Permission To Disappear

How I’m learning to refuse false binaries, escape the Nowhere Dilemma, and become a better leader by vanishing.

Ugh. A super-serious selfie for a (kinda) super-serious article.

I’ve been working with an executive coach for 16 weeks. Her name is Lorraine and she likes to remind me that she isn’t paid to be my friend or my therapist. The office where we meet (every Tuesday at 8:30am) is in a nondescript building behind a Bed Bath & Beyond, less than 50 yards from the freeway. We spend a lot of our time together talking about Struck—how much I love this place, how much I worry that I’m not doing a great job as its CEO, how to spend less time fighting the past and more time creating the future. We also talk about other things—my personal relationships, my inability to get to the gym in the morning, my family.

Recent sessions have begun with a simple question, “Who am I getting today?” It’s a complicated query, an attempt to figure out where we’ll be starting our work. Is Lorraine getting a focused, clear-headed CEO? Or a muddled knucklehead who’s never quite sure what’s around the corner? I try to answer honestly, but it’s usually the way I walk into the room or the way I sit (slump) in my chair that reveals the most. I’m not great at disguising my mood, especially in that setting.

A few weeks ago, before I had dropped my bag on the floor or barricaded myself into the chair, Lorraine simply said “Oh, no. Not this guy.” A thousand pounds of pressure sat squarely on my left shoulder. That’s how it feels sometimes—the weight is physical even when it’s emotional or philosophical. I shrugged and didn’t say much. I was stuck in what I’ve started calling the Nowhere Dilemma. It happens every now and again; I don’t want to go to work. I don’t want to be at home. I want to be nowhere. I want to hide out, to disappear completely. Maybe you understand that feeling? For me, it’s typically the result of feeling guilty about work and guilty about home/family all at the same time.

Our brains are really good at binary structures. Too good, really. I’ve fallen victim to a number of them and the Nowhere Dilemma is often the consequence. I either have to be at the office, engaged in big-picture problem solving or I have to be home, making up for lost time. I either have to be an all-absorbent sponge, taking on every problem that I see/perceive or I have to be an impenetrable rock, closed off to the outside world and concerned only with my own survival. Broken down, these binaries are obviously illogical. But in the moment, they’re real, powerful, and (most damaging) they rob us of choice. We lose the option to do something different as we hurtle back and forth between one extreme and the other. We feel powerless and consumed by guilt, until suddenly we don’t want to be at either end of the spectrum.

That’s where I was. It was time to be honest with Lorraine, with myself.

“I don’t want to go to work today, but I don’t want to go back home either.”

The words hurt as they escaped (most honest words do). I love the people I work with and I love the work I get to do every day. I love my family and I love feeling emotionally attached (even indebted) to them. It wasn’t them that I wanted to escape, it was the ricocheting bounce between the two polar opposites. I had created a mindset wherein I was either Matt, the Engaged and Effective CEO or I was Matt, the Engaged and Effective Husband/Father. You see how I did that? I had made an either/or out of my life. And it sucked. (It still sucks; I’m not done with this battle.)

Lorraine responded with a single question, “What happens if you don’t go to work?” I laughed and told her that I didn’t know. I’d never tried it. The only alternative I could see was going home to fold some laundry or to run some errands. She asked again, “What happens if you don’t go home?” Seriously? I didn’t know. She was asking me to contemplate the illogical, something that completely upended my (flawed) worldview. She was asking me to think about another path that didn’t follow my binary construct. I sat in silence for a while and listened to Lorraine talk about chopping wood as an outlet, how letting the axe drop into a piece of pine helped her sort things out. She even drew me a map to her shed and told me where the key was if I wanted to borrow one of her stress-relieving tools.

It was one of Those Moments and I wasn’t going to get off easy. I chewed the inside of my lip, stared at the floor, and didn’t say much as I waited for the session to end. My brain was working its way through something difficult, but my heart was ready for this alternate/non-binary escape route. It had to happen now. Putting it off would be a loss.

So, I sent a short email. I stopped at Chick-Fil-A for a Chicken Biscuit and a Diet Coke. And then I drove 75 miles to the ocean.

Normally, I use time in the car to listen to podcasts, to fill my mind with information. On this drive, I didn’t do that, opting instead to overwhelm my ears with albums that always make me feel perfect—Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, The Sunset Tree, Boxer, The Execution of All Things. May in Oregon means rainy and 50°, but the windows of my hatchback were down for large portions of the drive. Eventually, I parked in the driveway of a vacant vacation rental. The wind ripped across the sand, I stood still and stared at the ocean for a while. I took photos to prove that this was real. I let the old air out of my lungs and tried desperately to replace it with as much Pacific spray as my body could accept. Then I got in the car and drove (the long way) back to the office.

Here’s why all of this matters: My life is not binary. There are other choices, other orbits/arcs/paths that allow freedom from the guilt-driven back-and-forth of a binary trap. I didn’t have to go to the office and I didn’t have to go home. In fact, it was better for everyone that I didn’t.

And you know what? The world didn’t end. My meetings shifted to other slots; the awards submissions, RFP responses, blog posts, strategy documents, finance discussions, client needs, and new business concerns all found their way back into my life. A few people asked where I was. When I told them, they (my wife, my co-workers) wondered why I didn’t do something like that more often. When it came time to disappear, I’d been so worried about having permission from everyone else that I’d forgotten to ask the only person who really mattered: me.

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