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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

5 Reasons You Feel Trapped in Your Job (and How to Overcome Them)

It’s not just escapologists—sometimes we all feel trapped in our jobs.

I’ll bet there’s been a morning when you’ve racked your brain for an excuse not to go into the office, wondered just what the heck you’re doing, or had that weight in your limbs as you begrudgingly got yourself ready to leave the house.

You, me, and a few million others.

It’s no picnic to feel trapped in your job, and the damage it does can be considerable. It’s toxic; closing in, weighing down on you, and slowing your steps. Over time, if you let it, you’ll forget how ambitious you used to be, you’ll wonder when your get-up-and-go got-up-and-went, and you’ll get a little nostalgic for how confident you once felt.

I hate the idea of anyone feeling trapped by anything (and I happen to love a good picnic), so let’s shine a light on the thoughts you have in your head that make you feel that way.

1. You Think That Everyone Else is Better Than You

Comparing yourself unfavorably to your colleagues is going to achieve one thing spectacularly well: making you feel really, really crappy.

If you see other people as more skilled, more capable, or more talented than you, you’ll feel like you need to stay out of the spotlight to avoid the chance for criticism, and you’ll build walls around you to avoid being seen as less-than. Wind forward a few months, and you feel sufficiently incapable that nobody else would have you. You’re trapped.

Larry from accounts may run a great meeting. Mary from marketing may be creatively brilliant. Bill from the top floor may have exceptional people skills. But they may not be as intuitive as you. Or be able to cut right through a problem. Or know exactly how it works.

Everyone’s better and worse than others on a limitless number of scales. Comparison is redundant. Being confident enough to apply your best, on the other hand, is gold dust.

2. You Believe it’s Tough Out There

We’ve all seen the headlines since the big crash. Layoffs, glacial recovery, fat cats getting richer, Justin Bieber getting arrested. Read the paper or watch the news, and you’ll see that it’s impossibly tough out there and how lucky you are to even have a job. Now is entirely the wrong time to be back on the job market, so please, don’t even think about it.

Belief is everything. If you believe that you don’t stand a chance out there, every door closes and the only option you have is to stay put and feel trapped. But, if you believe that you do have a chance out there, then suddenly doors are flung open and you get to go exploring.

Yes, some businesses and markets are tougher than others, but it’s been that way since the agricultural revolution. It will always be that way. And only believing the naysayers and doom-mongers will secure your place in the also-ran. People do make moves. People do take leaps. People do reach for better things. You can, too.

3. You Tell Yourself to Wait and See

“You know, I should just wait until the next round of pay reviews.”

“I’ll hold on until Christmas and see what happens then.”

“A lot of things could change, I should wait and see.”

There’s a word for people who play the waiting game in the hope that other people will come along and make everything okay. In denial. Okay, that’s two words, but you get the picture.

Staying put and waiting it out is only a good tactic if it’s part of a larger strategy that you can influence—like saving up enough money to start your own thing. Otherwise, it’s just wasting time, doubting yourself, and carving yourself a rut so deep that feeling trapped becomes a way of life.

Your choices should be based on what matters to you, not what you’re afraid may happen if you make the wrong choice.

4. You Don’t Know What Else You Want

To demonstrate my remarkable grasp of the obvious, let me say that it’s really hard to get what you want when you don’t know what it is you want.

There are all kinds of options, but nothing really connects. You could make a move, but how do you know if it’s what you want? When you don’t know what you want, it seems like the only valid option available is to stay where you are until the answer appears, regardless of how trapped it might make you feel.

But there is another option: Start asking yourself some questions. Is it a job with more autonomy? Something in a different city? Perhaps you want to get more creative or to take on more responsibility—or maybe all you know is that you don’t want to work for someone else.

What you want can be a general sense of wanting to spend more of your time with people, or it can be a focused idea of your next role. I don’t think the level of definition matters a whole lot, though. What matters is being ready to ask some tough questions and being confident enough to own your answers.

5. You Feel Like You Have to Prove Yourself

Working’s hard. You have to work your way up, roll up your sleeves, and learn the hard way, learn from the best, and do what you can. That’s how success happens.

Sounds exhausting, and it’s also how hollow, outer success happens, not meaningful, resonant, real success.

The belief that you have to pay your dues, hustle to get ahead, and prove yourself is one of the more subtly pernicious and damaging ones that exists in the world of work. It fuels a sense of having to do what’s expected (from your boss, from your peers, or from society) over doing what’s right—and that’s a surefire way of feeling trapped.

The truth is, you don’t have to prove anything. You just have to feel free enough to do your best work, wherever that may take you.

Photo of mouse courtesy of Shutterstock.