• Phil McAuliffe

Why hit rock bottom?

Hitting rock bottom is messy.

Why do you wait to hit it to make change?



I’ve noticed that many of you reach out to me when you’re very close to hitting – or have hit – rock bottom with an aspect of your diplomatic life.


A quick self-reflection shows that I often wait to hit rock bottom before I make change in my life, too.


With curiosity, let’s explore why we wait to hit rock bottom before we make change in our lives.



What is ‘rock bottom’? According to the Collins Dictionary: If someone has reached rock bottom, they are in such a bad state or are so completely depressed that their situation could not get any worse.


The courage to admit we’re at rock bottom


Generally, we don’t hit rock bottom gracefully, elegantly or with dignity. We slam into it after what may have been a long descent. We can reach our point of rock bottom after years of attempting to numb or avoid thoughts and feelings through drugs, alcohol, work or any number of other ways we can numb or try to cope.

Rock bottom is messy. It can be a place of desperate bargaining. There are tears. There is shame. There’s a sense of despair and hopelessness. There can be a crushing disappointment that whatever we expected to happen hasn’t eventuated. It’s a place that we want to avoid, and when we’re there, we don’t want to linger there.

It’s a lonely place to be, and it takes courage to admit we’re there.


My friend, if this is you right now, I love you and your courage for being where you are and for being here.


For those of you who have experienced your rock bottom moment, you know the type of courage that’s needed to pick yourself up. I see you and I love you and your courage, too.






As a diplomat or someone living the diplomatic life


Whoever you are, hitting rock bottom can be messy. But there are other factors that come into play when you live the diplomatic life.


As a diplomat, you’re likely accustomed to being successful in life. You did well at school. You got great results at university. You became employed by your employer and lived and worked overseas representing your country and advancing its interests internationally.


Without doubt, this was a struggle for you. You have had to work hard, but you made it. You have a job that has brought you to where you are in the world and you have some great experiences from it.


Hitting rock bottom – whatever the reason that’s brought you there – is a tough reminder that despite all the success and achievements you’ve had in life, you’re still subject to the human condition.
Rock bottom is a harsh reminder that you’re human.

You may also be used to knowing the answers to some tough questions and how to respond in tough situations. When you’re accustomed to having all the answers – or knowing the right people to ask – it’s tough to be in a situation where it feels like you’re surrounded by questions but there are no answers.


If your workplace has a culture where you feel that you must always be ready to say the right thing to the right people at the right time to be successful (however you define it), hitting rock bottom can feel like your physical, mental or emotional state is putting your career at risk.

This is especially the case if you’ve carefully constructed a façade of being the go-to person with a safe pair of hands in a crisis. If you’re not the type yourself, then you definitely know the type: the person who’s there to guide the response to the crisis. You’re great at responding to crises in other people’s lives, but you ignore the issues in your own until they can no longer be ignored.

I know that this last point will sting for some of you.


You may find yourself hitting rock bottom after waiting for permission to change. This could be permission from your significant other, from your boss or anyone else in your life who could be affected by you making changes.


And the change doesn’t happen, because either that permission was never asked in a way that others heard and received or the circumstances were never quite right or, perhaps, the permission you were looking for before you did change wasn’t theirs to give.


This approach is often what happens when you’re looking to do change the right way: that way where you change without disrupting yourself or those around you. ‘I don’t want to be a burden’ is the most-common phrase I hear from you when this is the case.


You hit rock bottom because you continued to choose the comfort of status quo over change. You choose comfort instead of growth. [continued below...]




My experiences with rock bottom


For me, my experiences of hitting rock bottom (notice the plural experiences) came after a combination of everything above.


Hitting rock bottom can best describe how I was compelled to admit to my loneliness while on a diplomatic posting. It can also describe how I felt accepting my sexuality and coming out. Similarly, when my marriage ended. Or when my partner Jeff and I were homeless and on a very limited income. Rock bottom has a way of stripping away everything and compelling me to focus on what is there. It's an uncomfortable reminder that I am subject to the human condition, too.


I’ve been the expert in waiting for the right time – waiting for permission – to change. I had so much of my worth tied up in the belief that I could only get ahead in my career if I could show that I could, indeed, be all things to everyone and be those safe pair of hands that would tidy up a mess and get the job done.

I learned that while I’d been waiting for others to change meant that I missed opportunities to arrest my descent towards rock bottom.


I chose to remain quiet and try to make changes in my life quietly and without wanting to upset others around me. I felt that it was far better to do this than burden others with my words, thoughts and actions that would lead to visible change. I succumbed to the powerful ‘I don’t want to be a burden’ narrative.


I choose comfort over the discomfort of change and growth. I changed – and then grew – only when all other options were exhausted and I’d hit rock bottom.


A very recent example of one of my rock bottoms


Through 2022, I couldn’t allow myself to contemplate that the career and life that I worked towards for so long was no longer satisfying me. Rather than consider other options, I held on and hoped that things would change.


They didn’t change or improve. But I persisted. I began to notice that I felt ill going to work and while at work. I spent my days racing between meetings and feeling constantly behind while the amount of work needed to be done increased.


I also noticed that I’d feel better immediately after I left work for the day.


I couldn’t ignore the fact that I felt the creeping numbness of loneliness again. I was becoming disconnected from myself, and I was allowing my job – once again – to play a role in that. I again felt that I needed to separate who I am with what I felt I needed to be at work.


I hit rock bottom. I couldn’t stomach going to work. Sitting at this rock bottom meant that I had to accept that there were few other employment options in the public service that aligned with me and how I want to be in the world. I needed change, my employer and the organisational culture wasn’t going to change.


I summoned the courage needed and chose growth over the comfort of a good and regular salary. I gave notice. I quit.


Here I am.


And because I'm here, I can tell you that you’re not alone.


What can you do?


Do you feel that you’re descending towards a rock bottom? This could be in your career, your relationship with your significant other/s, your relationship with yourself or countless other areas in life.


Why are you waiting to hit rock bottom after hoping for change and other strategies have been tried and proven unsuccessful to make changes in your life?


What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for a sign before you can change? Here’s the sign you’ve been waiting for.

It’s time to choose growth over comfort.

You’re worthy of that, even before you’ve hit rock bottom.


Remember, it takes courage to make changes in your life and you don’t need to do change alone. Indeed, change is best done when you have great people on your side.


Build a team around you. Your significant other, your friends and family. Enlist the help of experts in the area that you want to make changes: get a personal trainer, a dietician or other expert to help your physical health and well-being. See a therapist or other mental health expert to support your mental health and well-being. I’m here as an expert to support, challenge and inspire you as you live your diplomatic life.


There are people available to support your growth once you decide to get uncomfortable before you’re forced to get uncomfortable once you hit your rock bottom.


While you didn’t want to get there, rock bottom is a great place to do something different.


Don’t squander the opportunity to get clear on why you’re there and who you are before you take steps out of your situation.


Thanks for reading!

 
 

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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own/the author's and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.