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What to Do When the Career You've Chosen Doesn't Give You Fulfillment

By Maeve Halpin, counselling psychologist

[Client names and identifying details have been changed.]

Owen sat in the chair in front of me looking dejected, his head bowed and his shoulders slumped. He was a clean-cut, well-dressed young man, but without the natural vigour and energy that his youthful years would suggest.

“So what was it that made you pick up the phone to call me?” I asked gently.

“Well, I’ve never been to see a counsellor before”, he replied with a heavy sigh. “I’ve always been able to keep on top of things, but over the last year I’ve just lost all my enthusiasm. I’m exhausted all the time, I’ve lost weight and I’ve no interest in going out. I went to the family doctor and he gave me some tests but nothing showed up…” He voice trailed off and we sat briefly in silence.

“Did anything change a year ago that might have caused this?” I prompted.

“I don’t know… well, I took this promotion in work about 14 months ago, cause I felt I had to. Then we were taken over by an American firm, so my boss is in Seattle – I only get to talk to her on Skype. I’m expected to take calls at crazy hours – mainly in the evening, at home. The money is good but I feel I can never switch off…”

“You felt you had to take the promotion…?” I queried.

“Well,” he said, with another long sigh, “I got into this company straight from college – I did a commerce degree. I started in sales and worked my way up. But I know it’s not what I want to do. I only did commerce because my father would have had a heart attack if I’d said I wanted to go to music college. I get on well at the job and they like me, so I couldn’t say no to the promotion…but…”

“But you’re not in the area you really want to be in.”

“No…I could manage when I was in the junior role, there wasn’t too much pressure, but being in management is totally different. So much more is expected of you. I feel like an idiot. I dread going into work in the mornings. And I’m ashamed to say it to anyone, because so many people would be thrilled to be where I am but to me it feels like a life sentence.”

Work stresses

The problems Owen was experiencing appear perennially in the work of the counsellor. Job stresses can build up slowly and seep into other areas of our lives, undermining our mood, appetite, sleep, relationships and self-esteem. Everything is affected, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly where the problem lies.

Achieving promotion was Owen’s trigger for a typical constellation of symptoms – tiredness, lack of interest in life, changes in weight, low mood and anxiety. While these are unpleasant, they are inherently healthy, in that they are the body’s early-warning system to let us know that something is wrong and needs attention.

From the outside, Owen’s career looked rosy – he was successful, well-liked and earning a good salary. But doing work we are not suited to can be wearing and dispiriting, even when we are being well paid for it. The promotion had the effect of embedding him deeper in a commercial culture that did not reflect his values or aspirations.

Finding one’s path

“Have you thought about what you would like to do, if you weren’t in this job?”

“No…well…it’s just pie in the sky…” his voice trailed off and he seemed embarrassed.

“Not everyone is suited to nine-to-five,” I suggested.

“Yes…well I love playing guitar…I used to be in a band when I was in school, just for fun. We even wrote some of our own songs. I started teaching myself classical guitar from the internet, and I picked it up real quick.”

“That’s the first time I’ve heard a bit of energy in your voice since you came in”, I observed.

The changing world of work

Many people find that the career path they have chosen, while sensible and prudent, brings them no real fulfillment. Parents will, understandably, want their children to work in an area that brings security and stability. Some families presume that the children will automatically follow in their parents’ footsteps, into whatever trade or profession the parents know best.

But employment has changed radically over the years. Jobs for life are rare nowadays. We need to be flexible, with a portfolio of skills that allows us to change jobs, and even careers, more than once in our working lives.

Our occupation also needs to have some meaning for us, playing to our strengths and giving us a sense of efficacy and self-esteem. Without this, we can become depressed, lethargic and withdrawn.

Making change happen

“So have you thought about going to music college?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t afford to take four years out at this stage. I don’t really see how to move on from here…”

“What about doing a post-grad in music?”

Owen looked up at me enquiringly. “Can I do that with a commerce degree?”

“Well I don’t know, but I guess we can find out? If not, there could be lots of other possibilities open to you, if you want to change direction. There are new courses coming on-stream all the time”.

His eyes brightened and he smiled for the first time. “If I thought I could do that…yes I can look into it. I’ll do that before the next session.”

Realising our options

We usually have more options than we realise. When our mood is low, our thinking becomes foggy and our problem-solving abilities are dulled.

Owen left the session feeling lighter and looking visibly less stressed. He was motivated to explore how he could move forward in his life. He no longer felt a victim of circumstance, “serving a life sentence” in his job.

Often counselling does not provide simple answers, but rather helps the client begin to ask the right questions. I had no doubt that Owen would find a way to align his work life with his inner goals, dreams and ambitions, and progress towards regaining his natural optimism, creativity and joie de vivre.

Maeve HalpinMaeve Halpin is a counselling psychologist. She presents “Wellbeing for Everyday Life” on Dublin South FM 93.9 every Thursday, 1pm – 2pm. Her book “How to be Happy and Healthy – the Seven Natural Elements of Mental Health” is published by Ashfield Press. Twitter: @MaeveHalpinCoun.
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