I’m struggling to feel fulfilled within my current role, and I think it’s partly because I’m not being challenged enough, but also witnessing all my colleagues receive promotions makes me feel like I could do better. What would your advice be?
There is something about the tone of this that really makes me feel your lack of fulfilment! I’m not saying you are a lack lustre person but I get a sense that you feel stuck and flat. I’m going to approach this two ways – look at what could be going on at your place of work and also what could be going on for you as an individual. Let’s start with the latter.
One of Sigmund Freud’s many pioneering contributions made to the study of the mind and human behaviour was the explanation of defence mechanisms that we use to hide true feelings. Ways we describe people – ‘he’s in denial about how much he fancies her….she’s really repressing her anger right now….I know I’m just projecting but…’ – all of these descriptions of behaviours are now common language but was a ground-breaking way to understand human behaviour over 100 years ago. In my experience of being a counsellor in private practice I see that sometimes deep emotions in a part of our life that can be too difficult to bear are displaced onto another part, displacement being one of Freud’s defence mechanisms. There is something about seeing all of your colleagues getting promotions that seems a little farfetched. So, the difficult question is, what are you defending? In other words, what’s going on in your wider world beyond this job? Is there some other part of your life that perhaps feels a bit too painful to acknowledge is unfulfilling (relationships spring to mind…)?
I’m looking for clues in what you have said to work out what your patterns of thought and behaviour are. A good chunk of my time with my clients in my private practice is around working out what of these patterns are outdated and damaging. So, I’m wondering whether there is something in the way you use the phrase ‘makes me feel I could better’. Is feeling like you could always do better a familiar feeling to you? Can you remember the last time you felt you did exactly the best you could? I’m sure you can see what I am getting at here – how loud is your inner critic?! We all have ways of telling our story and sometimes we can get locked into an outdated and simply untrue narrative about ourselves. And although it’s a very unfriendly voice, it can become very familiar – and can also be a way of protecting yourself against looking more realistically at what qualities you and your apparently more successful colleagues have in relation to promotion in the workplace.
Or perhaps there is something about the culture of this workplace that makes you feel you should always do better which can lead to bad work patterns such as chronic overtime and fear of taking days off sick. I am the relationship manager at Add | Wellbeing, which is a workplace mental health and wellbeing initiative from an established NHS Mental Health Trust and work with businesses to create a better environment for productivity. Presenteeism is the word given to employees who turn up for work even though they are unwell enough to be at home. It is really rife in businesses that don’t speak openly about mental health which compounds to create toxic working environments. This is a hard for you to solve alone but if it feels safe enough could be really impactful feedback to give to someone at work that you trust and who can do something about it. We all hope that our senior leaders can listen and take action to make changes to the culture but from my experience sometimes that message is too hard for them to hear so this is a decision you will have to make.
Lydia Hartland Rowe is an experienced psychotherapist and clinical lead for Add | Wellbeing. She brings another point of view to your situation. She says: ‘I’d also be interested to know how you feel about being managed – and how you manage your own competitive and rivalrous feelings? Is it possible that some of those more messy feelings are getting in the way when you are trying to make good use of your relationships with those senior to you?’
Lydia’s words do back my curiousity as to why there has been no mention of personal development plans or appraisals and these, whilst not a legal requirement are common place in organisations. If you don’t have these, request it and take a lead on writing it. Your line manager isn’t a mind reader and perhaps doesn’t even know that you don’t feel challenged. Once you vocalise that, it is your manager’s responsibility to support you and if that doesn’t happen then you need to flag that as an issue within the workplace. Employers have a legal duty of care to make the workplace a safe place to work and this also means on a mental health level, not just physical. Many businesses are now recognising this and developing Mental Health initiatives for their staff.
My advice? Work on finding your voice to share your feelings of being unfulfilled at work to the right person who will support you make a very clear workplan to give you the best chance of getting the next promotion. Find the courage to vocalise the impact the culture in the workplace may have on your Mental Health. You might also start to look at what you feel about competing with others, and about being managed by other people – sometimes these are really difficult feelings and they can get in the way if not noticed or acknowledged. That might help you to start to give yourself more proactive advice and challenge unhelpful, untrue and ultimately damaging narratives you say about yourself.