Ask people about their worst career experience and you will hear many different stories. Some will feature bad bosses, toxic colleagues or greedy management. Others will centre on inordinate stress, excessive work hours or uncertain employment.
The key characteristics underlining most of these experiences are feelings of incompetence and powerlessness.
One man who was drowning in his job described the state succinctly: “I used to feel competent, but now I feel decompetent – not incompetent, decompetent – as if every day I go into work, a little more of my competence is eroded.”
When jobs turn sour, the hardest hit are often those accustomed to being admired and successful. I have witnessed several professionals who always seemed to go from strength to strength; they nearly had nervous breakdowns when faced with adversity such as a bad boss they couldn’t win over, or a project that went spectacularly south, because quite simply, they had never failed. Core to their identity was: “I am successful at whatever I do.” They had no coping strategies for dealing with something as foreign as failure and the assault to their ego was too great.
Perhaps even more worrisome are those who are so accustomed to being beaten down that they have no expectations of success. It is as if they are so numbed and inured to failure, they barely recognize their drift into feelings of incompetence. As a result, they develop a chronic sour and helpless disposition.
Feelings of incompetence spread like a virus, infecting everything we do. It might start at work, but it will play out in home life, making us grumpy and morose at best, withdrawn and depressed at worst, as parents, partners, and friends.
So if you are suffering from such feelings – and in my experience almost everyone, by the time they are in their mid-30s, will have had one awful career experience leaving them dumbfounded and depressed – don’t let it ruin your summer. Here are some ways to restore your belief in your future.
Take stock. Do an inventory of your successes. What have you accomplished that made you feel good about yourself? Consider successes in all areas of your life – work, personal, community. Mine your history: Some people find important, confidence-affirming information when they go back to high-school experiences.
Learn from your accomplishments. Most of us drift away from sources of deep satisfaction without being aware of it. Identify the common elements in your successes, whether they involve leading, mentoring, writing, teaching, or giving back. How can you incorporate these themes into your daily life?
Neutralize the sting. If you think you are the victim of an unfair job loss, ask yourself: Is this the worst thing that could have happened to me? Will I recover from it? Or if your confidence-eroding experience is related to a bad supervisor, take the bite out your boss’s power by imagining him or her in some compromised manner.
Be dispassionate. Don’t catastrophize. Was the source of your confidence-crushing experience truly awful? Put it into perspective. How would others describe this experience?
Get support. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself. Ask friends and colleagues for feedback on what you are good at and what they like about you. Recite these attributes when you are feeling down. If you are depressed and are having trouble moving on, consider getting professional help. Often these experiences, while extremely painful at the time, provide fodder for insight and change.
Take, for example, a client who was fired after a particularly nasty run-in with her boss. With therapy she realized that on the job her ego had been on constant high alert for slights to her competence and that she had interpreted everything he said as an attack. She now understood that her boss was interpersonally clumsy, but not out to get her, as she had presumed. This new awareness of her own sensitivities and distortions was sobering.
Reconnect with old friends. They will remind you of funny or clever things you have done. You will feel appreciated. You will also realize that you have unique attributes that you may have lost sight of.
Don’t wallow. It is okay to give yourself a short period to indulge in self-pity and digest the experience, but then it is time to move on. Be judicious in what you communicate to whom and how you communicate it. People quickly tire of continuing laments about unfairness or victimhood.
Do something positive. Change your situation whether by looking for a new job, or having a heart-to-heart with someone who is making you miserable. If the latter, express yourself with care. Do not attribute blame. Instead of saying, “You always ignore me and go over my head,” say, “I feel like you don’t respect my competence when you (do such and such) ….”
Make summertime work for you. Do something inventive and different. Never gardened? Pick up a shovel. Never danced? Take a movement class.
Fake it. This is my most powerful advice. Research shows that if you act like you have the ability, the feelings will follow.
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