If you’ve been deeply unhappy in your current situation long enough to recognize that band aids won’t work and you need a fundamental change, the last thing you should do is look for an exit strategy.

Yes, that sounds counterintuitive. When something hurts we try to get away from it, right?

Most of us remain in unnecessary pain for far too long. There are two reasons for this:  fear of change is the biggest, and the incredibly insidious quicksand of routine is probably the most potent. But when you finally stop complaining and actually accept that you’re done, and that it’s time, the natural next step is, of course, to focus on leaving the situation.  To put distance between yourself and the pain.

In the most primal sense, to run away.

But that doesn’t work, because it usually doesn’t happen.

The real question is: Why do we remain stuck? Because when you finally hit that point, or have that epiphany, where every fiber of your being screams ‘That’s it! I can’t take this endless inertia-loop of frustration/anguish/false hope/frustration for one more second!”, there is still one powerful thing that keeps us tethered right to that very spot that causes all the pain.

The Unknown.

Regardless of how evolved we proclaim ourselves to be, how refined and in control and not beholden to our physical urges or instincts we say we are, every single one of us – at the very center of our beings – remain biological creatures.  We have millions of years of experience burned into our basic wiring, and even today that indelible base-code translates into survival above all as a gateway to procreation and the continuation of the species.

So while we like to tell our Tesla-driving, iPhone-gripping, locally-sourced and well-scrubbed selves that we’ve evolved beyond the dirty primality of our mammalian past, when the organic fertilizer hits the fan and our survival circuits are activated, the lumbering club-dragging near-ape versions of ourselves are still running the show.  That other stuff?  That’s the privilege of safety and status and the thin veneer that falls away as soon as things get serious.

And  that primitive hard-wiring? That’s the very reason we can’t just ‘RUN!’ when faced with the suffocating pain of long-term unhappiness.

Actually, Grog Say Fire Good.

You see, back in the cave days, the unknown things creeping around in the dark just beyond that little circle of firelight were much more of a threat than a mere feeling of unhappiness.  The threat of the unknown was a real threat. An end-your-life sort of threat.  So you kept by the fire until dawn.

In today’s world that threat of the unknown is different, but equally potent. In this case “The Unknown” comes in the form of The Exit Strategy – that willful step into uncertainty to relieve a deep pain.  Unfortunately, stepping into The Unknown, even for the most necessary of reasons, could very well lead to the loss of other necessities, like your job, your spouse, or even your house.  In other words, The Unknown fast becomes the primary threat to our  source-code-level programming toward survival.

In addition, a willful decision to choose uncertainty could also result in the potential loss of social standing and public embarrassment, which probably accounts for more painful life-stasis than everything else combined. These possibilities are more than enough to override your “I’ve had it and need a change” declarations and consequent Exit Strategy.  The potential for new and greater pain snuffs your will.

In short, your great internal conversation boils down to something pretty simple, like this:  “I’m in terrible pain, but what if I leave? I could be worse off….”

Better the Devil you know, right?

So regardless of our heartfelt declaration of freedom in the moment,  we remain in the rut of hopelessness and pain by choosing, even through our inaction, the familiar and seemingly stable.  And in doing so – in now essentially consciously choosing the pain – we compound it, often through self-accusation.  We now have proof that we’re losers because we ourselves have chosen this, that life is a dark and terrible place and that perhaps we even deserve this pain, because we’re too weak to act.

Suddenly that rut gets even deeper.

And even when you’re pushed to the very edge, when negativity, cynicism, sadness – sometimes deep depression – becomes the lens through which you view even the best of things, still you stay. But not calmly. No, you are no longer resigned to your fate, just paralyzed.

You are now in a very difficult place, caught between the natural instinct to get away from that which is painful, and the ingrained code that says to remain where it is familiar and safe.  Both are survival instincts. Both are in some ways correct.  Both bring you pain.

So you drag your heels. “I’m gonna do that.  But not today.  I’m too busy. Today wasn’t too bad.”

But it is.  You’ve already established that.

And a week, a month, a year – even ten passes.

And you’re still there. In pain. So what do you do?

When salmon swim downstream, they’re happy, healthy and by all accounts having a great time.  When they head back upstream to mate, well, they exhaust themselves and die and feed a lot of bears along the way. Pushing against the current is not the natural order of things that are meant to continue and flourish; it exacts a toll. If you look around in life the things that last are at peace; they are the things that flow.

In order to get away from the perpetual pain and break the cycle of unhappiness, what you really need is an Entry Strategy.

What’s an Entry Strategy? Like the Exit Strategy, it’s a means of getting to someplace new. But unlike the Exit Strategy, the Entry Strategy is not driven by fear.  It is not running away, it is being pulled toward.

That’s a critical distinction. And a complete mental shift. Focusing on what you don’t want, which is inherent in the act of fleeing, or the Exit Strategy, is burdensome.  It drains energy, because even with the best of intentions, you’re focusing on something negative.

Don’t believe me? Think about what you don’t want right now.  Did your brow furrow?  Did you sink a little deeper in your chair, or feel tension in your body?

Now think about something you do want.  I’ll bet your forehead and jaw tension loosened.  You might have even smiled a little.

Here are some actual steps to get it done, or “How To Know What You Want in Only 14 Minutes!”.

Take a notebook, pick a page, draw a line down the middle, and write “Good” on one side, and “Bad” on the other. Every day at, say, 7 pm take no more than 2 minutes to take quick stock of the 24 hours since your last entry, and jot – don’t overthink – the good things and the bad things that happened.  The columns will not be equal.  Resist the urge to even them out.

Keep at it for a week.  A pattern will start to emerge. You’ll start to see not only what you don’t like, but also what you do.

Once you have a good handful of those things that were good, and consistently so, write a sentence that goes like this: “I like ____ and ____ and _____.  And I really like _____.”, and fill in the blanks. Yes, write it simply, like a child would.

Now you know what you like and what gives you joy. You are now armed with concrete knowledge; not a vague and fuzzy sense. It may not feel immediately doable but trust me, it is. It will also likely scare you – that’s good, because if it didn’t it would probably just be more of the same.

Now make actual good use of the internet to narrow down in a larger and more practical sense what kinds of activities or careers or places jibe with that simple declaration of what you like and what makes you happy. Doesn’t matter what it is.  Doesn’t matter if it makes practical sense. Oh, and I’d also recommend talking to a couple of people who do something similar to what you like.  Shoot them and email, or find some way to connect, respect their time, and just be honest and ask. People are inherently good, and most of us like to help.

Your next step is the hardest. And the Best.

You have to make those things a small part of your day, now.  Every Single Day. Just a little to start, but every day.

In my case, I’m a writer and that is indeed my happiest place, and the place that somehow gets pushed to the bottom of the list every day after my morning journaling.  Sure, writing is a big part of my ‘job’ as a copywriter and brand strategist, but it’s not always the kind of writing that fills my soul.

I too would love to leap, but I too have responsibilities, fears and a tendency to get stuck in routine. What I’ve realized is this: writing is not done in the head, but with the hands.  There’s something in engaging with the process that lights the fire and keeps me happy, hopeful and reasonably sane. The same thing will be true about whatever it is you find you like.

Action is always the antidote; thinking never is.

So every day, regardless of my schedule, I make myself sit down at the keyboard and get typing. That’s how this post was birthed, by the way.

It makes the worst of days better, and I’m building a body of “stuff that I like” which, eventually, will be all that I do. Doesn’t that sound nice? A goal that pulls me forward.

Final Thought: When you get in your car, you don’t just drive away from where you were, do you?

Of course not; you pick a destination.  That’s how you get there.

And now you have a destination. A place you want to get to. An Entry Strategy.

And it works every time.

Now stop reading, and get going.