Who’s in charge of your career? You or your emotions?

Most people I talk to about being more intentional and strategic in their careers want to know with 100% certainty that the next step is going to be the right decision. The problem isn’t really the practical side of things though. Anyone can type into Google ‘CV templates’ and get a wealth of information and examples. With the right exercises you can also logically figure out a career plan designed for fulfilment. The real problem is our emotions.

Career pivots shift identities, they are emotionally charged and must be done with the utmost integrity. In fact, 89% of LinkedIn users who responded to my survey agreed that changing roles or jobs was an emotional journey as well as a practical one. Why then do people not address the emotional journey of career design?

There are three hallmark characteristics of feeling unfulfilled at work: overlooked, underappreciated and underpaid. Despite these feelings being uncomfortable they are familiar and there is a degree of comfort in the familiar. Moving beyond the situation involves change and that’s where fear likes to inhabit.

The flavours of fear

Think of fear as the different flavours of ice cream: fear of feeling fear itself, fear of being unloved, fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of being alone, fear of something being wrong or even feeling you are wrong in some way. One scoop or two for you? It’s time to change our relationship with fear.

The parable of the second arrow is a well-known Buddhist story. If a person is struck by an arrow, that’s got to be painful. The second arrow is wishing not to have been struck in the first place. Berating oneself for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, getting angry with the person for shooting them or feeling sorry for oneself. We can’t always control the first arrow but the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This arrow is optional and the worst part is, it’s self-inflicted.

Learning how to accept our external challenges and inner emotional landscape just as they are, stops us from suffering over what is. Surely some situations and emotions are painful enough without adding the second arrow of suffering on top?

If we think about Newton’s third law of motion, whenever two objects interact, they exert equal and opposite forces on each other. So, if you are not in acceptance over these fears then you are actually resisting the very thing that is going to set you free. When you can accept your feelings without trying to get away from them, you can move through those feelings and they can be released more easily. There is lightness in our shadows, gifts to be uncovered. Start right now by pin pointing emotions that you really hate to feel, your emotional allergies.

The issue is that you can’t selectively numb emotions. Think of emotions like a trap door. If you stuff under the trapdoor: shame, hurt, sadness, anger, grief or fear you can numb them a little but they are always there seeping, oozing and exploding out of the cracks in the woodwork. If you put the lid on those feelings you really hate to feel you are also trapping in other emotions like: joy, happiness, love, excitement, peace and fulfilment. You neither feel so bad you can’t get out of bed but nor do you feel the high of the emotional roller coaster. It’s like a flat line of emotions, the heart monitor going beeeeeeeeeeep.

When it comes to emotional allergies, we build towers of behaviours over the top of that trapdoor in an attempt to minimise the intensity of the feeling. It’s these towers that are the armour we present to the world, preventing us from being our true and authentic selves. The ability to fully express ourselves in the world. This client story is an excerpt from my book which will be published in 2023.

Client Story: Dr Verena Wolfram Building Towers of Behaviours

Verena was frustrated with her level of achievement at work, failing to progress through internal promotions. Regularly checking on LinkedIn what others in her graduation year were doing and comparing herself unfavourably. She felt like she was massively falling short of her true potential. English was her second language and she would berate her language skills as the reason why she was passed over at the interview stage. It was severely affecting her sense of self and confidence levels.

Having attended one of the Oxbridge Universities, Verena really excelled academically. When she started her Ph.D., she had the belief that she would go all the way to professor and win a Nobel prize. She certainly had the potential but didn’t get lucky in her first postdoc, not yielding enough papers. Her second postdoc coincided with the moment to make choices about starting a family and she conceded her own academic career for her partners progression.

When I started working with Verena, she was an Assessment Analyst at NICE and she had a persistent belief she must get to the top as quickly as possible. The corporate equivalent of being a professor and winning a Nobel prize. Just like in academia, she had reached the point of feeling like a failure for being in the same role for three years and that was a feeling she was very uncomfortable with.

Her emotional allergy was the fear of failure and therefore to protect herself from that feeling she had built different towers of behaviours on top of that fear to squash it deep down inside. Productivity and avoidance of feelings through overworking, The Pusher. Over giving to keep everyone happy, receive praise and conflict avoidance, The Pleaser. Operating with very high standards and judging others for not having those standards, The Perfectionist with a side helping of The Rule Maker. Avoiding activities that could result in failure or feeling inadequate, The Protector Controller.

Through our work together she learned how to separate from the agendas of these discrete parts of herself, manage the internal vulnerability and tolerance levels to the fear of failure resulting in gaining access to more of what she was looking for. The ability to have strong work-life boundaries, feeling confident and capable and not worrying what other people think.



The result was that instead of striving to climb the career ladder to reach the top, she uncovered what would make her truly happy. Verena was successful in a twelve-month internal secondment as a Technical Advisor in the Office for Digital Health at NICE which was more aligned with her natural talents and happened to also be a more senior position with a pay rise. At the end of her sabbatical, she successfully pivoted to Senior Medical Affairs Manager, Scientific Engagement at Pfizer whose mission would make her feel even more fulfilled and this time she wasn’t hampered by worrying if she was sounding eloquent in her use of the English language. Instead, as her true and authentic self she was the first choice.

Update Your Identity

Our careers are often viewed as a series of linear steps taking you to a final destination. People often hinge their whole identity on their careers and what they are going to be. The problem is if you don’t reach what you are striving for, it feels like failure. Success and failure are outcomes. Do not attach them to your self-worth.

“The more an idea is tied to your identity, the more you will ignore evidence it is false. To continue to grow and learn, you must be willing to update, expand and edit your identity.” James Clear.

If you want to be more intentional and strategic in your career start with the inner work. If you try to design a career from ‘I’m not quite good enough’ the results will be much less empowering and impactful than if you identify the flavour of fear, address and release it. Plotting a route forward from your full potential. You will find from this place the practical actions you need to take become simple.

Hit reply and let me know what’s landing for you from this article. ​​

Keep Opening Up,


PS I have been interviewing some of my clients about their coaching journeys on the Women in STEM Career & Confidence podcast. Catch the latest episodes here:

  1. Dr Natsuko Suwaki: Governance & Standards Director in Legal & Compliance at GSKiTunes / Spotify.
  2. Dr Rachel Dunmore: Project Manager in HR at York University iTunesSpotify
  3. Dr Catherine Holden: Platform Lead – Automation Chemistry at Syngenta iTunesSpotify
  4. Dr Kaneenika Sinha: Associate Professor of Mathematics at the Indian Institute of Science Education & Research in Pune iTunesSpotify
  5. Dr Verena Wolfram, Senior Medical Affairs Manager in Scientific Engagement at Pfizer iTunesSpotify