A close colleague is wrestling with the fact that his business partnership is literally sucking the life out of him. He launched his company several years ago with a friend, with no real plan or path for growth, and now they have a highly profitable, $20 million dollar business.

The problem is, they have grown apart as the business has grown. They have different value systems and leadership styles, and if they were to meet today, they would never go into business together. Plus, the business doesn't excite him anymore.

These situations are common. So many business owners jump into formal partnerships without thinking about the most important aspects, because they are thinking with their hearts (or wallets) and not their heads.

But I digress. This column isn't about avoiding partnership purgatory. It's about any situation in which you feel stuck, dragged down, and unhappy for an extended period of time. When you feel cornered and can't see a way out.

Perhaps you are in a dead-end job. Perhaps your organization has inherited new leadership, and you don't agree with the new direction of the company. If you work for the federal government, perhaps you find yourself working for an agency that has been forced to support a mission that is contradictory to everything you've believed and supported for years, because of a new administrative agenda.

Or maybe you believe a key relationship in your life has run its course.

Whatever your situation, take comfort in the fact that it is not unique. Everyone bumps up against impasses, obstacles, and forks in the road. How do you maneuver through it?

1. Step away from the situation.

The first thing to do is to give yourself space to process your situation from a distance. We can't see the picture clearly when we are in the frame, so remove yourself from the frame.

2. Clarify what really matters to you.

What are the core values that guide your life? What matters to you more than money? What will you never compromise?

3. Reach out for help -- the right help.

Difficult situations require backup and support from people who will tell you the truth, provide unbiased perspective, and who won't apply only their situations to your situation. In Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath identify the four "villains" of good decisions:

  • Narrow framing: We don't give ourselves enough choices/options.
  • Confirmation bias: We go looking for information from others that support what we want to do. In other words, we seek out "yes people" who validate our thinking, even if our thinking is flawed or not good for us.
  • Short-term emotion: We allow our emotions to rule our decisions. My rule is "to never make a major decision when I am in a valley." In other words, when things are really difficult and I am at a low point, I intentionally give myself time and space to move through the difficulty, and make my decisions when I have a calmer and clearer mindset.
  • Over-confidence: We think we know more about the future than we really do.

4: Remember that life isn't supposed to suck.

One of my favorite life analogies, and one that's popular in leadership circles, is "the boiling frog." In this tale, a frog is unknowingly being boiled alive because he can't sense the rising heat from gradual temperature increases. Eventually, he explodes. The lesson is that often we find ourselves in such a miserable place that we begin to accept misery as "normal," forgetting that it is not normal to be boiled alive. If you're miserable all day, every day, you may be a boiling frog.

5. Know that Whatever Path You Choose, You Will Be OK.

Change can be difficult and terrifying, but a life of misery is worse.

Here are the questions to ask yourself when you are finally ready to critically assess your situation and examine your choices:

  1. How did I arrive at where I am?
  2. What role did I play in this outcome?
  3. Do I want to turn it around?
  4. If yes, how can I do that?
  5. Have I done absolutely everything possible to save the situation?

After the fifth question, if you still find yourself back at a place of self-sacrifice, it's time to move on. Often at these junctures, when we find ourselves forced to decide, "Do I save [the partnership, the business, my job, this relationship] or do I save myself?" then the answer must always be "save myself." This isn't selfishness. It is self-preservation for your current AND future state.

We often know the best answer for ourselves long before we are ready to say it aloud, and long before we are ready to act on it. While compromise and collaboration are healthy, expected aspects of any situation, self-sacrifice is not. We all own the power to choose to thrive and not merely survive. What will you choose?