As a career coach, I've found that I'm most likely to be working with people in some kind of career crisis. Either they are unemployed and trying to find a new job or they have reached some kind of difficult tipping point in their careers where their unhappiness drives them to take action.
When people are in these situations, they tend to focus on practical things:
- How do I write a resume?
- How do I do a good job during an interview?
- How can I network more effectively?
- How do I make a career change?
- How do I start my own business?
But in focusing on these practical "next steps," they often neglect to deal with the negative thoughts and feelings they are having related to their current circumstances. This is emotional baggage that can really weigh them down.
For example, many people who are unemployed have a lot of unresolved anger and resentment about how they were treated by their previous company or organization both before and after their layoff. They can also have feelings of anxiety, fear, stress and even shame. These negative feelings often come across to potential employers and to networking contacts and can make it much harder for people to find a new job.
I also see a lot of people in really toxic work environments. They are stressed out by the demands of their jobs and dealing with a never-ending series of office dramas, petty politics and even bullying. This type of situation creates its own emotional baggage that can have wide-reaching impacts on people both in their work and personal lives. Work performance starts to suffer and if the person tries to job search in this mode, potential employers will definitely know that something is going on and tend to react negatively.
The Symptoms of Difficult Circumstances
Regardless of the cause--unemployment, a toxic workplace--these people tend to share some similar symptoms:
- Feeling more negative emotions--finding it harder to laugh, feeling irritable, anxious or despairing.
- Greater difficulty with sleep, including problems falling asleep and/or staying asleep.
- More aches and pains, including headaches, stomach aches and other physical symptoms related to stress.
- Problems in personal relationships with family and friends. They may have more frequent arguments or feel more irritated with people in their lives, both at home and at work.
- Feelings of isolation and loneliness and a desire to withdraw from their usual social activities.
- Obsessing about their situation, dwelling on worst case scenarios and/or anger with the situation and the people they feel have contributed to it.
Often what is going on is that people are trying to block their emotions around their difficult circumstances, afraid to really confront and deal with the negative thoughts and feelings that plague them. But emotions will not be denied. They may go underground for a bit, but they always come out and demand that we do something to address them. That's when these kinds of symptoms start to show up.
Writing Through Your Negative Thoughts and Feelings
Dealing with our emotional baggage is one of the greatest things we can do to get ourselves unstuck and re-energized. Surprisingly, one of the most effective ways for dealing with these situations is to use what's called "expressive writing"--a research-backed approach to writing about the thoughts and feelings we are having related to difficult circumstances in our lives.
While there are a number of different types of writing activities that can produce benefits, the core approach, pioneered by Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, consists of 4 days of writing in response to some specific prompts.
The idea is that through the exploration of your deepest thoughts and feelings as they relate to a core traumatic experience or situation, you can begin to construct a more meaningful story for yourself of what has happened and its impact on you and your life. This helps you develop new insight into the situation and how it may have not only shaped your experience and your life, but also how it may have even benefited you and helped you grow.
Here's Dr. Pennebaker's basic prompt:
Benefits of Expressive Writing
Dr. Pennebaker's research with a number of different populations has indicated that most people who use expressive writing strategies to address challenging situations experience some important changes. They have seen:
- An increase in positive moods and a reduction in negative thoughts and feelings.
- Improved physical health, including improved sleep patterns, lower blood pressure and lower heart rates.
- Improved relationships with family, friends and co-workers.
- Reduced feelings of stress.
- Improved focus.
Further, they have also found that people find new jobs faster and improve their academic performance.
Interestingly, the people who tend to benefit most are those who are less likely to talk about their problems with someone else--especially men.
Writing for Recovery
Although you can use Dr. Pennebaker's basic prompt to try out the expressive writing concept, I wanted to help people go a little deeper in the context of their careers. So I've developed two online writing programs specifically for people who are in a toxic work environment and people who are unemployed.
In each course, I help you set up for success, and then have you go through 4 days of writing with prompts that are specific to dealing with either toxic work or being unemployed. Each day, you also complete a pre-writing emotional check-in and a post-writing evaluation of how the process went for you.
At the end of the course, we evaluate your progress, looking not only at how your stress symptoms may be changing, but also at how your writing may provide you with some additional insight into what's going on with you. I also share "next steps" ideas and resources so that you can build on what you've started and begin to move forward again.
Each module includes audio, worksheets and other resources to guide you through the process. There are also discussion questions for some of the modules.
I'm limiting enrollment to 20 people per course because I want to evaluate how this works in an online, self-guided format. So if you're interested, I encourage you to sign up quickly!
I'd also love to hear if you've ever used expressive writing techniques to deal with difficult circumstances. How has this worked for you? Leave me a note in comments!