Getting Unstuck After an Unexpected Life Change

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” ~Lewis Carroll

After an unfortunate layoff earlier this year, I found myself feeling stuck, spiritually, physically, and mentally. I had moved from Virginia to Los Angeles for my MBA, and I was working remotely as a product manager for a climate fintech company, which combined a lot of things I enjoyed.

In the two years I had spent out west, I built a great group of climbing buddies, felt a sense of community, and was involved with local non-profits. Los Angeles wasn’t a perfect match for me, but I had made myself at home, and I was feeling settled.

When the layoff happened, it was jarring. I felt I was an asset to the company, and I had built solid relationships and finished important work in my tenure there. But I wanted to maintain the go-with-the-flow attitude I aspire to, so I told myself everything was fine.

After my computer dramatically shut itself off, I pulled out some Post-it notes. Then I added to my wall some goals that I wanted to accomplish in my personal and professional life, with my newfound lack of purpose. I knew a big shift was happening and it felt non-consensual.

I had been content in my role. And previously, my life changes had been easy to predict. Graduate > get a job > apply to grad school > move near the grad school > get a job > aim for promotion. I had yet to experience a life change where I didn’t know what was next by the time the last chapter ended. I felt like I was in a sort of purgatory, waiting for something to happen to me.

I started applying to jobs right away to numb that feeling and the discomfort it brought. Initially, I was searching for an exciting opportunity to magically appear and fill my time. 

I didn’t expect much to change in my life, just the team and the name of the company I worked for. I expected to get hired and go back to what I was doing before—working on something I cared about, living in Los Angeles, and continuing my nice little life I had started to feel comfortable in.

But I struggled. The market wasn’t great, and I found myself putting in great effort on applications only to be rejected automatically. Or I’d get interviewed, but they’d decide to hire internally instead. Nothing seemed to work out, and I couldn’t figure out why. I was networking, customizing my resume and cover letters, and getting referrals—everything I was supposed to be doing after a layoff. It was demoralizing.

Eventually, I realized I was struggling because I was resisting the change. I was looking for the same situation I’d had—remote work as a product manager in climate tech. I was trying to resurrect the life I had been living before. But that version of reality was over, and there was no going back. 

Even if I got a new role in the same industry and function, life would be different; it was a new chapter. And maybe seeking out something that already left my life wasn’t a great idea but was actually a way of clinging to the past.

So I set out to intentionally figure out what was next. I decided to give myself some space to do that, and I spent time road tripping, climbing, and sleeping outside or in my car, living very simply and introspecting. I looked back at how I’d ended up in the situation I was in. I had always been good at fulfilling the expectations of others and doing what I was “supposed” to do.

External forces had driven my life. I had always been pushed toward something or pulled by something. I got a job offer, so I took the job; I got admitted, so I matriculated.

I had never given myself permission to turn down a “safe” opportunity that came my way. I had never taken a next step in life from a point of stillness, only as a result of some irresistible magnetic external force.

It was time to exist in the stillness and choose which path to go down rather than wait for something to pull me. As a people-pleaser, it felt daunting to sit in the stillness and create my own vision for my future, not driven by an external magnetic force. But I was already unemployed, aka not doing what I was “supposed” to be doing, so I figured I might as well lean into the discomfort and really focus on what I wanted.

I had to get in touch with my own gut, something I had long silenced. So I evaluated the parts of my life that I liked and the parts that I wanted to adjust. It looked a lot like my annual goal setting, which was full of goals that I wasn’t going to reach this calendar year anymore, including “get promoted to senior product manager,” among other things.

I evaluated my satisfaction with my life, broken out by category. I looked at how I spent my time within each category and how I felt during that time. These are the categories I used:

1. Career & Financial

2. Relationships

3. Wellness

4. Fun & Hobbies

5. Lifestyle

I was left with a clearer picture of what I valued versus what was in my life due to external forces. I loved climbing; I didn’t love living downtown. I loved working on climate issues; I didn’t love driving in traffic. I started creating a vision for my life with these values in mind and I began to feel more at ease.

“The direction of your focus is the direction your life will move.” ~Ralph Marston

One big takeaway I got from the exercise is that I was leaving the city to go climbing (and therefore sleeping in my car) more nights than I was spending in my downtown LA apartment. Plus, I had insomnia when I was staying in LA. When I lived out of my car, I felt at ease. Everything felt simpler and made more sense. I didn’t feel frenetic or stressed, yet only my surroundings had changed.

That’s how I realized that my downtown apartment had come to represent clinging to the past. I didn’t even like spending time in it—my insomnia was cured whenever I left. It was time to leave that apartment for good. LA wasn’t the problem, but what the apartment itself had come to represent was pointing to the problem—I had been playing it safe trying to please others and ignoring my own gut. It was time to rearrange my life to stay focused on the things that energized me.

I wanted to live out of my car and just climb for a little while. But that felt like jumping off a cliff. I researched options and talked to friends living the so-called “climbing dirtbag” lifestyle.

I gave myself permission to embrace the instability and the uncertainty. I canceled my apartment without another living space lined up and moved my things into storage. I knew I would have challenges and inconveniences in my life either way. At least this way I felt in alignment with my gut.

The move created real momentum in my life. I was no longer waiting to be pulled by the external happenings in my life. I was intentionally creating movement in the direction of something I wanted.

I was moving even though it was scary, and even though the change may have been small in the eyes of others, I didn’t know how the gaps would be filled in or what would be next.

The change was an emotional rollercoaster. The planning phase was incredibly stressful, amplified by the questions others asked me, which I did not have answers for. But once I started acting on my move, I felt more relaxed, then elated and grief-stricken all at the same time.

I was relaxed because I fell into a flow of checking off to-do items. I was elated because opportunities were opening for me. I began to see a vision for a future that was positive and that also looked very different than the past. I was grieving the loss of the job I’d enjoyed and the life I’d had.

I realized a lot of feelings I had silenced right after the layoff were surfacing during this move. In my effort to “go with the flow,” I hadn’t let myself fully experience the present moment and the discomfort it brought. I resisted rather than surrendering.

I learned that I have to actually experience the discomfort that is there in my life. I can’t avoid it, or it will keep resurfacing again and again, pushing me to make a change. And if I experience it, it will pass.

For me, there was so much tied up in the apartment and what it had come to represent. The change was hard, but I felt more authentic. I was in the driver’s seat, and I was starting to feel more comfortable making decisions about the direction I wanted to take.

Just taking some small decisive action in alignment with my own vision for my future made it possible for me to see good things that might come next—possibilities that felt exciting. It’s a lot easier to exist day to day from a place of playfulness when the uncertain future feels bright.

If you’re at a crossroads after an unexpected change, like I was, take a pause before jumping into a life that looks a lot like the one you had before. Maybe this is a perfect opportunity to reevaluate your life and consider what would really make you happy. Surrender to the changes, and the flow of life might surprise you.

About Katie Mayo

Katie is an impact focused systems engineer who spends her free time rock climbing. Visit her at Katiemayo.com You can find her on LinkedIn here and Instagram here.

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