walking on custard

How to Let Go of an Old Life, or Neil Hughes and the Fiery Death of the Phoenix

11 May 2021

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Readers of How To Be Everything—Emilie Wapnicks’s guidebook to life—will be familiar with the Phoenix Approach, which describes how people occasionally reinvent themselves like the legendary phoenix rising from its own ashes.

This sounds exciting—and it is. But it turns out burning up and rebirthing out of the remains can hurt.

“Rebirthio Quickium”

In one of my metaphorical past lives, I loved my job. I had spent years developing software full-time, but part of me ached to prove I could do something different too. Eventually this pressure built, and I quit to juggle freelance software alongside writing books and public speaking.

At the time, I didn’t know this was a Phoenix Approach. I didn’t even think of it as a new birth. It was a deliberately reckless transition. I figured that if I put myself in an uncomfortable position then I’d be forced to build something new. 

I was right… but the sudden rebirth brought plenty of anxiety. The loss of stable income combined with the steep learning curves of both freelance life and new domains was a lot all at once. Bit by bit, something new arose from the ashes: a career, of sorts, in which I combined public speaking with mental health advocacy, fiction writing and software.

While this was hard, I rarely doubted my decision. After all, I’d chosen this rebirth for myself, so any suffering was partly by design. But looking back, I always felt that I had jumped a little too harshly. Perhaps I could have transitioned more gently—cutting down hours at work while spinning up other projects, for instance. (Or “transitioning via a Slash Approach” as readers of How To Be Everything might say.)

I always thought that my next transition would be more gradual. But during 2020 I was funneled into a surprise phoenix rebirth… thanks to a plague.

(That sentence gave me a STRONG urge to tab over to my writing program and get working on a new fantasy novel.)

The pandemic brought a rapid halt to many aspects of my work—in particular, any part of it involving sharing a room with other humans. This also brought plenty of time to think. I found myself reflecting on parts of my old lives which I’d been missing. Stability. Sharing a goal with colleagues. Having colleagues in the first place.

To my surprise, another rebirth seemed like the obviously correct next step. I decided to try combining my old life with my new one by getting a “proper” job again, and maintaining the public speaking and writing on the side. I’d toyed with the idea in the past but the pandemic forced me to consider it more seriously. 

Like any change, this was both exciting and painful to contemplate. But at first, my feelings were dominated by the pain. I couldn’t help but grieve all the plans I’d had for the year, the loss of the momentum I’d built, the opportunities missed, and even the future lost chances which I’d never even know about.

This made it very difficult to actually go through with the rebirth. Despite the excitement for new possibilities, it’s impossible to enthusiastically apply for jobs when your heart is partly stuck in the past. As a result, I struggled, fought, procrastinated, complained, scrolled reluctantly through job listings, and closed my browser to go do something else about five times an hour.

I’ve learned enough to recognize when I’m self-sabotaging. I made a decision to deal with the emotional side of this rebirth before attempting to act on it again, trusting that this would make the actions smoother and likelier to succeed.

“Emotiono Processium”

Sadly, I haven’t yet discovered a magic spell for emotional processing. My strategy is usually to set aside time to do something nonspecific, trusting that the specific action is less important than the intention of working through my emotions.

For example, this time the specific actions turned out to include meditation, writing, thinking and feeling. I sat quietly for a while, consciously leaning into the sadness and grief. I tried to feel as sad as possible (which always cheers me up, oddly enough). Afterwards, I spent some time letting go of all the things I’d thought I was going to do this year. I reflected on the time I’d spent in this “life,” feeling proud and happy of my achievements, and telling myself I was okay with it ending… no, not ending. Changing.

After I felt fully done with the past—which took a few hours—I began to focus on the future. I imagined being offered a dream job, working with people I liked, making something exciting. Instead of focusing on everything I perceived I was losing, I kept my attention on everything I stood to gain, trusting that my brain would begin to associate this change with excitement instead of sadness.

All told, this took the whole day. It’s hard to explain what, exactly, took up the time. To any passing outside observers I was probably just sitting around muttering to myself. But internally this process made a tremendous difference to my emotional state.

I woke up the next day excited to resume the job search. After polishing my CV, I enthusiastically applied for a fantastic-sounding job. I was offered an immediate interview, which went very well, and the tech test and follow-up interviews went equally well…

…and then, a week later, I didn’t actually get the job.

But the fact that I was incredibly disappointed proved I’d succeeded! I’d gone from half-heartedly embracing a necessary change to entirely desiring it. Now I simply need to persevere and a new phoenix will begin to rise.

“Phoenixio Reluctant…ium”

Sometimes I meet people who’ve lived through Phoenix-style rebirths who worry that they’re doomed to a life of instability. One person likened their experience to a lifetime of being a frog that keeps suddenly leaping without warning to another lily pad, mildly upsetting all of the nearby frogs in the process.

But I don’t think these times of rebirth are necessarily destabilizing. Each rebirth is built from the ashes of all of the others, so each can be more stable than the one before. This new life of mine will combine elements of all my previous lives, and all of the lessons I’ve learned from each.

Perhaps change is inevitably somewhat painful. But even sudden, surprising changes can be handled, and taking time to process can allow our new lives to begin less painfully.

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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