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Work • Meaning

How Does An Emotionally Healthy Person Relate To Their Career?

It’s unusual to think that the state of our emotional health might have a role to play in deciding what job we are attracted to. But when it comes to work, we aren’t ever just dealing with concerns for money and opportunities, but also always with that more acute subject: emotional maturity.

And here, to generalise, there are two things that an emotionally healthy person will not be attempting to do through their work. 

– Firstly, trying to feel ‘seen’. Unlike their more unwell counterparts, the emotionally healthy person will already have been amply acknowledged, recognised and honoured, for many long years, across their childhood and will therefore not need to look to their work to lend them any sense that they deserve to exist. They have been allowed to be – and are now free to concentrate on weighing up the intrinsic merits of a job (its interest, its hours, its pay and so on) as opposed to its capacity to deliver them with missing emotional endorsement or validation.

– Secondly, they will not need to use work to ‘express themselves’ – because ordinary language and ordinary methods of communication – largely in their families of birth – will already have provided them with a fulsome sense that their hopes, wants and fears can be adequately acknowledged. They won’t look to their work to stand as a covert plea to an indifferent humanity to listen to the little boy or girl within them that no one has ever had time for.

With these two factors out of the way, the field of work can then be approached with enormous clarity and practical canniness. Emotionally healthy people can look for work that isn’t going to tax them unduly but will still provide a good measure of material reward and stimulation. Depending on their skills, they might think about the law or accountancy, car repair work or carpentry, teaching or landscape gardening. They won’t need to throw themselves at the crueller, more neurotically competitive cliff faces of the professional world: they won’t attempt to write a novel or become a journalist, make an album or start a tech company. They won’t try to make it as a performance artist or interior designer. They won’t fight for a perch in finance or that globally renown centre of psychopathy: television. 

Nor will the emotionally healthy person have to be the boss. They won’t feel compelled to start their own company, because they can trust in a framework that has been set by others. Their experience (with their father) hasn’t made them chronically suspicious of every kind of authority. If there is a family business, they can contentedly slot into it, satisfied that – although it may never make a fortune – there will be a small profit at the end of the year and that can be enough.

Office At Night, Edward Hopper, 1940, Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, the emotionally healthy person isn’t worried about their potency either. While not craving power, they don’t panic if it happens to come their way. They don’t have to feel guilty for doing well. They don’t have to be meek and retiring or fail pre-emptively – out of a sense of unconscious loyalty to an overbearing or fragile parent whose compromised life might be shown up by a successful child. They are allowed to handle money and command without terror or veneration; just as ordinary means to sensible ends. 

In the eyes of the emotionally healthy person, there can be room enough for many people in the same town. They don’t feel so empty that everyone else’s success is experienced as a catastrophic threat. They aren’t morbidly competitive. It doesn’t matter if someone else is acclaimed. They aren’t locked into a mindset of sibling rivalry projected onto the entire professional scene; they aren’t always somewhere inside seven years old and devastated that their parents look only to their brother or sister. They have the emotional wherewithal to feel pleased – or even better, indifferent – that a friend or colleague has won some prizes. Other people are allowed to eat too; there is enough on their plate.

Inwardly satisfied, the emotionally healthy person can then concentrate on using their work to serve others to the best of their ability. Their needs have been sufficiently well taken care of in order that – for the working hours of the day – they can focus wholeheartedly on the sufferings, dilemmas and hopes of their clients. 

They can work for decades in almost complete obscurity, known only to a very narrow circle who come into direct contact with them and respect them for the authentic way they have brought them help, and never feel either overlooked or a nobody. They have – without any arrogance – known they deserve to be on the planet since the start, and so they can be home a little before six with energy left over to meet up with a friend or redo the borders of the garden.

It can sound ‘average’; it is in fact the very summit of achievement and the life to which we should all aspire. It’s a measure of how profoundly emotionally unwell our societies are that this vision of work is at risk of sounding mediocre – and that a majority, especially among opinion formers and the so-called elite, use work to compensate them for emotional deprivations and immaturities they are not properly conscious of, poisoning the world for everyone and cascading problems down the generations, instilling their own and others’ children with a range of unnecessary fears and cravings. Long before they are a matter of what we call politics, our workplace pains start off as matters of psychology.

We know so much about money, status, envy and anxiety; and when it comes work so little still about emotional sanity.

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