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  • Mary Jaensch

Three hacks to Escape the Familiar

“Now you can escape the familiar and turn feeling stuck into new career directions.”

Why is escaping the familiar such a challenge? Why does change feel so difficult? My head says, “Yes, let’s do this differently” ... but a few minutes later I’m still exactly where I started! Despite the best intentions, I struggle with turning ideas into concrete actions that will take me in new directions. Some part of my brain and body wants to stick to “what it knows”.

This desire to stay in the familiar is even more dug-in when the risks seem high ... will there be enough money, will I keep an important relationship, can I achieve a worthwhile goal, will my career advance, am I impressing the critical, influential people? So, like a hamster on a wheel, I run as fast as I can to stay exactly where I am. Eventually, I fall into Einstein’s definition of insanity: continuing to do the same thing over and over again while expecting different outcomes.

Stuck in the familiar: The Experience and Feelings

Successful, business women talk to me all the time about feeling stuck on a hamster wheel. Despite enormous achievements and the successful pursuit of their career goals and dreams, they notice a shift toward finding the work they do boring and unfulfilling. They experience low energy and feelings of “quiet desperation”. And more often than not, they tell me that they feel “stuck” ... unable to find the energy or the will to make changes to something that is more inspiring and energizing. 

These feelings of malaise usually surprise people. How can they be successful, having accomplished so much, and now feel stuck in having to keep doing it over and over again? How can they be this smart and feel so clueless about how to make the changes that will get them to a place that feels more rewarding, inspiring and fulfilling? The stuck feeling can create a sense of shame and trigger self-judgement and criticism. And quickly the boredom, the shame and self- judgement create feelings of low-to-no energy ... a sense of defeat. “I don’t have the energy to even think about changing. It is easier to stay where I am, as bad as it feels. At least, it’s familiar.”

Stuck in the familiar: The Brain Science

So why and how do we get so stuck in the familiar, even when it is no longer making us feel energized, inspired or fulfilled? Brain science and research over the last twenty years has provided significant insight and understanding of the mechanisms that make it so challenging for us to escape the familiar.

Science reveals that different parts of our brains are designed to seek security and to look for the familiar and cling to it ... distancing ourselves from the unfamiliar, which may be dangerous. Essential to our survival as a species, this unconscious and almost instantaneous impulse to gravitate, even lock-in, to the familiar is hard wired in all of us. And the part of our brain that runs this operation (the amygdala) doesn’t differentiate between real threats to our safety and anything that is just unfamiliar or unknown to us. The role of the amygdala is to prepare our body for flight, fight or freeze depending on the actual threat, leaving little energy for attention or for curiosity, trust and openness to new possibilities.

Escape the Familiar: 3 Hacks

The good news is that there are simple ways to begin unsticking “stuck” and escaping the familiar to create new possibilities offering more energy, fulfillment and fun.

Get conscious: Begin to pay attention to when you shut your ideas down. Recognize that it is part of your brain working to keep you safe and in the familiar. Simply noticing gives you time and opportunity to have a more complete internal conversation about whether to try something new or stick with the familiar. Acting more consciously creates the possibility for change.

Follow your curiosity: Notice when you get lost in a Google search and lose complete sense of time. Curiosity provides the energy to open up to learning and exploring new ideas and possibilities. Following your natural curiosity is an easy path to practice escaping the familiar.

Take small actions quickly: Research suggests that it takes less than a minute for your brain to shut down a new idea or action toward keeping you in the familiar. Experiment with this – think about taking a walk or not eating that cookie and see how quickly your mind provides reasons not to change or distractions to keep you from taking action. Next time do something immediately – stand up, write something down, call someone to give yourself more time to consciously consider escaping the familiar.

Change takes effort and leaving the familiar. Recognize that building muscles to escape the familiar can be the first step to creating work and life realities that are more meaningful and motivating to you.

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