The View from the Bottom

Just a few short years ago, I imploded my life spectacularly.  After a great deal of time and effort spent on law school and becoming an attorney, I left the practice of law.  After 12 years with my husband, I left my marriage.  And after most of a life spent in various cities across Texas, I left my home state for the Pacific Northwest.

It was an implosion of epic proportions.  It left me a tiny, vulnerable human standing amongst the rubble, surrounded by the dust cloud that had been my life.  And despite the dysfunctional marriage and lack of fulfillment in my work, it was quite a life, full of shiny objects and Instagram perfection.

But it was a life that fed my ego more than my soul, and my self-confidence and self-esteem took a big hit when I walked away from it all.  I looked around as my peers were hitting ever-increasing income thresholds, making partner at my old law firm, and nurturing growing businesses.  Yet here I was, mid-life, divorced, clueless as to what I would do for work, and unsure what the hell lay ahead for me in just about every facet of my life.  Although my problems were decidedly First World, I was nevertheless starting over from the bottom in many ways.

The bottom is not a very comfy place to be for most humans.  I love the way Joe Duncan says it in Before 5am: “The truth is most of you won’t ever start because you don’t want to be seen starting at the bottom.”  I hated being seen at the bottom after my life implosion.

In many ways, I often still feel like I am starting at the bottom – and it hasn’t gotten any easier to be seen there.  Like when I started my coaching practice 4 years ago and had no experience and zero clients.  Like when I started my radio show 3 years ago and was twisting arms to get guests while my only listeners were my partner and parents.  Or when I recently committed to start using Instagram in the New Year, even though I am clearly the last person on earth to join this platform and I currently have all of 2 followers.

Despite my discomfort at the bottom, I have discovered that it can be a pretty magical place.  And it would be a shame for you not to take the action you feel called to take (e.g., starting that business, creating that product, or leaving that unhealthy relationship) simply because you’re afraid to be seen there.  So relish the opportunity to begin at the bottom.  While you’re there, I’ve included a few tips below from my own experience that may help you enjoy the view.

The Bottom is Beautiful

By the time I hit my mid-thirties, my life was complicated and chaotic.  Perhaps you relate?

As a people-pleaser extraordinaire, I was overcommitted to groups and causes that were not particularly meaningful to me.  To fill the void created by a crappy self-worth and an unhappy marriage, I had acquired So. Much. Stuff.  To numb out and distract from the unrest and disconnection at home, I kept myself busy, busy, busy with social engagements, charity events, boozy nights with friends, and constant travel.

When I walked away from my marriage, I walked away from the life that came with it and all the complications and chaos that had accompanied it.  I suddenly found myself unencumbered and living in a tiny 300-square foot studio apartment with just my dog and my cat.

One night, as a Texas thunderstorm raged outside of my little condo, I lay in bed staring at the wall. At that moment, I felt like a miniscule, unknown star in a vast Universe.  If I was no longer the wife of a wealthy, powerful attorney, then who was I? It was terrifying.  It was also incredibly freeing.  And I finally felt like I could breathe.

Although the specifics of my future were uncertain, I had a deep knowing I would ultimately be okay. And with the security of that foundation, I knew this was a magical time, one where I now had the ability to recreate myself, unfettered by all of the obligations and ties that defined me before.

I was at the bottom, but instead of total defeat, I felt a sliver of hope.  My future was a blank canvas yet to be painted and the potentials were infinite.  I had not experienced that amount of freedom and possibility since an elementary-school teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

You may not want to be seen at the bottom.  But if you can get past the ego hit and allow the biggest, highest, wisest part of you to take the reins, you may see the bottom for what it can be: A quiet, unencumbered place full of potential for a future brighter than you can imagine.

The Only Scary Part of the Bottom is Your Thoughts

“We are disturbed not by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens.”  Or so said the Greek philosopher, Epictetus.

When you land at the bottom, either by choice or because you’ve been cast there, thought management is key.  When I hit bottom, there were so many thoughts running through my head at all hours of the day and night.

Because our brains are wired to be like Teflon for the good and Velcro for the bad (h/t Rick Hanson, PhD), however, it was very easy to spin out in thoughts like, “You are making the worst mistake of your life” or “You will never be able to support yourself” or “You are disappointing everybody.”

But those thoughts did not feel very good.  When I believed them, I felt a tight grip in my chest as fear and panic clouded my psyche.  The only action I wanted to take in that state was crawling under the covers and hiding from the world indefinitely, which is generally not a good space for creating a new life.

So I started reaching for better-feeling thoughts.  Thoughts like, “You gave the marriage your best shot, and now you may be making the best decision of your life” or “You are smart and capable and you will be able to support yourself” or “Everybody may be proud of you for making a brave decision.”

These thoughts felt really good.  When I believed them, my body felt light and my psyche was filled with hope and anticipation of a beautiful future.  From that space, I felt inspired to go out into the world and explore possibilities with curiosity.

When you’re at the bottom, you are not simply at the mercy of your thoughts.  You have control over what thoughts you choose to think, thereby affecting how you feel, and the action (or inaction) you will then take as a result.  Reach for the better-feeling thought, and you will be well-positioned to see the bottom for the potential it holds, as well as climb back to the top with greater ease.

You’re In Good Company at the Bottom

It can often feel pretty lonely at the bottom.  When I started over, it seemed as though everyone else in the world knew exactly what they were doing with their life and had picked up some serious momentum along the way.

The truth is, however, there are plenty of examples of individuals who achieved their greatest success after switching gears in adulthood.  Did you know that Harrison Ford was a carpenter until the age of about 30? Or that Vera Wang entered the fashion industry and designed her first dress at age 40?  Or that Julia Child worked in advertising and media until releasing her first cookbook at age 49?

These are but a few examples of successful folks who made a midlife change and started over at the bottom. These and similar stories are what kept me going when I questioned the sanity of imploding my life so spectacularly.

It can get discouraging at the bottom, so do a little digging and find more inspiring stories like those mentioned above.  And remind yourself that you are in good company at the bottom!

Write Your Comeback Story While You’re at the Bottom

Humans tend to love a good comeback story. Robert Downey, Jr., anyone??  Before the comeback, though, is the bottom.  While you’re there, you might find you have some free time on your hands.  Why not use it on something inspiring?

One of my favorite exercises is to craft a comeback story.  This is an adaptation of rewriting one’s narrative, an exercise used by many coaches thatallows one to focus on the positives in a seemingly bad situation or memory.  It’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally to most humans because our brains (for survival reasons) tend to be more focused on the negative.

To generate some positivity, craft your comeback story from the perspective of your future self – the self that has succeeded in the new endeavor and has made it past the hard times.  Pretend you are being interviewed for your favorite publication.  The interviewer has just asked about your journey from your lowest point to your greatest success.

For example, you might write, “I remember when I lost my job. We were down to the last $1,000 in our savings account.  I had an electric shutoff notice in one hand, and the prototype for the widget I wanted to create in the other. I ended up dumping my remaining savings into product development of the widget.  I didn’t know how I would pay that electric bill, but I knew I had to bet on myself and my dream of creating that widget.  I ended up selling one million widgets to Macy’s that first holiday season, and the rest is history.”

It can be very easy to get bogged down in the negative while at the bottom.  Writing your comeback story can be an excellent wait to generate some inspiration and give you a light at the end of the tunnel to draw you forward.

The bottom is not always the most pleasant place to find oneself, whether you’ve chosen to be there or you landed there inadvertently. But it isn’t the worst place in the world.  In fact, it can be a magical place where dreams are born – dreams that otherwise would not have had the space or opportunity to be considered and pursued. Instead of resisting this liminal space, embrace it.  You might just be surprised by what you find there.

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