Skip to main content

What You Can Do When Guilt Affects Your Career

What You Can Do When Guilt Affects Your Career

What You Can Do When Guilt Affects Your Career

Suppose a woman named Jackie hated her sales job with every bone in her body. She really wanted to leave, but all the opportunities she heard of paid less. Every time she heard about an interesting position, she waited so long that the job was gone by the time she inquired.

"How could I even consider taking a job like that?" Jackie wondered whenever she was thinking of making a career change. "Everyone tells me I have a great job. And how would my family get by on less money?" As with Jackie, guilt stops people in their tracks.

Guilt and Work

Different types of guilt can surface in relation to your career. If you're in a situation like Jackie's, you may be suffering from "I'm being selfish" guilt, because you feel bad about putting your own needs first. "How dare I..." may lead some of your thoughts, as in "How dare I contemplate a lower-paying job when I'm successful in my current, higher-paying one?" Or, "How dare I consider going back to work when I have little ones at home?"

You may be suffering from "I'm not good enough" guilt if you feel it's your fault you were laid off or you constantly mull over all the things you did wrong following a missed promotion. "If only I'd..." may lead some of your thoughts.

A third type of guilt is, "I want something I shouldn't" guilt. You may suffer from this if your heart tells you to pursue a job of which your family disapproves. You may hear their voices in your head saying, "You want to be a what?"

Guilt can suffocate your enthusiasm and interfere with your career goals if you let it. Here's how to manage your guilt so you can return to a productive frame of mind.

Articulate Your Guilt

Pay close attention to the thoughts circulating in your head; these thoughts can lead to feelings. For example, you think, "I should be doing something else with my time," and as a result, you feel guilty. Write down your thoughts or share them with a trusted friend. The point is to clearly state what you're thinking and feeling. Complete this sentence: "I feel guilty because..."

Determine the Source

Where are these thoughts coming from? Are you telling yourself you should be doing something different, because that's what your mother always said? Or is there an outside source, like a spouse, who lays a guilt trip on you every time you talk about pursuing your dream job?

Do a Reality Check

Are the thoughts truthful? Will the house really fall apart if you work away from home a few hours a week? Hold your guilt to a strong light, and look for supporting facts. Are the guilty thoughts true? Chances are, there's a lot of exaggeration surrounding a small kernel of truth -- get to that kernel.

Make a Plan

Look at the truthful concerns you have and determine if there are steps you can take to address them. The key here is to be specific. Vague, all-encompassing worries do nothing but make you feel guilty and can be paralyzing. Get specific with your concerns and how you should address them.

Still Feel Stuck?

Consider these two questions:

  • Are my guilty feelings interfering with my life? If you just can't get started and are overwhelmed by these difficult feelings, seek professional mental health support.
  • Are you willing to accept a little guilt along with your resolve to act? Life is not black and white. You may feel some guilt even as you pursue the path you know is right. The good news: Guilt often fades as success increases.

Manage your guilt so it doesn't manage you. Decide if the guilty feelings are helpful or harmful, and then make a plan to take action.

[Amy Hume, principal of Hume & Resources, is a career counselor who specializes in working with adults in transition.]


Back to top