Dr. Lynn Friedman, originally, published this piece, “How to Overcome Roadblocks to Career Change,” in Washingtonjobs.com, a subsidiary of the Washington Post.
Obstacles to career change
This is the third part of a three part series on identifying and pursuing your Work-life goals. Part I and Part II dealt with:
Part III addresses four topics:
- What are the roadblocks to pursuing a well-codified plan for making a career change.
- What kinds of resistances and deficits get in the way of career change? And how can they be understood?
- What steps can one take to overcome these obstacles?
- For those who are stymied, what kinds of interventions that might prove helpful in making a career change?
Obstacles to pursuing the well-codified plan to making a career change
What if you know what you want to do with your life? You know that you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a web designer. Or, maybe, a political scientist or a teacher? Or, something so novel that it doesn’t even, yet, have a name. Over time, you’ve articulated a strategy for pursuing this career goal. Maybe, you’ve worked with a dedicated mentor. Or, you have joined a work-life group. After reading about your field of interest, you are well-informed. As you learn more, you believe that you have found the perfect fit.
Yet, despite your best laid plans to tenaciously pursue your career goals, you find yourself immobilized. You can’t seem to put one foot ahead of the other. Or, once you get started, you can’t seem to maintain your efforts to make your dream career change. What then? What gets in the way? If this is your situation, you may want to understand your “resistance” to making a career change.
Many people use the term, “resistance” as a way of characterizing, “avoidance”. However, sometimes they use that term in a pejorative way. (People who are very self-critical are particularly guilty of using these terms on themselves in a harsh way.) I tend to think of resistance, and avoidance, as ways of protecting oneself. So if you find yourself stuck, it’s important to consider how not pursuing your career goals might be adaptive. That is, how might your inertia in this area may be protecting you from something that you fear?
Resistance or Self-protection
If you are having difficulty implementing your plan, you should pay attention to your inertia. What is resistance? How can it be understood? Resistance simply refers to the idea that if you are not doing what you set out to do then there is an unconscious reason for it. Once that unconscious conflict is clarified, it can be understood and overcome.
Unfortunately, many of us treat our own resistance like the enemy. We react to it with brute force. Faced with resistance, many people take the seemingly most logical step in the world, they use their “willpower” and try to catapult themselves over the obstacle. They operate like the wind-surfer, who faced with a gust of wind, attempts to counterbalance it — but, of course, ends up, inevitably, falling on their derriere. The wind is simply stronger than the wind-surfer. The wind-surfer would be better served to take stock of the wind and lean into it.
Many people assume that reason will triumph over emotion. Often, this is not the case.
So too with resistance. Many people assume that reason will triumph over emotion. Thus, they give themselves a “pep talk” and exhort themselves to take action. When they fail, they criticize themselves for having no “willpower”. This is unfortunate inasmuch as resistance is an important warning sign that all is not as it appears. Like the wind-surfer, they would do better to work with the resistance rather fight it. For resistance, like the tip of the iceberg, signals that there is something large lurking beneath the surface. Thus, it should be respected and understood, not ignored. Unfortunately, this task is not easy as resistance often operates outside of our awareness.
Some readers will rightfully object to the notion that not pursuing their career goals is a reflection of resistance. Instead, they may assert that they lack the requisite skills. For example, they may not know how to approach a job search. Or, they may have difficulties with the skills that this sort of undertaking entails. These people are not conflicted. Rather, they may have a skills deficit. This is sometimes true; importantly, these sorts of deficits can often be overcome.
Making a Career Change: Overcoming Roadblocks
As a Washington DC-based, psychologist with expertise in work-life balance people often ask, “what steps can I take to overcome these resistances and deficits?”
I encourage people to take the following steps:
Examine the advantages to maintaining the current status quo.
It is easy to identify the benefits associated with pursuing a life dream, goal or a career change. That is, perhaps you are certain that you will love your proposed work. Or, that it will be lucrative. Or that you would welcome the status associated with the position. It is much harder to think about those aspects of “success” that trouble you. This is because quite often these types of thoughts/feelings are out of ones awareness. Try to examine to “downside” of achieving your goals.
Ask yourself: what benefits do I derive from not pursuing my goals?
This seems like a bizarre question. Yet, it has been my experience that people who are not pursuing their goals typically derive some benefit from that inaction. So, ask: “What are the advantages to not making a career change?
Is this what I really want to do with my life?
As a Washington DC-based, work-life expert, often, I find that people are pretty bound up in pleasing others. It’s important to ask yourself what is the motivation for pursuing your goals. That is, for example, “I say I want to be an attorney. But, is that really what I want to do with my life? Or, am I trying to please someone else such as my parents or my spouse? If so, who are they? And why are they so important that I would subordinate my own goals and interests to theirs? Am I trying to prove something? If so what am I trying to prove? To whom? Why?” This is important to assess because people who are “trying” to do something that they do not truly want to do often find themselves moving very slowly.
- Am I afraid of commitment? If so, of what am I afraid?
- Besides myself, who does my failure to pursue my career objectives or make a career change, hurt?
Do I want to deprive my parents of “bragging rights?”
Are you, unconsciously, failing to follow through on your career goals because you don’t want someone else, such as a parent or a spouse, to be gratified by your success? While most people don’t set out to deprive their parents, or spouse, of bragging rights, there’s that pesky unconscious. That is, sometimes we are affected by feelings that are outside of our awareness.
For example, take the college student who is very angry at his father for constantly trying to tell him what to do and how to do it. Such a son, might feel, “if I am successful, it will make my father look good or show him that he is right”. Thus, the son might, albeit, unconsciously, sabotage his own success. In adulthood, these feelings may persist. But because they are incongruent with our perception of ourselves as adults, or are intolerable in some way, the feelings go underground, where they continue to exert their silent but potent influence over our behavior, while remaining outside of our awareness.
Who am I protecting by not pursuing my career objectives?
Another question to ask is: if I succeed, who will I make uncomfortable? For example, many women may unconsciously fear losing or damaging their marriages if they outstrip their husbands, professionally. This is illustrated in the following vignette:
Decades ago, I had a student who asserted that she wanted to become a clinical psychologist. Indeed, she completed all of the necessary requisites to do so. However, she was dragging her feet through the application process.
I encouraged her to list for herself the benefits associated with NOT applying to graduate school? After considerable reflection, she became aware that she was concerned that if she were accepted, she would out earn her husband. And this, she felt, would jeopardize her marriage.
Similarly, the student who is the first in their family or community to earn an advanced degree may experience a sense of loss and/or isolation associated with each achievement. Thus, in this way, they may be protecting their family and friends from the loss that can be inherent in departing from the rest of the herd. Similarly, they may be insulating themselves from this loss. Frequently, I see this difficulty, perhaps because DC is host to so many bright, ambitious people.
Steps for overcoming roadblocks to career change
- Give yourself a deadline, perhaps six weeks, to attempt to answer the questions outlined above and to develop a plan for getting on with the pursuit of your work-life goals.
- Make use of some of the popular books available toward this end. While many people find Dick Bolles’ book, What Color is Your Parachute, helpful, I RECOMMEND HIS WORKBOOK, instead. Others have found Barbara Sher’s, Wishcraft to be helpful.
- Talk these questions over with a trusted friend. Doing so may provide you with the insight into your difficulties.
- If these efforts prove ineffective make use of the resources described below.
Why seek consultation from a Washington DC Career Counselor and Psychologist?
If you’ve attempted to address your career difficulties in career counseling or psychotherapy and have not found it helpful, someone with expertise in both areas may offer you a more integrative approach.
Interventions that might prove helpful should you find yourself stymied.
What if you have asked yourself the questions listed but the answers prove elusive? Perhaps, you have participated in a work-life group but found yourself unable to follow-up on goals, even with group support. Or, maybe you were able to identify some of the sources of your resistance. But, you were uncertain as to how to completely understand your conflict?
Or, perhaps, you weren’t conflicted. Rather, you recognized that you have some skills deficits. How might you deepen your self understanding? As an adjuvant to your efforts, consider a psychodynamic career assessment to learn whether psychodyamic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis might be useful to you. Most psychoanalysts practice both psychodynamic therapy and psychoanalysis. Therefore, seeking an evaluation from a psychoanalyst can enable you to clarify whether either of these treatments will help you to overcome roadblocks that have interfered with the pursuit of your work-life goals.
How do you choose a career coach?
Understanding the Role of Unconscious Conflict in Career Counseling, Career Convergence, National Career Development Association
Understanding the Role of Transference in Career Counseling, Career Convergence, National Career Development Association
Analyze this: My job, my life and why I’m not thrilled, Washington Business Journal
Uncertain as to the kind of help you need?
I can help you assess whether you need psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, career or executive coaching or a combination. Like many of my colleagues, I work with people who are struggling with anxiety, depression and relationships. In addition, I have a specialty in career challenges. I provide psychodynamic career assessment to evaluate what sort of help will be most effective in resolving your difficulties.