I thought I had seen it all after the Crash of 2008/09. So many clients looking for career coaching in the wake of some shocking and unprecedented convulsions in the economy.
But nothing prepared me for the sheer levels of burnout I encountered in a great number of new clients last year. This went beyond the ‘normal’ stresses and anxieties and frustrations one routinely sees as a career coach. No, we’re talking something else here. The kind of pathological burnout where you come to a session so exhausted that you actually struggle to form coherent sentences. Where you can barely see the trees, let alone the wood. Where you wonder what the hell happened to your life, that you ended up like this, a panicked hamster running ever-frantically on the wheel called ‘job’.
(Image credit: Christian Erfurt)
Now the first thing to note here is that many, if not indeed most, of the clients coming to me with an acute case of burnout were—by any yardstick—successful professionals in their field. From the outside, they seemed to have it all. Prestigious career? Check. Enough money in the bank? Check. Nice place to call home? Check.
Which brings us to the second thing to note. Once we had filtered out the clutter around their situation, and tried to get to the core problem and what might be done to address it, I again and again encountered an internal veto over meaningful change. One client said the quiet part out loud: “But what will people think?”
But what will people think? It’s downright scary how many people make social esteem their centre of gravity. They are in thrall to what I call the Alterior Ego. (‘Alterior’ comes from from two words: ‘alter’ [‘other’] and ‘ulterior’ [‘beyond what is seen or shown’]).
The Alterior Ego is the tendency to let ourselves be controlled by what others think. Someone with an ‘ulterior motive’ acts in bad faith, according to some hidden agenda. Someone with an ‘alterior motive’ acts in bad faith also, but towards themselves. Their bad faith resides in the fact that their career motivation does not ultimately belong to them. It is dictated by others. It is extrinsic and secondary. Such a life, dominated by the relentless effort to please, placate or impress others (including on social media!), is a prolonged act of profoundest self-betrayal.
The true engine of our Alterior Ego decisions – the judgement of others – often remains ulterior too, hidden even to ourselves. This enables us to think of ourselves as autonomous, self-directing individuals, all the while effectively handing over our key life decisions to others.
Back to those clients haunted by the fear of what other people might think if they were to make career changes. Again and again, a little bit of probing would quickly establish the sad fact: their career story was the story of the Alterior Ego run amok. Indeed, many of them had originally chosen their career field not out of core interest, or even natural aptitude, but because they knew that success in that field would be impressive—to family, friends, peers.
Someone in his forties once confessed to me that he had always ‘worked towards’ the annual Christmas reunion with old schoolfriends. What he meant by this was that his life was dominated by a fear of not having an impressive success story of good, solid career progression to tell these friends every Christmas. He hated his job, with a passion, but had not been able even to consider making any changes out of fear of losing peer esteem.
An extreme case? Maybe. But many, many people sacrifice themselves at the altar of other people’s perceptions. A philosopher once said that to be is to be perceived. The Alterior Ego tells you that to be perceived as being successful trumps being happy in what you do.
I invite you to ask yourself: are you ‘working towards’ anyone in particular? Is there anyone, or any group of people, whose approval or admiration you so crave that you are willing to make yourself miserable at work trying to keep the wrong show on the road?
If so, then it may be time for a big rethink. Achieving great things is an authentic life goal. Running yourself ragged in an effort to make certain people think you’re great is not.