When people read this blog or read the Career Paralysis slides they often contact me to say how much it resonates with their experience. Then when they meet me and set off on the career change / getting unstuck process, they often feel full of hope and expectation that they have finally found a way out of being ‘Headstuck‘. This is lovely for me of course, jolly good for my ego etc, but I ask people to hold these thoughts lightly. Because I know what’s coming next.
How we think about something and what we feel about it is not fact but learned behaviour. That’s what a thought is, a hypothesis of how something is similar or different to something else. At the beginning of the process it’s easy for the mind to say ‘this sounds promising’ but soon after the journey starts the mind will often say ‘hang on, this is just like what we’ve done before!’ From there it is only a small leap to thoughts like ‘this didn’t work before, why would it work now?’ Then ‘You are wasting your time’. And for some, ‘YOU ARE WASTING YOUR LIFE!’.
Unless I prepare clients for this, it can come as quite a shock. But if we can normalise these kind of thoughts (both the positive and negative) and treat them as ‘just thoughts’ clients are much better prepared. So, the first thing we need to discuss is the mind, how it works and what it’s there to do.
Our minds did not evolve for our happiness. They evolved to scan the environment for danger constantly. Is it a bear, or is it a blueberry bush? Our minds evolved to see the bear – they are highly evolved worry machines.
The caveman who was somewhat blasé about that strange shadow in the undergrowth or who ignored the unfamiliar noise over by the woods: they were the ones who were rapidly weeded out of the gene pool. The ones who survived – our ancestors – were the worriers. They were the ones whose minds refused to switch off, who were always alert to danger, who refused to look on the bright side until all was definitely safe.
Today we have a mind which is essentially unchanged in terms of software, yet the environment has changed dramatically in the sense that there is so much more information to process. All of it brings potential danger, so our minds continually chatter to us, cautioning us of danger, anxiously trying to grab out attention, warning us over and over that some new path or course of action may be dangerous.
Minds may be quiet in periods of safety or boredom, but if we try to change something or take some new tack they will most assuredly start chattering, and anxiety will set in. A career change is rather a big change of tack, so the question is not whether anxiety and doubt creeps in, but when.
The temptation is to try and win this mental battle first before proceeding, perhaps by doing so much analysis that the right decision is reached and the ideal career found and certainty is achieved. But this often leads to disaster (as the metaphor of Tug of War with the Anxiety Monster shows).
What does this mean for career changers?
The mind’s essential purpose has a number of implications for career changers:
- If the objective of your career change is greater fulfilment then your mind is not your enemy, but it is not your friend.
- Your mind is there to ensure you are safe, not fulfilled.
- Anxiety, uncertainty, doubt, fear – all of these are guaranteed if you stray from the familiar path. (Mind you, they are guaranteed if you do not stray as well, but that’s another post).
- Your mind will tell you that the world is as it says it is. Much better to be like that and ensure that quick, clear decisions are made than be left uncertain and unsure how to act (which is a recipe for being eaten by Lions). This shortcut has ensured your survival and it is not going to give that up now, so thoughts present themselves as reality.
- Your mind will present anxiety, doubt, fear etc as indications that you are going the wrong way. Whilst this is useful when there may be an actual Lion round the next bush, if your journey is about moving to a more fulfilling career they are less useful emotions to have. Yet it is hard for the mind to differentiate between the two.
- The more you try not to think about a particular thought, the more often you will have it. With minds, if you don’t want it, you tend to get it (source: Dan Wegner).
So what can we do about this? For now, recognising that this is what your mind is there to do is enough. (Though recognising that there is another part of ‘you’ which is capable of having a thought and not acting on it is a very useful skill to develop).
For my part I have a mind which screams at me to stop and turn back – it’s not too late to get a conventional job etc. 10 years ago I would have probably listened. Today I smile, say ‘thanks mind’ for trying to keep me safe, and move on in the direction which I have chosen.
Categories: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Career change cognitive biases Dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions Mindfulness and career change Minds - a User's Guide Psychological flexibility Psychology of career change