My career has been full of distrust. I’ve doubted my ability to do the work I want to do, I’ve questioned the benevolence of others, and I’ve assumed that I have to prove my worth through what I do in my career.
There are small examples, like distrusting what I wanted to say in a client meeting, to big ones, like not believing in my capacity to make thoughtful, informed decisions about the direction of my business. A lack of trust is at the root of most of my “bad” decisions.
Decisions born out of fear, doubt, and distrust in my inherent worthiness usually put me into sticky situations that are a mess to get out of, like a promotion I shouldn’t have taken or a graduate degree I may not have needed. These decisions weren’t mistakes, because they taught me a lot: namely, to trust that initial “yes” or “no” that I feel and stop bulldozing over it with my thinking mind.
I see my friends and clients questioning themselves at work all the time. I witness them distrusting what they sense about a person, what they think about a job opportunity, or even placing their future in the hands of experts who claim to “know better.” Distrust is causing a lot of pain for those of us who want to do work that supports our well-being and the health of our world.
Trusting yourself at work provides you with the opportunity to do truly meaningful work because it’s steeped in a foundational belief in your inherent goodness. Our work should be an expression of our strengths and the resilience that we cultivate inside of ourselves, which all starts with trust.
It starts with trust in Life itself: a belief that everything in this Universe has a place and is valuable simply because it’s here. Then, it requires a trust in our wise, soulful self - the part of us that has a wider perspective and can see that every path we’ve taken has led somewhere useful. Finally, it requires trust in our senses. The body is the vehicle by which we learn about the world around us, digest our experiences, and take action. Our thoughts and feelings may not always be true, but they are important signals to pay attention to.
When we trust in Life, our spiritual self, and our body, we deepen our ability to make choices that truly serve us in our lives and careers. Not choices out of fear or doubt, but choices grounded in optimism.
This work is foundational to career development because it’s foundational to being human. Most of us learn to distrust ourselves very early on. We may have a history of trauma or pain that’s caused us to question the benevolence of Life itself or our right to be here. We may have learned as children that we shouldn’t trust the messages we received from our bodies because the people around us “knew better” or were trying to hide what was really going on in order to protect us.
What I find so inspiring about the rest of Nature is that it seems to completely trust itself. The English ivy that I see growing outside of my window doesn’t question whether it should grow this direction or that, it just does. The butterflies flitting about don’t doubt their ability to know which flowers have the nectar they need, they just find them. The plants and animals around us don’t seem to experience nearly the same level of questioning and inner turmoil that we put ourselves through.
So how can we mimic the wisdom of the plants and animals and build trust in ourselves when it comes to our careers? I imagine the process in three steps:
Take a step
Step 1: Give permission
Trusting ourselves at work is impossible without giving ourselves permission to fail, succeed, experiment, or not know what will happen. When was the last time you told yourself that it was really, truly okay to not get your next move “right?” When was the last time you reminded yourself that it’s not a problem to be unsure about what your career holds in the next month, year or decade? Without radical permission to grow, we stifle ourselves into work lives that are too small for us. Give yourself permission to do your best and figure it out along the way.
Step 2: Calibrate
Once we’ve given ourselves permission to prioritize our growth, we’re invited to make choices about where to put our energy. Do we take this project or that one? Do we pursue that job opportunity or this one? Do we hire this person or that one? Or is the answer somewhere in-between our “this or that” dichotomy (pro-tip: it usually is)?
The only thing I’ve found to actually work in terms of making positive choices in my career is a practice of learning what “yes” and “no” feel like in my body. I’m constantly evaluating potential opportunities to see if they resonate with me or not, and it starts in the body before my mind gets involved. I certainly don’t do this perfectly and imagine it’s a life-long pursuit, but this is where I recommend you begin: learning what “yes” and “no” feel like for you.
I first learned about the following exercise from Sandra Ingerman in her book, How to Heal Toxic Thoughts. It’s an easy place to start and practice. You begin by getting still and saying aloud things that are true for you, such as your name, the city you live in, what you’re wearing, etc. Then you can say things that you really like: a food you love, a person you like, an aspect of your work that you enjoy. Notice how these statements resonate for you in your body. Do you feel any sensations? Do you feel nothing? Do you feel light, or heavy, warm, or soft? This is your “yes.”
Then, take a drink of water, shake out your muscles, or move your body to a new location - do something to “cleanse your palate.”
Now tell yourself things that are untrue about you, like a name that’s not yours, a city you don’t live in, or that your shirt is a different color than it is. Notice how that feels. Then, notice what it feels like to tell yourself that you like things that you truly don’t like, such as a food you hate, or a place you don’t enjoy being in, or a part of your work that you really despise. Notice how that feels. What do you feel in your body, before the thoughts about it come in? That’s your “no.”
If this doesn’t feel easy or clear the first time around, that’s completely normal. This takes some practice and recalibration to your internal resonance. In my experience, a “yes” usually feels peaceful and light, even if it leads to a hard decision or conversation, and a “no” feels complicated and sticky, even if it would be “easier” for the time being. It’s much harder to sense “yes” and “no” when we feel like we’re in crisis, so it’s always helpful to quiet the brain and take care of the body before we check in to see if something fits for us.
Sometimes we think we get a “yes” or a “no,” but we feel drawn to do some investigation. I think this is okay as long as we do so with an open mind. If something you thought would be a “yes” doesn’t give you that “yes” feeling in your body, you can inquire as to why. Some questions you could ask might be:
Is there something else that would make this option a “yes” for me?
Am I willing this into a “yes” because I don’t believe there’s something else?
Is this a “not yet” instead?
Usually when we get a “no,” it’s clear, but we override it because our ego believes that it knows better than our intuition. We may have sunk resources such as time, money, or hope into a path that we know isn’t really aligning for us, and the brain will do what it can to convince us that we can force it to work. This comes up often deep into a hiring process or when we’ve really invested in a project or outcome at work that’s simply not coming.
Step 3: Take a step
Take a step. It doesn’t have to be a leap or even multiple steps - it can just be one small step in the direction of your “yes” or away from your “no.” This is how you build trust in yourself: by honoring the messages you get from your body with your actions. If you get a “yes” from your body but continue to work and live in your “no zone,” you signal back to the brain that your body can’t be trusted.
Let’s say that you know you want to grow in your career in some way this year but aren’t sure where to start. You know that your current work situation is a “no” because you feel it in your body and are generally drained of energy. Even though I know it doesn’t feel good, you’re in a perfect position to start building trust in yourself and taking steps that are deeply resonant to you. First, give yourself permission to not know what to do. That’s perfectly okay. This is the first time you’ve ever been in this particular situation, so you’re not supposed to know what to do.
Next, notice what’s a “no” for you throughout the workday. Does your body recoil at the thought of opening email? Perfect - that’s a clue you can follow. How could you take one small step away from that “no”? Could you open email five minutes later than normal each workday? Could you put an “out of office” message on over the weekend and not check it? Could you tell your team that you prefer phone calls instead? It can be anything as long as it honors your “no.”
And that’s really it. You keep doing that until you learn more about your other “yeses” and “nos.” Maybe one day you feel a “yes” about meeting with someone for a networking date, so you reach out to them about getting together. And maybe the week after that, you feel a “no” about volunteering for a new project at work, so you keep your hand down and let someone else take it. On and on it goes, until you’ve honed your ability to trust in yourself. Eventually, you’ll be able to sense “yes” and “no” about the big decisions in your career, like taking new opportunities or leaving things behind.
The next time you feel lost in a cycle of self-doubt, fear, or distrust, find a plant or animal to observe. Do they question their needs or desires? Do they apologize for not knowing what’s next? Do they question their right to be here or to take up space? See if you can embody the trust that they exhibit in themselves and notice how it feels.