Breaking free: how past conditioning can impact your career choices

It’s just the way it is. It’s how the world works. It’s my personality.

It’s a competitive world and you won’t get anywhere unless you really stand out from the crowd. There are too many people already offering the kind of work I want to do, it’s too late to start a business in that field. Work is work, it’s naive to expect to love what you do.

These are just a few examples from coaching sessions of the ways that past conditioning masquerades as truth. 

Conditioning is the process by which we come to learn, expect and adopt certain behaviours or concepts. If our parents or other figures of authority have certain belief systems based on their life experience, we will tend to be conditioned through our childhood to see things the same way. Sometimes we rebel against it or reject a certain idea, like a religious belief or an approach to parenting or work. That being said, most of us carry – consciously or unconsciously – a significant inheritance from the past in the way that we see things today.

Because this conditioning happened so early in our lives, we often can’t even see it as separate from ourselves, or separate from reality. And even when we’ve consciously acknowledged that these ways of seeing things aren’t objectively true, it can still be hard to fully shake them off.

It comes up all the time in career coaching. The client (a fictional amalgamation of many stories here) is in their mid thirties. They’ve been in their job for a few years and it’s time for a change, perhaps because of redundancy, a lack of progression or a desire for a new challenge. They’re assessing their options and balancing the risks with the potential rewards.

We’re usually working with:

  1. The safe option. This can be staying put, moving role internally, or perhaps moving to a new company in the same industry.
  2. The middle one. This involves a fairly sizeable change and a dose of the unknown. Perhaps taking the redundancy payout and having some time off before deciding what’s next. Moving to a job with a totally different set of skills and knowledge required or starting up a business with some colleagues in the field that you’ve all worked in together.
  3. Then there’s the wild card. It could be retraining in something completely different, starting a business in a whole new field or getting a job that feels like a total 180 from all your past experiences.

The actual level of risk and the departure from what’s already familiar is so individual. Risk is not objective. One person’s safe option is another person’s wildcard, and it’s important to respect that in coaching. I’m all about pursuing our biggest dreams, but pushing past a need for stability and certainty can take its toll. It’s not as simple as picking the most exciting option because it will make us happier. We need to take into account how the risk will impact us emotionally, and how resilient we feel to take on a big change (I’ve learned this the hard way in my own life for sure!).

With the ‘faster is not always better’ caveat in place, let’s get back to conditioning.

I notice that as soon as someone – even subtly – acknowledges their wild card option, some really solid conditioning and fear come and make themselves known. Sometimes the conditioning is already mixed up in the same sentence – “if the economy was different and I was younger then I’d want to work with charities, but we all know what that’s like”. Or it comes in pretty quickly afterwards: “My dream has always actually been to have my own bookshop and café, I would love that so much. But obviously that’s way too risky and stressful”.

In all of these cases, the conditioning is named as if it’s objectively true. As if nobody in their right mind would have a different opinion. It is so ingrained, that it’s pretty much automatic, and very compelling. Even more so because there usually is a grain of truth in it. The job market may well be tricky, starting a business is a risk, and there are no guarantees that the right job will come up if you ditch your current one to take a break.

But is the statement objectively true? Is it the only possible truth? Is it the whole truth? Does everyone believe it, and act accordingly? 

And, most importantly, how is it serving you? Is this belief system supporting you in meeting your potential, or holding you back? 

There really is a difference between being fully supported and held by a belief system, versus being ‘protected’ by it. There is always some positive intent wrapped up in a set of rules that is passed on through generations. There were circumstances that required it to ensure someone’s (physical or psychological) survival. That may have been true for your parents, who then dutifully passed the same ‘protection’ onto you. Or they may have simply been the unconscious messengers, handing down something that they’d inherited themselves, and not having the skills or the luxury to slow down and question it. At some point in time, these beliefs were created out of love – to give someone the best possible chance in a challenging time.

So it’s your turn now. Do you accept the belief systems as truth, even if you feel they’re blocking you from a version of life that could be more vibrant and authentically yours? 

It’s not actually an easy answer, nor is it a leading question (ok, maybe a bit leading). But, really, it can feel like life or death to challenge these thought patterns. It can feel like you’re insane, weird or naive.

But it can also be the key to seeing things differently, and – eventually – saying yes to your wildcard option.

It takes time, but if you want to start challenging and dismantling some of your conditioned belief systems (and choosing new ones for yourself), here are some questions to reflect on:

  • What are the rules of this belief system? What is allowed and what is forbidden?
  • Who does this set of beliefs belong to? Where did it come from? Whose voice do you associate it with?
  • Does everyone belief this and know it to be true? Can you think of anyone who does not believe in – or care about – this set of rules?
  • If these beliefs were suddenly gone, what would you be doing differently?

There can be a deeper process of integration, forgiveness and rebuilding that’s needed here, but it’s not one I could lay out in a blog post. Just know that it’s possible to let go of past conditioning, even when it seems so deeply held. It’s possible to adopt new positions that are less scary to carry around in your head, and that guide you towards a greater sense of fulfillment.

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