For months, people have been wearing protective masks—many wearing two masks to avoid COVID.

And for years, people have been wearing invisible masks—many wearing double masks, overworking and under-happy, to avoid Career Shame.

Career Shame is pervasive and persistent, and its symptoms differ from person to person—ranging from arrogance to exhaustion to apathy. For some, the Shame is short term, when passed over for a promotion, rejected from a job, or failing to secure a deal. Others are Career Shame long-haulers, with regrets over paths not taken, paths mistaken, neglected paths.

People try to avoid Career Shame by overworking and accepting being under-happy. If only we work extra hours or accept job boredom, we mistakenly believe, we can elude Career Shame. But Career Shame has a high cost to individuals, communities, and countries.

What do these masks look like? Are you wearing one or both to hide your Career Shame?

Overworked Mask: For some, it is not a choice to overwork; it is necessary for survival. But for others, it is a choice, and they are struggling—the executive working 70 hours a week because they don’t feel good enough as a leader; the manager struggling because they are afraid of what others will think if they ask for help; the entry-level employee saying yes to everything because they don’t feel like they have the strength to set boundaries.

Under-happy Mask: It breaks my heart the number of people I see wearing the under-happy mask, as they have chosen to accept toxic work environments, unfulfilling jobs, and dreary careers. As with overworking, some do not have a choice, but far too many resign themselves to being under-happy at work because they do not feel like they deserve to find career happiness.

The Vulnerability Vaccine

We know what we should do to build our immune system’s ability to cope with Career Shame—explore more appealing careers, turn down extra projects and long hours, apply to jobs at employers with healthy work cultures, discover our strengths. But in order to tell colleagues that you are logging off at 5:30 pm, to ignore your boss’ late-night texts, to redo your resume, to make that networking call, you need to be vulnerable. A shot of the Vulnerability Vaccine is the only long-term solution to Career Shame.

Being vulnerable is scary … really freaking scary. It requires us to admit that we do not know our professional strengths (and are unsure if we even have any) or are afraid of what others will think if we switch careers or admit that we don’t know how be happy at work. It is asking for help, exploring our deepest desires for career meaning, and making peace with who we are rather than who we are pretending to be. Vulnerability can be messy, confusing, and raw.

Ready for a shot of the Vulnerability Vaccine? 

Carve out 30 minutes in the next few days and jot down your responses to these questions.

  • What do overworking and accepting unhappiness help me avoid in my life
  • What false negative beliefs am I holding onto to protect from rejection? What true positive beliefs have I rejected to protect from trying something new
  • What would I do professionally if I didn’t care what anyone thought of me
  • What would life look like if I was free from Career Shame?

Once you have these answers, think of just one action step—talking this over with someone, reaching out to a professional in a field you have always dreamt about, telling your boss you’ll be offline this weekend—to begin allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

Remember, the side effects of the Vulnerability Vaccine will vary. Some people will gain clarity quickly and make immediate professional changes; others will take longer to overcome Career Shame and move towards Career Happiness.

If you are fortunate enough to have a choice, you can continue double-masking every day by overworking and being under-happy—or you can take a shot of the Vulnerability Vaccine and free your life of Career Shame.

Denise will present on the double mask of Career Shame in next week’s WBI/JCC Online Positive Psychology Hour, Thursday, May 13, from 12:00–1:00 pm. Register now.

Denise Riebman Fowler

Denise Riebman Fowler

Denise Riebman Fowler followed a crazy, windy path to finding her own career happiness, including living on less than $600 a month as an AmeriCorps VISTA after college, teaching environmental education in the woods of Montana with no electricity, and quitting her job at age 30 to travel and volunteer in Asia—before finding her calling as a career development specialist, using a strengths-based, positive framework to inspire individuals for professional and life happiness. With over 25 years’ experience in the nonprofit and higher education sectors, Denise is the Director of Career Development and Alumni Services at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. A graduate of WBI’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, she is the founder of Career Happiness Coaching, serving clients including the World Bank, Peace Corps, and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. A regular contributor to Wholebeing Institute’s blog, Denise writes on the integration of positive psychology and career development.