I spent a large part of last year in voluntary semi-quarantine. Going through what many people are going through this year: dealing with not having work, uncertainty about the future, returning home, and lots of time on my hands. Isolation and retreat held many rich lessons for me during my career break, and I recount some of them here, in the hope that it will help you too, whenever there is a pause in your life.
Last year, I took a long career break after ten years of trying to do it all. I left a very cool sounding job in a company that has always made it into lists of ‘Top 10 companies to work for in the world.” Since I am a borderline millennial, it was also the longest job I had ever held. And also by far the best I’d ever had.
Many people I knew said “Who leaves a job like that?”
“I do”, was often my reply, full of false bravado.
What I really wanted to say was this – “ I’ll tell you who leaves jobs like that. People who are unable to find joy or purpose in what they do. Those exhausted from the cycle of stress (when working) and guilt (when not) that drains them like a leaking tap. People who can no longer make sense of the false urgency around so many tasks. And people who are tired of running, and chasing false goals, and feeling like no matter what they do, it is never enough.”
How To Know That You’re Ready For A Career Break
What I mentioned above are some classic symptoms of burnout. Interestingly enough, despite the obvious idea that burnout results from driving oneself too hard, it can also result from the emotional toxicity created from not feeling valued at your work, or even having too little to do.
Of course, there are other reasons, besides burnout, why people take a career break. Motherhood is the biggest reason for women to take a career break, or even drop out entirely. Others do it to start something of their own, or because of family issues like partner’s relocation, job loss, a toxic job situation, or even because you decide that you are done.
No matter what your reason, you are only truly ready for taking a break from work when you have a financial plan or backup and you know that you can survive without a job.
(unless of course there is a health or another emergency)
Also, no matter what your initial reason, once you get off the hamster wheel, many things happen.
Expect initial euphoria, followed by a sense of loss.
This is also the point when people will start assuming that you owe them an answer to why you stopped working.
Know Your Real Reasons Behind Taking A Career Break, And Don’t Let People Fill You With Fear
In our country, career breaks can elicit an entire range of responses from condolences (Oh no! I am so sorry), false and unnecessary positivity (Don’t worry, you will get another job soon), enthusiastic but burdensome expectations (So what’s next? Something even cooler I am sure!), or even bias disguised as good intentions (Good! Anyway women should just relax and take care of the house and kids).
Know that people’s reactions are more about how they would feel if they were in your situation. It says everything about them, and nothing about you.
You take a career break because you need it. Period. If you have planned for it financially, and you know you can survive for however long you think you need, you are in good hands (yours).
Your job is to steer clear of all expectations, except yours. (And we will come to yours too). It is essential that you do that, because if you don’t, then in some time, especially on days that you don’t feel so good about yourself, you will not be able to tell the difference between people’s voices, and your own.
You might start by feeling bad about a dipping bank balance, but soon you will be hearing a voice in your head, “Companies don’t want to take people with career gaps.” You will think the voice is yours, but it actually belongs to Sharma uncle who dropped in for chai the other day. It is very easy to go into a downward spiral if you don’t reaffirm your reasons to yourself.
So, The First Step Is To Know Why You Are Taking This Career Break
Sounds easy enough. Sometimes it is. “I want to spend time with my child.” Clear enough.
Sometimes, however, the reason we give ourselves is a cover for something else that we are not acknowledging. Our minds are so ingenious and creative that they know just what excuse will make us feel good enough and brave enough to take the necessary step.
So your mind might tell you “Hey! We are going to start a business.” or “ We are going to exercise, do yoga, eat well, travel the world and blog about it.” This gives you the cushioning you need to take the leap, even though the cushion might fall off once you are in the air.
Because the truth, as you will discover, might be that you just need rest and replenishment. Once you do realise that, your job is to allow for that. And for whatever else emerges.
You Might Also Like
Expect The Unexpected, And Don’t Hang All Your Life’s Expectations On This One Little Slice Of Time, Called A ‘Break’
I know! I Know! You probably have a plan! It is likely to involve travel, learning something new, getting fitter and starting your own thing. I did too! I was quite convinced that I was going to start my own puppet show for kids. I even had 30 puppets purchased from all over the world, a couple of pilot shoots behind me, and the dangling carrot of a potential-possible person who might help me find investors.
One month into my break, all my puppets were still asleep in the cupboard and giving them company was another being who only sprang into life at meal times: me. I could have berated myself into more action, but I did not. I knew I was recovering. From years of accumulated fatigue, underlying stress and the pressure (mostly internal) to be strong and independent.
What I needed most at this time, was not another project, but unconditional nourishment, physical, emotional, spiritual. And I allowed myself to receive it.
Too often, we focus too much on giving. We give our time and energy, our talents and our emotions. We give our care. But unless there is a balance between receiving and giving, we get depleted. This depletion can show up as health issues, as exhaustion, as lack of interest or as emotional coldness.
In order to get your energy and enthusiasm back, you have to rebalance.
When I was growing up, my mother was always working. She retired from her job only after I had left for college. This was the first time in three decades that I had her all to myself, and the unconditional love and nourishment that I received from her was something that the child in me had unknowingly yearned for, for years. Not everyone will need what I did, but everyone will have some unmet need that when met, will bring them home.
What Else To Expect, Besides The Unexpected?
Here is another thing that happens. When you take a career break, you first feel suddenly energetic! So much free time! So much possibility!
I cleaned out and reorganised entire sections of my home!
The burst of energy comes from a freeing up of mental and physical resources that were embroiled in work. However, as the body realises that there is no external pressure, it stops producing the stress hormones that were keeping you functioning at a high pace. Now that there are no external stressors, your body decides it is time to put on the brakes.
That is when you transform into Sleeping Beauty, put to sleep by the evil mother in your subconscious, who told you that you were worth nothing if you were not always working, giving, and proving yourself.
It may feel like a curse, because you had so many plans, and here you are, with barely enough energy except to feed and dress but remember, the evil mother is still a mother. She is part of your psyche. And she knows that you need the rest.
It took me three months to start writing again, and six months to find the energy and desire to want to work on something again.
The Descent Into Healing
Remember Sita, and how she descends into the Earth? And Persephone, the queen of the underworld?
In the modern world, the time when you strip off all external identity to come face to face with who you really are – that is your descent, your time to retreat, to shed old leaves, and wait for spring.
This is the time to know yourself without labels, without external recognition, without the clock ticking over your head like a time bomb, demanding that you be productive.
Since many of us have always chased milestones that were set for us by other people, we feel lost without someone telling us what to do, like a boat afloat in a dark ocean, waiting for a captain to steer it to safety. A long break with no demands on your time is an invitation to be the captain of your own ship, and to see what holds you back from taking charge of your own life.
A couple of months into your break, if you haven’t already rushed into something else, you will start the descent. Many unprocessed emotions will come up, issues you thought you had resolved a long time ago. Don’t run away. The way out is through.
Sit, Examine, Write, But Most Importantly, Feel
In the world of work, it is our feelings that take the biggest hit. Emotions are seen as ‘unprofessional’, a sign of weakness or not having your act together. Where do they go? They go under your skin, into your cells and bones and organs, into the deep recesses of your mind. Now they will start to emerge, and you might be surprised.
I was. I found anger, sadness, self hatred, old wounds, you name it.
All of them are messengers. They want to bring you into full awareness of yourself. Welcome them! Work with them.
This is a good time to explore movement, meditation, journaling, or another form of therapy because you have the time to make the journey and sit through what comes up. I signed up for certification in Psychodrama, a form of psychotherapy that uses dramatisation and role-plays to uncover and work through ‘stuff’. I found it incredibly helpful. I would recommend signing up for something that gives you a sense of community, because groups offer support and insight that individuals cannot.
I feel that it is a big waste of a career break if you don’t spend at least three months doing ‘nothing’ because this ‘nothing’ is a lot of work, and in between life, and work and taxes and relationships, it is not often that one gets the opportunity.
We transform when we accept our feelings, and our suffering, as part of life’s natural process. As we honour all emotions, we also find our heart opening up. As we allow ourselves to feel sad, we also make space for joy and renewed purpose to come calling.
It is important to not get stuck in the suffering, and to pay attention to joy when it shows up.
One makes space for the other. Healing is never a circle, it is a spiral. You revisit old wounds, relook at old lessons, but from a new perspective. And then it is time to move on.
As with the descent, the ascent is natural and happens organically.
Sometimes, the idea of healing and self improvement, if we get obsessed with it, can be a trap. It can reinforce the psychology that something in us is always broken and needs to be mended. We need to be in touch with our joy, with fun, with our strengths, in order to be whole, and not be sucked into a hole. (sorry about that, but since you have made it so far, I am assuming you will tolerate my silly joke)
So be ready for the Ascent. You will know it because you will naturally start feeling energy come back to you, you will want to take up a project, or do something else. Follow these stirrings and take action. At the six month mark, I wanted to travel again. A project also came to me at this point from my previous company, with a team that I had loved. I felt alive again.
My last job had challenged me a lot, because I was required to be analytical and data driven apart from being a creative thinker. I also struggled with many other things my job needed of me – organisation, proactive communication, connecting with teams across time zones and focusing on high impact work. I had five roles in five years. Because of this, I was always on an uphill learning slope, struggling with new expectations and requirements all the time.
It was only after I left, rested and recovered, that I realised that everything I had struggled with had transformed into new skills that I now possessed.
What had seemed like a superficial struggle, was now part of me, as things I just seemed to know how to do. I know that the time that I took off allowed for the learnings to get integrated into my system and become part of me.
It also helped me shed old beliefs that were no longer serving me, and find new ones that were more aligned to who I wanted to be. I re-assessed everything without even realising it – my work, relationships, friendships, my sense of self and my outlook towards life. Not to say that this process is ever complete, but without the time to pause, reflect and surrender to one’s own self, we become more and more fragmented, because we don’t have the space to become one with our learnings.
Nature has cycles of growth, destruction and renewal. Our bodies do too. Constant productivity is an idea imposed upon us by institutions that profit from our running on the hamster wheel without end. Economic agency is important, especially for women, but the idea that each adult individual needs to be economically self-sufficient all the time is also a hollow idea. We can have multiple arrangements, and we have to negotiate our way through them in different ways, finding what works best for us.
So, unless there is a pressing need, don’t be in a hurry to find the next thing to do. The most important thing that you can do with the gift of time is to allow a new you to emerge. The rest will follow.
You Might Also Like
Last updated: 22 February 2021
You’re invited! Join the Kool Kanya women-only career Community where you can network, ask questions, share your opinions, collaborate on projects, and discover new opportunities. Join now.