Navigating the Intersection of Work and Mental Health

Working Better and Stressing Less

Ideas on work and mental health

Working with the anxiety of making "the right" career choice

My best friend's mom is dying. For anyone, this is difficult news but in their case, this is happening right when their children are at a very demanding age and both my friend and their partner's careers are suddenly taking off. It's all happening at once. Hearing that you have a year or so left with a parent puts things into focus. My friend is going to hit the brakes and spend more time with mom. They will rebuild their professional momentum when it's time. My friend is very self-aware but making this decision was and is a big struggle for them. A circuitous career path wasn't part of their original plan. 

Careers are presented to us as linear paths. First, you go to elementary school and then junior high or middle school, followed by high school, then college, then perhaps graduate school after which you get a job and slowly work your way up in your field until retirement. I'm sure there are many people who have followed that path but it's not the majority. It's a simple story that sticks with us though.

Many of my career counseling clients show up highly anxious about making a wrong decision in their career, for fear that it jeopardizes their linear path or that they're going to make one decision and end up on a trajectory that doesn't work for them... forever. Of course not making a choice is a choice and many of these folks are spinning themselves in circles, staying in place, trying to figure out the "right path." Everyone gets stuck in this pattern for a reason and we often try to discover it in personal counseling. However, I do have a few tips on becoming more aware of how you're stuck and perhaps, getting unstuck from the puzzle of figuring out "the right" career choice. 

1. Remind yourself that your brain is not fully mature until you're about 25 years old. Why do we keep expecting 16, 18, or even 22 year olds to have a solid idea of what they want to be when they grow up? More and more research is suggesting that we're not psychologically mature until our mid twenties. Biology is going to let you have a fully formed prefrontal cortex in your mid twenties and that's about the time when you can fully process existential questions like "What do I want my life to be about?" Only once you have full faculties with which to make major decisions can you really begin having a serious adult conversation with yourself about what to do professionally. Career counseling for older adolescents (16-25 year olds) is about helping them try on various types of work and helping them notice their experience trying those things. This enables them to have enough information to start really working on career questions once they get to be 25-30. Career counseling for those 25+ is about "you've worked your butt off to develop that brain. Now let's START to use it on career concerns." Start... begin to... you have time. 

2. Acknowledge that making decisions from a values perspective rather than from the position of avoiding discomfort is a learned skill. No widely available program that I'm aware of teaches people to differentiate values from fears, learn to work with fear more effectively, and make reasonable value-congruent decisions about work. Career inventories can tell you what you're interested in, what you're good at, and match you with careers that fit interests and skills. But if your parents told you that the only reasonable career choices were lawyer and doctor and you want to go into the arts, you probably would benefit from saying, "I'm going to have a hard time navigating a career path that's out of the box to my family without help," and go seek a career counselor or other resources to help you do that work. 

3. Make it safe for other people to share the bumps and turns in their own road so you don't feel so alone. When you start sharing your story about being afraid to make a mistake or being frustrated with re-dos and "getting it right," other people come out of the woodwork with their own stories. The challenge with this of course is that if you start sharing your own bumps, detours, and uncertainties, there's sure to be someone who is so caught up in pretending their life is perfect that they could make you feel ashamed of yours. But if you are willing to be vulnerable in order to connect with the authentic people out there who are able to support you, they will. 

4. Reflect on what's more important to "get right," the end result or executing the process elegantly. You can earn straight A's in high school, college, and graduate schools, graduate early, display the most elite degrees in your office, and be promoted quickly within your chosen organization, and hate your career. That is a perfectly executed process and a bad end result. You can also have a mess of a path, accumulate interesting experiences along the way, try on a ton of jobs and education programs you hate, and end up in a place that's a great fit. That's a badly executed process and a great end result. There are practical considerations in that a messy path can lead to more student debt, a resume that's harder to "sell," and perhaps some worry for family members or friends who think you can't find your way. However, in the end, you're probably better off than the person with a perfectly executed process who hates their career, is paying the price in terms of mental and physical health, and either has to retrain after 4-16 years of post-high school education, manage associated student debt, and perhaps have to significantly downgrade from a lifestyle earned by their perfectly executed process. 

5. When you're stuck, try to set your career concerns aside for a little bit and consider all other domains of your life in terms of what you want to achieve and who you want to be. It might seem counterintuitive but it's often good to take a break from career planning and worrying and consider the vision you have for your role as a family member, friend, community member, spiritual person, healthy person, someone who has fun, romantic partner, or in other areas of non-professional personal growth. Work is a very important part of life but it's only part of it. If "figuring out" your career causes anxiety, try to fill out a picture of what the rest of your life can be and then see how career fits in that picture. 

I know that a blog post isn't going to turn around your career-choice anxiety. It's more complicated than that. But I hope these are a few helpful things to consider in your journey to get unstuck from career analysis-paralysis. People get sick, people die, sometimes you have to move, relationships begin and end, and sometimes you just plain change your mind. Life is going to force you to make career changes and in the end, there is no absolute limit to the number of do-overs you get. 

Katie PlayfairComment