You’re smart, sociable and ambitious, but you just can’t seem to jump-start your career. Maybe you keep missing job application deadlines, so you never find out if that high-powered job could have been yours. Or perhaps you’ve taken on so many projects at work that you’re too busy to meet with your supervisor to discuss your future with company. Is it any wonder you were passed over for that promotion?

Self-sabotaging behavior is common, but its sneaky nature means it often goes undetected by even the brightest people. Of course, we don’t deliberately mess up our chances for a promotion or a terrific new job. But unconsciously, we may think and do things that set us up to fail.

“A lot of procrastination and self-sabotage comes down to guilt,” said Martin Cosgro, a clinical psychologist in San Luis Obispo. “They just, at some level, feel like they don’t deserve it. That’s very, very common.”

Other standard problems include fear of failure, discomfort with change, low self-esteem and fear of outshining others. These internal obstacles can show up in various ways, often as procrastination; overwork or, conversely, doing only the bare minimum; isolation from peers and supervisors; or blaming others for your problems. Regardless of the specific behavior, one emotion shines through: You feel stuck.

Fortunately, modern psychology has plenty of tips that can help you identify why you’re stalling and how to get back in gear. For some people, times of change trigger unresolved feelings from an earlier, traumatic transition (for example, when your parents divorced). To get unstuck, Cosgro suggests thinking back to other times you felt the same feelings to pinpoint the incident you need to address. Once you work through the past problem, future transitions will be easier to navigate.

Cosgro compared career growth with sailing a boat. Rather than sail in a straight line, you tack in and out of the wind to get where you want to go.

“Our biggest dreams, rarely do we get to them in a direct manner,” he said.

“If every step is meaningful in some way, usually it will lead to a good situation.”

Even if you don’t have past baggage dragging you down, growing your career can still be difficult because even positive changes are stressful.

Tips to help your career

Get support. “Find friends and family who support your goals,” said Cosgro, “not what they think your goals ought to be.” The best support network includes people who will both encourage you and push you when you need it.

Give yourself advice. When we feel stuck we often don’t trust our thinking, Cosgro said. His suggestion: Pretend you’re advising someone else in the same situation, then follow that. “If you externalize it,” he said, “it’s a neat little trick to bypass your feeling of being stuck.”

Small goals are better. Make a plan, but make sure it’s manageable. “Just set small goals,” Cosgro said. “It’s the momentum that will carry us through tough times. No major goal is achieved in one step. It’s incremental.” If the big goal is to get a new job, a small next step may be rewriting your resume.

Be consistent. Take time to figure out what you want to do and stick with it. “If you find yourself flip-flopping around with too many different ideas, you need to slow down and find out what appeals to you consistently,” Cosgro said. Otherwise, you’ll lose focus and waste time and energy. Note too that if you need to leave a longtime career, it may be hard to admit it because you’ve invested so much time in it. Find the courage to address your discontent.

Follow your heart. “It’s really important to listen to what’s best inside,” Cosgro said. “Ultimately, if you follow your heart, other things tend to fall in place.” It doesn’t always work that way, of course, but even if you need to compromise – for financial reasons, for example – you’ll be more satisfied if it’s a choice you make consciously, rather than the result of just ignoring your true desires.

Don’t assume it should be easy. “A lot of people think this stuff shouldn’t be a struggle,” Cosgro said. “If you’re pursuing things that are meaningful to you, it’s almost always going to be a struggle – the feelings are stronger.”

(c) 2005, The Tribune, San Luis Obispo, Calif.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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