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The Great Recession of 2008 impacted the lives of career-minded millennials worldwide.
Fresh out of university, I was thrown headfirst into a collision of anxiety and depression after being “rejected” from a media graduate program I was sure I’d get into.
I was not prepared for a “no.” Why would I be? I’d done everything on the “99 ways to get hired” list of the time—including get work experience, dress to impress, do your research, show leadership qualities, think positively, speak clearly, et al.
The dream job I’d been banking on to take me from a world of books, tests, and wonky assignments to independent woman with a guaranteed 25k salary (promised by the university enrollment campaigns), was not to be.
We’re labeled the “therapy generation.” And, when faced with an uncertain job market, financial instability, and ease of social comparison (thanks to the dot com boom), it’s easy to understand how anyone born between 1981 and 1996, may have felt compelled to seek out guidance or distract themselves from the reality when coming of age.
It would take several years, various types of therapy, and finally freediving, for me to overcome my early career rejection and subsequent fear of success, so I could embrace my hero’s journey.
Month after month, email responses to job applications told me, “Thank you, but on this occasion, you have not been successful.”
Early life career messaging had not prepared me for constant rejection, my perceived failure, and the resilience to keep putting myself out there regardless.
My experience of being a grown-up sucked, and I wanted to return to the happy days of believing that anything was possible if I just “worked hard” and “believed in myself.”
Instead, I felt sh*tty. “Why not me?” my mind pestered. “Was I not good enough?” “What if I never get a successful job?” and “I’m a failure” played “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” in my mind until all my thoughts came crashing down.
I took jobs to pay the bills and heard “at least you have a job” to any comment I made about wanting career fulfillment. As months turned into years, I decided to just “make do.” I was clearly in a better position than most.
In an effort to appease my growing feelings of inadequacy and discontentment at life, I engaged in distraction therapy. I found escapism through the consumption of alcohol, drugs, stuff, and experiences. I became absorbed in the lives of others, through social media and reality TV, which further compounded my ideas about not measuring up.
All the while, avoiding the nagging voice inside telling me to “try again.”
The stress of going after the career I really wanted, in case of further rejection, seemed harder than pretending to enjoy a string of un-dream jobs. But, as the phrase goes “what you resist, persists.”
My lack of career fulfillment soon caught up with me. Yet, I got so good at denying this desire that I was convinced that my Google diagnosis was correct, and the extreme mood swings I suffered were in fact down to bipolar disorder.
In a sterile-smelling doctor’s office, I wept into a box of NHS-version, Kleenex tissues. Before prescribing pills, the doctor wanted me to try talk therapy.
In truth, I felt like a failure. A scared 20-something-year-old, exhausted by trying to keep up the pretense that adulthood wasn’t a big letdown. The pressure to succeed weighed heavy, and I was desperate to return to the safety of childhood when life wasn’t my responsibility.
Sitting in front of a therapist, it was all too easy to make things up to hide that reality. I got swept away with the storytelling, editing life’s events in order to garner more of the sympathetic responses being so willingly given, like candies at a confectionery store.
Without being there to defend themselves, other people or situations became the scapegoat for my shortcomings—the reason I didn’t “make it onto the team,” “get the dream job,” or “hold down a committed relationship.”
Before long, a “poor me” mindset kicked in, and I had more issues than when I started!
Several years on, and despite landing a few “big-time” jobs in digital marketing, I was still struggling with anxiety and depression. I took a career break to find out what happened to the teenage girl who was full of hope and eager to make her mark on the world.
It was during this solo trip to Central America that I found freediving—the act of breath-holding underwater while diving in the ocean or in a pool.
What we tell ourselves at any one time can have a significant impact on our state of mind. Challenged with holding my breath, seven-stories below sea level, I really came to understand the meaning of this.
“What if I don’t make it?”
At the surface of the sea, I equalise my ears and turn upside down underwater, ready to start the dive. Several strong kicks propel me downward. Picking up speed, I feel the rush of water against my neoprene-clad skin.
Suddenly aware of heading quickly toward my goal, the tennis ball at the end of a 30-metre line, I subconsciously put on the brakes. I turn back and return to the safety of the surface, frustrated that an involuntary reaction meant that I didn’t make it.
After months of hitting an invisible wall in depth, I was at a loss. Various expert coaches gave me their advice on overcoming my limitations: work on technical skills, do relaxation exercises, change the freediving environment to see if that makes a difference. No change.
It slowly dawned on me that perhaps I was purposefully avoiding my goal. But, why would I intentionally sabotage my chance of success?
Gregg Levoy, behavioural specialist and author of Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion, attributes the act of playing small to a fear of one’s own power: “Taking on your power can shatter your perception of your own limitations, and without those perceived limitations—not enough time or money or talent, a bad back, too many other responsibilities, someone standing in your way—there are no longer any reasons to hold yourself back. And that’s moth-to-the-flame stuff.”
He quotes the psychologist Abraham Maslow to better describe the Jonah complex, otherwise known as a fear of success: “The evasion of one’s own growth, the setting of low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudo-stupidity, mock humility,” are all ways we self-sabotage our chance of success.
Tuning into my mindset just before and during the dive helped me to uncover negative beliefs that were holding me back in freediving, mirroring aspects of my career life. “What if I don’t make it?” A flicker of doubt, fleeting and difficult to focus on, yet powerful enough to crack my confidence and weaken my resolve in reaching my goal.
Thinking I could achieve something was a much safer thought than finding out I couldn’t. If I were to “black out” underwater, get rejected, or fail to cope under the pressure of a job, everyone would see that I’m not good enough. And, by holding back from my potential, even though I longed to achieve more, I was able to consider myself capable without ever finding out if I were wrong.
“How do I stack up?”
It seemed that while I spent months repeating the same depth over and over, all around me freedivers were progressing with ease. My internal critic would kindly say, “you’ll never be as good as X freediver,” and nurture the idea that I should give up.
Freediving with buddies, going to depths of 60-plus metres, I became discouraged that I could barely make it past 27. “What’s the point of trying, everyone is so much better than me.”
By engaging in what psychologists call “unhealthy, upward comparison” when comparing myself to deeper divers, I experienced feelings of envy and low self-esteem. I would judge myself harshly and elevate other divers on a pedestal, even after they point-blank told me that diving to the depths they were had, at some stage or another, been a struggle.
In my state of inferiority, they were gods and goddesses. The idea that each diver was living out their own “hero’s journey,” the path to self-development, behaviourist Joseph Campbell defined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, never crossed my mind.
He theorised that, in life, we each have our own call to adventure, and, along the way, we face trials and tribulations—the modern equivalent of slaying a dragon—in order to overcome our fears and actualise our potential.
When I began avoiding freediving, self-conscious of my shortcomings and ashamed of my stalled progression, I realised that in trying to achieve what others had, diving lost its personal meaning. I was no longer diving for enjoyment, but to prove something.
I realised that the tendency to engage in unhealthy social comparison showed up a lot in life and my career. Doubting my potential and contribution, I would dismiss a creative idea with “it’s been done before” or “what do I have to say that’s new?”
My perception of being one step behind everyone else, and the belief that goals came easy to others while I struggled, were preventing me from accepting my own call to adventure and overcome personal challenges.
The quote, “Don’t compare your chapter one to someone else’s chapter 20” helped me to get perspective on my current reality.
I acknowledged my strengths and weaknesses in freediving. I started to focus on my own progression and not get discouraged by what others were doing. I celebrated my success, however insignificant, and learned to accept and appreciate myself fully, without conditions.
And as a result, I began to hit new personal bests at depth and more fearlessly seek out opportunities in my working life.
Where other therapies only masked or over-indulged my anxiety, freediving—my blue therapy—helped me to recognise subconscious fears I internalised as a result of my early career setbacks.
Deep underwater, I had a choice: either continue to let the fearful voice control me, or learn to control it.
It wasn’t until I accepted that I had a fear of success that I was able to face it and deal with it. Until I acknowledged that I was consumed with comparison, I didn’t learn to take responsibility for my personal happiness.
Instead of subscribing to a victim mentality and living in a state of fear, freediving taught me to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” Susan Jeffers-style, in order to overcome the limiting beliefs holding me back.
Psychologists agree that fearlessness is not an absence of fear; it’s being aware of it, accepting what it’s trying to tell you, and being gentle with oneself in the process of moving past it.
When I faced the fact that what was holding me back in freediving were the same things holding me back in life, I recognised that my playing small doesn’t serve anyone, particularly myself. I realised that if I worked this hard trying to fail, imagine what I could do if I put my mind to succeed! I was then able to develop new beliefs and systems for living and working on my own terms to thrive as a happy and fulfilled millennial in a complex world.
Each of us is on a hero’s journey, with the potential to suffer setbacks and be tested along the way. Our quest is to become aware of when we are being tested and learn how to face our trials fearlessly in order to progress.
I had to dive deep into the ocean to face my fears.
Find your freediving.
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