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Career Expectations and Anxiety

One of the greatest sources of anxiety for people is their career. Connected to this are worries of money, fame, reputation, having lots of friends, having an attractive spouse, living in a good neighborhood, and so on. These topics cause stress and anxiety for all of us. It’s no wonder that those with strong anxious tendencies, and especially those with clinical anxiety, are affected by these topics too. Let’s delve into one of the most difficult aspects of this topic for young people, especially at the undergraduate age: career expectations.

Great Expectations
Unlike the novel, once you’ve made your life decisions, the story doesn’t end: You get to keep questioning your choices for the rest of your life! When you’re told (through your childhood) that you are a wonderful person and that you will go far in life, it’s easy to soak up high expectations for yourself. That’s not a bad thing, in fact, none of us would be surprised if it were shown that children who were raised with a sense of competitiveness and the expectation to win, end up having more measurable success later in life. No doubt many studies have shown this. However, some aspects of life are not so measurable, or at least, have not historically been measured. I’m referring to, of course, mental health, life satisfaction, and contentedness. Overbearing expectations that threaten continually to go unmet, can be a huge source of worry and unease.

Relative success
Take a poor farming family in a rural part of the developing world. Imagine that their son or daughter is raised, educated, and climbs up through society, to make $100,000 per year, more than their family has ever made in their entire lives. It’s entirely possible for those parents to be proud of their child to the point of bursting. That child will walk through life, (nay, strut / saunter through life!) with an inner buoyancy and a demeanor that says “I’ve made it”. In other words, their parents and peer’s expectations were not only met, but thoroughly exceeded. On the other hand (perhaps you can see where this is going), take the son of a billionaire oil tycoon. That son enrolls in university, studies hard, comes out on top, and is selected to become a partner at a trading and investment firm. They go on to earn a yearly bonus of $1,000,000. It’s entirely possible for the parents to love their son but always feel (or even tell him directly!) that he didn’t quite measure up to their expectations. The son (despite his absolute and wild objective success) will have a proverbial chip on his shoulder, likely for the rest of his life. We draw your attention to this bizarre and irrational human dynamic, to highlight the fact that it’s the expectations that matter, not the life you live. As such, when you’re thinking “I need to strive harder”, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the backdrop that the theater of your life is playing out of. The million dollar son could readjust his world view, and then live a life just as satisfied as the successful child of humble beginnings.

Tradition versus opportunity
Another common source of expectation that comes from family, is the expected life path. Parents sometimes seek to live vicariously through their children and correct supposed life mistakes that they themselves have made, and have misgivings or regrets about. Ultimately, it’s your life, so it should be you living it; don’t compromise on your own life path. If there are traditions in your family that you don’t want to continue, there is no shame in refusing to do so. If your family has a long history of working in a particular industry, but you really want to work in something else, you can do that. The reality is, this isn’t the 1950’s, where you would be disowned for not living up to your parents expectations. Life is about your choices and your happiness; not your family’s expectations. As a common example, some parents demand that their child study to be a doctor, dentist or lawyer, from an early age. The problem with this approach is that a huge number of other jobs, careers and positions have emerged in the time that you took to grow from a child into a young adult. Today, you can life your life and make a lot of money by drilling tooth fillings, just as well as streaming video gaming, writing an app, recording a medical voiceover, travel blogging, or any number of new and emerging trends. The other problem with this fixed-career expectation, of course, is that the child may not want to pursue that specific career.

“You can’t please everyone, so you have to please yourself.” – Oprah Winfrey

Psychological Awareness
Clinical anxiety is a psychological condition that is characterized by chronic worry. Those with anxiety are preoccupied with what-if scenarios, and often have nightmares about the worst-case scenario. For example, what if you fail the exam, what if you fail your job interview, what if you break your leg before the big game, what if you get a flat tire on the way to your job, what if your spouse leaves you, what if the plane crashes, what if the stock market crashes, what if you can’t pay the mortgage, and so on.

In the face of uncertainty, those with anxiety have a tendency to magnify the potential negative outcome until it fills their entire life, and they are unable to move forward. The result is that they are increasingly paralyzed by the constant worry of the worst case scenario. This is known as catastrophizing.

Constant worry is bad for you. Period. It’s bad for your overall health and well-being. It’s bad for your personal relationships, and it’s bad for your work performance as well.

Worrying for the rest of your life about meeting expectations absolutely falls into this category, so you should do what you can to readjust and re-calibrate the expectations of yourself first, then those around you. It won’t be smooth or easy, and people may react strongly or negatively, but it’s your life, and you don’t need their permission to live it the way you truly think is best. You will make mistakes, so does everyone: life your life.