Emotions, Content, & Process in Careers

English: Emotions
Image via Wikipedia

They make you cry in front of complete strangers. They make you shout at or hurt people, even if they did nothing to deserve it. They can be intensely energizing, just as they can be suffocatingly demotivating. When they grab hold of you, logic and reason cease to make sense. as we give in to something baser, more ancestral, more automatic.

Emotions are one of the most distinctive, primal, and ubiquitous features of human life. Yet, despite their important role in career development and decision making, they can be one of the most frequently overlooked issues in career advising/counselling. It’s a bit puzzling at first, but something that I think makes sense when looked at through the correct lens.

One thing you’ll often hear theorists and educators in the helping professions discuss is the different variables that are able to be “worked with” in a session. In any helping encounter, content describes those variables that are immediately visible – e.g. the words that come out of your mouth, the resume that you want critiqued, etc. Therefore, if you tell the person sitting in front of you that you are having a hard time finding work, a content-driven response might be a question about what strategies you have been using in your job search. Focusing on session content is a great way to reveal background information, root out problems, and come up with practical solutions.

As it turns out though, content does a measly job dealing with emotions. As we’ve all no doubt experienced personally, there are very few things you can say to a person in some sort of emotional throe that will change the way they feel, despite your ingenuity and your best intentions.

Fortunately, there exists another, more mysterious group of variables at play in any helping encounter: process. These are variables that influence the flow of the session, but are not immediately visible in the way that content variables are. A tricky thing to describe, I always envision process as like a large underground river, invisible to someone standing on the surface of the land above. It affects the surrounding landscape as well as ecosystems further abroad in more subtle, complex, and indirect ways than would something happening on the surface, yet these effects are undeniable in retrospect. Process variables could include patterns in your interactions with other people, emotions bubbling under the surface, or deeply held fundamental beliefs you have about the world. Often, we carry these around without ever being aware of them.
Emotions are often very visible, and can frequently become the content of a session, but more often than not, they are hidden away, inaccessible by traditional content-driven means (or interventions, to use some counsellor lingo). This is where process comes in – if your counsellor/advisor is paying due attention to subtle cues like changes in your tone of voice or mannerisms, body language, or certain other behavioural patterns that might emerge over time, they can often identify an emotional snag under the surface.
Going into meaningful detail around how exactly one would go about working with emotions effectively in a therapeutic context is beyond the scope of this post, but I think there are some basic acknowledgments we can make that might give us some things to think about when it comes to the intersection of emotions and career development.

One major reason why emotions are often de-emphasized in a career development context is that there’s just so much other stuff to talk about. Successfully looking for a job, for example, requires a lot of work and a very practical focus to get that work done. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that those practical matters become the primary topics of discussion (e.g. resumes, cover letters, job interviews, targeted work search strategies, etc.).

What’s more, people coming in for help with these things hardly ever describe their problem as an emotional one (see point above regarding process vs content). What they’re asking for  is help with a very practical matter, and in that sense they will expect a high degree of practicality in the help they receive.

The thing is, these issues are emotional. Long term job searches are depressing, demeaning, confidence-shaking affairs. Career changes are potentially life-altering choices, rife with fear, anxiety, and even a nervous breakdown or two (they can also be exhilarating, elating, and life-affirming, but you probably wouldn’t be seeking help if that were the case). But this is all normal and in some sense expected – your success often depends on your ability to persevere and maintain optimism in spite of the emotional turmoil that you may experience.

The first – and often hardest – step is acknowledging that these emotions even exist. Once you’ve cleared that hurdle, the door is wide open to do something about them, with or without somebody’s help. Sometimes just knowing they’re there is enough.

Career development involves coming to terms with a whole lot of content. Is it time you asked yourself, what about the process? What’s going on behind the scenes? You might be surprised by the answer.

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.