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Author and life coach Martha Beck says that we know something aligns with our destiny, or soul’s purpose, if it makes us feel free. In Steering by Starlight, the Best Life Book Club pick for May, she uses the imagery of shackles to help explain what she means.
In this post, learn more about Martha Beck’s “shackles” test and how it can help you design a more joyful, aligned, and purpose-filled life.
What is Martha Beck’s “shackles” test?
Think of any activity, person, place, or situation in your life. Does it make you feel like you have shackles on? In other words, do you feel trapped and obligated by it? Do you wish in your heart of hearts that you didn’t have to deal with it?
If your answer is yes, it feels like shackles on, then this activity, object, job, person, place, whatever, is not serving your highest good.
Back when I was a lawyer, I superficially knew I “hated” my job because it was stressful. And by stressful, I mean stressful without the reward and excitement that a stressful job can sometimes bring. For instance, I imagine a passionate journalist or editor is exhilarated by breaking a news story just in the nick of time, even though the experience can be stressful as hell. I can imagine a nurse or police officer feeling stress and even fear or worry on the job, but I can also imagine them feeling an immense sense of relief and reward after a crisis has been averted and they have helped save a life.
In fact, if we go back to my job as a litigator, I have witnessed my very colleagues experience this good kind of stress. They get pumped duking it out over the phone and then can’t wait for the managing partner to “put me in, coach!” for their first trial hearing, which can be extremely stressful.
I, however, did not experience the stresses of my job this way, which was very educational for. me. One time, for instance, a managing partner “took a deposition away from me” and insisted on doing it himself for whatever reason. Instead of being insulted or appalled or territorial, I was over the moon! I wanted to give him a big fat completely workplace-inappropriate kiss on the lips, that’s how thrilled I was!
Applying Martha Beck’s “shackles” test can be tricky!
But I worried that without professional guidance, Martha Beck’s “shackles” test might seem like an invitation to be a pleasure-seeking, selfish, immature quitter. After all, it’s too easy to say, “Does taking midterms (or going to the dentist, or paying bills, or waiting in the long line at the DMV) feel like shackles on? Yup, so Martha Beck says I don’t have to do it!”
Before I made any rash life decisions, I had to make sure to methodically and thoughtfully soul-search. And to be clear, Martha Beck would expect no less.
So, what did I do?
I made a list of all the components of my career and asked myself one by one if that particular activity made me feel “shackles on” (trapped and miserable) or “shackles off” (free, content, full of joy). Then, weighing all the results would get me a more accurate picture of whether my career trajectory as a whole aligned with my highest good or not.
After all, we learned from Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert that every dream job and dream life has an unavoidable “shit sandwich” that we tolerate because it’s worth it in the end.
So one more time for the people in the back: Hating just one or two aspects of a job does not mean it is out of alignment and preventing us from fulfilling our destiny.
Back to my list. It looked something like this:
- Talking to opposing counsel on the phone? Shackles on FOR SURE.
- But that’s easy. What about talking to my clients on the phone? Nope, still shackles on.
- Being in my office ten hours a day? Shackles on.
- Driving home on the 10 to the 110 every night? Shackles on.
- Having free Friday lunches at restaurants with my coworkers? The ultimate perk! Nope, still shackles on.
Yup, even fancy and free firm outings felt shackles on. In fact, everything felt shackles on except for two things:
- Doing legal research and writing, and that was only if it was at a leisurely pace, and
- Leaving the courthouse when a hearing was done.
I swear, walking past those automatic doors and into the fresh air felt like I had won the lottery.
If something feels overwhelmingly “shackles on,” it’s not pointing you to your destiny.
The answer became clear. A career as a litigator was not for me. The true me. Sure, I was good at it. Yes, I made good money. And sure, it earned me prestige and made my parents so damn proud I could cry. But, it was not the right career for me.
(Side note: It made me physically ill, depressed, anxious beyond belief, resentful in my marriage, and distant from family and friends.)
So, if your test results are “shackles on,” it’s time to face the music. We can rationalize and continue to live in denial. We can give in to societal pressures, fears, and insecurities that shackle us to our unwanted circumstances. Or, we can take the difficult yet liberating action and decide that we deserve an authentic, aligned, purposeful, and joy-filled life and CUT. THAT. SHIT. OUT.
And, of course, a few “shackles on” items here and there is natural.
Let’s be real though. There will always be some aspect of our jobs, marriages, children, neighborhoods, national politics, even world affairs that make us feel “shackles on.”
Certain things are out of our control. All we can do about those things is recognize that they are beyond our sphere of control and gently bring our attention back to the present moment and things we can actually do something about.
And sometimes, something that feels “shackles on” can actually be resolved. In Steering by Starlight, Beck alludes to feeling “shackles on” about raising her young children. Two parental responsibilities that particularly confined her were singing and playing games with her kids and preparing healthy food for them to eat.
She could overreact and decide parenting wasn’t for her and fly the coop. Or, she could realize that she didn’t have to sing to her children just because her mother sang to her. Also, she could shop for high quality baby food to ease her already hectic mom-schedule of the burden of cooking. And when she made those mindful changes? Parenting became refreshingly “shackles off.”
Like many people, I resisted Martha Beck’s “shackles” test at first. It triggered heavy emotions and expectations and limiting beliefs around which I had built my life and identity. But to this day, this test helps me follow my soul’s true north, to use Beck’s words.
What do you make of Martha Beck’s shackles test? Let me know in the comments below!
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