The #1 Reason You're Experiencing Career Stress (It's Not What You Think!)

Licensed Clinical Social Worker By Nathalie Theodore, J.D., MSW, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Nathalie C. Theodore, J.D., MSW, LCSW is a lawyer-turned-therapist located in Chicago. She received her J.D. from Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington, and her master's in social work from Loyola University, Chicago.

As a therapist who helps women manage career stress and dissatisfaction, I often hear horror stories about horrible bosses, demanding clients, unreasonable work hours, and, above all, a complete lack of "work-life balance."

Not only do I sympathize with my clients’ plight, but I identify with their pain. Believe me: I've been there. It seems like a lifetime ago, but there was once a time when I, myself, was the poster child for chronic career-related stress and dissatisfaction.

As an attorney, I worked ridiculously long hours, routinely took on too much in an attempt to prove myself, and did my best to ignore my gut feeling that a legal career wasn’t the right fit for me.

For years, I had attributed my career stress to horrible bosses, demanding clients, unreasonable work hours, and a complete lack of work-life balance. And to be sure, each and every one of these elements played an important role in making me miserable. But it wasn’t until I made my career change and had some much-needed distance from my situation that I began to understand my own role in my career stress.

Specifically, I am now able to see the common thread linking all of the external factors that made me miserable. Sure, my bosses may have been horrible, my clients demanding and my work hours unreasonable. But what I really struggled with, in fact, was my own self-esteem.

At the time, I simply didn't realize that these issues could've been managed in a different way: I lacked the confidence to set healthy boundaries at work, make self-care a priority, listen to my gut, and trust that I could make a career change, take a giant leap of faith and land on my feet.

If you’re struggling with career stress and dissatisfaction, read on for signs that your self-esteem is playing a role:

1. You don’t set healthy boundaries at work.

As a young attorney, I felt the need to say yes to every project that landed in my lap. I routinely went above and beyond the call of duty because I was operating from a place of deep insecurity, even if I wasn't aware of it. I always felt like I had something to prove. I worked late nights and put in “face time” on weekends, answered emails at all hours of the day and night, and rarely asked for guidance because I was afraid of looking stupid, inadequate, lazy ... the list goes on.

If this sounds familiar, realize that you’re selling yourself short. Remind yourself that you are smart, capable and talented — and that’s why you were hired in the first place. Instead of taking on more than your share in an effort to prove yourself, let the quality of your work product speak for itself. Set boundaries with respect to email so you’re not always on-call, and remember that you deserve a healthy work-life balance.

2. You don’t make self-care a priority.

When we put our jobs first and let self-care fall by the wayside, we’re sending a message to ourselves, and the world around us, that we’re not our own priority.

For example, during the years that I practiced law, I got very little sleep, ate poorly, chugged coffee all day and never worked out. No wonder I was a nervous wreck!

You may truly believe that your job doesn’t afford you the time to “indulge” in self-care, but the fact is that you need to make the time because you’re worth it. Feeling fried isn't an inevitability: taking care of yourself is a choice. And plus, when you make self-care a priority, you’ll have more energy to devote to your job and more resilience to tackle stressful work situations when they arise.

3. You don’t trust yourself to handle change.

As a career-changer, I’m well aware of the risks involved in making a major life change, and I’m no stranger to the fear that goes along with it. The mere thought of change often causes our minds to run wild with questions. What if my next job is worse than my current one? What if I make a career change and am still unhappy? What if I fail?

Even smaller changes, like setting better boundaries at work, can still be daunting because they disrupt what you're used to. And let's face it: habits — even the bad ones — are comforting on some level. But listening to your gut is crucial, and goes hand-in-hand with self-care as a way of valuing yourself. And it's never too late to create some new, self-respecting habits.

When we’re afraid of change, we tend to catastrophize everything and fear the worst. Recognize that these are just thoughts, and that it’s normal to feel scared. Rather than letting your fears hold you back, remind yourself that you’re worth the risk, and that you’re capable of handling whatever changes you need to make for a happier life.

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