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How to Challenge the Thoughts that Hold Your Career Back

career mindset Mar 16, 2022

Last Tuesday was International Women's Day, a movement to help create a gender equal world and raise awareness against gender bias. As I was reading posts about the topic on LinkedIn, I started thinking deeply about the biases people internalize about themselves, and how those internalized messages manifest in their career.

I recalled a memory of working with a marketing professional back in 2020, who decided to stay at home for four years to support her two young children. When we started working together, she had so many doubts about her resume gap and being able to re-enter the workforce at the same level. She would say things like, "Why would anyone hire me when they could hire someone who's been working this whole time.", "I'm so out of practice with my skills and I have not kept up.", "No one wants to hire someone who might prioritize her children over work."

She questioned why she wasn't getting interviews and when she did, she was not getting offers. Her lack of confidence could be observed through her body language, heard in her words, and felt in her energy. Her resume missed some key accomplishments because she downplayed them. 

We have learned in modern psychology that what you think about an event or situation triggers how you feel, and how you feel impacts how you behave.  This, in turn, can impact the situation at hand. It is certainly possible that my client's internalized biases about her career triggered feelings of apprehension, which lead to her insecure body language and vocal tone in her job interviews. 

Albert Mehrabian, a researcher of body language, found that communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and 7% words only. I suspect that even if my former client said all the right things in her interview, every subconscious message she thought was likely imparted in her vocal and nonverbal cues. 

This is why International Women's Day is so important — public acknowledgment against gender bias starts getting people thinking and potentially taking action to make changes.  It's also a reminder that everything we do has a ripple effect, and even the smallest efforts can result in significant change.  For example, an HR leader reads a post online about the gender pay gap and encourages their company to expand their family leave policies, or a company leader decides to make a statement and create a company policy for transparent compensation practices.

I am thrilled there is a movement that is looking to challenge gender bias on a larger scale. With that being said, changing our biases as a society begins with ourselves by starting to notice what we think and how it manifests in our actions. Please do not interpret this as blaming the victim such or that I am saying that women are at fault for gender inequality. Indeed all the "isms" and discrimination in the workplace is real — It is more how do we test our biases at a subconscious level and begin change within ourselves?

While not every person wants to take on the exploration of their biases that hold them back in their career (beliefs about ageism, classism, ableism, racism, sexism, orientation, just name a few), in my decade of experience as a clinical social worker a career coach, I have found that almost everyone is open to exploring the thoughts that hold them back in their career. I wanted to share a brief exercise if you want to start the process of challenging your biases, judgements, or thoughts that hold you back. For the sake of this exercise moving forward, I'm going to use the word "thoughts" for whatever you choose to challenge:

1. Be curious about your thoughts- Ask yourself, "Where did this thought come from?" After all, your thoughts might be a false interpretation of an event or situation you experienced. Another question you can ask yourself is, "Who's thoughts are these?". You might come to realize that the thoughts might not be your own — they could be a family member's, they could be internalized from society, they could be an opinion from a friend.  

Byron Katie, one of the leading experts in changing beliefs and founder of The Work, suggests asking the questions, "Is it true?" and, "Can you absolutely know it's true?", which helps your mind question the validity of your thoughts." When you disprove your thoughts, they have less power.

In the example of my client, when I asked her to test her biased thought, "Why would anyone hire me when they could hire someone who's been working this whole time?" She realized her thoughts were a mix of a lack of self-worth from childhood, amplified by societal messages about women leaving the workforce. She disproved her thoughts by thinking about the companies that interviewed her, despite her time away, and her friends who had taken time off to be with their families and were hired by wonderful employers. 

2. Flip your thought to the positive and explore its opposite- When you explore your thoughts, try flipping it around to its opposite. While this might sound strange, this allows you to see what the reverse of your thoughts might look like. 

For example, my client's negative thought was, "My time off has hurt my ability to get a job." to, "My time off has helped my ability to get a job and perform it well." Here was her list of when she explored her opposite. 

  • I practiced patience and empathy to deal with other's emotions
  • I discovered how to better prioritize my time when there competing demands
  • I leveled-up my ability to multitask as a mom
  • I learned a ton of skills related to parenting and I can relearn the marketing skills needed to succeed in my next role

3. Continue to remind yourself of the positive thoughts that would better serve you and imagine them- Just because you try flipping your thoughts to the opposite once doesn't mean it's going to stick forever and ever. Your negative thoughts have created deep neural pathways in your brain. Your brain is made of approximately 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Neurons have the incredible ability to transmit electrochemical signals over long distances and send messages to each other. A neural pathway is formed when the same messages are sent repeatedly; hence to change your negative thought patterns, you have to practice your new positive  thoughts again and again to create new neural pathways.

One of the best ways you can do this is to use your imagination and envision yourself in the future with your new thought- believing it and imagining it as your truth. 

In the case of my client, I had her take stock of all her accomplishments, and rewrite them into her resume. I also had her connect with her former supervisor to discuss the positive impact she had made in the workplace and visualize her doing the same for her new employer going forward. She started feeling more confident in herself again, not only because she had taken some classes to up-level her digital marketing skills, she had mastered certain soft skills as a mother that would help her be empathic and supportive of others as a marketing leader. She eventually landed a role as a marketing director at a tech firm with her newfound confidence.

While I know helping my client assisted her in getting a job, I would like to think this work had a greater impact —  I would like to think as a marketing leader, she hires other women who have stayed at home and recognize their value. Perhaps she is a supportive supervisor to a mother who needs to stay at home with a sick child, knowing that the work will get done, perhaps at 9 PM instead of 9 AM. I would like to think that my client values others because she values herself in the same way.

Now what about you? What biases, judgements, or thoughts that hold your career back? If you were to challenge those thoughts and work to adjust your beliefs, how could this manifest in positive change not only for you, but in service to others? Let us take International Women's Day a little further and start to challenge ourselves. 


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