My clients and I have been keeping an eye out for the Boogeyman recently.
You know how the Boogeyman works – the enshrouded, amorphous creature of terror rests in wait, scaring us into submission, into being good children who don’t venture out of bed, or into other adventures we may be curious about.
We can’t quite describe his features, but we know he’s out there…lurking, waiting in a dark corner, just about to get us. So, we stay quiet and still.
As adults, we’ve (mostly) learned that there isn’t a creature hiding under the bed or in the closet, but the Boogeyman still shows up, often at work, sometimes in other domains of life.
The Boogeyman starts to take the shape of the big “What if?”, the vague, shapeless, detail-free sensation that something will go wrong if we play big or make a leap. In the face of taking a chance, we sense the Boogeyman’s presence, and then we feel dread, fear, helplessness.
- For a client working in big tech who dreams of starting his own business, the scary utterance of the Boogeyman sounds like “There won’t be enough money, you’ll risk everything, it would never work…”
- To another client reporting directly to an indecisive and intimidating CEO, the Boogeyman whispers: “If you press her to make a decision about this, it will go badly… “
- For a third client who needs to have the difficult conversations necessary to restructure her team, the Boogeyman threatens, “So much for being a well-regarded boss, your reputation will never be the same…”
I understand why the Boogeyman is scary. His vagueness, shapelessness, and enormity are exactly what terrify us – a force that powerful could do any number of terrible things to us: break our hearts, bankrupt us, damage critical relationships, set us back 10 years professionally, leave us isolated from others and in a state we can’t recover from.
In this way, the Boogeyman does exactly what he’s designed to do: overwhelm you, keep you still, silently fretting, and compliant.
Still, it’s our task to face the Boogeyman.
Our weapon? A better-crafted question.
A better question helps us find the precise threat buried in the overwhelm of the Boogeyman. We can see the dangers for what they usually are: problems with solutions, even if we need to gather resources, ask for help, or stumble on our way to figuring it out.
So how do we differentiate between the real problem in front of us and the problem we’re making bigger by letting the Boogeyman pollute our thinking?
I like to ask:
- How would you pinpoint where you’re stuck? Or
- What exactly is making this really hard for you right now? Or
- If we could shift one specific thing in this situation, what would that be? Now, how can we create that shift?
The Boogeyman’s power IS that he’s shapeless and still everywhere. We neutralize his power by shining a flashlight (that better question) into the dark and realizing that our challenges are often built from a series of smaller steps we can explore one by one.
When while preparing to move my daughter to college last month, we both started experiencing the powerful but shapeless overwhelm of “what if it all goes to *&#?”, we used this same process to support us through the dread.
“What specifically are we worried about?”
Turns out she wasn’t worried about making friends or finding her way around campus, or the homework. Honestly, I wasn’t worried about those things either. We were worried that we’d miss each other and the comforts of mom & daughter time (which we do).
Turns out, there are things we can do to ease those feelings: text messages, regular FaceTime calls, care packages, and visits.
THAT we can do.
It’s not always easy to handle the challenges that are revealed by closer investigation, but it’s way more possible than handling something we can’t even fathom.
So when the dread shows up, try seeing if the flashlight of specificity helps keep the Boogeyman at bay. And let me know how it goes.