A few weeks ago, I was in a session with a patient who was struggling profoundly with what direction to go with the business she had started. Like so many small business owners, hers was one built on a deep conviction for the work she did and she’d spent the last several years pouring herself into it. But now she was broke, working far beyond her own limits, and grieving the fact that it hadn’t taken off.
The mission of her little company meant everything to her. The business itself did not.
She didn’t particularly like the work she was actually doing. She was uninspired by the day to day. What had started as a way to support herself while staying connected to a topic she cares about had turned into a grind. And she wasn’t actually supporting herself anymore because the business was struggling for reasons outside of her control. She felt miserable.
She was caught in what felt like a torturous conflict. She figured that she could double down on this business, potentially even try to raise capital to see if an infusion of money could help. Or she could walk away, leaving behind the grind that was killing her soul, but that had been her baby for the last several years.
As we talked about her conflict, one thing became starkly clear, and that’s the story she was telling herself about not continuing the business. She believed that leaving the business would mean that she had failed. And the story she was telling herself about failure is that it meant you weren’t capable or valuable.
If the choice is between working harder – even at the expense of ourselves – or accepting unworthiness, we are almost always going to choose the work. None of us as human beings can truly tolerate the idea of being unworthy, and we’ll do all kinds of painful things to avoid it.
We throw ourselves into work. We numb out to the experience with food. We pile up unhealthy relationships in an attempt to get that worthiness via osmosis. We knowingly self-destruct or grind ourselves to death trying not to self-destruct. None of it’s pretty.
My patient had been close with other people who had started businesses. She was quickest to talk about the one who recently sold his company for an ungodly amount of money, the seeming pinnacle of the American economic dream. He’d “made it” according to capitalist metrics.
But she had never intended to build a business to sell it. She hadn’t really even had financial goals. Sure, she wanted it to stay operational and generate a good income, but hers was a business built on purpose.
I asked her whether she’d felt purposeful over the last few years. I didn’t want her to assess this with the bias of her current struggle, but to really think about whether her business had made a difference in the lives of people – whether she had felt she was living with intention and meaning on her journey. She assured me that she did. She had inspired people to make real changes, and in her clearer moments, she could even see how many ripple effects those changes had had on the larger community.
Why was this a failure, I wondered to her, if this business has meant something? If it’s served its purpose in the time and place it was intended to, was it actually a mistake?
The way that we’ve come to think about success in our culture is the idea of things lasting forever. If we have a relationship or a job or something we’ve made that endures, we’re told that our efforts are valid. Conversely, the things that stay for just a time are written off as failures.
I’ve spent a lot of time with this idea recently.
Was my marriage a failure, I’ve wondered often over the past year. Should it be chalked up to poor judgment of a 21-year-old thinking she had found forever? Were the 15 years of togetherness a mistake that was made?
As I’ve rolled the question of how to think about and talk about my divorce over in my mind, I’ve decided one thing for sure. I’m not going to call it a “failed marriage.”
I get that in our society, marriage means forever. That’s kind of the way the institution is written, as the court system had clearly illuminated to me based on my legal fees. But if we take marriage out of the realm of a legal contract and we look at it as an enduring partnership, I think we can take a more nuanced view.
My own marriage was a chapter. I thought it was going to be a whole book, but instead it was a chapter. It lasted long enough to teach me infinite things about relationships and myself. It gave me strength at various points to be the person I needed to be. It gave me four remarkable children. It was a damn good chapter, all things considered.
But it wasn’t the whole book. It wasn’t the beginning and the end. It was part.
What if we thought about transitions as pivot points instead of ending points?
I’m not suggesting that we don’t acknowledge the loss that’s inherent in any transition – whether it’s leaving a business, a marriage, a home, a job, or anything else. Grieving is necessary and it can’t be skipped over.
But I don’t know that we have to define success through the lens of longevity. If the role or the relationship served its purpose for that season of life, that might be exactly what it was meant to do. No more. No less.
What if we thought about our life in chapters, ones that tell a story, but not the whole story?
Once we had loosened up the stuck narrative of ending her business as failure, I could see my patient’s whole body loosen. She had been stuck in the torture of trying to run from failure, and that had kept her tense and blinded and spiraling. When that tension dissipated and her body and mind relaxed, suddenly we were talking about idea upon idea about her next steps.
She could revamp the whole business model and turn it into something more aligned with her skills. She could walk away from it, get a remote job, and start traveling, just like she’d be dreaming. She could do just about anything. She just couldn’t see it when mired in avoidance of failure.
Reframing how she thought about this season of her life meant she could continue to see herself as good and competent and whole.
When I get to the end of a really good chapter in a really good book, I sometimes find myself taking a sharp inhale. It’s over, I realize. I’ll never have that chapter again. For better, for worse.
And then I breathe out, releasing the bittersweetness inside, knowing the next chapter is about to begin.