November 22, 2019

Using the hero’s journey to navigate my life

My husband resigned from his career (not just his job) three months ago
My Mum died two months ago
I closed my business 5 weeks ago
We sold our house 4 weeks ago
We moved to the country in the middle of the worst drought in history to start a new venture about which we know almost zero
I have no job
Neither does my husband.

So many endings and beginnings I felt punch drunk.

Throughout all of this I have relied on the Hero’s Journey to guide us though each question mark, each trial, each decision, each nagging desire to follow our bliss more closely. 

I’ve been mapping this particular Hero’s Journey for the past 7 years.  The Call to Adventure (Stage 2) was the unexpected and shocking loss of my job (I was unceremoniously shown the door).  It had been a dream job of six years (Stage One Ordinary World) that had turned into a nightmare following a change in management.  Bit by bit, day by day, the joy and excitement of work had shifted to fear and isolation.  In hindsight you would think that knowing the Hero’s Journey inside out I would have recognised the signs, acted on the warnings.  Yet like every hero at the beginning of each new adventure, I had little idea of what the real problem was and unbeknown to me, a big part of the problem was me.

Ordinary World

When the change in management occurred I, like every other would-be hero thought ‘I’m not the problem.  It’s ‘them’.  And in truth, ‘they’ were a large part of the problem.  Staff that had been there for years disappeared overnight.  No explanation, no information provided.  Processes that had been set in stone were now ‘incorrect’ though no policy or procedure was altered.   Under the increasing fear of job loss, my staff became more ‘fight and flight’.  Most wanted to disappear, make themselves a small a target as possible, aware of the financial responsibilities they and their young families were committed to.  Loss of job and income was not on their financial plan.  Others became aggressive, targeting me whilst remaining silent with the new management.  I too fell into fear and like the good hero-journeyer I had become, I was able to muster my previously learned polar opposite skills and have a voice with this new management.  I spoke up both privately and publicly.  What I didn’t see and wasn’t aware of was how I was with my staff. 

One of the strengths previously identified in my work had been my balance of humour and seriousness.  But now in this fearful work environment, my humour developed an edge to it.  I began to use it when tired, frustrated, annoyed.  My stress was leaking out and my humour was an attempt to disguise it, yet in reality, I was critical and defensive. 

Call to Adventure

I was under investigation.  I didn’t know what for.  The new manager had arrived at my office and I was escorted from the building.  Even now 6 years later, I can still feel the unreal nature of being walked to the door of a large hospital and told to leave the premises without reason.  Several days later I was informed I was under investigation.  Me?  A person who is frightened of a traffic ticket under investigation?  A staff member had formally complained though it would be several months before I would learn the content of it.   

In a split second I had switched from hospital superstar to management reject, from the man with the answers to the man who was the problem.   This most unwanted Call to Adventure had sideswiped me with precision accuracy.

Refusal of the Call

In the days and weeks that followed, my refusal kicked into high gear.  I spent almost all my waking hours trying to get my head around what had happened. ‘This can’t be happening’ was an almost constant refrain and the never-to-be-answered question of ‘what had I done?’ began to dominate both my waking and sleeping hours. 

By this time however, I had recognised these events for what they were, a most unwanted but new Call to Adventure.  I recognised my own Refusal stage as a time for shocked heroes to shift into denial whilst they struggled to come to terms with reality.  And I was really struggling.  Looping thoughts, poor sleep, loss of appetite, loss of focus.  The walking dead.  Being the good psychologist, I knew what I needed to do yet I had little energy and almost no motivation to do what I knew was required. I forced myself into action.  I knew I needed to increase my Self Regulation Skills.  What you say?  Don’t be put off by the terms psychology uses.  Underneath this often-used but confusing psychological term, is simply a bunch of skills to increase your ability to manage the physiological arousal of anxiety.  The most well documented and most effective of these is being physically active.  I’ve been physically active all of my adult life, knowing I’m an anxious person (part DNA, part life experiences).  I knew then however that I needed to up the activity factor.  I needed to use up as much adrenaline from my 24/7 ‘fight-flight’ response as I could to reduce the anxiety, help with sleep, improve my appetite and decrease my obsessive thinking.

I began to walk the streets of my suburb, morning and night, and then the next suburb and the next.  I walked till my feet hurt.  I walked hour after hour till I could feel the drop in the adrenaline and anxiety.  I then returned home to stick to routines of house cleaning (what else was there to do with all this time?).  I upped my other Self Regulation skills.  Affection is also highly effective at lowering anxiety so I turned to my husband who provided affection in spades.  I kicked in with my CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and wrote and wrote the cacophony of thoughts that hounded me day and night.  I used Emotional Regulation Skills (another psychology term) and cried alone and with my husband and with any family member or friend who had the time.  I knew there were times for bottling feelings up but I also knew there were times it was essential to share my pain with loved ones, to allow myself to receive acknowledgement for what was happening and not fall into silence and shame. 

Each skill lowered the anxiety for awhile, processed the grief for that day.  At first the respite from these was short lived, momentary, though as the days and weeks progressed (I was still being investigated) the periods of lower anxiety increased. 

Meeting with the Mentor

I knew one of the key elements in getting through the Refusal stage was to find me a Mentor.  Mentors help struggling heroes to gain some order in the chaos, to directly face the threat rather than get lost in an onslaught of blame or simply take to bed.  So I sought out my clinical supervisor to be my mentor, for all this.  (Psychologists have regular supervision to discuss clients, treatments and areas where they themselves are trigged or struggling with the work).  She provided a calm voice in what was a surreal time.  When the eventual content of the complaint arrived, all 50 of them, she was there too for this new round of disbelief and stress.  At a time when I felt so professionally isolated, she labelled their behaviour (the new management and some members of my staff) as cowardly and adolescent.  She went into bat for me.  She was known to my staff and had conducted monthly training sessions.  With her help I continued to process my denial and grieve the loss of a job I had loved.   She was steadfast in a place where everything was uncertain.  She was there when no one, no one from my work made contact.  This part of the unreality only further confused and stressed me.  Colleagues I had enjoyed working with for years, some I considered as friends, disappeared (I would only find out months later they were instructed to not contact me.  Fear is a powerful weapon to use in managing staff behaviour.)

And then the reality of the Call kicked in.  The accusations arrived.  Scores of them, mostly from one staff member but to my surprise, other staff were also included.  It was like reading a novel that you kind-of recognise but, in this particular story, I was not the hero but the villain.   I was interviewed by a ‘legal person’.  Over three hours of answering questions.

A written response to these accusations was requested and (stupidly) I obeyed.  Thank god I had completed a doctorate as the amount of detail required to examine, canvass and report on these was overwhelming.  Dates, times, content.  Who remembers the content of what were for me ordinary, even mundane or minor events?  The following weeks were given to this written response (I realise now I should not have played their game where they already had all the aces).  It was then waiting time.  My walking continued, with my anxiety still high, my sleep improved, my appetite returned.  Anger began to surface.

Their response unsurprisingly found me guilty of being a terrible manager.  There was one more meeting requested where I was instructed I would not be allowed to speak further to the accusations where they would formally fire me.   I’m not sure if they were in some way, kindly offering me a way out but I resigned.  With a lot of fear and a lot of grief.

And then there I was are.  Unemployed and despite my best efforts to not be, ashamed. 

Naively I  had thought up to this final letter, that they would see the error of their ways and realise organisations are not full of good or bad people but are interdependent systems that require a systemic response.  But ‘legal minds’ aren’t trained for systems thinking.  They are trained to win; one is right, the other wrong. 

And there I was.  Fifty-three years old, no job, no income, no idea. 

Such is the nature of crossing the threshold into your new life!  But I did have something so valuable as to help ease my fear.  I had something so simple to begin to normalise what was potentially traumatising.

I knew, despite my fear and grief, that I was about to start a new life chapter and that the fear and grief were normal and would continue for awhile. 

I knew I needed to stumble around, to make mistakes to begin to find my way to start this new life chapter that as yet, I had no idea about. 

I knew that it would require me to do things I didn’t know how to do, to do things I didn’t want to do and to keep doing these things till I mastered them. 

I knew that these new things, would require me to learn new skills that would happen on two fronts: real world skills but also internal, psychological skills.

I knew all this because I had knowledge of the hero’s journey.

Next blog  Crossing the First Threshold.

Dr Clive

About Dr. Clive Williams

Clive Williams, PhD, is a psychologist with 35 years’ experience with a particular focus on how individual change occurs.

Clive’s private practice is in Brisbane though he works with clients around the globe.

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