Finding True North: How To Help Clients Find A Fulfilling Career Path

By Karen James Chopra

First published in the Psychotherapy Networker, May/June 2005. Used with permission.

Love and work, Freud famously said, are the primary tasks of psychologically healthy adults. He might also have noted that the two are deeply intertwined—you can't be truly happy in your work if you don't love what you're doing. And doing work you love can enhance the rest of your life as well. As both a psychotherapist and a career counselor, I've found that assisting clients with workplace issues often means exploring some of the same emotional issues that would arise in regular therapy. And while career counseling isn't a substitute for psychotherapy, it can be deeply therapeutic as a precursor, follow-up, or adjunct to traditional clinical work.

Ron was a 41-year-old project manager in the information technology (IT) field. By most measures, he'd built an undeniably successful career. Despite the volatility of the IT market and a number of moves from one organization to another, he'd developed a reputation as a go-to guy for his expertise, attention to detail, and intense focus on making customers happy. Far from losing clients in his moves, Ron was like a pied piper to them—they tended to follow him from one employer to another. And he was making quite a lot of money. There was just one problem: he hated his job and the field in which he was working.

Ron arrived in my office because it was getting harder for him to get up in the morning and face another day of doing what he loathed. Only, like most people who come to me, he didn't have a clue what he could do about it and doubted that I'd know either.

My basic assumption in career counseling is that there's a part of each client that I call the "true self" that knows exactly what it wants to do. But it probably isn't talking to my client just yet, because it hasn't felt safe to voice those desires. Or it's talking, but there's so much static generated by my client's defenses and anxiety that it can't be heard. The initial phase of career exploration, then, is a process by which the client and I try to tune in to the faintest signals from the true self. I look for those signals in the form of a specific emotion: desire.

Most of my clients have reasoned and analyzed themselves to a standstill with their impressive rational minds. They can make a case for and against just about every career they can imagine pursuing. How do you decide which way to go when the pros and cons of every possible route look pretty evenly matched? Desire is the true north, and it's vital to get a reading on which way desire lies in order to set an achievable career course.

Asking a client "What do you want to do?" is an unwise intervention when he's in your office precisely because he has no idea how to answer that question. So I work through a more oblique set of exercises aimed at unearthing the voice of desire. I listen for every whisper of desire and reflect back to the client what I hear. I also consciously construct situations in which that quiet voice feels safe enough to venture a few comments. By observing and amplifying what I hear, I can start to form hypotheses about what the client desires, and involve the client in testing their validity. Through this process, the client can eventually hear the voice of his own desire, can recognize it in its various forms, and can even start to identify other motivations that masquerade as desire.

To get a sense of what Ron's true self was all about, I did—as I always do—a thorough intake, which looks more like a classic mental-health history than what one might expect from a career counselor. I asked him about learning disabilities, his physical and mental health, medications, experience with therapy, recent losses, religious/spiritual affiliation, hobbies, even substance use and experience with trauma. The intake gives me considerable data and makes clear to the client that I consider all of these issues relevant to the career process. This is critical, because otherwise, the client may omit relevant information, thinking that it isn't appropriate to career work.

Ron, the youngest of three children, was raised by a single mother who worked as an office assistant to support the family. He never knew his father. There wasn't enough money, so an atmosphere of chronic financial anxiety prevailed in his household. Besides feeling this floating insecurity about money, Ron had to deal with the demands of his overwhelmed, narcissistic mother, who'd turned to him to meet her own needs for affection, care, and reassurance.

After the intake, I create a career genogram, so that I can see patterns and disconnects in the family career history. The career genogram also allows me to ask questions about what the client learned about careers growing up, what type of guidance and support he received from his family, and what fears there might be in breaking out of traditional family career patterns. Ron's family had a blue-collar background. He and his siblings were the first in the family to attend college, and he was the only one of the three to actually obtain a bachelor's degree. Ron was also the most successful of the siblings—his brother had jumped, more or less unsuccessfully, from career to career since his discharge from the military, and his sister had dropped out of an accounting program and now worked as an office manager and bookkeeper. Not surprisingly, Ron grew up determined to be financially secure, believing that the size and dependability of the paycheck was the most important, if not only, measure of a "good job"; certainly personal fulfillment had little to do with his work aspirations.

After the genogram, I asked Ron to tell me the story of his career, from his earliest memories of what he wanted to be when he grew up to the present. I'm interested in how career choices have been made across the lifespan, because there are often important patterns that become immediately visible through this story. As Ron talked about growing up, he made clear that his focus from an early age was on "making money to help out." While in high school, he'd worked after school and on weekends to earn money. His extracurricular life was limited. He attended a small college close to home to save money, and selected a major in computer science because he was certain that he could get a job and support himself with that major. He interviewed with on-campus recruiters, and took the first job offered. His moves to other companies had been motivated by the need to find the most secure position or contract. Whenever a company hit a rough patch and Ron feared layoffs might be approaching, he simply used his reputation to find another, more secure, position.

By the end of the first session, it was clear that Ron had never really asked the question "what do I want to do?" Having spent a childhood doing what his demanding mother wanted and expected, he'd developed well-calibrated radar for the needs of others, and that had endeared him to clients. Further, after watching his mother struggle to make ends meet, his primary objective had been to keep himself financially secure, so he'd simply followed the money. His career moves had been successful until the last year or so, when Ron entered therapy to deal with a constant, low-grade depression. As a result of therapy, he'd allowed himself to acknowledge that he didn't like what he was doing.

I shared with Ron my observation that he hadn't spent much time thinking about what he liked to do and gave him a homework assignment designed to get the hidden voice of desire to do some talking. The exercise is called "Nine Lives." I told Ron that he'd be granted nine lives, and that he'd have to work in each one of those lives, but at jobs he enjoyed. There were three "rules." First, he'd assume that he'd make whatever money was necessary to sustain himself, regardless of the careers he chose. Second, he'd have whatever skills, training, or education was necessary to pursue the careers--if he wanted to be a concert pianist, for instance, he'd have been playing piano since he was 2. Finally, his friends, family, and colleagues would view whatever careers he selected as being prestigious, whether he chose to be a senator, social worker, or carpenter. The only other requirement was that he name at least nine careers. He could choose more than nine, but no fewer.

At the next session, Ron shyly handed over the list, observing that many of the choices were silly. This isn't an uncommon reaction, since the fantastical nature of the assignment usually elicits some ideas that surprise the client. Ron's list included: owner of a business or shop, interior decorator, international business owner, electrician, artist, landscape architect, architect, editor, and event planner. I don't expect this list to include the job the client will eventually settle on, because it's usually not that simple. The assignment is a classic projective exercise, and things that make it onto the list, however fantastical, are indications of what the client likes. Through this playful exercise, we'd tricked Ron's true self into making a brief appearance.

As I analyzed Ron's list with him, I pointed out themes. There was a strong entrepreneurial thread running through his selections, an idea that intrigued this highly risk-averse man. Many of his careers had a strong visual sense to them—landscape design, architecture, artist, event planner. I also commented on what I didn't see in the list: few of the jobs were office-based, and few of them were done in large organizations.

Now I had some data on what appealed to Ron in a job, and while he wasn't prepared to sign on to all of my conclusions, he wasn't rejecting them either. He was curious, a frame of mind that's highly conducive to hearing from the true self. For the next session, I gave Ron another assignment: to list all the jobs he'd held and tell me what he'd liked and disliked about each position, as specifically as possible.

Ron's likes and dislikes were a random list of comments and occasional rants about his jobs. He liked working alone, but he also thrived on clear, detail-oriented projects, and reveled in his ability to master—and be the acknowledged master of—very specific subject areas. Although he'd usually had good relationships with supervisors, his list reflected a constant chafing under close supervision, and a love of having his own projects to do. He liked the fact that his client relationships allowed him to generate new projects, but he didn't like the pressure to sell services he didn't think the client needed.

Once again, I reflected the themes I was seeing: a strong interest in working autonomously and in an entrepreneurial fashion, a love of detail, and desire for expertise. I asked Ron what he was seeing in the data. He responded that he'd long wanted to run his own business, but had felt this to be impossible because of the risk involved. Quick as a wink, the true self had vanished back into its shell, and Ron's historic patterns of thinking reasserted themselves. Rather than challenge these defenses directly, I simply invited the true self back out to dream with me for a bit about the type of business he'd like to have.

Ron talked about a business where he'd do small projects that would add to a room's design—built-in bookcases, window treatments, display shelves, upgraded details like drawer pulls and cabinet handles. He admitted that he regularly did little projects for friends just for fun. But even as he imagined this business, he was simultaneously engaged in telling me that such a narrow business didn't make sense, that he didn't have the qualifications for it, that he couldn't possibly make any money at it. I try to stay away from those arguments at this stage in the process, focusing instead on amplifying and reflecting what I hear from the true self. I observed how animated Ron's voice was and how physically excited he was when he talked about his business, moving to the edge of his chair, nodding, smiling, and laughing.

At this point, I asked the question designed to crystallize the data we'd assembled into a clearly expressed desire: "If you could have a business helping people with small home-design projects, how would that be?" "Wonderful" responded Ron's true self. But the defensive voice quickly added "If it could be successful."

More data was now needed to bolster Ron's desire for his own business. Over the next several weeks, Ron talked with various people in the home-design and handyman worlds, and started to refine his ideas. He got specific information and started running numbers to determine the viability of his plans.

Ron's reaction was typical. Once the client has allowed himself to voice his desires, there's usually a powerful impetus to move forward, in spite of his qualms. I look for this gathering momentum as one of the final clues that the client has connected with what he really wants for himself. Suddenly, ideas about how to proceed bubble up effortlessly. The client often engages in spontaneous information-gathering and networking activities. Obstacles become manageable; technical problems elicit the client's competence, not his hopelessness. And often, other things change, too. A client leaves an unfaithful partner, meets and connects with a wonderful new romantic interest, reengages with a favorite creative hobby, or otherwise manifests a more powerful sense of self.

There were still a number of bumps along the road for Ron, which required brainstorming, problem-solving, and a few course corrections. Nonetheless, within six months of our first meeting, he was prepared to launch a business in the home-design arena. This is the final confirmation that we've successfully connected with the true self: the client can move forward with his plans despite anxiety and setbacks. Ron contacted me recently to say that he was doing extremely well, and was opening a second branch of his business.

Therapy vs. Career Counseling

It should be kept in mind that when a client can't connect with her desire, or if that connection is under constant assault from the client's own defensive structures, then therapy is necessary to heal the damage to the self before career counseling can proceed. A client with a deeply damaged sense of self will be no more successful in work than she is in love. Good career work has to wait for good therapy to make some progress on the integration of the self. Indeed, even a client doing work that's right for her won't find personal fulfillment if the rest of her life is out of whack.

Emily came to me at a career crossroads. She'd held a series of public relations jobs, and had moved up in the field. She had a close group of supporters and a number of supervisors who were thrilled with her work, but she'd left each job because of her frustration with the "politics" of the organization. When I met Emily, she was seriously considering a career change.

Her oldest sibling, Emily's sister, had been killed in a car accident when Emily was a very young child. Since that trauma, the family had compulsively pulled together in a self-protective, mutually reassuring, knot. Parents and siblings had become so intensely and intrusively involved in each others' lives that there'd been insufficient room for individuality and personal growth. The children had never really been launched into full adulthood. The career genogram revealed that all three of the surviving siblings were still struggling to find their own way in the world, both professionally and personally.

When we processed the nine lives, a curious thing happened. Emily's current career and several close variations appeared on the list. The themes that emerged—desire for autonomy, creativity, love of a fast pace, writing, telling stories—were all consistent with her current field. The pieces of the puzzle seemed to be coming together quite nicely, but Emily couldn't connect with any of it. Random objections surfaced to every course of action we identified related to altering her career path. After a couple more sessions of wondering and exploring, Emily started to talk about her most recent project. As she described her conflicts with her boss, and her sense that she was being excluded from some key assignments, she said "Why does this keep happening?"

"Why does what keep happening?" I asked. Emily admitted that although she'd never been fired, each job took a fairly standard course. Emily and her new employer and coworkers usually began their association in a glow of mutual enthusiasm, which somehow always seemed to degenerate into arguments, complaints from others about her "attitude," and resentment on her part of people at work who were "unfair," "unappreciative," or "cliquish." The atmosphere usually deteriorated enough to prompt her to find another job. In a couple of instances, Emily was fairly certain that she'd have been fired had she stayed in the job.

Predictably, the intervals were getting shorter. Often when clients are playing out conflicts left over from childhood in the workplace, the pattern accelerates with each new job, since the defensiveness gets triggered earlier. This pattern of repeatedly switching jobs is deadly on a resume, because it raises red flags with employers and can eventually affect a client's ability to land the next job.

Within five sessions of career counseling, it became clear that Emily's problem wasn't her choice of career. Work was just the place where her malfunctioning defensive structures were having the greatest impact.

Emily wanted immediate help with what she perceived to be her career issue, so I had to carefully approach the suggestion that she go into long-term therapy. But our weeks of work together had given me a tremendous amount of data about how Emily was sabotaging her career and how the same issues surfaced in her family, her marriage, and her friendships. Ultimately, Emily agreed with my assessment, and I referred her to a therapist. She may not need a career change at all. If she can stop acting out at work, she may get more positive feedback and the current vicious cycle may end.

Career counseling is often perceived to be short-term work and, compared to the course of many therapies, it is. But the time pressure doesn't mean that the work gets done at a superficial level. To be effective in helping clients figure out what they really want to do, I have to connect at a deep level with their true selves. That doesn't ensure a miraculous resolution of all therapeutic issues. As my work with Emily demonstrates, some clients' sense of self is so deeply damaged that we have nothing to work with in the career process. But the majority of my clients find a way to access the true self—the voice of desire—and to use it to guide their career decisions. And, as in Emily's case, if they can't access the true self, career counseling can be the first step toward seeking the help they need.

Karen James Chopra, L.P.C., M.C.C., is a career counselor and therapist in private practice in Washington, D.C. Contact:;

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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