Seven years ago, I had exactly what I always wanted for my professional life. And I was miserable.
After years of graduate school and training, I’d done it—I’d been granted a license to practice clinical social work. I now had the credentials and experience to land what I thought was the perfect job. All of my peers applied for this position, and I received a lot of jealous side-eyes and faux smiles from friends and colleagues when I got it.
I had stability, a great paycheck, and best of all, I was employed as a legitimate, practicing therapist. Life goal—check.
So you can imagine my shock and disillusionment when, after six months in this theoretically amazing job, I was burned out, depressed, and unhappy. Although I loved working with my clients, the organizational culture within my company was in shambles, meeting all the criteria of a toxic work environment. I felt isolated and alone, and spent way too much time surfing the Internet and numbing out.
I didn’t understand how I could possibly feel so unhappy after I’d worked so hard to get exactly what I wanted.
I blamed myself, deciding I was ungrateful, selfish, and the poster child of entitlement. Poor little Lee. She got exactly what she wanted, and it’s still not enough. Talk about #firstworldproblems. I dug my hole deeper, shackled to my shovel with golden handcuffs.
And then, at my lowest point, I attended a training that changed my perspective and my life. I registered for this training because I hoped to learn some new tools to use with my client population: military veterans with anxiety, depression, PTSD and substance abuse disorders. Little did I know, for this training, the target population was me.
I remember my hand raising, seemingly of its own accord, when the instructor asked for a volunteer at the start of the training. She handed me a rope, held the other end, and asked me to imagine that she was my own personal monster, the embodiment of all my fears and doubts.
I imagined my monster, fat and green and drooling, taunting me with accusations of being a failure and a fraud, of being entitled and demanding. My monster screamed that I was never going to measure up, I’d never be good enough, and I’d never, ever be happy. And here we were, engaging in a never-ending game of tug-of-war.
“What are you doing right now?” the instructor asked, tugging the rope.
“I’m tugging on this rope,” I said, pulling hard. “I want to win. I want to beat the monster.”
“And tugging on the rope, that’s how you win?” the instructor asked, tugging back even harder.
“Well, yes,” I replied, breathing a little harder. That’s how you play the game, right?” I stumbled slightly as she pulled again.
“I don’t know. Is it? Does it have to be?”
I paused. “I don’t know. But I do know this game is no fun.”
Then she asked me a simple question, one I still ask myself when I’m stuck in a cycle of self-doubt, fear, and depression.
“What would happen if you dropped the rope?”
My initial thought was—I’d lose. The monster would win, because I’d be forfeiting the game.
But then I realized I didn’t want to be playing in the first place. My opponent was playing unfairly, hitting below the belt, targeting my deepest insecurities, and by continuing to engage, I was merely feeding the beast.
By dropping the rope, I could stop wasting my strength fighting an unbeatable foe. Instead, I could harness that strength, passion, and energy, and direct it toward something positive. My husband. My children. My clients. Me. But not the monster.
As I dropped the rope (literally and metaphorically) and returned to my seat, I viewed my unhappiness in an entirely new light. Yes, there were certainly external factors that played into my unhappiness (hello, toxic workplace), but I acknowledged my role in perpetuating it. I had trapped myself in a cycle of self-doubt, self-loathing, and fear by believing the monster. I had absorbed the negativity of my work environment so much, it changed how I viewed myself.
We spent the rest of the training discussing what to do once you abandon the game of tug-of-war. Because you can’t just think your way out of these habits—you have to create new actions and patterns to maintain successful change.
I learned why it’s critical to be clear on your personal values, and how they must be the foundation of your choices. I learned about mindfulness and its role in promoting change, both in mindset and in action. I left that training with a full toolkit of ideas and activities that have since changed many lives, starting with my own.
Now, as a professional coach, this concept of “dropping the rope” is at the heart of my work. When I talk to my clients, I’m looking into a mirror and seeing my past self—someone who entered their chosen career excited and motivated, but now feels disillusioned, overwhelmed, and burned out. Every day, I challenge my clients and myself to drop the rope, and to create our own definition of what it means to be successful and happy. And to do that, we must be clear on our values.
Only then can we articulate our purpose, develop a strong vision of our future, and take deliberate steps toward our personal and professional goals.
It’s not easy work, but it’s vital work. And it’s certainly better than playing a rigged game of tug-of-war with a monster.
Author: Lee Chaix McDonough
Image: Tareck Raffoul
Apprentice Editor: Sarah Crosky; Editor: Emily Bartran