How to Use Therapy to Achieve Your Career Goals
After graduation, there comes a moment when you realize exactly how much of the rest of your life you'll be spending at work. It's a big, scary, welcome-to-adulthood awakening, and — for many of us — a kick in the butt to go after what you really want. But the truth is, even once you land your dream job (or quit your day job and create your own), work always comes with stress. That's why it's a great idea to bring your professional life into your next therapy session, for the sake of your mental health and your career ambitions.
When and how to get started
Remember Mandy Moore's proactive approach to therapy? That's also a great way to stop work issues in their tracks.
"Think of regular sessions with a professional counselor as preventative health care," says Dr. David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association (ACA). "Just as it is helpful to get an annual checkup with your physician and to see the dentist twice a year, seeing a professional counselor can help prevent stress from becoming distress (the point at which stress interferes in your life)."
Dr. Kaplan notes that companies' benefits plans should include an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). "EAP counselors will provide no-cost counseling to employees and help with approaches and interventions designed to prevent mental health issues from interfering with work," he says.
If you're self-employed or not eligible for benefits, you still have options. The ACA's website suggests searching the Therapy Directory from Psychology Today, which lets you filter local therapists by insurance accepted and issues treated, including career guidance. There are also online counseling platforms like BetterHelp and Talkspace, which might be right for a limited budget or schedule.
What to talk about
"A professional counselor will explore the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are occurring when you feel under stress," says Dr. Kaplan. Workplace stress triggers might be related to your environment, your coworkers, upcoming career benchmarks, or outside influences. Here are a few of the issues you might want to work through.
1. Asking for a Raise: "We live in a society where it is generally taboo to talk about money, so it makes sense that is hard to ask for a raise," says Julia Lawrence, LMSW, a therapist at A Good Place Psychotherapy. She suggests role-playing in therapy the conversation you plan to have with your boss.
"It can be helpful to have a script beforehand," she says. "In role-playing with a client, I (as their boss) sadly inform my 'employee' that the company is not able to give them a raise at this time. This helps an individual recognize that the worst-case scenario is usually simply that they are in the same position, and that they are capable of managing the negative emotions that such a scenario might raise."
2. Leaving a Bad Situation: "I often hear people describe their workplace as 'toxic,'" says Lawrence. But with further discussion, the underlying reasons for this perception are usually more benign: "I find they often use this word when they feel overworked, dislike their colleagues, or feel micromanaged."
Lawrence explains that a therapist can identify patterns in your workplace stories that may change your perspective. "f you are describing a lot of workplace conflict and the only common factor in these issues is you — then there's a chance this problem is not specific to your workplace and this issue will follow you wherever you go," she says. "If you're describing having to work a ton on weekends or a boss who makes inappropriate comments, your problems may be truly particular to your current employment."
Whether or not the problem is one you can solve, a therapist can help you prepare for your next steps.
3. Dealing With an Office Bully — or Anyone Who Needs to Hear Your Voice: Gwendolyn Nelson-Terry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego, California, suggests working on assertive communication to stand up against an office bully. "Assertive communication means that you use clear, direct communication in a manner that allows you to express yourself or stand up for yourself while not putting the other person down," she says. "When one uses assertive communication they are being direct, honest, and clear in what they are stating."
Nelson-Terry also suggests practicing tone of voice and body posture with your therapist, to ensure that these support your words. "Assertive communication can help you to improve your feelings of confidence. When people use assertive communication they tend to feel better about themselves, report that they get their needs met for frequently by a partner, and report feeling that they are listened to more often in the workplace."
4. Improving Self-Esteem: Self-esteem issues can be difficult to pinpoint, Nelson-Terry explains. "It tends to manifest in small ways," she says, pointing out that issues may build up over time. "They tend to come to therapy saying things more like, 'I don't feel comfortable at work,' 'I'm angry because I've worked so hard and I got passed up on a promotion,' 'I feel invisible. It's like no one knows I'm there.'"
But in therapy, you can gain greater understanding of these feelings: how they impact you at work and how you see yourself. For example, Nelson-Terry notes, if someone feels invisible, there may be more to the story. "That person might have begun to withdraw. They might have stopped speaking up in meetings or are keeping ideas to themselves when they normally would be someone to give input, share ideas, and work on big projects."
To overcome self-esteem issues, Nelson-Terry explains, you can work with your therapist on "identifying limiting beliefs and challenging and resolving those beliefs."
5. Overcoming Negative Automatic Thoughts: "Automatic thoughts happen so quickly and can be any range of things from 'I am going to get fired' to 'They hate me,'" says Dr. Nicole Bernard Washington (AKA Dr. Nicole), a psychiatrist and executive coach. "A simple mistake at work or a coworker not saying hello can be the event that leads to the giant leap of the negative automatic thought." Negative automatic thoughts are extremely common, and they can be hugely harmful to your mental health.
But, says Dr. Nicole, a mental health professional can help you learn to recognize and confront your automatic thoughts. "Having a handle on this can lead to improvement of overall functioning," she explains. "You can do your job, be more efficient, and interact more appropriately with others when you aren't bogged down with negative emotions that come from negative automatic thoughts."
6. Finding Your Path: "Taking control of your time requires you to get very clear on what's important to you," says Bianca L. Rodriguez, MA, Ed.M, LMFT. "I recommend clients create a pie chart that indicates what percentage of time they spend on various activities. Then I ask them to list their top five priorities and create another 'ideal' pie chart that shows how they would like to spend their time. This visual can really help to highlight the discrepancies. Then we devise a plan together to get closer to their 'ideal.'"
Rodriguez explains that if you find yourself procrastinating at work, it might be a sign that you're in the wrong field. "Most people create extensive 'to do' lists and rarely get to the majority of the items," she says.
7. Digging Deeper to Solve Larger Problems: "Work relationships can offer insight into interpersonal patterns that play out in other aspects of our lives," says Rodriguez. "For instance, your boss may trigger your feelings about our parents as they served as the authority figures growing up."
Kaplan offers a specific example involving a stressful boss: "When asked about the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that occur when dealing with the boss, the answer might be, 'I start thinking that she is just like my critical mom. I feel inadequate, just like I did as a kid. I do everything possible to then avoid my boss for days as I used to do with my mom.'" This kind of reaction, Kaplan explains, might prompt your therapist to help you resolve some issues from childhood.
By tackling interpersonal changes at work, Rodriguez points out, you'll also see a more general impact on your other relationships.
Has your therapist helped your work life? Tell us about it @BritandCo!
This post has been updated.