Therapy for your career: Work is a huge and underappreciated part of our emotional lives
Work is a significant part of our lives, including our emotional lives. We talk frequently about making romantic relationships better, deepening friendships, and spending more time (and having more fun) with family. In contrast, work is rarely seen as a place to develop the relationships that exist within it. The conversation around work is usually one of protecting ourselves until we can get away from it rather than focusing on how we might show up in a way that makes work a meaningful part of our lives.
To be clear, work often sucks. Workplaces can be alienating and stultifying. Some can be outright abusive. But when we relate to these conditions as endemic to work itself, we miss out on the realization that work is an expression of choices made by employers, managers, and workers themselves. This limits the possibilities for making work lives better. While there is a great deal broken about work in our culture, we also need tools and conversations for responding to these realities in ways that are hopeful.
Therapy can be a helpful forum for considering questions related to how to make work better for individual workers and workplaces as a whole. For instance, what are safe ways to bring more of ourselves to work? How can we learn to both advocate for ourselves and create a culture of advocating for another? What are ways we can democratize the culture of work, even if some aspects of decision-making are tightly organized around authority? How can we take work relationships as seriously as relationships with friends and neighbors, honoring their difficulties while also their significance?
Our emotional histories and prior relationships play out in our work relationships
Valuing work as a place to build meaning and not just power invites possibilities but creating a successful work life likely comes with snags. This is because work, like friendships, romantic relationships, and parenting, is a location for revisiting old relationships and feelings.
This includes our relationships with past authority figures, especially our parents, conflicts with siblings, and past loves and losses. For example, if a parent or parents were scary, there can be a tendency to avoid conflict with a boss or be too compliant in the face of unreasonable demands. There can also be a vulnerability to recreating a kind of adolescent conflict in which there is a tension between rebellion and correction. Similarly, conflict with siblings, specifically not getting needs met in the face of a sibling receiving priority, can make competitiveness with colleagues a forum for recreating an unhealthy dynamic. Finally, unresolved grief from an early loss may express itself in a reluctance to move on from a job that has perhaps been outgrown. All of these histories can play out at work whether we try to avoid it or not.
Looking at what work is telling us is unresolved in our emotional lives is a recipe for a better career: A great therapist (rather than a coach) can help
As much as the idea of “leaving work at work” is in vogue nowadays, we bring work home and we bring our full selves to work, including these emotional histories. The recipe for working toward a more successful and meaningful career is making room for and looking at what work is telling us is unresolved in our emotional lives—what we need to work on and work through, where we need to grieve and grow. Therapy is a place where these early experiences can become known and identified as predicates when these patterns reemerge at work.
Therapists’ central expertise is emotionality, which is an underrecognized part of work life. This is why a great therapist can be the key to a better career, even more so than a coach. Coaches are useful and often vital. They bring skills to navigate questions of leadership, management, organization, and teamwork that are essential, particularly when paired with an awareness of a given role (like being a CFO) or industry (like fashion or finance). Unlike coaches, though, therapists don’t need to be careful with the line between personal and professional. A great therapist can explore both as a totality—they can receive and relate to all of you, the same all of you that you bring to work.