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Dr Lindsay Joyce is an HCPC registered psychologist specialising in bringing psychological theory to work-place contexts. You can find out more about her work here. In this blog article, she helps you work out whether the reason you can’t get ahead is your own thinking.
This may seem like a slightly strange topic for a blog designed to provide career advice, but bear with me, I promise it’s relevant!
We all talk about stress quite flippantly – feeling “stressed-out” after our commute to work, feeling “stressed” about some looming deadlines at work, even feeling “stressed” trying to keep in contact with friends and family. I have talked about stress and its impact on the body in a previous blog, which you can read here. Today’s blog is going to investigate how stress can actually have an impact on the way our brain functions as well as how our body feels.
When we become stressed our body responds, resulting in complex hormonal and biochemical reactions; our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are both involved. Researchers agree that these fluctuations in epinephrine and cortisol can have an impact on the way in which the brain is able to function cognitively. When you become stressed your brain processes things more slowly.
So, if you are stressed a lot of the time, because you are not enjoying your current job, or you are anxious about making your next career move, your brain is actually less able to process ideas and thoughts. The result can be akin to a hamster running around on its wheel – your thinking gets stuck in a tight loop, which leaves you feeling frustrated and helpless.
However, there are ways to break these thought patterns and to start to think more reflectively about your situation. First, I recommend again that you visit my blog which covers using visualisation to reduce stress here. Once you have relaxed your mind and body sufficiently, get a pen and a piece of paper and follow the exercise below:
- Imagine that you are writing an entirely honest CV (!) – but you only have three words to describe yourself. The words can be negative or positive, but you can only have three of them.
- Write these three words down in a column down the left-hand side of the paper.
- On the right-hand side of the paper, parallel to each of the three words you have written, try to write a corresponding ‘opposite’ for each of your original words. The ‘opposite’ words must be the opposite as you perceive them, DO NOT look up the antonym for your word in the dictionary!
- You should now have three pairs of corresponding words.
These pairs of words are “constructs” – they are ways in which you view the world. For example, if my first word is “hard-working” and my opposite is “lazy”, then I am making a judgement about the fact that anyone who doesn’t work hard is a “lazy” person. If, on the other hand, I had made my opposite of “hard working” to be “relaxed”, “fun-loving” or “happy-go-lucky” then my perception of someone who is the opposite of “hard working” transforms from something negative to something positive and even desirable.
We all use these constructs to help us understand the world that we live in – to create a sense of “us” and “them” which can feel safe. The problem is that when we become stressed and our thinking becomes less efficient, we tend to return to these familiar constructs rather than allowing our mind to think more flexibly. If you’re trying to think of new and exciting career options then this restricted, construct-based thinking can be hugely unhelpful.
So, your challenge with this activity is to start applying it to you and your job hunt. If you currently work in finance, but are desperate to make the move into what you consider to be a more dynamic industry, then write down three words and their opposites which you might use to evaluate the finance industry. Then you need to look at your constructs honestly, or ask someone to look at them with you. Are your constructs fair? Are you being too judgemental about ALL careers in the financial industry? Are you basing your constructs on a few people you dislike at work, or on a projection of the person you don’t want to become in twenty years?
This activity is probably the hardest I’ve set you so far – it requires both honest and creative thinking. However, if you can start trying to identify some of the constructs you naturally apply to create your “World View”, then you can begin to discover which of these constructs are unhelpful and actually holding you back.
Fransella, F. (Ed.). (2005). The Essential Practitioner’s Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
McBurnett, K., Raine, A., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., Loeber, R., Kumar, A. M., Kumar, M., & Lahey, B. B. (2005). Mood and hormone responses to psychological challenge in adolescent males with conduct problems. Biological Psychiatry, 57(10), 1109 – 1116. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2005.01.041
McCrory, E., De Brito, S. A., & Viding, E. (2011). The impact of childhood maltreatment: a review of neurobiological and genetic factors. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 1 – 14. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00048
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