This article, Understanding work difficulties, was originally published in the Washington Business Journal, in Washington DC Psychologist, Dr. Lynn Friedman’s, nationally-syndicated column, Corporations on the Couch, under the headline, “Analyze this: My job, my life and why I’m not thrilled”.

Many successful people are frustrated and unhappy at work. But how do you clarify and resolve work-life issues? How do you know if people need help? And, after deciding that help might be useful, how do you know what kind to seek? An important starting point is to identify the work-life conflict. In general, people struggle with three work-life conflicts:

What do I want to do with my life?
How do I go about pursuing my goals?
How do I galvanize myself to get started?

For some, answering those questions is straightforward. They know their likes and dislikes, their strengths and limitations. They know who they are and what they want. Others may be less confident but still able to make use of the plethora of staff development resources to clarify their answers.

Not everyone can answer those three questions, however. Some people never find an enjoyable and rewarding career. That doesn’t have to be the case. For the most part, with the right kind of help, career conflicts can be resolved and most individuals can be helped to have fulfilling work-lives.

Understanding work difficulties

How does one assess whether help is warranted and if so, what type? My own bias is to encourage anyone in that situation to seek a psychoanalytically informed assessment.

This type of evaluation is devoted to understanding the meaning of the conflict and identifying effective strategies for resolving it.

A psychoanalytically informed career assessment asks: What function, or purpose, does the career conflict serve? At first blush, to most people this question feels counterintuitive. Consider this puzzling idea: When any of us have a conflict, we derive some benefit (often, unconscious) from it.

For example, the man whose work-a-holism causes him to lose his marriage. He may be sad about this loss. However, simultaneously, (often, unconsciously) he may be frightened of intimacy. His work-a-holism may allow him to avoid closeness.

The task of the psychoanalytically informed career assessment is to understand the career (or work-life) conflict in a broader context, asking how the conflict protects the individual from pain.

The assessment tries to understand the individual in the context of the person’s historical and current life situation, exploring early experiences in school, work and home.

Current experience is also central, including the attitudes of the significant people in the person’s life. How might the individual’s career “success” or “failure” affect these significant people? Are they a source of support? Or are they part of the conflict?

A psychoanalytically informed career assessment explores whether the individual’s career difficulty is recapitulated in other areas of the individual’s life, and if so, how.

For example, does the person who has difficulties committing to a career also have difficulties committing to relationships?

Answers to these crucial questions can lead to a recommendation on whether career coaching, psychoanalytic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis is warranted. What are each of these interventions and under what circumstances might they be useful?

Career Coaching?

People who seek work-life consultation want a short-term, focused intervention that will allow them to identify and pursue their career goals.

Career coaching entails supportive relationships that help the person establish and pursue concrete, measurable, behavioral goals. The coach, group members or both function as a supporting cast, encouraging the individual to pursue established goals. Each week, the individual makes a commitment to take small steps toward the identification or pursuit of the career goal.

Although this approach can be valuable, it is not useful for everyone. The individual who has read numerous career books, taken career tests and consulted career counselors but still remains stymied likely needs a more in-depth approach.

When self-help efforts prove ineffective, this might be a warning sign that career coaching is not likely to be comprehensive enough to address underlying concerns. Indeed, in this situation, work-life coaching can be enormously frustrating, particularly in a group, where an individual who is unable to change witnesses others’ progress.

When career coaching fails, it is because the true conflicts are outside the individual’s awareness. A deeper approach, aimed at bringing the conflicts into awareness so they can be resolved, is more likely to prove effective. Ideally, people in this situation should seek a psychoanalytically informed work-life assessment to evaluate the most effective way to help them fulfill their personal and professional goals.
Psychoanalytic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis

These treatments help deepen self-understanding. Occurring regularly over months or years, psychotherapy takes place in a safe and confidential atmosphere.

People share their thoughts and feelings and reflect on their early and current life. Increased self-examination leads to a greater awareness of the obstacles that have prevented them from pursuing their goals.

This awareness leads to change. Beyond psychotherapy, psychoanalysis is a highly potent form of intensive psychotherapy often leading to even greater change.

Both treatments can be very useful in overcoming long-standing, often unconscious, difficulties related to pursuing work-life goals.

The individual can be helped to understand the gremlins that often get in the way of work-life dreams such as depression, anxiety, fear of commitment, difficulty with authority figures, work inhibition, trouble with decision making, difficulty with self-assertion, low self-esteem, writer’s block, anxiety about self-expression as well as other persistent maladaptive behavior patterns.

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