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Is Your Mental Health Hurting Your Career?

Don't let unresolved issues ruin your chance for success.

Key points

  • Childhood hurts, jealousy, and feelings of neglect often affect (and hurt) workplace dynamics
  • Understanding how family relationships have influenced you can be key to building a satisfying work life.
  • Depression, ADD, and anxiety, if untreated, can endanger how you perform and interact at your job.
  • Gaining insight into your emotional and mental health challenges can improve your chances for career success.
Source: Nik Shulian/Unsplash
Source: Nik Shulian/Unsplash

We all know that our job can affect our mental health. A stressful environment, a critical boss, long hours, night shifts, and unrealistic expectations are just a few of the factors that can make us miserable. But what about the deep-seated feelings and mindset we bring to work? How are our "emotional baggage" and mental health challenges affecting our feelings about work and our chances for success?

When Past Experiences Affect Today's Work Woes

Many people who come see me do so because they are experiencing problems at their job. Inevitably, they spend time in therapy complaining about their bosses, colleagues, workload, or some other matter that, seemingly, has nothing to do with their own psychological issues. Yet, as we explore their employment situations in detail and the emotions and projections they have toward those they work with, it often becomes clear that old patterns, painful chiildhood memories and experiences, and mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, and ADD, are affecting and intensifying the problems they are experiencing on the job.

When a patient recounts repeated dissatisfaction or difficulties with supervisors or peers at numerous jobs, it's a red flag that there are additional problems at play that need to be explored. Jennifer,* a project manager in her forties, expressed deep resentment toward her current and former bosses and colleagues. There was clearly a pattern in which she became easily engaged in power struggles. She seemed to always feel she was being treated unfairly, was being micro-managed, and was being edged out by competitors. I asked Jennifer what her family life had been like when she was a child, She said she had felt dominated and rejected by her parents and denigrated by siblings who competed with her for parental love and attention.

It was only after recognizing that she was projecting old hurts and past patterns on her present-day work relationships that Jennifer was able to master these instinctual reactions. She became determined to resist getting drawn into work conflicts that hampered her productivity and alienated her from colleagues. Incidentally, she wasn't as badly treated at home as she first let on. Correcting the lens of her perception at work helped to correct how she experienced her recollection of life growing up.

Tom*, another patient, was constantly pointing out to me all the flaws in the people he worked with. In his opinion, noone was as smart as him. His bosses were "idiots." Managers of other departments were "incompetent." Even the CEO was inept, according to him. Tom seemed to spend a lot of time at work talking to his colleagues about other colleagues—always in a negative vein. Naturally, his tendency to bash others sparked distrust among his work colleagues. If he spoke about others like that, they were pretty sure he would speak about them in the same negative light.

While Tom's intent was to build himself up in his colleagues' eyes, it was having the opposite effect. As therapy continued, Tom gradually began reflecting on his childhood and how neglected and unimportant he felt in his family. With time, he realized that his attempt to build himself up at work by putting others down was based on his sense of powerlessness as a child. He grew up at a loss about how to make an impact in a family where others seemed to have more control. As he gained insight, he began considering other ways he could approach his job situation. He focused on how he could gain respect from others for his work accomplishment, rather than by debasing others. He gave up old destructive behaviors in favor of new productive ones.

For many people, it is only when they explore buried emotions from childhood that they, for the first time, have a chance to thrive at work. John*, a Yale graduate, had the intellectual and academic prowess that should have made him feel confident that he could succeed. He came into therapy, however, because he felt there was some invisible barrier holding him back from fulfilling his potential at work. As John opened up, old memories surfaced of his father beating him at chess and showing off when they played basketball. John recognized that his fear of success stemmed from his fear of surpassing his father. By acknowledging and talking about the fear he was eventually able to overcome it and carve out a successful path for his future.

The Effects of Anxiety, ADD, and Depression on Job Success

Anxiety can be another hindrance at work. As my patient Barbara* described her unhappy history of employment, it was clear that she was overly anxious and constantly second-guessing herself, automatically assuming her work was not good, and refraining from speaking up—all of which limited her productivity, ability to impress others, and chances for promotions.

Another patient, Arthur*, supervised a department of 10 people but, because his anxiety prevented him from delegating work, he had burned out. Even though he had hired everyone on his team, he wasn’t able to trust their work. In his 360° performance review, he was informed that those he supervised felt micromanaged and stifled in their ability to enhance their skills and responsibilities.

Untreated Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) can lead to other work challenges, like impulsive decisionmaking and poor organizational skills. Lack of focus can make being attentive to details a struggle. And the need for stimulation can also make it difficult for employees to stay interested in their job for any length of time. For those with ADD, succeeding at work usually involves a combination of treating the disorder and finding work that is best suited to their strengths, interests, and energy.

Depression is often a hindrance to success. The negative thinking, gloomy mood, irritability, and difficulty making decisions—which are just some of the symptoms of depression—can be devastating to careers. Colleagues generally don't realize that the miserable individual is suffering from depression but rather assume this is their personality. Over and over, I've seen that once depression is treated, my patients' careers blossom.

Just as emotional pain from the past, depression, anxiety, ADD, and other mental health conditions can have a ripple effect on friends and family, so, too, can they hinder your work life and opportunity to build a successful and fulfilling career. If unhappiness at work has become a pattern in your life, discuss with your therapist or psychiatrist what underlying issues may be contributing to the situation. When these issues are acknowledged and addressed, major roadblocks to your success will be removed and your chances of thriving at work and in life can be greatly enhanced.

*Name has been changed.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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