A mentor said to me one day, “Developing your mindset is actually about unlearning behaviors.” That really stuck with me.
And if there’s one thing I learned from talking with dozens of people for my book is that all of us go through quite a bit of UNlearning as we take our lives and careers to the next level. When we focus only on life hacks, learning new skills and certifications, and to-do lists our brains get too filled and we forget to let go of what no longer serves us.
Without a specific intention, I’d been focusing on unlearning lots of behaviors since becoming an adult. Many of the behaviors had been coping mechanisms that protected me as I went through so much as a kid and young adult. Before doing this work, I often focused too much on the negatives in life. I also put a lot of pressure on myself to learn everything on my own because it was a sign of weakness to ask for help.
It got me thinking, what are some key things we can spend time un-learning to put us in a better mindset to accomplish our dreams?
Asking for Help ≠ Weakness
In The Resiliency Effect, I interviewed an entrepreneurial-minded woman named Vanessa Mason. She has a background in public health and even co-founded a venture capital firm that invests in up-and-coming companies changing the public health landscape. Before she landed her current job at the Institute for the Future, she owned a small consulting business for five years.
Rather than staying in corporate jobs that weren’t meeting her needs, she decided to start a consulting business on her own in 2013. Vanessa said to herself at the time, “You learn by doing, not just thinking or analyzing what it would take to do something big.” Since she had been successful picking up contracting projects in some of her other professional roles, she thought she had enough experience to go out on her own.
She knew she needed to give it at least 18 months to start because it would take at least that long to become profitable. Managing to pick up some big-name projects in the public health and tech sectors, Vanessa enjoyed the freedom of being on her own. However, as she continued in her entrepreneurship journey, she found herself focused on cash management and the bottom line, which took away from her ability to think strategically and get help in areas she was weak in. Those old habits of needing to do everything on her own were creeping back in.
Things came to a head when she found herself depressed, and unable to give the business the full attention it deserved with less revenue coming in than she wanted. What Vanessa learned from the experience was that you have to ask for help and take it. If she were to do it again, she said, “All of my resources should have been protecting my time rather than trying to do things all on my own. I thought how much I was doing was a measure of success, not what I was building.” Basically, she would focus on un-learning this coping mechanism of feeling like she has to do everything on her own.
Achievement ≠ Self Esteem
A big theme throughout my book has been about how achievement and over-functioning is the enemy of us. It works against our physical and mental health and creates the hamster wheel that’s hard to remove ourselves from unless or until we completely burnout.
In my own life — it took burnout to finally listen and I realized that my need for achievement was what helped me feel like I was worth something. Leaving my job and taking a sabbatical helped reset this expectation in me so I could focus more on a being a human being instead of a “human doing”. It also helped me to reset my expectations for myself and for my business — which was a new creative endeavor that I found space for only after getting off the hamster wheel of full-time corporate work.
Risk ≠ Always Unsafe
Another woman I interviewed in my book shared about how launching her entrepreneurial journey required her to let go of the fear of risk. Dr. Annemarie Spadafore was taught all her life to find a “safe job” that would suit her well. He grandfather had been an entrepreneur and an early death created trauma for her father’s family. The message to seek safety and security first was passed down to her.
She had a long career in government service before sitting down with a coach to take a career assessment. The results showed that “financial security” ranked lower for her than freedom in her life and career. She realized, “I’d rather move to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and scrape by while working for myself than work for someone else. I’m willing to make huge lifestyle changes just to keep the independence of working for myself.”
In fact, taking this coaching assessment is what opened her eyes to getting her own coaching certification. At first this was an add-on that helped her in her government role, but later became what allowed her to launch her own coaching business.
She describes her unlearning journey as one that has many layers. She often tested the waters before making big leaps.
Thankfully, she hasn’t had to make big lifestyle cuts in order to grow her business, called Powerlab, while maintaining her freedom. When she looks back on it, she never really wanted those government jobs because the bureaucracy bothered her. Yet, she was more than willing to endure the frustration of bureaucracy because she wasn’t ready to give up on that need for “safety.” Now the desire for freedom and flexibility has fully eclipsed the fear of risk and desire to seek out safety and stability. This reframing is what allowed to her to unlearn that risk is not always unsafe.
There’s No Such Thing as Negative Emotions
Keeping feelings deep down inside — especially anger is both societally reinforced and likely something that was modeled in our families. For instance, I viewed all anger as bad growing up, I didn’t even feel like I could express frustration with a work issue. I wasn’t a doormat, but rather if things got bad enough I would “cut and run.” Emotions would finally boil over and I would end the relationship or quit the job. There was no middle ground.
I had to unlearn that anger was a “bad” thing. I had to find ways of tapping into my anger and releasing it appropriately. A book called, Facing the Fire, by John Lee was instrumental in giving me tools like wringing a towel, punching a pillow, or screaming in the car. These activities which once seemed overly violent, scary or unnecessary to me, helped me understand that I was harboring much more anger than I could’ve imagined. These “safe” ways of expressing anger don’t hurt others, so I was able to use these tools to discharge all the energy associated with my anger. Keeping all these feelings locked away for years was affecting me in all sorts of ways and prevented me from discovering my true potential.
I came to appreciate that all emotions are human emotions — none are good or bad. They exist for a reason, especially as indicators of what is happening to us or around us. However, they don’t have to rule us.
Exploring some of the “negative” emotions and unlearning that they were bad made a huge difference in my interpersonal relationships and my ability to find contentment in my work and with myself. This tool even helped with accepting and relating to my anxiety – which I can now often “say hello” to whenever it pops up, kind of like an old friend, and then ask myself, “What’s this feeling related to?” Before unlearning that anxiety was a bad thing, feeling it would send me into a huge worry-storm which would only reinforce and make the anxiety, and the inability to breath, worse.
To find success, it’s more important to unlearn coping mechanisms. Most of the time, our initial instincts such as pushing down our feelings, pursuing security over passion, or a fear of sharing our dreams with those around us are there to protect our old selves from getting hurt again.
It’s important to appreciate those protective instincts for what they are — coping mechanisms that kept us safe in the past. Then, we can actively choose to unlearn them since they often create roadblocks to us achieving our biggest dreams.
Questions for Reflection
What are some coping mechanisms you may have picked up because of adversity you experienced?
How did these coping mechanisms protect you?
Are any of these habits creating obstacles for you in your life or your career?
Is a cross-country move a great way to put a Band-Aid on your problems? You bet it is.
At the end of 2007, I did exactly that. After twenty-five years, I left my home state of Texas—the land of big skies and big highways—to move more than 1,500 miles east to Washington, DC—the land of cherry blossoms and public discourse.
I made a snap decision after a staff meeting on a hot day in July. Among the more mundane updates that day, my boss shared a significant piece of news: “There’s been a reorganization, and it’s possible some of us are going to be spending a little bit more time in the DC office.”
Moments after the meeting ended, I followed him to his office and said, “If you’re looking for volunteers, I’m in.” I’d never even been to DC.
Within six weeks, I’d packed up and sold my house in Austin and moved into a cute little row house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, within walking distance to the US Capitol building. “I’m on an adventure!” was all I would say to people who asked, “Isn’t this all a little sudden?”
The truth is, the move provided a huge distraction from the devastation the previous five years of my life had brought me. I could focus on all the logistics of the move and the discovery of a brand-new life. I also got a lot of attention from colleagues who thought I was brave in deciding to leave home while envious at the professional growth I would gain in a new, expanded role.
The frenzied change allowed me to avoid fully grieving years’ worth of traumatic experiences. These included the early death of both my parents, a lost adolescence and early adulthood, and the bitter end of my first marriage after my spouse cheated on me.
Yet, less than a year later, the cracks in my Band-Aid plan were beginning to show. The novelty of the move had worn off, and I realized I didn’t even like the professional role I was in. I was frustrated I wasn’t making more progress on my personal and professional goals. I didn’t feel happy or fulfilled. Maybe it was time to start over again? Moving across the country didn’t work. So, I thought, “Maybe I need to reinvent my career.”
I took some time to journal and write out the subject matter and experiences that were important and motivating to me. One of the things I had written was that I wanted to help people one-on-one with their finances, including working on financial literacy.
As I penned this aspiration, I immediately thought, “That’s not where I can put my focus right now. I have to concentrate on making the right moves in my current career trajectory.” I took pride in being a realist.
As a federal lobbyist advocating public policy work for the state of Texas, it wasn’t clear to me how I could ever parlay that experience into personal finance. Since I wasn’t on the personal finance career path, I had no clue. I believed what I wanted to do didn’t exist or that I’d have to become famous to have a platform. Meanwhile, the more well-known and common career paths within this field, such as becoming an investment banker or stockbroker, weren’t appealing to me. So, I pushed my personal goal aside and did nothing to make it happen.
Flash forward eight years. By all accounts, I was a success story. I had found new career goals and climbed the corporate ladder. I got closer to my goal of working in finance—at least in the public policy realm—and was well paid and well known in financial circles. I was respected as a sought-after speaker and author on financial regulation for a global news and data organization. I was inching closer to working directly in personal finance.
I enjoyed filling up my life with “to-do’s” and achievements. On top of working full time, I was completing an executive MBA program while also traveling every other week between New York and Washington, DC, for work. The travel alone would be exhausting for anyone—but I thought, “Why not get my MBA?” It was something I always wanted to do, and it would check the box off my list. But even though I was a high achiever with corporate recognition, I was not living my best life.
Contentment was elusive. I experienced burnout regularly, along with bouts of depression. I lost track of the number of times I found myself crying in the work bathroom. Being outwardly successful wasn’t enough—I was unhappy, stressed, and worried that despite all I was doing, I wasn’t enough.
In 2015, the exhaustion caught up with me. I felt like I couldn’t take on one more thing. I was increasingly frustrated and depleted by almost any task I took on—personal or professional. I finally realized I’d been filling up my life with busyness and overachievement because it made me feel like I was worth something. I also started to recognize this type of overwork didn’t begin when I took on the extra travel or the MBA. It had been decades in the making.
So, on the day before my last MBA group presentation, and a week before graduation, I gathered up a lot of courage and quit my job. I graduated and then took a six-month sabbatical from any work. For the first time in years, I set aside my incessant need to do more and more so I could feel like I mattered.
The break was transformational. It led me to start my own business in—you guessed it—personal finance. And as I look back on it, I wonder why it took me more than eight years to get where I wanted to be.
Interestingly, I’m not the only one who has a story like this. As I started working one-on-one with clients, giving them the clarity and confidence to see that their finances could allow them to live the lives they were meant to, I noticed a pattern. Far too many of us aren’t living the lives we dream of out of fear, uncertainty, or simply inertia. And this is not because we lack success or the will to work for it. For many of us, our drive toward outward success is a symptom that needs to be treated before we are able to live our best lives.
Here’s how this shows up in real life. A 2015 Deloitte study discovered that 77 percent of respondents experienced burnout in their current position—feelings of energy depletion, negativity, or cynicism about work, and/or reduced personal and professional capacity. As it turns out, another study linked this high rate of burnout to health care spending and mortality, finding that more than 120 thousand US deaths per year are associated with workplace overwork.
For years, we’ve read articles and had discussions about how imposter syndrome gives us limiting beliefs, making us feel unworthy to pursue our big dreams. But did you know just how prevalent imposter syndrome is? Studies dating back to the ’80s show up to 70 percent of us experience it. It turns out the stronger your overachieving tendencies are, the more likely you’ll feel like an imposter.
Personally, I’m the kind of person who craves understanding. It’s motivating to understand not just how prevalent these beliefs are, but why they are so prevalent and why so many of us aren’t living our biggest dreams.
In my experience talking with friends and with clients, I’ve found that nearly everyone believes they’ll tackle their dreams “one day.” The problem with this approach is all those other years in between when we’re giving in to workaholism, burning ourselves out, traveling to another state or country, or job-hopping to get ahead. It feels like we’re always trying to achieve yet another thing on our list that is not related to our big dream.
“You’re such a good student,” they said. “You’re so strong. We’re proud of all your success and how well you’ve done for yourself.” No matter how many times I heard this, I didn’t feel like enough. A six-figure career, being published, appearing on TV; none of this success brought lasting fulfillment or happiness for me. Upon deeper reflection, I discovered these feelings of not being good enough date back to the way I grew up.
My parents were alcoholics, meaning that a lot of the time they weren’t paying attention to me or my needs. I learned from an early age to be hyper-focused on everyone else’s needs and feelings as a coping mechanism. On top of that, I felt the need to do everything I could to appear like I had it all together and didn’t need any help. I didn’t want to make waves in the family and add complexity to an already complex situation. Becoming an overachiever earned me a lot of outside validation and praise, but it also helped me hold the family together.
Both my parents died of alcoholism-related diseases within two years of one another. As the oldest of three, I was suddenly in charge of not only managing their estates, but also taking care of my two younger siblings. At the age of twenty-two, I became the guardian of my sixteen-year-old sister, which was an unbelievable amount of responsibility to be handed to a young adult.
However, I was always given and took on way too much responsibility because of the household I grew up in. In fact, becoming the guardian of my sister was probably one of the least challenging responsibilities I experienced as a child and young adult. All of this has lasting effects on me today, especially, I learned, as it relates to pursuing my deepest dreams.
Sadly, the topic of trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is still so loaded and focused on either treating members of the military returning from war or what I call “capital-T,” event-related Trauma like abuse, assault, or injuries. Within the realm of PTSD, there’s significantly less focus on the millions of us who grew up in households that seem okay from the outside, but actually lacked basic support, communication, and understanding.
In addition, these public discussions about trauma often focus on physical and mental health, but not on how they relate to our career and finances. Studies show that 64 percent of us have experienced one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs—a list of ten specific types of experiences that include having a parent with a mental health issue or experiencing divorce or neglect. Based on that fact, it’s rare to be a person who grows out of childhood free of adversity. Yet no one is making these linkages between our early struggles and how they affect our ability to find contentment in our calling.
I believe trauma is the root cause behind much of our limiting beliefs. Given how widespread traumatic experiences are, this undoubtedly has an impact on our ability as a society to act on our biggest dreams. The good news is that going through trauma also creates resiliency. When we channel our resiliency in the right way instead of letting our coping mechanisms take center stage, we can find more purpose in our lives.
Starting with my sabbatical, I embarked on a new inner journey—one that was not achievement-focused, but rather more exploratory in nature and without expectation. It gave rise to a self-employed career that affords me time for service to others and introspection. I have been able to create a life for myself that has more balance, more purpose, and most importantly less stress, fear, and pain. I want to help you find that, too.
In the The Resiliency Effect, together we’ll dive into why this happens to us and learn from other people about how they’ve found and acted on their true callings without suffering financially. We’ll talk more about what trauma and ACEs are, why it’s important to acknowledge the double-edged sword of resiliency, and how you can turn your experiences into opportunity. We’ll also talk about how to unlearn coping mechanisms that may be getting in your way and what you can do instead. Finally, we’ll give you some actionable insights and journal prompts to sort through your thoughts so you can take steps to launch your biggest dreams.
This is an excerpt from The Resiliency Effect: How to Own Your Adversity to Act on Your Biggest Dreams. To read more, check out the book here.
Hi, I’m Cady
I write about money, mindset, behavior, sabbaticals, and work culture. In my private client work, I help women act on their biggest dreams and build financial resilience for the future.