First of all, I would like to tell you that using the methods in your many wonderful books has changed my life!!
I have a question and it would be great to get your input. I work as a team leader/software engineer in a software company. I like my profession (I enjoy programming and managing) but I also care deeply about the environment and animals. (I also volunteer in an environmental non-profit organization). This situation leads to a recurring thought that causes me a lot of suffering: “I’m wasting my life when I’m working in this job (software).”
I feel that my life calling is working with animals/helping the environment and as long as I’m not working at that I’m wasting my life. Is this true? Am I wasting my life?
Is this the hidden emotion (elephant in the room) that causes this thought?
I really need your help!
Thanks, Sharon (name disguised)
Thanks for your questions! It is spirit-uplifting that you have idealistic goals. My wife and I are also concerned about the environment and the welfare of animals.
I cannot give medical advice, or do therapy in this medium. I can only give some general ideas, but perhaps you will find them useful or interesting.
First, this might be the Hidden Emotion phenomenon, and it might not be. For example, let’s say there’s something else that’s bothering you that you are kind of pushing out of your mind. Perhaps there’s a conflict of some kind with a boyfriend, or a girlfriend, or a family member. Or perhaps someone is pushing you to loan them money, and you are tempted to give in because you’re so “nice,” but you don’t really want to. Or maybe there is a problem of some kind at work that you’re avoiding. It could be anything.
These are just examples of the kinds of conflicts that overly “nice” individuals sometimes tend to avoid.
If this is going on, then the obsessing about your career could, in fact, be a way of not dealing with the real issue. If this turns out to be the case, then you are a darn good detective! But you’re the only one who will be able to say one way or the other. If you open your mind to this possibility, some problem you’ve been avoiding might suddenly pop into your mind. Then if you deal with it more directly, the obsessions about your career might diminish or suddenly disappear. But this is just a possibility.
On the other hand, it might not be the Hidden Emotion phenomenon, but simply genuine ambivalence about your career. You do enjoy your career, which is great, but you are telling yourself that you “should” be doing something more meaningful with your career and with your life. Should Statements are one of the ten cognitive distortions, as you may know if you’ve read any of my books or listened to my two podcasts on negative and positive distortions.
We could view your career concerns as a genuine decision-making issue, but there are really two different decisions involved. The first decision is whether or not you want to change careers. The second decision is whether or not you want to beat yourself up by telling yourself, “I’m wasting my life because I’m working in software development.”
It might be useful for you to do a Cost-Benefit Analysis. Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and label the left-hand column Advantages and the right-hand column Disadvantages. You can put the negative thought that is bothering you at the top of the page. This is the thought: “I’m wasting my life working in software.”
Then list the Advantages and Disadvantages of believing that thought and beating up on yourself about your career, and balance them against each other on a 100-point scale. Is it 50-50? 60-40>? 35-65?
To make this easier for you, I’ve attached a CBA for that you can download if you CLICK HERE. You will see that your negative thought is already at the top of the page for you.
Notice that this is NOT a decision about your career. It is a decision about obsessing and making yourself unhappy about your career.
One advantage of telling yourself that you are wasting your life is that it might motivate you to change professions, so you will be more likely to pursue your goal. Another advantage might be that your self-criticism shows that you are a very caring and idealistic person, and not someone who ignores real problems in our society. A third advantage might be that your negative thought could be a kind of “moral punishment” for doing what you enjoy—software development! After all, many cultures and religions throughout history have felt that it is a sin to be happy and to enjoy yourself!
Another advantage of criticizing yourself is that it shows how humble you are, and how willing you are to examine your life in a serious and accountable way. And humility is a spiritual quality.
Yet another advantage is that your self-criticisms show that you have high standards, and those high standards have likely motivating you to accomplish a great deal in your career! And that’s definitely a good thing.
You can likely think of more advantages, and I’m just giving examples.
And you may conclude, after making this list, that you want to keep criticizing yourself. There is nothing wrong with that!
Then you could list any possible disadvantages of your negative thought in the right-hand column. For example, if you are not actually planning to change professions any time soon, then one disadvantage would be that you’re making yourself unhappy, and perhaps unnecessarily. And you might be able to list some more disadvantages as well.
After you complete you lists, put two numbers that add up to 100 in the circles at the bottom. The critical issue is not how many things you list in each column, but how they weigh out in your mind. What feels greater? The Advantages? Or the Disadvantages?
If the Advantages of the negative thought are greater, and you decide that that DO you want to continue criticizing yourself in this way, you could be to ask yourself how many minutes per day you want to devote to beating yourself up. Would five minutes be enough? Thirty minutes? Then you could schedule time each day to sit and make yourself miserable with a barrage of self-critical thoughts. At the end of your scheduled “Worry Break,” you could go back to joyous, happy living.
In addition, you could do two additional Cost-Benefit Analyses (CBAs). First, you could list the advantages and disadvantages of sticking with your current career. Then you could do a second CBA, listing the advantages and disadvantages of switching to some type of career involving your love of animals or your commitment to saving the environment.
Here’s something else to think about that might also be interesting to you. There is no rule that says that you have to have one supreme “calling” in life that you totally devote yourself to. It can be more than enough just to have a job to support yourself. And if you enjoy your work, so much the better! And that might be enough to ask from your work as a software engineer.
You can still do things in your spare time, if you want, to pursue more idealistic causes, or other interests, and it sounds like you are already doing this. On my Sunday hikes with individuals from my free weekly TEAM-CBT training groups at Stanford, we see volunteers in the Palo Alto Foothill Park removing invasive plants and weeds that do not belong in this area. They are doing something for the environment.
In my case, I devote a lot of volunteer time each year teaching and training therapists, and even helping them with personal issues in my training groups for community therapists at Stanford, and during our Sunday hikes as well. It is all totally free,, and it gives me a lot of pleasure!
My wife and I also devote enormous time to abandoned cats that we take in, and we absolutely love them! We have a small orchard and grow tons of apples that we feed to the many grateful deer in this area in the fall. The deer sometimes make a home in our front yard and sleep under our old plum tree! We love them! When they are hungry, the mother deer comes close to our house and stares into one of the windows. When I notice that, I go out and toss out about 75 or 100 apples for them, which they quickly devour!
You can also support political candidates who support your goals and causes.
In short, life does not have to have one calling, one purpose, or one meaning. You can have as many goals, purposes, and meanings as you want! The idea that your MUST have a career that involves some lofty goal is often just a trap, just another “should.”
Do you know that in the middle of my psychotherapy career, I suddenly got the urge to pursue a career in table tennis? That might sound goofy, but it’s true!
I had been really good in table tennis as a kid, and in college, too, but had never had any formal training. So I completely gave up my clinical practice and purchased a ball machine and video camera in the garage, and hired a professional table tennis coach who called himself Ernie the Black Pearl of the Caribbean. He had just moved to Philadelphia and was looking for people to coach, so I paid him to coach me 20 hours a week for about six months. He was the Caribbean champion and was phenomenally skillful. It was strenuous Olympic type training for four hours each morning, Monday through Friday.
I also purchased an Olympic table tennis table from Sweden, as well as costly Swedish rackets with special rubber on both sides that created increased spin and speed when you hit the ball.
Oh boy! I worked and worked on my table tennis. The game had changed completely from when I was a kid, so the training involved a lot of re-learning.
Then I saw a notice that there was going to be a four-day training camp at the Eastern Regional Table Tennis Training Center in Bethesda, Maryland. It appeared to be a training program for the US Olympic Team, and I called to ask if my son and I could attend. The woman who answered inquired about my national rank, and I explained that I did not yet have a rank, but that we were pretty good, etc etc. So agreed to register my son—who was about 15—and me in the program.
This was the chance of a lifetime! We were so excited that we got up at about 4 AM and drove from Philadelphia to Bethesda at 80 miles an hour the first morning of the program. We were the first to arrive, and the woman who greeted us at the door was the former US women’s table tennis champion. It was an amazing huge facility with Olympic tables and runways surrounded by fences so you’d have a large protected area to play at each table. She said my son and I could warm up while the other candidates were arriving.
We set each other up for slamming the ball, and I was thinking she’d be pretty impressed!
Then the other candidates starting arriving. They were these super athletic looking young men, and they brought their children with them. I thought, “Wow, that is so neat that these Olympic table tennis players are bring their children to watch!
About 25 people arrived, and then she announced, “Those who are registered for the four day training program please sit on this long bench.” My son and I jumped up eagerly and sat of the bench.
But to my dismay, as the other candidates arrived, we discovered it was a training program for children! This was NOT the Olympic team! My son and I were the oldest people there, except for one teenager who was 16!
Then she said she would match us up with other players to play a five game match, to see what our skill levels were. She matched me against an 11 year old named Jimmy who looked pretty nerdy. He had horn rimmed glasses and was barely tall enough for his head to be above the level of the table.
I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be pathetic. I’m going to crush this poor little boy, and it might demoralize him.
Before we started I asked him if he played a lot of table tennis, and if this was his main interest. He said, “I do play a little table tennis, doctor, but my main thing is squirrel hunting.”
To determine who serves first, you hide the ball under the table in your right or left hand, and your opponent has to guess what hand it is in. If your opponent guesses correctly, he or she gets to serve first. But Jimmy generously said that wasn’t necessary and I could choose whether I wanted to serve or receive first.
I told him I wanted to serve, because I had learned these incredible, high-speed spinny serves that are virtually impossible to return in Sweden during a visit I made when I was in medical school. So I gave him a mind-boggling serve, just to let him know who was boss right away.
He was left-handed, so I served it in the direction of his forehand. The serve actually appears to go off the table, and then it curves back and hits the edge of table.
I served and it was a great one. But I suddenly heard a bang, like a firecracker, and the ball game back at over 100 miles an hour on the far edge of the table and bounced against the wall 35 feet behind the table. I did not miss it, because it came so fast I did not have time to swing at it! I could not believe what had just happened, and meekly announced the score, Love – 1! I tried another fantastic serve with the same result. And after three more “fantastic” serves, all returned by massive slams, it was Love – 5.
Then Jimmy said, “Doctor, maybe you should not use that type of serve. They were popular in Sweden about 20 years ago, but now everyone can smash them back. I asked what kinds of serves people were using now, and he said he’d show me.
Then he served an idiotic, slow serve that barely made it over the net, and I thought I could smash it back. But when I attempted to hit it, it went off at right angles, and I could not get it over the net! He had thrown it high in the air at the start of his serve, and then put some kind of fantastic spin on the ball, but blocked my site with his other arm, so I could not actually see what happened at the moment the ball hit his racked.
Then he did four more similar serves, all with the same result .Now it was my turn to serve again, and the score was Love – 10.
I lost five straight games to Jimmy, all by score of 21 to 0. Wow! It was stunning!
Then I asked Jimmy, “Do you have a rank or anything like?” He said, “Oh, I am second in the United States right now in my age division, but my main thing is shooting squirrels!” He winked as he said that, and then I saw what he meant!
Well, my excursion into the world of professional table tennis was quite the adventure, but I had to accept that I just could not get my body doing what my head wanted it to!
So I went back to something I was a little better at—psychotherapy and statistics (for research articles I was writing) and teaching. And I’ve enjoyed myself tremendously since then.
Still, I’ll never regret the time I decided to pursue my “true calling in life!”
Well, I’ll stop babbling now, but hope to hear from you!