Feeling conflicted in your career? Maybe there’s more strength in this than you think.

We’ve all felt emotionally confused right? A common trend for my own conflicted moments is what serial TV blockbuster to watch. Particularly when I have what seems like a minuscule window of opportunity when the kids are in bed and my melatonin levels haven’t gone off the scale. The problem is choice. For this reason I am always behind the curve in viewing the latest multi-season boxset extravaganza. Lost was lost on me and I’ll probably start watching Jack Bauer 24 years after the first episode aired. I naively mistook Game of Thrones as some sort of British historical drama and I wrongly thought the Walking Dead would never take off with the lead being the bloke off Teachers with a dodgy American accent. My most recent boxset binge, Vikings (please no spoilers), has been no exception to my late arrival but a recent episode got me thinking on how much work we do in careers with people feeling conflicted. I appreciate this isn’t just isolated to my line of work but there’s no doubt there is a lot of this feeling around and it’s usually not welcomed. In fact some see and hope our job is to help provide the cure!

So let me give you some background on why a particular episode resonated with my work as a Careers Adviser. The series focuses on Ragnar Lothbrok and his clan doing, well, what Vikings did back then (but with the added panache of a big TV budget). Following a raid he meets and eventually forms a close bond and friendship with a priest called Athelstan (after a let’s say a rocky start to their friendship). Now Athelstan was obviously a religious man but his experiences with the Vikings and introduction to the Norse gods made him question the legitimacy of his own beliefs and faith. Athelstan often wrestled with this and ultimately* (*spoiler alert) this led to his untimely death. Grieving the demise of the one man he could trust Ragnar spoke out poignantly to the priest as he buried the body in a secluded but beautiful spot.

“You’re a brave man, Athelstan. I always respected you for that. You taught me so much. You saw yourself as weak and conflicted, but to me, you were fearless because you dared to question”.

As I watched this I thought “wow” as it felt so very true and yet somehow I hadn’t actually ever put that into words before . A challenge to the general orthodoxy that feeling conflicted is somehow a default position of weakness. In my work I see examples of this internal conflict with scenarios such as;

“I’ve achieved a senior position in my current role but don’t enjoy it but to give it up would feel such a waste. It just took so long to get here”

“I’d love to be working as X but it seems such a risk to do this. I’d have much to gain and much to lose”

“I’ve got so many ideas of what I could be, what if I make the wrong choice – why can’t I just be satisfied?”

This got me curious into what causes this internal conflict so I got down to some reading and found this article. In it psychologists suggest the mind consists of multiple states that may to a varying degree be in conflict with one another e.g. memory and emotion.  So the brain operates a democratic process due to this “modularity” as no processing centre holds the keys to decision making.  Perhaps this goes some way to explain why we often feel conflicted. What’s interesting to me is that the timing of events and decisions plays a part as well as the article then goes on to explain;

“The divided decision model indicates that the ultimate determinant of a person’s choice is not her simple preference. Rather, people may have a variety of contradictory preferences that become dominant at different points because of their timing”.

This also leads me to another psychological concept called cognitive dissonance explained in detail here. The term is used to describe the feelings of discomfort we feel that result from holding two conflicting beliefs. For example, taking action when internally we know this to be wrong. Where this relates to careers work is that our lives necessitate the need to make decisions and these decisions are fertile ground for creating cognitive dissonance. This is why;

“making a decision cuts off the possibility that you can enjoy the advantages of the unchosen alternative, yet it assures you that you must accept the disadvantages of the chosen alternative”.

I’d imagine this is a statement many of us can relate to which makes it seem like there is an element of the inevitability of the human condition rather than a question of indifference or strength of mind.  Yet there’s even more of this self-talk trickery we can also identify with, the phenomenon of imposter syndrome.  That internal voice that you’re not good enough and somewhere along the line you’ll be found out (I get this feeling when I write but if you’ve made it this far perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much).

So where am I going with all of this? Listening to and exploring those inner voices and not explaining them away shows you are questioning the programming we often operate as a defence mechanism. Becoming more self-aware should be seen as a great strength as being conscious opens the door to personal growth and professional development.

As Ragnor would say “you were fearless because you dared to question”. We need to take the time to do more of this.  What do you think?


Time for internal debate should be seen as a strength even though we often seek clarity