Overcome the Guilt that Keeps you in the Wrong Job

How many hours do you work each week? 50? 60? More? If you truly hate your job, that’s a lot of unpleasant time. Perhaps you’re one of the people who believes they can “compartmentalize” their life — containing all those hateful feelings within the walls of your workplace. What’s more likely, however, is that your toxic feelings are taking a serious toll. A toll on your health (both mental and physical), on your relationships (both in the office, and with family and friends), and on your career. By any measure, those are high prices to pay.

What causes an individual to stay in a job he hates?

The “Sunk Cost” Fallacy

One needn’t look far to find people who are absolutely miserable at work; for some, this condition has persisted for many, many years. Given all this unhappiness, why do individuals continue to follow a course that they know to be less-than-optimal? There’s no simple answer to this question, but studies from psychology and economics often refer to a phenomenon known as “the sunk cost fallacy.” Sunk costs are those investments (time, money, effort, ego, etc.) one has already made in a particular course-of-action. (Attending law school, for example.) The fallacy is that staying-the-course — in a miserable, dead-end position — is a rational way to recoup those prior investments.

For individuals in the grip of sunk cost thinking, choosing an alternative strategy (a different firm, another practice area, even a career outside the law) means abandoning the investments that were so dearly bought. In a best-case scenario, these alternative choices are transformative and life-changing; they do, however, come at a cost. In the short-term (and maybe longer) these new paths may bring uncertainty and pain — economic setbacks, career challenges, relationship difficulties, and psychological stress. Fearing these consequences, many people stay stuck — choosing to remain mired in the familiarity of their current unhappiness.

Guilt Defined

For those who work in the legal profession, the concept of “guilt” most often applies to the proven wrongdoing of an organization or individual. But the guilt we’re considering here is not pronounced by a judge and jury; it’s an individual’s verdict on himself. Here’s what it looks like: remorse, shame, or self-condemnation caused by feeling responsible for a wrongdoing or the failure to meet an obligation. Recognize the symptoms?

When an individual is mired in a chronically miserable job, guilt can be an ever-present companion. This condition is not sustainable — not without incurring steep costs.

Why Feel Guilty About Leaving A Job?

Why might someone feel guilty about leaving a hateful job? Those possibilities are legion, but among the narratives commonly heard in the legal community are these:

  • Subjecting one’s family to a lower standard-of-living
  • Disappointing an individual who made financial sacrifices to the legal education of a spouse or child
  • Having already disrupted a family through a geographic move, being faced to consider another relocation
  • Leaving a client who may not be able to replicate your expertise in an important matter
  • Leaving a firm that will suffer inconvenience and financial loss when you depart

What To Do If You’re Feeling Guilt

Feeling guilty isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a self-aware individual, guilt can serve as a compass that brings an individual back into alignment with a moral code or commitment. On the other hand, guilt can be a corrosive, self-imposed sentence based on misperceptions and less-than-conscious influences. If guilt is playing a role in your stuckness, getting clear about its origins is an important first step.

Tools For Clarity

Unfortunately, there is no “magic bullet” for gaining the clarity you need. However, there are time-tested tools that you can immediately put to work.

1) Keep a journal.

If you make a diligent effort, a daily journal will help you “calibrate” your feelings over time. Looking back on this historical data can help a person break through the denial that often accompanies being “stuck” in a miserable job. “Yes, my notes show that I have been consistently unhappy about A, B and C for the past X months.” This information can be invaluable — both for your own clarity and for conversations with counselors, or talks with family members who would be impacted by your decision to leave a job.

2) Get Support.

A friend or spouse can give important emotional support during your inquiry. Be mindful, however, that those relationships will be taxed by a steady stream of talk that’s all about you. So if you are unfamiliar with the benefits of having a dedicated coach or counselor, now is the time to explore those relationships.

3) Get An Industry Perspective.

Take it on faith that you do not — and cannot — have a complete view of your situation. (You’re too close to the problem to be objective about it.) That’s why you need a trusted advisor. For the sake of confidentiality, it is best for your advisor not to be someone in your office. As an alternative, many people in your situation have found a good legal recruiter to be an eye-opening resource. Why not start there?

Eyes On The Prize!

Through your mindfulness, your journal entries, and your conversations with key people you will gain enhanced clarity about your situation and the options ahead. No, the process won’t be easy; but the prospect of a more fulfilling work situation offers rich rewards, indeed. Eyes on the prize!

Ready to take the next step? A Special Counsel recruiter is here to help. Connect with us today.

Attract & Retain Top Talent

With a rapidly changing industry, it's vital to offer the right compensation and set the right expectation. With our Salary Guide, get detailed job descriptions, industry insights and local salary data to equip your managers with hiring confidence and expertise.

Get your copy »

Get email updates about more content like this.


| Next articles in The Column blog |

Get the foundation you need to hire the best legal talent.

Request your copy of our 2021 Salary Guide »