I recently met with a client who stimulated my thinking for this week’s post. She’s a very successful lawyer who has “burned out” on her profession, but has been unable to move forward pursuing alternatives without really understanding why. She keeps promising herself that she will take steps to network or research her way into new career choices but finds she keeps putting off those steps. In my first meeting with her, almost two months ago, I had detected some guilt surrounding her consideration of alternatives to the law, but in our session last week we were able to pinpoint the source of much of it. Her mother raised a family (with modest means) of three girls, sending two to Ivy League schools. The third child, however, suffered from such severe developmental problems that she needed virtually constant attention, and the mother sacrificed her career in order to provide the disturbed daughter with the required care. My client felt that it was somehow inappropriate or selfish of her to be unhappy with her career situation given all that her mother had been through, and the sacrifices that her mother had made in order to provide her with a top-notch education. Guilt stood in the way of her taking the steps she needed to in order to find greater fulfillment in her work life, guilt of which my client wasn’t even really aware.

There are several other kinds of psychological / emotional barriers that a not insignificant number of my clients encounter as they explore career options. A common one is perfectionism – the search for exactly the right combination of elements that will virtually guarantee happiness at work. This is a pursuit that is almost certainly doomed to failure, for several reasons. First, and most importantly, there are far too many variables in a work setting to be sure that all of them will align in the way one would like. Think, for example, of the importance of interpersonal relationships on the job with one’s boss and co-workers. As pleasant as they might seem in an interview kind of a setting, what kind of interactions will there be six weeks or six months, not to mention six years, into a new career? What if the boss you went to work for quit or is fired and you wind up reporting to a tyrant? How political will the place of employment turn out to be? How can one know in advance whether a company or organization will thrive or wither long-term?

Second, work that might be engaging initially might become tedious over time, and there’s no way to ascertain the probability of that happening with a great deal of accuracy. Yes, due diligence in asking people in your targeted career about what they like and don’t like about their work, and how the work “wears” with them over time is helpful. But what may hold another’s interest for the long-term won’t necessarily hold yours.

Third, one’s interests change over time as well, so a field for which one had passion at age 38 might turn out to be distasteful at age 40 due to changes in personal circumstances (for example the death of a parent, sibling, or spouse). That was exactly what happened to me at the end of my career in the advertising world – work that had previously felt exciting and stimulating became superficial and essentially meaningless.

Related, but somewhat the inverse, is the fear of making the “wrong” choice (rather than the perfect one). People who have had previous work difficulties (e.g. getting downsized or fired) are often overly particularly anxious about the possibility that they will find themselves in the same situation again.

Another psychological / emotional factor that can stand in the way of pursuing a more fulfilling career is the hovering presence of expectations: the perceived expectations of parents who have worked hard to ensure their child is successful, or of peers whose opinion of one’s success is judged important, success most easily measured in monetary terms. Or of a family line that has always worked in a particular business or profession. I say “perceived” because many clients misinterpret their circle’s expectations. In my experience people who care about you are able to sense when you are truly happy, even if you’re not earning the amount of money that they think would be necessary for their happiness, and seeing that you are happy is what’s most important to them. If it isn’t perhaps you should reexamine the value of their friendship.

The very important first step in eliminating the blocks I’ve cited above is the simple recognition that they are there. Unfortunately, most people are unable to look at themselves objectively and analytically enough to be able to detect the presence of these barriers. That’s where someone like me can be invaluable – someone who’s knowledgeable about both career counseling and psychological variables.