“If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?” – William Somerset Maugham
I know a lawyer who worked very hard at his law firm and would complain about the amount of time that was required of him. He worked such long hours that some nights he would sleep under his desk, avoiding a lengthy commute home, figuring he would need to get up in a few hours anyway to head right back to the office to start the next workday. He made a change to another law firm in the hopes that he would have more reasonable working hours, but within a few months he was back to sleeping under his desk. As time went on, he made the decision to avoid traditional law firm practice altogether and join a company with regular work hours instead. Within three months of working for the new company, guess what happened? He was back to sleeping under his desk and complaining about the amount of work his company demanded of him.
My friend Jennifer has been married three times. She left her first husband because he was too angry. She left her second husband because he was too passive. She is currently married to her third husband, but contemplating divorce again because she feels he doesn’t contribute enough to the marriage financially. She is frustrated by her inability to find a husband who is a fit.
Dave is a really nice guy who complains that every woman he dates only wants him for his money. Date after date, whoever he is attracted to isn’t interested in seeing him again. Those women who do want to see him again are the ones who seem preoccupied with his financial status. He doesn’t want to feel taken advantage of and is losing hope about finding a long term relationship.
Why did the lawyer wind up sleeping under his desk no matter which work environment he was in – over and over again? Why does Jennifer seem to wind up wanting to divorce every man she marries? Why was Dave unable to find a woman interested in him for something other than his money – date after date?
If the lawyer friend steps back and looks at his situation he may realize that there are plenty of law firms where no lawyers sleep under their desks. If my friend Jennifer steps back and looks at her situation she may notice that there are people who have all sorts of human foibles but who are still able to sustain happy marriages. If Dave observes lots of different women, he will see many who are in relationships for reasons other than the financial status of their partners. So, why do each of these three people stay locked in a recurring pattern that is unsatisfactory and frustrating to them? They certainly do not do it on purpose.
When you are caught in a recurring pattern, your life is not trying to punish you, but trying to alert you to a belief that you hold that does not serve your highest good. Until you identify and change your belief, your life will continue to present you with the same circumstances, over and over again. After all, the common denominator in every recurring pattern in your life is YOU.
If I would have mentioned to the lawyer that he was the common denominator in each of his three employment situations, he may have felt I was kicking him when he was already down. He was frustrated, bewildered and exhausted to find himself in the same situation he had been in three months before. On top of it, he had changed jobs already and changing again wouldn’t look very good on the resume. However, the message that his own beliefs are the problem is meant to empower him. You see, if he is the problem, than he is also the solution. The only person he has to change is himself – not his coworkers, his boss or his industry – in order to get out of the pattern of feeling constant pressure to be a workaholic. So, what belief might be at work – literally – for him?
It could be that the lawyer’s employers really did expect him to sleep under his desk. Or, it could be that the compulsion to sleep under his desk is coming from the lawyer and that his employers did not expect – or even know about – his sleeping under his desk. Regardless of which scenario is reality does not change the fact that the lawyer is still his own solution.
What if all three of his employers really did expect employees to sleep under their desks? If this is the case, the lawyer could have poor judgment in picking a work environment that embraced a work-life balance. He may have missed the signals in the interview that told him the new work environment was going to be just like the last one. Perhaps he was so anxious to get out of the last job that he heard what he wanted during the interview process for the new job.
Perhaps the lawyer has a poor attitude when it comes to choosing a work environment, believing that everyplace is a sweat shop and there is no way to avoid it. If that is what he believes – then that is what he will find.
What if workaholic environments are something that only he perceives? Perhaps he feels very driven to be the best at whatever he does and he rates “the best” by the number of hours worked, or the amount of work completed. Perhaps he ties his self-worth too close to his work and so feels most safe when working – even if it means working extremely late and early hours. Perhaps he grew up in an environment where whatever he did was never enough and he assumes his employers, boss and coworkers have the same attitude and he is working overtime to prevent any possibility that they will be dissatisfied with him.
These are the beliefs that the lawyer must consider and see if any of these ring true for him. Then, he can ask himself if these beliefs are serving him well – or not. He may need to learn to pick up on clues during interviews so he does not choose a new employer that embraces a workaholic environment. He may need to endure a dissatisfying work environment for longer than he’s used to in order to take the time to find the right fit for the long-term, not just the short-term. He may need to reconsider his attitude about work in general and recognize that there is such a thing as work-life balance in many firms, in order to find them and pursue them. He may need to redefine his own self-worth as something outside of his work in order to lessen his compulsion to put all of his life’s energy in one direction. He may need to learn to feel satisfaction from within, therefore lessening his need to please everyone around him and gain approval. Once he changes himself on the inside, his outside world will slowly begin to change as well. And yes, this may mean finding another job, but only after he has honed his skills in picking the right one.
My friend Jennifer also needs to look at her beliefs and patterns. Even if her first husband really was angry and her second husband really was passive and her third husband really didn’t contribute financially, Jennifer is still the common denominator among all three marriages. She is both the root of the problem – and the solution to the problem. As long as she places the blame of her multiple marriages on to her husbands, instead of asking herself, “What part of myself do I have to shift?” her pattern of marriages and divorces will continue.
When I mentioned this, her reaction was, “But I had to divorce my first husband! His anger was scary!” She was absolutely right. Her first husband really had anger issues and Jennifer was perfectly reasonable to feel unsafe around him. However, Jennifer’s patterns were still at work in getting her into a marriage with such a person in the first place. First, Jennifer had an intense fear of living alone. Getting married was her way of finding a permanent solution to this problem. However, it also resulted in her getting married too quickly, so she failed to realize that her first husband’s anger issues really were the deal breaker kind that warranted a divorce.
Jennifer also defined “success” as being married. She felt confident and viable when introducing the latest very impressive husband to friends and relatives and admitted she felt worthless walking into a room without a husband on her arm. This again caused her to marry too quickly before spending time alone to get to know herself – and her partner.
Finally, she had a pretty intense case of perfectionism, which meant after any initial attraction, she began to see only the flaws in her husbands – and none of their positive traits. While she could only see the financial status of her third husband, she failed to see that he also had enormous patience, was very loving to her and was a wonderful father. Had she seen these traits – in addition to the problems of his finances – divorce would not have been a consideration. Instead, she would be part of any normal marriage, none of which are perfect and all of which have their problems that can be worked on and solved.
Jennifer’s solution? She could work on becoming a more independent person so she is not afraid to live alone. She can redefine her notion of success to incorporate accomplishments in addition to marriage and further refine it to include a solid marriage, rather than any marriage. She could also work on being more compassionate toward herself and others, so that her perfectionism is kept in check and she sees and enjoys all of the positive traits of her husband, thereby lessening her focus on his negative traits.
Dave took a look at his beliefs to see what may be preventing him from attracting those women who interested him. He realized that a lot of his time and energy was spent in the financial part of his life. He also noticed that on his online dating profile he led with his financial status, rather than his other attractive qualities. Is it any wonder that those women looking to be supported by someone else were responding favorably? However financially independent women may be turned off by Dave’s profile, which may seem to espouse traditional gender roles. If Dave views his financial success as a basis of his self-worth, he may feel that he doesn’t have anything to offer to a partner who is financially independent. To shift out of this recurring pattern, Dave can redefine his self-worth to prioritize his excellent communication skills, kindness and generosity – qualities that all sorts of women are attracted to.
Each of us can look at our lives and see where we have repeated the same pattern over and over again. It can take years to notice those patterns and yet, being further along in life and realizing such an unwanted pattern can feel extremely deflating. We may feel that we are caught in a hopeless cycle that we can’t seem to get out of and that perhaps we are too old to learn new patterns or start over. Nothing could be further from the truth. The uncovering of these patterns are our best learning opportunities and are the key to shifting our lives to more of what we have always wanted.
Life may not be as complicated as you think. Dropping your pride and asking yourself what underlying beliefs, behaviors or habits of yours that may be perpetuating frustrating patterns can provide the biggest shift you’ve been waiting for.