A gut feeling that just won’t go away

It’s been creeping up on you for quite a while now…

Most likely no one at work can tell – you’re carefully hiding it from them, putting on the happiest face you can muster, yet more and more now you find yourself with a feeling of dread and emptiness when you think about work, and you’re wondering how come the career that you longed for – and have worked so hard for – no longer lights you up like it used to each morning when you think about what the day holds. Instead, you’re thinking ‘there must be more to life than this.’

Awake half the night, dreading another day at work?

I’ve been there myself. – After 14 years working at one publishing company. I was just done. I’d put in all the hours, I’d climbed that ladder, had all the promotions …and I was miserable. When I plucked up the courage to mention to close friends the way I felt, more often than not they were horrified: ‘It’s not like you to give up!’ they said. And then I would start to think ‘maybe they’re right. What am I thinking?

Breaking the unwritten code

Now I realise that my misgivings about my career frightened them because they needed me to stay the same or else it meant something about their own choices. It was like I was breaking the (unwritten) code. In the end, I managed to prize my fingers off the desk because there was a round of voluntary redundancies at my company. I had been at that company for so long that the package was generous. I knew this was it – I wasn’t going to get a better offer – it was the perfect answer. But even then, I was full of doubts.

Defined by your work?

My work was bound up with my identity. If I wasn’t ‘Managing Editor’ then who was I? Who would I be? I felt sick at the thought of it. Yet, even though I was unhappy, it still didn’t seem a no-brainer decision!

Once I’d made the break, I went back to my psychology roots and picked up my learning where I’d left it many years before, seeing occupational psychology in a different light and, subsequently, I’ve been working with leaders and successful executives across a range of sectors.

A life of quiet desperation

What I’ve heard over and over is the difficulty they have with achieving balance between their work and personal life. They feel they need to be everything to everyone, are terrified of letting friends and family down. I asked one leader if he’d ever heard the quote from Philosopher Henry David Thoreau: ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation’. He said immediately: ‘That’s me!’. As you’re reading this, are you thinking it might be you too?

Perhaps the career ladder was tougher to climb than you expected. Perhaps, like me, when you made it almost to the summit it seemed rather empty – there was little time to spend that extra income; not enough days in the year to take annual leave, or hours in the day to spend with family and friends. That increased income may not be as satisfying as we expect.

A mid-life career crisis can happen to anyone – even those who seemingly have highly fulfilling jobs. It’s a misery that doesn’t discriminate and despite the phenomenon being evidenced across the entire socio-economic spectrum, it is surrounded by stigma – the reason for some of this stigma is that same fear that I heard from my colleagues who didn’t want to think that this career disillusionment might happen to them.

The resistance can be strong

You’re likely going to come up against your own resistance to change, because half a lifetime of received messaging and perceived expectations can be difficult to cut through. It is easy to get drawn back into the promises of power and prestige – and to forget that you know it makes you miserable. Much of the work I do with those that come to me for help and support is about peeling away the masks that people have been living behind – ‘mask removal’ and getting back in touch with what brings you joy, what’s really important to you. Then there is the fun of exploring the new and uncovering a future self and work you love that has meaning for you and gives you time for what really matters.