Why is the Job Search So Scary?

Job seeking? Make sure your brain is your ally and not your enemy.

Posted Oct 22, 2013

In his excellent book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield attempts to annihilate resistance by bringing it out of its dark cave and exposing it to the light. He calls it invisible, internal, insidious, implacable, impersonal, infallible—but most of all, universal. We all resist something and generally the more important the activity, e.g. a creative project, a diet, or an exercise program, the greater and more insidious is our resistance. “Resistance,” Pressfield writes, “will bury you.”

My clients resist the job search. And, on a superficial level, it’s easily understood. We resist what is most important to us. We want to choose the perfect job, and we’re afraid we’ll make a mistake. We want to write the perfect resume, respond perfectly to all interview questions, and negotiate the perfect deal. So we procrastinate around all of those activities.

But what if the challenges are actually deeper than just a perfectionistic (unrealistic) dream? Does the job search actually bring out deeper fears and invoke the classic fight/flight/freeze response? Does job searching kick up a fight between the amygdala (the fight/flight part of the brain) and the prefrontal cortex (the executive functioning part)? And, if so, can the winner of that fight, so to speak, determine the success of your job search? Research has shown that when you feel threatened you are less likely to be able to solve complex problems and more likely to make mistakes, so perceiving a job search as a threat could be a major cause of failure in the process.

David Rock, one of my favorite writers in the coaching field, developed a leadership/management paradigm called SCARF which I have adapted to analyze the possible effects of the job search on your brain—and vice versa. Noting that brain research shows that humans maximize rewards and minimize threats—we are drawn to pleasure and we avoid pain-- Rock identifies five factors which can activate the approach-avoidance response to a situation. You can read a pdf of his article here.

The factors which comprise the acronym “SCARF” are: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. You can either be supported in each of these areas, in which case you are more likely to engage in the activity, perform at a higher level and experience success, or you can be threatened in these areas, which will likely result in poorer performance and/or resistance or avoidance.

Let’s examine each of these areas as they relate to the job search, and focus on ways to increase your perception of safety and desire to engage in the process.

Status is all about pecking order—where do we fall on the importance scale? If you are unemployed you are probably experiencing a feeling of loss in status. You might also experience a drop in status if you are in transition: retiring, graduating, etc. Rock states that status can be increased by learning and improving. Educating yourself can make you feel superior to others—a characteristic of status. So start reading and practicing and preparing yourself to be the best candidate for the job. Strive to be well-informed about your desired profession. Raise your status through knowledge and practice.

Certainty is increased when you are better able to predict your future—something which is hard to do when you don’t know what your next job will be. Your brain likes to have a pattern or a routine and not having a plan can make it difficult to set goals. So develop your career plan. Create a “map,” so to speak, for your next job. What are the steps you need to complete? Create clear expectations for yourself and what you will do next.

Autonomy is your sense of control over events and environment. We like to have choices and feel that we are in charge. It’s one of the reasons people often resist working on teams: we lose our autonomy. Taking charge of your job search will increase your sense of autonomy. What can you do today to take control of the process, knowing that you can’t control the outcome?

Relatedness refers to your sense of safety with others. Your mind is constantly assessing whether someone is a friend or a foe. Networking and interviewing are two job search behaviors which can trigger a fear response. So find ways to make the process friendlier: Go with a friend to a networking event, find a mentor or coach to help you through the process, and practice your interviewing skills.

Fairness is the perception of fair exchanges between people. When you think that you are not being treated fairly (perhaps due to perceived or real discrimination) in the job market, your sense of the lack of fairness is triggered and you will be less motivated to seek a job. This is a tough issue because you don’t have control over certain factors, but you can seek ways to level the playing field. Would acquiring more education help? Do you have access to a network (alumni organization, professional organization, social club, church, etc.) where you could create an advantage for yourself in the job market? Knowing someone and getting an introduction to any organization greatly increases your chances of getting a job. Look for ways to give yourself the “unfair” advantage in the process.

The bottom line, according to David Rock, is that you need to manage yourself in the job search process. You must educate and motivate yourself. Seek coaching if needed to get assistance with all five of these SCARF dimensions. Find ways to get positive feedback for your work on the job search and pay attention to even small successes in the process.

Want to read more? Here’s an interesting website on dealing with change.

©2013 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons