Teach Your Brain to Like the Job Search
Ways to quiet the lizard in our brain.
Posted July 22, 2016
In my last blog post, I brought up five aspects to the job search that our brains don’t like: Lack of Control; Perceived Lack of Fairness; The Unknown; Rejection and Social Exclusion; and the Myriad Diverse Skills need to succeed in the job search process. We know these experiences kick up the lizard part of our brain and cause us to feel afraid or anxious. The fight/flight/freeze response can kick in and we either avoid a job search, procrastinate on the process, or experience a variety of negative emotions from anger to depression as we cope with it. So if we know that the job search is something of a land mine for our brains, how can we help our brain adapt to the search—and maybe even learn to like it a little?
The good news is that the brain likes to learn. And the brain likes novelty. If we can help our brains tap into our natural curiosity and desire to learn, we can find ways to quiet the lizard. When I work with students and clients who are feeling strong emotions related to the job search, I use a simple formula which I adapted from Dr. Eric Maisel's teachings on creativity coaching:
- Acknowledge/Normalize the emotion.
- Apply logic.
- Show them the path.
You can do this for yourself. Let’s look at these three steps:
Step 1: ACKNOWLEDGE/NORMALIZE THE EMOTIONS.
Our brains can be our own worst enemy when dealing with emotions because the brain is not a neutral observer. Well, there’s a part that is, but when lizard brain kicks up it’s hard to find. A popular saying in cognitive-behavioral psychology is “just because you feel something, doesn’t mean it’s true.” When we are feeling strong negative emotions, we tend to believe them, as in “I’m afraid, so there must be something dangerous.” Now that may be true in some circumstances, but it’s less likely to be true in a job search situation. The “danger” has likely been exaggerated by your brain.
So the first step is to acknowledge what you are feeling. How do you feel when you focus on the job search? What emotions are you aware of? Whatever you're feeling, I can guarantee you others feel the same way, so there's no need to allow those feelings to stop you, or to assume that there is something wrong with you. Stop for a moment, become aware of your emotions, and sit with them even if they make you uncomfortable. Try doing a 10-minute meditation where you focus on nothing but your breathing. Deep breathing will calm your anxiety. Your mind will wander, of course. Just notice your thoughts without judgment, and go back to focusing on your breath. Sometimes just knowing that these emotions are common and normal can help to minimize them. Try developing phrases or mantras that help you deal with your common emotional responses. For instance, when feeling anxious, acknowledge the feeling and then say to yourself, “Just afraid. No big deal.” (One great resource for calming anxiety is Dr. Christopher Germer's book, Mindful Path to Self-Compassion.)
Sometimes, though, your anxiety is high and sitting still actually makes you feel worse. Anxiety is also energy. Instead of meditating, is there a way you can channel your anxious energy into a productive task? If you’re feeling a lot of nervous energy, why not use that time to work on your LinkedIn profile?
Bottom line: Acknowledge how you feel. It’s OK. Everyone feels a lot of emotions during a job search. Trust me on this one.
Step 2: APPLY LOGIC.
Now that you know it’s OK to feel how you’re feeling, you can proceed with the search despite these feelings. Remember, your brain just wants to feel safe. Here are some suggestions for calming the lizard:
Enhance your feelings of belonging. Stay close to your friends and family, if they are supportive. Your brain wants to belong, and when you’re shifting jobs, you often can’t tell your colleagues at work. You need people you can confide in and who will support you in the process. If you need professional support, consider a career coach, counselor, or psychologist depending on your needs.
As you research your potential employers, look for ways you will likely fit in. For instance, maybe they are working on projects you are already familiar with. You will be able to lend your expertise from the first day you arrive. Maybe they have an active wellness program where you will be able to participate in group walks or runs or other social events. Researching your potential employers will also help you reduce your fear of the unknown. The more you can learn and know, the better decisions you will make. And, as mentioned, your brain likes to learn. Your brain is energized and challenged by new information.
Shift your focus from the immediate circumstance to the outcome. As they say, keep your eyes on the prize. Why are you in this search? Presumably it is to find a better, more fulfilling opportunity. Or, it might simply be to find a job, if you don’t have one. Given that achieving your goal will be a positive experience which has the potential to improve your life in many ways, focusing on this outcome will help you get through the rough patches. Knowing that you will be "safe" in the end can calm your anxious mind.
Make your vision of your new job or career as clear as possible. See yourself in the role you desire and do whatever you can to focus on actions you can do now to prepare for that role. The clearer your vision, the more likely you are to move toward it. When we only have a vague sense of "I don't know what I want, but this isn't it" it's harder to know how to move. What do you like about your current role? Maybe you can envision a new job where you do more of what you like and less of what you don't like. What would that look like?
Control what you can. Not feeling in control makes us feel vulnerable and unsafe. What parts of the search can you control? You can certainly control the documents and social media you create. You can control the number of people you reach out to for networking. You can control how much research you do. You can practice your interview techniques. Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the center. On the left side of the paper, list what you can control. On the right side, what you can’t. Focus on what you can control, and let the Universe take care of the right side of your paper.
Give yourself options. Be prepared to move on: don’t put all your hopes on one opportunity. The more options you can create for yourself; the more choices you can make. The ability to choose greatly improves your feelings of control in a situation.
Understand the limits of the system. You will often never know how many people you were competing against, and at some level it doesn’t matter. Before you get caught up in the unfairness of things, know that the job search system is clunky at best. The system is complex and there will always be parts that don’t make sense, or seem unfair. It is definitely not perfect. Random factors intervene all the time, from the boss’s son/daughter getting a prime job to a position opening being cancelled due to a fiscal emergency. Some aspects will seem, or may even be, unfair. But if you focus on the bigger picture, keep applying for positions, and do everything you can to be the best candidate, at some point the system will turn in your favor.
Step 3: CREATE THE PATH
Think of the job search path as a GPS tracker. You are HERE and you want to be THERE.
Define HERE: What are your present skills, talents, experience, education, etc. What are the strengths you will bring to this new position?
Define THERE: What does this new opportunity look like? Can you picture it? Are you prepared for it? Do you have the necessary skills, talents, experience, education, etc.? If you don’t, you may not experience much success with your job search—you might need to take a position a little down the ladder from the one you’re seeking. Or you might need to acquire more education or skills.
Research is your friend: get on Google and start reading everything you can about the field you’re applying to. Your brain is part detective: it likes to solve mysteries and find answers. Use that part of your brain to learn as much as you can about yourself and your opportunities.
Ask yourself: can I do this desirable job tomorrow? If the answer is no—what do you need to do? If the answer is yes—then what are you doing to move to that job? And if you have been trying, but not succeeding, where is the problem? This is an area where it helps to work with a good coach, counselor or psychologist to see what could improve your search. If that’s not possible, there are lots of good books available to help you develop your path. Check out the career book section of your library or bookstore.
The path to a job involves preparing the best materials for the search, knowing yourself, and being prepared to articulate your talents to the potential employer. There’s a common adage in career counseling circles: the job doesn’t always go to the most qualified candidate; it goes to the best job seeker.
You will need to analyze what you have done so far in the search and determine what you can improve upon. If your resume is great but you’re not doing well at interviews, then practice your interview skills. If you’re doing a great job of networking, but no response to your resume, then it’s time to look at that. Given that you can’t be an expert at everything in the job search, consult books, coaches, counselors, etc., who can help. The more constructive actions you take, the more you can mitigate the negative emotions that might get in your way. And the more you focus on what you can control, the quieter your lizard will become.
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons “Think” by Hillman 54