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While everyone's situation is unique, the following cases present common issues confronting my clients.

1. Feeling 'out of step' and inadequate

The situation

Jeff had always enjoyed the limelight. Bright, capable and full of optimism, he'd been popular in high school, a full scholarship student in university and captain of the debating team. When he completed his Master's in Environmental Engineering, the recruiters were standing in line. He remembered feeling like he had the 'world by the tail' and yet lately his life seemed to have stalled.

He had a challenging new job and was finally planning that 'dream trek' to Nepal. He was even starting to meet new friends … but here it wasn't going as well. On the slopes and in the coffee shops where he loved to 'hang', the buzz was all about condos and stock portfolios. It almost seemed like you needed a mortgage to be taken seriously (especially by women) … and in this area Jeff was on the outside. What he wanted was to explore new ideas and find a soul mate to share his life with - the notion of building material wealth held little appeal.

Jeff was used to being accepted and admired - a leader that others emulated. The idea that suddenly he might not be 'measuring up' was hard to swallow. Gradually, he started to lose confidence and hang back from discussions. He noticed not wanting to run into old friends, preferring to stay home … but then experiencing mixed emotions of anger and sadness. Sometimes he felt like such a misfit … was he making all the wrong choices? What had happened to the old Jeff?

What we did

Jeff needed a chance to voice his frustration so that we could put it in perspective. The transition from student to young professional had been abrupt - building a new identity is never comfortable. We took time to clarify his values and identify what was really important to him.

It was obvious Jeff was not a 'mainstream' guy who could take direction from the in-crowd and the media. He wanted more out of life than just accumulating 'stuff' … and more from friends (and lovers) than just financial liaison. Our initial assessments confirmed that personality-wise he was actually in a very small group. His insightful, humorous style might look 'mainstream', but wasn't likely to really resonate with more than 2% of the population. Coming to terms with the idea that he wasn't going to 'fit in' everywhere was an important step.

The good news was that profound and rich relationships were in his future - if he could relax and go looking in the right places. It was more important than ever to 'do it his way', respecting his own values and not caving to the wisdom of the marketing moguls. So where to meet interesting and kindred spirits? We brainstormed ideas and sketched out a plan for initiating new (more authentic) strategies. Jeff was excited.

Putting it all in perspective meant tackling the whole 'materialism' thing as well. While taking on a mortgage was certainly no way to launch adulthood, there was much to be gained through increased financial literacy. As he did some reading and web-based research, Jeff relaxed and grew more confident. No need to sacrifice his ideals - money 'sense' was just another tool. When the time was right, he knew he'd be ready for it all- the complimentary partner, the life adventures, and the condo (if they really wanted it.)


2. All work, no play … and very little appreciation

The Situation

At 42, Josie was a serious career nurse and 'Power-Mom' - with a successful and caring husband, two 'almost perfect' pre-schoolers and a Martha Stewart flair for hospitality. Attractive, competent and the envy of all her friends, somehow she managed to juggle it all. But lately, something was different. Feeling overtired and harried was not unusual - but feeling unappreciated and even unloved was new. The humour and tenderness in her home life had dwindled. Even family meal times (once easy and light-hearted) had become testy debates about problems and snapping at the children. She was trying harder than ever - but losing ground.

To make matters worse, she'd been struggling with persistent headaches. Josie visited her doctor to get 'better' painkillers and tried to get a boost from anti-depressants, but found that they drained and disoriented her even further. The Josie I met was ready to crumble.

What We Did

The eldest of four children, Josie had always been the family 'rock'. Even with her own busy life to manage, she regularly 'peeked in' on her ailing mother and furtively 'supported' her alcoholic younger brother as he bounced from crisis to crisis. There simply weren't enough hours in the day … but that didn't deter Josie. True to form, she just set the bar higher (for herself) … and then worked frantically to make it all happen.

We began by exploring her feelings - mountains of guilt (at not coping anymore), smouldering resentment (that others weren't doing their part), and growing anger (at life). No surprise - given the impossible expectations she'd set for herself and others. It was clear Josie needed more balance (fun, relaxation) and, most importantly, a healthier perspective. She also needed to calm down and appreciate what was truly wonderful about her life.

It wasn't simply a matter of dropping commitments, finding time to relax or learning to enjoy what she had. Josie needed to do a little of each - they were all interwoven.

We introduced relaxation and self-calming techniques (that fit her schedule) … and helped set the stage for change through visualisation strategies. Fantasies of a 'perfect day' revealed modest but deep longings. More enjoyment of her children, closer intimacy with her partner and regular 'me-time' without the help of happy pills - it was all doable and closer than she thought.

We reviewed her commitments, took stock of her daily tasks and helped her prioritize and make choices (no more weekend shifts at the hospital). We challenged her beliefs regarding her responsibilities to her brother and mother. She couldn't save her brother from himself, but she could still provide emotional support. Similarly she could keep an eye on her mom without visiting every day (her siblings could contribute). Instead of scolding her kids about homework, a loving hug and some good-natured tutoring might be more effective. And learning to 'take five' and deeply relax was a real gold-mine for reducing her internal stress level.

With a different perspective and a healthy dash of self-worth, Josie learned how to change. She came away with clearer sense of her priorities and plans for moving forward. She's still busier than most but she's learned to embrace positive stress and cast off the rest. Saturday nights are blocked for her husband (no matter what) … and her headaches have lifted. She's in charge!


3. Leaving home without breaking their hearts

The Situation

A recent graduate, Eva was just starting to enjoy her career as a compounding pharmacist. At 26 she had a winning smile, a small circle of friends … and a not-so-secret admirer. Although her family had moved to Canada from Asia when she was a child, Eva was very much a modern Canadian career woman. Her parents, on the other hand, seemed a study in contradictions encouraging her to get a professional education, then demanding she live at home and be available to them, while often nagging about the lack of a husband and grandchildren. As much as Eva loved her parents and admired their struggle, she had begun to resent their conflicting demands and need to control her. She despaired that she could never have a 'life' if she continued to defer to their expectations.

To complicate matters, Eva was falling in love with William Macintosh - a young plumber with his own business. She wanted to be open about her relationship, to enjoy her family's love and support. She wanted them to meet William and get to know his fine qualities. But, whenever she broached the subject, shouting matches developed. Lately, she was crying herself to sleep every night. She was starting to lose weight and noticed a strange (& worrying) numbness in her hands and feet. Eva's physician could find nothing wrong physically, but feared that she was falling into depression and referred her to me for a consultation.

What We Did

Eva felt relieved after 'reality checking' her feelings about the situation. True, she was caught in the 'lose-lose' pull of competing worldviews. On the other hand, as we listed the positives in her life, more hopeful outcomes emerged.

In particular, even though Eva was hurt and frustrated by her parents - she loved them and realised that she accepted most of their 'core' values. Honesty, hard work and respect for family - these were the qualities she loved most in William. Her parents might not understand the social realities of her peer group, but maybe they could appreciate how much of their wisdom Eva had embraced. At the same time, however, maybe she was misinterpreting her parents dependency and need for control if only she could reassure them about the future and how she felt.

We developed a survey to help Eva identify and clarify her values and then compare them to those of her family. When she shared this with her family, they were encouraged to talk about their own experience. Eva was surprised at how quickly her parents seem to relax, stop shouting and start listening. Some new perspectives, a few negotiating skills, and several 'experiments' later, we found ways for Eva to move her life forward without alienating her parents. In fact, the new Eva was soon resurrected as a respected source of family strength and parental pride. Her younger brother began to mimic her approach - learning to engage his parents in projects where he wanted their support.

Not that it's ever really over last time I talked to Eva her soon-to-be in-laws were bumping heads with the challenges of a Chinese/Scottish wedding. Challenges, challenges!


4. What now? - retiring without a plan

The Situation

When John was offered a buy-out at 55, he jumped at the chance. A new government, a reshuffling of departments, and talk of 'streamlining' signalled tide changes ahead. John was more than ready to leave - after 20 years as a human resources manager, he was proud of his contribution. But, like many hard-driving professionals, he'd made a lot personal sacrifices in preparation for a comfortable retirement. Now it was time to relax and have fun!

It was great at first everyone congratulating him on his success … early mornings at the driving range … whipping up gourmet dinners in the evening (he'd always loved to cook). Gradually, however he became restless. Anne (six years his junior) was still actively into her career, so there wasn't time yet for extended travel.

Only six months into his 'golden years' and John was beginning to sense an unfamiliar anxiety. Vibrant and energetic, he was used to solving difficult problems and being respected for his talents. Suddenly, there were no real problems to solve. The days were long and John was missing the action and the people. On those occasions when he'd 'dropped in' to his old office to say hello, it was clear no one really missed him.

On the golf course, he found himself a bit of a 'loner - not quite comfortable with the regular 'old-timers' and increasingly 'out-of-step' with the younger, after-work 'dealmakers'. Was it his imagination, or did he detect a shade of pity in their eyes when he talked about what he 'used to do'? He found himself smouldering at their arrogance. And he was bringing his anger home to the woman he loved.

One disastrous evening it began to seriously fall apart. It all started with a frustrated remark from Anne about how he had reorganised 'her kitchen' again without asking her. Way too many comments later it ended with John storming out and spending the night driving around. When he slunk in at 5 am, an angry and frantic Anne was waiting. Over the last few months, she'd been patient with his moodiness - but now she was ready to confront him. After a marathon discussion (she booked off work that day), Anne insisted (and John agreed) that he needed help. John came in to see me for a consultation and some serious guy-talk.

What We Did

John was guarded at first. Talking to a professional about private thoughts and feelings was pretty unfamiliar territory. But he was eager to tell me about his accomplishments - and there were many. Along with his career successes John had been a reliable anchor for his family … in the early years providing for Anne and their three young sons and later supporting her through a career transition. He was most proud of helping his boys through college. For years he'd focused on meeting his responsibilities. Now, It was hard to accept that he was barely needed in the same way. With no leisure skills, few interests and even fewer friends, he was feeling lonely, embarrassed … even a little frightened. He'd always been a man of action - he knew he needed more than good memories to get him up in the morning. But what?

Our initial work included reading and writing assignments and videos to help John understand what he was going through and how transition to retirement affected others. He was anxious to move forward but first he needed to deal with the past. As a senior manager there had been prestige, power and perks. But, as he relived his career path, his fondest memories were from an earlier time when he'd been involved with mentoring young managers.

When I asked him to think (and write about) what he was ready to leave (and not leave) behind, John returned with 2 bulleted lists and new perspectives. He was ready to say goodbye to his schedule, paperwork, and long boring meetings … and yes, even the prestige and title. But he wasn't ready to drop out of the human resources community and he still wanted to help young professionals develop. But how? It wasn't clear at this point. But the uneasy (and iterative) process of transition was underway.

At this point, it was important to strengthen John's 'sense of self' - who was he today and who did he want to become in the next stage of his life. Using personality and values assessments and exploring youthful dreams revealed a long lost sense of idealism and passion for learning. It turned out he'd once loved biographies and devoured Canadian history and all things political. Rather than despairing about his losses, John gradually began to see a panorama of possibilities to explore.

John may stay in the 'neutral zone' between identities for awhile … after a holiday, he may even end up back in the world of work. But with new perspective and self-knowledge, and Anne's loving counsel, he will be in charge of the agenda.


"What Jim taught me really changed how I felt about my wife's large extended family. The holidays are much better now."
- Anthony W. (Richmond, B.C.)

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