Unhappy Career Choices, How People Can’t Decide What They Want to Do

Lisa is a Social Worker who chose her career because it’s what her mother did. Her mom was always so inspired by her work representing and advocating for the poor that Lisa thought she would find the same energy and enthusiasm. It never happened. She is deeply unhappy with the work and would go into something else but has no idea of what she would do instead. She is in a quandary about what to do.

Alex is an Accountant who is unhappy in his career. He is a bright guy who does his job quite well. He makes a good living, far better than most. Yet, money and career success give him no sense of satisfaction. He knows he can change careers but has no idea what he would do instead. He never had a driving ambition to be an accountant. He was always good with numbers, High School teachers and College professors encouraged his becoming an accountant. In effect, he has always felt the career chose him rather than he the career. He feels left in a quandary about what to do.

There are many other people just like Alex and the reasons are many and diverse. For example:

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1. Boredom due to the repetitiveness of the work.
2. Low salary with heavy work load.
3. “Burn Out” due to work pressure.
4. Too many years at the same job so that it is no longer challenging.
5. Absence of a career ladder for advancement.
6. Experiencing the work as below one’s abilities and skills.
7. Experiencing the work as too difficult and above one’s abilities and skills.
8. Very short vacation time.
9. Working in a corporate environment that is unresponsive to worker needs and suggestions.
10. Working in an authoritarian environment in which there is a lot of hostility.
11. Low prestige and status for the type of job position.
12. Disappointment and disillusionment about what they initially thought the career would be like,

These are just a few of the factors that cause work and career dissatisfaction.

Despite the fact that so many people are unhappy with their career choices, they remain in their jobs without making any changes. For some, a dim or pessimistic view of life leaves them with the notion that nothing better can be expected in their lives. Then, too, there are people who want job security regardless of how unhappy they are with their circumstances. These are people whose productivity decreases over the years. Poor evaluations and low salary are acceptable trade-offs for the sake of safety and job security. Their approach to job unhappiness is to count the days until each holiday, to each vacation, and to their day of retirement. Of course, there are people who need their present job regardless of how unhappy they may be. These are people with families to feed and clothes, and mortgages to pay for. Many people seem unaware that they could have choices and make choices and changes in their career paths. Believing they have no options, they just continue, in a dogged and stubborn way, to go the same job, never understanding that their lives could be better. Then, too, there is the cold and hard fact that the present day economy does not guarantee finding another job even if a career change is made.

There is another type of career person who, like Alex and Lisa, is unhappy with what they do and who is aware that career change is possible and desirable. Yet, they have no idea of what they would do to make a living if they did not maintain their present status. Very often these are individuals, just like Alex, who never knew what they wanted to do. When asked what their dreams were when they were children, they draw a blank and report that they never had any dreams. When asked how they selected their present work, they provide explanations about how they found the job or how the job found them. However, these people make it clear that there was no motivating force that drove them toward what they are now doing. Perhaps the fact that it pays “good money” was as good a motivation as anything else. For this individual, as for many others, there was a time, years ago, when the economy was different and people were guaranteed a job for the rest of their lives.

Today, with a fast changing economy deeply affected by the international situation, including the inroads made by China and other nations into our economy, including the fact that many companies have now moved overseas where labor and manufacturing are less expensive than in the United States, there is no longer any guarantee about working for one company or even in one type of business for the remainder of a person’s life.

Individuals who back into a job without any type of vision or ambition often find themselves in a crisis if the company for which they are working either changes location to a different part of the country or goes out of business altogether. At that point, the individual is left feeling confused and uncertain about what to do. That is when they may seek psychotherapy. If their hope is that therapy will somehow help them find a job, they are sorely disappointed. In the therapeutic office, they have no better idea of what they want to do about work than before they lost their current job. All they know is that they are unhappy with their situation and want to work, but make little effort to find a job because there is nothing they want to do.

How does this happen?

This happens as a result of feelings of depression that predate their company closing or their losing their job. Further discussion in psychotherapy often reveals the fact that parental attitudes toward work during childhood were extremely negative. In these cases, whether the parent was a medical doctor, postal worker or anything between, they hated their jobs and made that abundantly clear when they came home. These attitudes and feelings were absorbed by their children even if they were not aware of it up until they entered therapy. Without a role model to convey a commitment to work and career, these individuals, when they were children, did not entertain ideas about being a fireman, policeman, or anything else. In fact, they dared not imagine themselves following in the foot steps of their parents because of the bitter complaints they heard at home.

In some cases, parents interfered with this childhood day dreaming and role playing if they (the parent) objected to the type of work the child dreamed about. Of course, that type of parental intrusion into a child’s fantasy world interferes with the developing creativity and imagination of this budding mind. The child who has this type of experience and grows up without the unfettered opportunity to imagine being a nurse, doctor, sanitation worker or anything else is left without the ability to imagine themselves as defined by any type of career. They may work, but without joy, pleasure or any sense of accomplishment.

In treatment I hear many of these types of individuals complain that their friends have gone far beyond them in their lives. The complaint is not that their friends are making more money than they are, but that they talk about themselves, with pleasure, as being an accountant, a lawyer, a plumber, or any number of other professions or types of work. In other words, their friends have a sense of commitment to something more than just earning some money. They have a commitment that is envied by the person who has no guide to who they are or what they should do.

What is the solution to this dilemma?

This is a difficult question to answer but one of the suggestions I work with in therapy with someone struggling with an identity crisis about their career goal, is to ask them what kind of work they might like to do but without worrying about reality issues. What types of reality issues are referred to here? These are the reality issues their parents used to interfere with their imaginings when they were children.