Your life is going along just fine—until it isn't. You have a decent job, enough money, good health, and a network of friends and family. Then—boom!—an unexpected change in circumstances knocks you off your plateau. Maybe it's the loss of a job, an illness, or a breakup. Or maybe it's the stark realization that, for whatever reason, you aren't happy. Suddenly you find yourself in limbo: an in-between place where uncertainty is your constant companion. You might feel trapped in your new state, unable to move forward.
Linger in that place for too long and you risk falling into what Richard Leider, best-selling author of The Power of Purpose and Life Reimagined, calls "Inner Kill—the art of dying without even knowing it."
A nonrecoverable event? Absolutely not. In fact, your life-disrupting change could be a wake-up call—what Leider labels "a trigger event"—and your lack of direction becomes a chance to explore pathways to new possibilities in your life. In epochs past, life was too short and brutal to give rise to a sense of midlife stasis. As our life expectancy increases well beyond that of previous eras, though, the process of self-discovery becomes essential. "It's all about the three decades we've added to our lives," Leider says. "When you live that long, you can't go through life replicating it. You go through new phases of growth and development."
Immobilizing inertia can sneak up on us with no precipitating event. In fact, it's often the absence of dramatic life changes that stops us in our tracks. "Inner Kill is often a crisis of purpose," Leider says. "It's different from burnout or stress or overt depression, which are brought on by pressures that demand too much of us. Inner Kill isn't about dealing with too much; it's about dealing with too little. It's about being devoid of energy and beyond caring. When you see someone at work walking down the hall, but the lights are out—that's Inner Kill."
How do you know if you are at risk? Leider points to three main symptoms:
- Exhaustion: "The kind of behind-the-eyeballs spiritual fatigue that comes not from burnout, but from underbeing."
- Cynicism: "Your curiosity has gotten dulled, and you're prone to chronic and prolonged crabbiness. You isolate yourself and avoid decisions."
- Lack of meaning: "Getting up in the mornings becomes harder. You try to escape more through sleep, chemicals, even nonstop traveling—anything than what you should be doing on a day-to-day basis."
Inner Kill isn't just a psychological or behavioral ailment—over time, it can actually make you physically sick. "All of a sudden, people find they've got lower immunity," Leider says. "They're feeling crappy a lot—tired and drained. It's because they're not engaged." He purposely couches his case in stark and scary language. "The word 'kill' is a shocker," he says. "Soft, squishy words wouldn't get people's attention. In order to get anything new into the language, you need some drama. People get it—and they're rightfully afraid of it."
The comforting news is that once you realize you are headed for Limbo Land, or that you are already there, you can start taking deliberate steps to wind your way back out. Richard Feller, a Colorado-based career consultant, often urges clients to perform small, even whimsical tasks in order to tunnel out of a deep rut. "Find fifteen things that interest you and cost less than five dollars," Feller suggests. "Look for rocks in the shape of hearts. Find three new events in the city you can attend." It isn't about going into therapy, he says. It's about piquing your passions and finding new ways to connect with people. Even taking an unfamiliar route to work or having oolong tea instead of coffee with breakfast can offer "clues about what gets you jazzed," Feller says. "What are you curious about?" he asks. "When you were most alive, what did you like to do?"
For Teri Sivilli, an Atlanta-based college administrator, that question took on added urgency when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 48. Soon after her diagnosis she realized that the prospect of pain or even death was not her chief fear. "It wasn't the dying that bothered me," she says, "but the living I hadn't done." Sivilli instituted big changes in her life, concentrating on mental and physical wellness and eventually getting a job with the Garrison Institute, a nonprofit organization in upstate New York dedicated to using contemplation as a tool for social change. Now in remission, Sivilli is a transformed person. "I'm at a place," she says, "where I simply can—and simply will—do what's important to me."
Though it took a life-threatening illness for Sivilli to reboot her life, any of us can do it at any stage in our lives, according to Leider. He has broken the process down into three steps:
- Recognition: "Understanding the signs and realizing 'something's going on here.'" (If you haven't already, take our interactive quiz: "Are You Burned Out?")
- Reimagination: "Stop and look at your life, and reassess it." What are the things that have real meaning? Which are the ones that make you happy and fulfilled and which are just time wasters?
- Repacking: "Decide what you want to get rid of, and what you want to keep." Repacking your life involves stripping away nonessentials and keeping the things that give it depth, texture and meaning.
Globe-trotting travel writer Kent Black took the last step literally. With work opportunities drying up as he entered his mid-50s, he found himself starring in his own personal version of Groundhog Day, spending too many afternoons in a local saloon, having the same conversations with the same people. As Black explains it, "I realized I had nothing better to do." His repacking process began when he changed his mindset, facing his uncertain future instead of jetting away from it, by putting himself in new social and cultural situations that were unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable.
The payoff: He fell in love with Emily Rapp, a recently divorced writer whose own life was in crisis. Her two-year-old son, Ronan, was suffering from Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and terminal illness. The boy died, leaving Rapp and Black in deep mourning. Then, unexpectedly, Rapp got pregnant; their daughter, Charlotte, was born this year. Black's "repacked" life now centers on his wife and daughter, and the love he feels for them both. "Everything I do for them is another bling of happiness—it's like what I used to get from bar nights or traveling to an obscure town in Mexico," he says. "And that completely changes life. I honestly don't think I've ever been so happy."