Those two words -- stop struggling -- are in the top 10 of all the advice I've received in my lifetime.
I was at a leadership retreat in California. Mid-day, day 4, in conversation with Alan, another attendee, I was relating my frustrations with work, relationships, friendships. Everything. I kept saying it, over and over: I'm struggling with this, I'm struggling with that, I'm struggling, I'm struggling. Then Alan gestured in my direction in a way that indicated he had pressed the pause button. I stopped my rant and looked at him intently. Then he reached out and put his hand on my arm, and asked, "What if you stopped?"
"Stopped what?" I replied. "Stop struggling," he said.
In that moment I realized the thought had never occurred to me. Or that it could be that easy.
I saw a video on social media where a kid was screaming and splashing around in a swimming pool as if he was drowning. His mom was nearby telling him to calm down, but he was too busy yelling to listen. Frustrated, she shouted, "Put your feet down." He did -- surprised to find that when he stood, the water was at his knees.
I related to that boy. I stopped struggling and found the waterline was lower than I thought. My problems were solvable.
I also recognized that I was attached to the struggle. My identity -- the way I thought about myself -- was wrapped up in it like kid in a blanket. My struggle defined me and I didn't know who I was without it.
I once worked with an executive leader who self-identified as a person who loved to challenge everything. In and of itself, that doesn't sound like such a bad thing. After all, change starts with a challenge -- a challenge to the old way of thinking, being, or doing. The challenge is a necessary part of transformation. Struggling through something isn't inherently bad, either, if we are talking about building new skills or developing character. But that's not the struggling I was doing. I was raging against everything, wishing people or situations were different, grasping for control. This executive was using challenge as a sword, as well as a shield. He used challenge to level the playing field and to protect himself, seeking to get control over his situation. He didn't recognize the struggle in his actions right away -- or the unintended (and negative) impact it was having on those he worked with.
When you're struggling, you are focused on what is not instead of what is. And the irony? You get more of what you focus on.
If everything is a struggle, then everything is a struggle. If everything is a challenge, then everything is a challenge. Want something other than the struggle? Stop struggling.
When you stop struggling, you can tune into your inner voice -- the nice, optimistic one that believes in you. When you're struggling, for some reason the "ego" voice -- the one that is scared for you, and disguises that fear in words that sound like protection and safety -- that's the voice that is loud and clear. But the quiet voice is the one with the good answers. It knows your heart. Stillness is its playground. It's like that one relative who won't speak until everyone else is quiet. My grandfather was like that. He didn't interrupt; instead, he waited until we were ready to listen. That's how your quiet voice operates. It's not that it has nothing to say; it's waiting for you to tune in -- like tuning in to a radio station, except you're the only one who can listen to your quiet voice at your specific frequency.
I'm proud to say I heeded Alan's advice and decided to stop struggling. In the quiet, I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted, and I made some big life decisions. I also got some help. I hired a coach to help me clarify my thinking and work through the impact of my new choices. Slowing down required practice -- like building a new muscle. I learned to recognize "struggle" as a sign that I have something inside of me that needs healing or strengthening -- a gap in my relationship with myself.
I haven't seen or talked to Alan since the end of that retreat, but his words stuck with me. There was another phrase that stuck with me from that retreat -- something our ropes course instructor said: "If you can't feel your feet, wiggle your toes." That's a story for another day.
Who would you be without your struggle? How have you made your struggle your purpose? What value do you get from the struggle? What are you avoiding? Are you done yet?
photo used with permission, 123rf.com