we discuss change? I find it fascinating to consider the entire animal kingdom’s response to change being more functional as a means to thriving. And quite honestly my love for all God’s creatures grows even just a little greater when I go down this road!
All animals we see have natural habitat needs. “If an animal’s enclosure is too sunny or too wet or too empty, if its perch is too high or too exposed, if the ground is too sandy, if there are too few branches to make a nest, if there is not enough mud to wallow in – then the animal will not be at peace.” In this lack of peace adaptation and the need to make a change is the hardwiring that allows for survival amongst animals. Peace and safety are the ultimate goals and are sought after with primal instinct. Peace is sought after even if it requires extreme risk and change.
As seen in animals that are forced out of their familiar habitat into a new one in the wild, escaping or migrating animals usually hide in the very first place they find that gives them a sense of security. These are considered our basic mammalian needs. Different for humans than for animals, we are given the unique opportunity to self-actualize and consider, to think about and live out our purpose here on earth. We are given a choice to decide our future.
In this lack of peace adaptation is the hardwiring that allows for survival amongst animals.
The comparison of an adaptable animal to that of a human provides insight during periods of vocational shift. As humans our particular “habit needs” are not simply finding a home and food. Although that may be a part of our safety. Our basic needs include physiological “habit needs” at the core. But they also include emotional care as demonstrated in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The most basic, at the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological needs of hunger and thirst, sickness, and fatigue. We see firsthand when we are sick or in physical pain, our bodies require every ounce of attention to that particular part of our body and nearly nothing else matters in life at that point. When these needs are met we’re able to move into caring next about our safety.
To expand the analogy further, Take a look at the example of animals in a zoo versus animals in the wild taken from the book, The Life of Pi .“One might argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second…In the literature can be found legions of examples of animals that could escape but did not, or did and returned.” We are reminded from this example that safety is what all species seek as a very basic need before moving up the metaphorical pyramid of life.
However, safety for humans compared to that of animals must include safety on the more emotional level than that of a primal physical safety. (Although our physical safety is likewise a mandatory minimum.) We were created for intimacy to connect with people on a heart and soul level. Relational connection is our greatest emotional need as humans. This basic knowledge once again leads us to the hierarchy of needs: Yet when unmet we are faced with feelings of isolation and of worthlessness. Might a connection void be a greater risk for us to live with than that of physical safety? People can and do endure great suffering if they know they are not alone.
In the book, Safe People, Dr’s Cloud and Townsend discuss our needs for emotionally safe people. They state that the second greatest theme of relationship after connection is separateness. “Separateness is the ability to maintain spiritual and emotional property lines, called boundaries between you and others. Separate people take responsibility for what is theirs – and they don’t take ownership for what is not theirs”. The opposite of separateness is enmeshment where a person can be swallowed up in the needs of the other or the organization. For those in enmeshed relationships, teams or organizations, individuality provokes a feeling of threat and differences are discouraged. One must ask, “Are my no and my yes respected here with this person, this team or this organization? Am I shamed or made to feel guilty for the decisions I make, especially if they are different or threatening to the overall structure? Or am I empowered to think differently or act with a conviction of integrity even though it may cause unrest?”
Self-differentiation is defined as “a setting apart of oneself as distinct from others (such as one's family or classmates).” The medical definition includes: “differentiation of a structure or tissue due to factors existent in itself and essentially independent of other parts of the developing organism.” It’s in this space of self-differentiation that cause strain, and at times even unhealthy sabotage of growth in relationships.
Self-differentiation as seen between a parent and a teenager, we know as a potential shakey developmental period. The natural developmental cycle of a human would imply that every person will grow and change and need to think on his/her own in order to develop into a healthy adult. Yet the internal struggle persists for the one in authority, whether a parent, a mentor or a supervisor. The message comes mixed, “we want you to grow, but we would rather have you to change in the direction back to the way you were before you differentiated (self-actualized) and became different! We were comfortable with you the way you were before. Ultimately, we were comfortable with who we were.”This same tension seen between parent and child may look similar to a relationship between a worker and an organization when the need for developmental growth space is required. The underlying message: You changing means I also have to change and I am uncomfortable with the presenting need to change in me.
You changing means I also have to change and I am uncomfortable with the presenting need to change in me.
Vocational restlessness includes an awareness of potential “habitat change” and the repercussions for all involved. The discontent comes in many forms as we become aware of our own unique needs, for example: being valued in our daily contributions; given space to create and make decisions on our own; individualization in our work or close collaboration with others. Although these “habitat needs” may be slight, the difference in peace will be great! Like animals, our habitat, or our working environment requires a basic makeup unique to our needs in order for us to thrive.
In this growth cycle, exists the tension of both passion and excitement of possibilities joined together with doubts and feelings of personal insecurities. Does my past disqualify me? Is it true that I am just trying to go my own way, or is this really for my good? Do I really have what it takes to make this step? Here we all require faith to step into the unknown. We are unsure if we have the courage it takes to break out of a habitat that does not allow for us to thrive. It is here that confusion and a sense of stuckness persists if nothing shifts.
Yet if we step out, the peace we are seeking may be actualized. If we stay, most likely it won’t. Our inner voice of restlessness sounds the cry of our interior calling that we must pay attention to. Parker Palmer says it well, “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original self-hood given me at birth by God”. Self-awareness alone is not enough. Many can not hear the voice of reason from within. A safe and supportive community of care supplements where the voices of insecurity compete.
What keeps us from taking the step required to find our deep peace, our unique habitat where we can thrive? The simple answer is that we, like animals, don’t want to leave a safe and familiar environment to move into one of unknown unless we are at risk. It is often the self-limiting insecurities which disempower us from making these changes. It is a risk to step into the unknown. But the risk has the potential to open a whole new environment not just to survive, but to thrive.
And while I’m still fascinated by humans more than animals, I find it remarkable to compare the great correlations all of creation shares in common.
Questions: What keeps you from taking the next step required to find a place where you can thrive? What change is on my horizon that I am struggling to make? What help do I need to process these changes? What can I envision the future on the other side of these changes to look like?
Resources: Merriam Webster online, Life of Pi, Parker Palmer, Safe People, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need