Parenting has a profound effect on career satisfaction

Career satisfaction and parenting may be inextricably intertwined. Parents may, albeit inadvertently, have a profound influence on career satisfaction in young adulthood and later. Let’s examine three kinds of parenting styles and their impact on work life happiness.

  1. The attuned parent
  2. The narcissistic parent who views the child as a narcissistic extension of himself
  3. A special subset of the narcissistic parent, the indifferent parent

Parenting styles can lead to work life success or work life difficulties.  Having an attuned parent may increase the likelihood of achieving work life satisfaction. In contrast having a parent who is narcissistic – or indifferent may lead to difficulties achieving career gratification. Each parenting style will be discussed in turn.

Career satisfaction and parenting may be linked to parental attunement

For many people the career journey is effortless. They are fortunate enough to have parents who encourage them to pursue and to explore their own interests. These parents sense their child’s pleasure in drawing a landscape or pounding on the piano. They follow up with art or piano lessons. They do this to help the child to pursue his loves, not because they personally need to create the next Rousseau or the next Mozart.

For people whose parents were very attuned college presents a wonderful opportunity. These students have been given implicit permission to sample the feast. That is, they have perceived an unambiguous message to explore and develop their skills and interests. The message is: “Identify and pursue your life’s dreams”.

Individuals with attuned parents may not need much help identifying career and professional goals. Often, they can make use of the plethora of books available on this topic. They readily establish helpful mentoring relationships with faculty, they reach out to their college career center or others who might provide support. When they do seek professional help career coaching, typically, fits the bill.

Narcissistic parenting may lead to work life unhappiness.

In stark contrast to the attuned parent, consider the parent who treats the child as a narcissistic extension of himself. This is the parent who decides that their child will have piano lessons whether she wants them or not, even if she’s tone deaf. These are the parents who over-program their child so that he never has an opportunity to develop his inner world or to explore his own interests.

When the parent views the child as a narcissistic extension of themselves difficulties arise

For those whose parents view their own self-worth as being tied to their child’s occupational success, the path is rockier. Often, these parents transmit the message, “Honey, you can do anything you want, as long as it’s prestigious”. Some students are fortunate enough to have their passions tied to law, medicine, business or other prestigious occupations; thus, they are able to bypass the challenges inherent in pursuing their parent’s dreams, instead of their own. However, at an unconscious level, there may be a lingering awareness that something great has been lost and a resentment at not having had permission to start from scratch.

For many the parental pressure is too great. These students, unconsciously subordinate their own dreams to the dreams of their parents. These are the people who were top performers; they excelled in athletics and extracurricular activities. These are the people who are oriented around, “resume builders”, grade point averages and awards – not passions and interests. At some point, they derail. They become anxious, depressed, and “stuck”. They go, “on strike”, or engage in a work slow downs. For the first time, ever, their parents aren’t bragging about them!

Typically, they come to therapy or counseling anxious, depressed or lost; but they are unaware of their underlying resentment and rage. Their approach to life has garnered them praise. However, the praise is for what they have achieved not for who they are. Often they are only subliminally aware of their anger. Instead, they may feel immobilized, uncertain about the future, helpless, passive, powerless, frustrated, anxious, sad and unhappy.

For this subgroup, career coaching will likely fail. This is because at an unconscious level the individual derives gratification in depriving their parents of, “bragging rights”. If prodded into career coaching, these are the folks who forget or cancel appointments. They don’t follow through on homework. Or, they complete it in a fashion that reveals their lack of investment in it. They seek superficial behavioral answers. They approach the coach asking to take a test that will divine in short order what they should do with their lives. Or, they expect the coach to magically find them an ideal job – even though they have no idea where their true interests lie.

When coaching, inevitably, fails they blame the coach. Moreover, they derive some unconscious gratification from thwarting the coaches best efforts. In this case, the coach takes a hit for the parents in that he serves as their proxy. And, in fact, the parents are often paying for the coaching. Thus, there may be some unconscious glee in undermining the coaching effort.

These individuals are best served with a careful, psychoanalytically-informed, career assessment. Such an assessment assumes that career struggles reflect an inner conflict. It is designed to identify and attempt to understand the conflict. After the conflict is more fully clarified a recommendation for intervention is made. In these cases, often the most helpful intervention is not career coaching but rather psychotherapy or psychoanalysis with a career focus, aimed at:

  • the individual’s resentment at subordinating their own goals to the goals of their parent’s
  • helping the individual to become aware of their resentment
  • helping them to understand the (often) self-destructive nature of their behavior
  • helping them to begin to identify and understand their feelings
  • helping them to clarify their likes and dislikes
  • and, helping them to identify and pursue their life goals

Having an attuned parent increases the likelihood that the young adult will achieve work life satisfaction. In contrast, work life happiness can be more elusive for the adult child whose parents view him as a narcissistic extension of themselves. Similarly, the young adult whose parents were indifferent may have a hard road to hoe.

Indifferent parenting may hamper work life ambition

Of course, some parents are neither uniquely attuned to their child’s interests nor do they treat the child as a narcissistic extension of themselves. Rather, some have parents have little interest in their child’s unique interests and gifts, leaving the child to evolve unattended. These are the children of parents who have psychological difficulties, suffer from substance abuse, are physically ill or are otherwise preoccupied and bound up in themselves, this is a different kind of narcissistic parent.In many cases, the child gets the clear, unadulterated message that she and her interests are of little or no import. Often, she treats herself just like her parents do, never planning ahead or focusing on the future. However, if the she is fortunate enough to get noticed by other adults in her world — adults who recognize, encourage and foster her talents, then, she has had a lucky break. Such a child might become very resourceful, seeking out nurturing adults and finding a community of peers who might share her interests.

Often, children of these parents have no idea what they enjoy. These are the responsible citizens who show up on time, with things in order. They get good grades and excellent performance evaluations. They read their bosses mind and meet his needs. They cover for their irresponsible romantic partner. However, when you ask them what they love, they have no idea.Their parents had major and significant problems so, in order to survive, they became the parentified child. They took care of an emotionally vulnerable parent. Their lives were organized around avoiding, preventing or reducing chaos. To put it in a, “tongue and cheek” way, they worked hard to, “raise their parents”.

At an early age they were so busy taking care of others that they never had an opportunity to develop and explore their own interests. So, when they are ready for the work world they have no idea how to please themselves – but, they are the bosses favorite – because they certainly know how to please the boss. The boss gets promoted but they are stymied picking up the pieces, sometimes lamenting that it’s unfair that they do all of the work while the boss gets all of the credit.

If these individuals have been lucky enough to elicit the interest of other sympathetic, adults, they may be able to identify their career paths by making use of books such as, Richard Bolles’s, What Color is Your Parachute and Barbara Sher’s, Wishcraft, to answer these questions. Others derive benefit from career counselors and/or career tests.

However, often these approaches are not been helpful because in order to know what you love, you must know what you feel. In these situations, career coaching may not be useful. Rather, these individuals may be best served in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. The good news: With this sort of help and persistence most of these kinds of career difficulties can be resolved. The best way to go about assessing whether you need psychotherapy or career coaching is to seek a psychoanalytically-informed, career assessment.

As a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst and master career counselor, one of my specialties is evaluating and addressing work-life dissatisfaction. My experience has been that, with proper evaluation, people with these kinds of difficulties can be helped.


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