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Navigating Our Lostness

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
8 min read
Navigating Our Lostness
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

A few weeks ago I was on a meditation retreat in upstate New York. On the first night, preparing to observe silence the next day, I stood in a dark hallway talking with Jonathan, a prominent psychoanalyst. Behind us, a soft red glow from the EXIT sign above the door, faintly settling on the black walls and floor.

We were casually chatting about our similar professions–coaching and therapy–and our fascination with the human mind, with all its wonder and complexity. Toward the end of the conversation, Jonathan said something that’s still sitting with me six weeks later.

“Steve, I’ve been practicing psychotherapy for thirty five years and I still feel lost. I very much feel like I’m a beginner. I even feel lost here right now.”

My eyes drifted to the EXIT sign. What if there’s no way out of lostness?

Throughout the retreat and the days that followed, I thought about that question. I wondered how Jonathan, with extensive training and credentials, and decades of experience, didn’t feel that confidence in what he did or knew or where he was in life. He was successful and accomplished—he was in his 70s for God’s sake! He feels lost?

Then I realized I get emails and DMs like this every week from the highest of achievers:

"I'm in uncharted territory."

“I lost my mojo.”

“I'm not where I thought I’d be.”

“I don’t know how to proceed.”

"I feel so lost."  

Scores of people, especially those who are perceived as successful, crushing it, and on the right path, feel completely lost deep down inside, insecure about their place in the world.

When I thought about it, I’ve been lost more times in my life than I can count, including when I was struggling with addiction and afraid to fully commit to coaching. In those moments, I didn’t know the path forward or the next steps, even when I knew the goal. In those moments, I felt lost to myself.

What Is Lostness?

I’ve come to experience and appreciate that being lost has different meanings and is experienced differently depending on our circumstances and inner context. We treat it as a catch-all phrase, but it’s not.

When we say we’re lost, there's always a deeper meaning behind the word that needs to be identified. Lostness is just a metaphor for something that is hidden or no longer here with us.

We can feel as if we’re lost in a maze, lost at sea or lost in space, trying to find a specific place, but we don’t know where to turn or where to go.

We may have lost our wits, our minds, or our marbles, trying to regain our sense of sanity because we don’t know who we are or we’re uncomfortable with who we’re becoming.

We can be lost without a compass or lost without a purpose, looking for a direction to orient our life or career. We can be lost in thought, dreaming about the future or fantasies or distracting ourselves.

Maybe we’ve lost our mojo, lost our creative spark or our passion, lost our edge or our steam, feeling like we no longer have access to our special sauce or swagger.

It could be that we’ve lost momentum or lost ground, sensing that we’re slowing down and falling behind. Or we can feel like we’ve lost something we love—a person, a dream, status, wealth—destroyed and gone forever, leaving us baffled and grieving.

Or perhaps something has been misplaced, invisible to the seeker but somewhere in the sea of reality. Maybe we feel lost from other people, feeling like, “no one can find me,” alone, misunderstood, apart from the world, unavailable to be helped.

Lostness can set in when we’re in the wrong place or even the right place. We might arrive in a place we don’t want to be after we’ve made certain decisions or faced harsh circumstantial realities. Alternatively, we can be in the right place—like Jonathan who loved his job as a psychotherapist and dedicated three decades to his profession—but are dealing with imposter syndrome, facing a reality that doesn’t match previous expectations, learning new skills or crafts, or being told we don’t belong.

Regardless of the situation, being lost means feeling disoriented and unsettled, and can leave us stuck for months, years, or even a lifetime.

Identifying Our Lostness

When a client or friend says they’re lost, I don’t tell them where to go, how to proceed or who they should talk to. That wouldn’t serve them! In fact, I challenge them—you're not literally, physically lost, but you’re feeling a sense of lostness and we have to decipher what that means for you. I want them to understand themselves, their experiences, and where they’re coming from. Only from that place can they make sense of their lostness, create new maps, and see the path forward.

If we’re lost, the very first thing we should do is slow down. In fact, talk to any survival expert and they would tell us to stop everything—talking, moving, thinking—and simply sit down, relax and breathe. When we feel lost, our bodies want to run into action to find a solution because we think this will help, but we often can’t think clearly because our sympathetic nervous system is activated, restricting access to the higher functioning areas of our brain. That’s why we want to sit down, breathe, and calm ourselves as an essential first step. Doing this will activate the parasympathetic nervous system which lowers our heart rate, relaxes the body and facilitates mental clarity.

The next step is to admit that something is missing and could be lost. Admitting we’re lost can be difficult because our ego wants to feel like it’s in control and on top of our shit. The First Step in AA is admitting that you have a problem—"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable." Acknowledging that you may be lost can save you time, heartache and confusion in the short and long run. If you deny you’re lost and do nothing about it, you’ll likely continue the pattern, remain off course and stay stuck!

Once we’ve slowed down and admitted that we feel lost, we can explore questions that reveal our meaning and behavior patterns behind the metaphor:

  • How are you lost?
  • What are you looking for?
  • What’s your experience of being lost—cognitively, emotionally, and somatically?
  • How long have you felt this way? What changed?
  • Is it all the time? Or are there specific triggers that unmoor you? What are they?
  • Have you ever felt this way before? When? What happened?
  • What do you believe about yourself when you’re lost?
  • What are your behavior patterns when you feel this way?
  • When you’ve been lost in the past, what was missing?
  • How did you find your way forward? What happened?

Through this exploration, we can see what’s underneath the metaphor we’ve constructed, that we’re not actually "lost,” and it’s likely not the first time we’ve felt this way. We’re just using this metaphor to represent something that isn’t here, and we want to find or recapture whatever that is.

Are you searching for a purpose? Are you looking to rekindle or cultivate a skill? Did you expect to feel like a master after a decade in a career? Are you no longer motivated by what used to drive you? Did you think you’d feel differently after reaching your definition of success? Are you longing for a new calling in life? Are you craving love, connection or belonging? And how do you react when you realize that something is missing?

Whatever it is, once we understand what’s missing and then observe how we’re reacting to its absence, we begin to understand ourselves, our patterns and our deepest longings. Through this new lens, we begin to see that lostness is part of the ebb and flow of life—we all experience this.

In fact, we have to. Everything changes! I change. You change. Our lives change. The world changes. We’re all bound to be lost at some point, and denying this is what keeps us stuck there—when we can’t shake our expectations that things would be, could be, or should be different.

Jonathan, the psychoanalyst I stood with in that dark corridor, believed his interactions with clients would feel effortless after thirty five years in the profession. What he confronted was the opposite—he still felt like a beginner in medical school. His ideas and expectations about mastery didn’t match his current experience, and in that moment with me he couldn’t make sense of this discrepancy. Frankly, neither could I. I too was operating on expectation.

So how can we make sense of the fluid nature of reality? How can we learn from it when it’s always changing? How can we find peace in that flow? How can we lean into it? Most importantly, how can we embrace and accept it? How can we feel at home in the lostness?

Perpetual Mapping

In this sea of fluidity, we need to replace expectation with present experience—thoughts, emotions, sensations—and our inner wisdom to make sense of it, illuminate the unfolding path, and trust the next step will reveal something important. What we’ll find time and time again is the path forward resides inside of us—awareness, wisdom, patience, compassion, creativity, surrender—rather than grasping for what we think is safe and comfortable—old beliefs, stories, roles, identities, relationships. In other words, it’s time to get rid of the old maps that keep us lost and stuck!

Cartographers have power, agency and responsibility to understand, design and redesign maps. When we realize we can play this role in our own lives, we begin to see that we have the power to accept, reject, and discard our old maps that are outdated, and draw new ones that are aligned with who we are and where we’re heading.

These mapmakers simply begin with an awareness of where they are, so that they can design a map that’s useful and reliable. Once we’re located, we must focus on each step, while also taking in our surroundings, trusting our senses, and noting our discoveries. Through this process and journey, we might even locate a local maxima: a perch at a higher elevation to help us get more perspective, helping us see a bigger, more complete picture.

As our perspective increases with new heights, new features and boundaries on the map appear.  We eventually add symbols and waypoints to allow us to easily find our way back if we need to return to where we are. We begin to name things so we have a common language for the landmarks and features. And with enough steps and time, a novel map takes form and we have a new way to navigate life and share with others.

And when we step back far enough, what you’ll see is a changing landscape. It changes with the seasons, and it changes over time, from a sea to a forest floor, from a desert to a city and back again. When we resist the fluid nature of reality, we’re left with a sense of lostness, a map that no longer matches the reality before and within us.

So keep your map and your cartographer’s pencil on you at all times. Revisit your map regularly, even during the good times, and record with honesty what you see and experience now. We do this by simply grounding ourselves and asking, where am I right now, what’s my experience, how do I feel about it, and where am I headed? The more we question and reevaluate our maps, the more we’ll notice and accept change, and the more equipped we’ll feel the next time we’re lost.

Remember, you’re exactly where should be, even if you’re lost, and know it’ll change. Everything does.


Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.


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