You chased that promotion because it was the next logical step (and ignored the fact that you’re not inspired by your job). You keep crunching numbers because others expect it from you (even though you’d rather work with people). You’re holding off on making a career switch because everyone will think you’ve gone crazy.
Do you know that sinking feeling that pops up each morning, as you dread going into the office? Is that pit in your stomach starting to feel all too familiar? From the outside looking in, you have plenty to be happy about, but you can’t help feeling unfulfilled.
Not that you’d ever admit that out loud. It has become your dirty little secret. In fact, you believe you’re the only one who’s struggling, and it feels as if you’re failing and letting everyone (yourself included!) down.
Well, you’re definitely not the only one keeping unhappy feelings carefully tucked away behind hard work and a pretend happy smile. I’ve seen it happen so many times, and I’ve been there, too.
The good news is: It doesn’t have to be that way! Here are three practical steps to help you find your way back.
1. Stop Pretending
The first step is to be honest with yourself. As simple as it sounds, this can be the hardest thing to do—but it’s also the most important. Pushing your unhappy feelings away won’t make them disappear.
Pretending you like your job only makes you a better pretender. It makes you work hard to build a career that’s not fulfilling, and will never be; no matter how hard you try.
You need to see the issue before you can solve it. Naturally, you cannot solve a problem when you pretend there isn’t one. So, be really honest with yourself—no self-censoring allowed. (You’ll be amazed at how good that feels!)
Try this script:
“If I’m being really honest with myself, I feel [blank]. Often I feel like I should do more [blank] and do less [blank]. It feels as if I should be more [blank] and be less [blank]. If I could be anything I wanted and everyone would approve, I’d love to do [blank] and be more [blank], but I feel I can’t because [blank].”
2. Let Go of “Should” and “Can’t”
Most likely, you’ve uncovered a lot of “shoulds” and “can’ts” in step one.
I can’t quit medical school and pursue another career, because my parents expect me to be a doctor.
I should be grateful that I have a full-time job with benefits—even if I hate it.
Instead of focusing on what will make you feel happy and fulfilled, you’re living according to the “shoulds,” “can’ts,” and “supposed tos.” In reality, you’ve built a career (and maybe a life) that looks good on the outside but feels rather empty on the inside.
And, you’ve probably come to believe that you’re simply not trying hard enough. You think that if you work a little harder and commit a little more, you’ll get your happiness back.
But it’s not a lack of work ethic that’s the root of your problem: It’s that you are forcing yourself to walk a career path that isn’t your own. Or, maybe you’re in the right role, but it doesn’t feel like a good fit, because you’re holding back and not bringing your unique strengths, ideas, and voice to the job.
So, take a good look at your “shoulds” and question them. Walk through this exercise:
I believe I should [blank] and it feels like that’s a non-negotiable rule. But in fact, if anything were possible, I could [brainstorm three things you could do or be instead]:
Actually, here are three good reasons why that would be a win-win for everyone involved:
Repeat this for each of your shoulds. When you allow yourself to honestly assess your activities and commitments, you’ll likely find that your priorities and what truly matters to you become clearer than ever. And you’ll be amazed by how much more energized and empowered you’ll feel.
3. Start Small
This is where the rubber meets the road. Because only doing different things—or doing things differently—will create a real change in your life.
Pay attention to what you’ve learned in steps one and two—as well as what really energizes and fascinates you. Then, do a little of that each day. Pitch an idea to a supportive supervisor. Partner with a detail-oriented colleague. Proposing new initiatives (or declining, if that’s what you need to work on) will help right your course.
You don’t need to burn bridges or make big, sweeping changes overnight. Plotting big steps sounds sexy, but in reality it often just leads to procrastination, without the actual doing. Small steps create real change and provide momentum to keep going.
If you’ve been feeling trapped in your career for a while now, there’s no reason to just keep pretending. Instead, think about what you’d like to be doing, and take small steps to get there.
Change is never easy. But, it’s a whole lot better than pretending. Promise.
Photo of unhappy woman courtesy of Shutterstock.