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Leadership Lab #23 | Being in your Funk
What do you do when you're in a rut and all of your usual tools fail you?
I’ve been in a funk all week. A mean one. One of those funks where every tactic you throw at it—going to the gym, getting outside, eating healthy, making sure you get enough sleep, no caffeine or alcohol, journaling, asking yourself what part of you is unfulfilled1, getting vulnerable about it with someone close, even sitting down for a rare meditation—don’t get you out of it. It was infuriating. And that was the problem.
One of the defining features of being in a funk is that I get locked into a conflict with myself. I notice that I’m in a funk and immediately react against it. I want myself to not be in a funk. I judge myself for being in a funk. And then I judge myself for judging myself for being in a funk.
2The primary feature of this war with the self is that my energy gets channeled into the conflict. If the way to get out of a funk is to get outside of myself and back into the process of creating what I want in my life, the war only serves to drive me deeper into it.
How do you move through a funk when all of your usual tools fail you?
You get trapped in a funk because you’re at war with yourself. The reason your tools are failing you is because you’re deploying them against yourself. You’re not doing them for the positive things they create in your life, but to escape where you’re currently at.
In psychological terms this is referred to as having an avoidance mindset. You’re doing something not to achieve a positive goal or vision, but to avoid an outcome you don’t want to happen. Doing something from avoidance leverages your sympathetic nervous system, narrowing your focus to the threat of the problem and the best way to solve it. It also blinds you to opportunities that exist outside of the threat.
In this instance, focusing on the threat of the problem is the problem. Focusing on the funk and your desire to get out of it only lends the funk strength. It’s akin to locking horns with yourself, getting so tangled up that you can’t see anything other than your own internal conflict. The shift you need to facilitate is away from an avoidance mindset and toward an approach mindset—acting with a focus on the positive you want to create, rather than the negative you want to avoid. You want to turn your focus away from your internal conflict and instead reorient toward what you want to create in the world.
In order to get out of a funk, you need to, paradoxically, let go of your need to get out of the funk. You need to loosen your grip on your war with yourself. The key to shifting from avoidance to approach is simple, but difficult. They key is acceptance.
Awareness and Acceptance
Some of my favorite tools for navigating internal resistance come from the Conscious Leadership Group (CLG).
One of CLGs primary tools is locating yourself. Per their model, CLG says you can be in one of two places: above or below the line.
When you’re above the line you are in a proactive, non-triggered state. You are generally in an approach-orientation. This state is characterized by openness, curiosity, and a commitment to learning.
When you’re below the line you are in a reactive, triggered state. This generally puts you in an avoidance orientation. This state is characterized by being closed, defensive, and a commitment to being right.
The CLG encourages you to regularly ask yourself: where am I? This allows you, as a first step, to name the uncomfortable truth: I’m in a funk.
If you’re below the line, there’s another important question: Can I accept myself just where I am? This is an important prerequisite to any attempt to move out of a funk. If you attempt to shift your state prior to accepting where you’re at, the shift will be futile. You’ll just be fighting with yourself.
If you can accept where you’re at, a door opens up. From a place of peace (and with an approach mindset) you can ask: is there another way of being that I would like to shift to? What is it and what would it create for me? Am I willing to shift there? How will I?
The key thing to remember is that this practice is an awareness exercise, not a shifting exercise. You can’t make acceptance another tactic to shift out of the funk. You can’t force acceptance. You can merely take stock of if you can accept where you’re at and, if not, dig into the reasons for it. You know you’re off course if you ask yourself “can I accept myself” and get the response “yes, damnit, now let’s shift already!”. Not very accepting is it?
If the answer is “I can’t accept myself”, congratulations! Now you know! Can you accept that fact?
Channel the Funk
In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin describes the process that chess grandmaster Tigran Petrosian used to handle the volatility of his mood during chess tournaments that spanned days or weeks at a time:
He would begin each day by waking up and sitting quietly in his room for a period of introspection. His goal was to observe his mood down to the finest nuance. Was he feeling nostalgic, energetic, cautious, dreary, impassioned, inspired, confident, insecure. His next step was to build his game plan around his mood.
Instead of imposing an artificial structure on his match strategy, Petrosian tried to be as true to himself as possible on a moment-to-moment basis. He believed that if his mood and the chess position were in synch, he would be most inclined to play with the greatest inspiration.
Implicit to this strategy is a holistic acceptance of precisely where you are in any moment. And yet Petrosian takes this one step further: he places no pressure on himself to shift at all. He views his current state as perfect and instead looks for how he can bring that energy to the game.
How freeing! What would it look like if you could peacefully bring your funk with you wherever you want, not disavowing it but channeling it into whatever you do?
Focus on Stress & Recovery Cycles
A funk often causes us to react in a way that brings out the worst of our avoidance strategies. For most, this means one of two things: either doubling down on the time and effort you put into work, grinding your way through the funk, or stepping out of the game altogether, avoiding the work that reminds you that you’re in a funk.
Either of these strategies is fine. They’ll eventually get you through it. And yet I’d like to recommend an alternative, middle way: focus on balancing your stress and rest cycles.
How? Focus on showing up as best you can, but also creating the time and space you need for adequate recovery. Treat the oscillation between these modes of being as an experimental cycle: use the periods of showing up to gather data and the periods of rest to reflect and inspect that data. What came up for you? What might this funk be trying to teach you?
Additional questions to ask at any point during these cycles:
Are there any feelings I’m avoiding feeling?
Are there any truths I’m withholding from myself or others?
Are there any responsibilities I’m not owning or agreements that I’ve broken?
Is there any vulnerability I’m avoiding, with myself or others?
The key is to avoid an all-or-nothing mentality. Don’t double down on grinding it out or step out altogether. Allow yourself the middle way: show up and do the work, and also create space to get some rest and perspective on the work.
This funk lasted about 5 days. When I zoom out, I see it for the minuscule blip that it was. Yet when I was in it, it felt like the end of my world. Impostor syndrome flared. I hated it. I wanted desperately to be out of it.
It’s easy for ambitious people to make funks existential. We define ourselves by our ambition and competency. We identify with them. How could losing access to those things not be the end of the world? How could they not make us ask if this company/project/business/partner was a huge mistake? If we’ve lost our mojo? If something is fundamentally wrong with us?
Funks are a part of life. Let yourself be in them. See if you can accept or channel them. Try to stay in the process. Most importantly, have some patience with and compassion for yourself. Funks happen. You’ll get through it, just like you’ve gotten through everything before.
As George Leonard so wisely stated in his book Mastery: if you want to be a master in anything (including yourself), you have to learn to Love the Plateau.
Infuriatingly, it was the part of me that wanted to do good work and be out of the funk
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