“I can NOT believe I’m in this situation!” She was putting her coat on at the end of our session, sounding pretty exasperated, but then – more sadly – she said, “I feel like I’m on a desert island.”
The situation she was referring to is one I’ve encountered with increasing frequencey: professionals “stuck” in a job from which they can’t simply walk away. Ideally professionals should have control over the circumstances under which they provide their services, and if those circumstances don’t adequately meet minimum professional standards, the professional person is supposed to leave.
But that’s not so easy these days.
This accomplished professional woman – like so many – realistically just couldn’t do that, either. Her story was straightforward. Her husband had “been there” for her when she’d gotten an early jump on her own career as a special educator and she’d quickly moved from classroom teacher to adjunct university faculty to well-paid consultant.
So now she’d happily agreed to support her husband’s upward career move to a demanding new Directorship (in the capital of a new state) of a large non-profit agency. Overall her husband’s new job was “great,” but the salary wasn’t that great. Their youngest daughter was in her sophomore year at a private college a thousand miles away, so the expected money crunch was compounded emotionally by the empty nest. Her husband worked predictably long hours, was seldom home, and was exhausted when he finally did get home. She was clear that she needed to be there managing the home front, rock-steady, while also earning “decent” money for the foreseeable future.
The only position she’d been able to find had been as a middle school Special Ed classroom teacher. Her hope had been that it would be a wonderful renewal of her original passion for the Special Ed classroom, but instead it had turned out to be “awful.”
Her school was a disaster. Leadership in the building was ineffective. Teachers and staff were “stressed to the max” and were unsupportive, sometimes rude and hostile to each other, even in front of the kids. It was “bad.”
But the worst part was that she absolutely could not walk away. There were no realistic alternatives in the small city they’d moved to that didn’t involve untenable disruptions. She was stuck, indeed, “on a desert island.”
Being stuck in a job you don’t love stems from many perfectly reasonable sources:
- Among limited options it’s the only realistic opportunity to practice one’s trade or profession in the overall context of “career.”
- It has professional colleagues or a client population with whom someone has especially always wanted to work.
- It has cachet or credibility, or “stepping stone” opportunities for theoretical future career mobility.
- The money is actually good.
- It’s a reasonable commute or walking distance from home.
- It has crucial health or other benefits.
- It has flexible hours or time slots that integrate into personal and/or family functioning.
- It’s the only workplace hiring now, and actually offering a position.
Consultations like mine with this “stranded” professional can be crucial to making essential adjustments and adaptations. Things begin to change when you realize that you do have options after all. From there, you can take some control and choose among them.
Successful “escapees” re-frame their stuck situation — they choose to feel differently about the same circumstances. They let go of the anger or anxiety, they relax about the nonsense, or they forgive the boss, and mostly they forgive themselves for being stuck. Desert islanders need to “bloom in place” or “plant a garden” so that staying put also results in good things. The short run then becomes more livable, and overall energy increases as people sort out the control they do have for important things, while letting go of things they have no control over — for now.
And yes, there’s no getting around that some who are stuck on their particular desert island absolutely do need to break out, build a raft, and get the heck off their island — no matter how difficult — because staying would only make things worse.
So, if you’re stuck on your desert island, here’s what it boils down to: make peace with the fact that there really are only two acceptable outcomes:
1) you MUST change how you feel about staying and make that work, or
2) you absolutely must leave.
If you’re someone in your version of that situation, keep in mind there are ways of coping that help you and your family manage the short run – but still see a path forward.