Stop being stuck: a more meaningful career

Most often at the start of therapy, we’re working with an emergency of some kind. Perhaps it’s a redundancy, or some severe stress, or maybe there’s a personal or professional relationship which is causing friction. After the immediate emergency is resolved, the therapy starts to go deeper, and then it’s possible to look at the underlying patterns and themes.

“Stuckness”, especially at work, is often just below the surface. I often ask a question when we begin to encounter feelings of stuckness. I might say “Imagine if the stuckness were an old friend, what message would it have?”.

The answers are often surprising. Stuckness, it seems, often has an important message, ranging from “something’s not quite right” through to “something has been terribly wrong for a very long time”. The visibility of stuckness varies. Sometimes it’s pushed to the side, often to instead focus on “bringing home a pay check”. Other times, it emerges, from time to time, sometimes with extreme emotional vigour. It seems though, in most cases, the stuckness has been seen as part of the problem, rather than a clue to understanding what’s really going on.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the deep-rooted nature of work is to notice how often conversations begin with “what do you do?”. More than simply a way to make money, our work defines us, and in some cases ascribes us a sense of worth. This sense of identity is tricky, because it becomes solidified or fixed. We think we “know” who we “ought” to be, but sometimes it’s a sense of stuckness that tells us this identity might need to flex. 

In our culture, the emphasis on career starts young. We’re meant to choose academic pathways that lead to specific types of careers from an early age, and that age seems to be getting younger and younger. Family pressures, both explicit and implicit, guide key decisions, and cultural forces, often experienced individually as a need to belong, or a fear of missing out, often mean early decisions are packed down into ever deepening layers of identity. In short, it takes a certain type of “excavation” to get beneath the surface of career and work decisions. This sort of excavation goes beyond a conversation you might have with a friend or a colleague. In therapy, we might call this “unpacking”, and therapists and therapeutic groups are especially designed to enable this sort of exploration.

So feeling “stuck” at work is often there, but often under the surface. It’s something we can ignore if we want. Often it’s a period of reflection like a holiday or a sabbatical which brings on deeper reflection. Or sometimes, it’s a crisis – like a personal crisis, or a workplace that goes toxic – which invites us to reflect.

It’s often crisis that leads us to change, but it doesn’t have to be. Indeed, in my experience both personally and clinically, when change is encountered from a psychological and emotional perspective, long-lasting and potent change can occur. Some therapists use tools which are specifically designed to help unpick what is personal, cultural or “of the family”, so that career choices can be more freely made. Often, through this unpicking, we can find new energy and free up a sense of vitality in life.

In essence, when we break through stuckness, we can find ourselves making decisions to be more alive and to feel greater meaning in what we do.

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