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Balancing Guilt and Gratitude When You Want to Change Your Career

A shot of someone's shoes standing on a pile of rocks and dirt.

Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar: You’re feeling unfulfilled in your job. Maybe you want more responsibility, more respect, more pay. Or maybe you want a different job altogether.

But then you walk out the door and see a homeless person on the street begging for food or talk to your unemployed friend on the phone and think to yourself, “Well, at least I have a job. I don’t have a right to complain.” Then you do nothing.

So how do you deal with those complicated feelings and move forward?

In this condensed and edited interview below, Careerly coach Hiranya (Hira) Fernando talks about why it’s okay to give yourself permission to feel this way, how this feeling might be indicative of something deeper, and some steps you can take to come to a resolution.

This feeling of being grateful for what you have and therefore having no right to complain - why do you think people feel this way?

I think it’s unfortunate that these two things - gratitude vs. feeling you have no right to voice concern about something - are coupled together. It probably goes back to childhood and some misguided adult saying, "You need to count your blessings young lady. You have no right to complain!”

The truth is that the two have nothing to do with each other.

Having gratitude and a general sense of appreciation for your life/career/paycheck does not mean that you can't question certain specific aspects of your life/career/paycheck to see if improvements or changes are needed.

People may feel this way because of the current job market and its rates of high unemployment, and seeing so many friends and family struggle. It naturally brings up feelings of guilt and obligation.

Do you think this is limited to the nonprofit sector? Or have you come across this in other fields?

Understand that no major decisions are required right away. You just have to make a commitment to change. I don’t think it’s limited to the nonprofit sector. Our clients represent a pretty wide cross-section of industries and functional areas, both corporate and nonprofit. We have everyone from bankers and bakers to lawyers and government workers. Being stuck in a job but feeling like you should be grateful because you have a job cuts across the board.

I see so many people from different backgrounds and age groups wanting to "do something different.” They want to switch industries, functions, roles, even geographies. Some of this is just the human condition. We’re restless. We want change. And we want what we don't have, because the grass is always greener. I know this because I’ve done it over and over and over again.

I think a lot people who have this feeling on some core level believe that not all struggles are created equal. What are your thoughts about this?

If someone comes to me and is genuinely not in a good place, but feels like it’s something they shouldn’t even be thinking about because of the homeless person outside their office, then I’d tell them that that’s not relevant. Sure, there's some perspective to be gained there, but your continued misery is probably not going to help the homeless guy or your unemployed friend.

Besides, you are where you are and you have to honor that. This is your life, your circumstances. We can never know what other people are struggling with or experiencing. Comparing is not only meaningless, but may get you in the wrong frame of mind.

Focus on yourself. Not the homeless guy or your boss or your partner. You.

Then ask yourself: What can I realistically change? What’s feasible given my personal or family constraints? That’s what it comes down to. There’s no judgment around what you should or shouldn’t be feeling, or whether or not you’re lucky or grateful. Everybody has their struggle, their sadness, their thing that’s not working out the way they want it to.

When should you start paying closer attention to how you’re feeling so you can get that ball moving?

Once you acknowledge the feeling, then you can separate it out. First, you need to remember that feelings are not facts. Often feelings are just feelings and not indicative of anything more. These feelings may simply pass, given a few weeks.

Start paying attention if it lasts for more than three months, and starts to cause you persistent anxiety and pain.

If you’re having these thoughts, which at this point are now legitimate concerns, and still feel like you don't have the right to complain you’ll end up doing nothing. The anxiety and fear will ultimately paralyze you.

This may have real life consequences. It might affect your performance at work, for example. Or lead to health issues. I remember this one particular time in my life when I was very unhappy because I was working at a stressful finance job with a bad boss. I had stomach ulcers, chronic back pain, and needed steroid injections every four months.

In the last five years, in contrast, I can count on one hand how many times I've been sick.

So let’s say you wanted to stop being paralyzed and work toward some resolution. What are some action steps you can take?

Stay away from comparisons. Gratitude for your career includes the changes you need to make to sustain it.This is easier said than done, as change doesn’t happen overnight. You don't suddenly stop being paralyzed and spring into action; all sustainable change is incremental.

The first step is to acknowledge what's going on and that you do need to do something. You need to move from "Well, the homeless guy..." to "It's my responsibility to figure this out."

Understand that no major decisions are required right away. You just have to make a commitment to change. And begin somewhere.

Some concrete examples of where you can begin:

  • Ask yourself: Does this really have to do with my job or is there something more deep-seeded going on? Do I need to see a therapist? If it is definitely a career conundrum, then consider working with a career coach.
  • Do a quick analysis of your career malaise and why you are feeling stuck. Often the primary reason driving job dissatisfaction is not pay or lack of promotion or a bad boss, but a fundamental mismatch between your skills and/or natural talents and the type of work you are doing.
  • Do some research, talk to some people, and tap into your network. If that feels overwhelming break it down into the smallest possible goal that you can handle. For example: Every week, for the next five weeks, I will reach out and have one conversation with a mentor or someone in my professional network about my career and how I might move forward.
  • Seek clarity and insight with an open mind. And give yourself a break over any and all emotions you feel. What we’re aiming for here is incremental improvement, not "30 days to a new you!" I firmly believe that 'good enough' is the new 'perfect'.
  • Recognize that a career change is a tough challenge for anyone at any age under any circumstance. Even your willingness to attempt it is courageous and brave. You'll need care and support during this time of deliberation and potential upheaval. Have some affirmations handy.

Finally, remember there are no mistakes. The answers are in the process. And they have nothing to do with your concerns around homelessness, world hunger, or the unemployment rate.

Stay away from comparisons. Gratitude for your career includes the changes you need to make to sustain it.

By Celeste Hamilton Dennis

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