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The Depression That Can Arise From Realizing Your Career Isn’t What You Thought It Would Be

I’ve had depression longer than I’ve had my career, but I’ve worked hard to continue to grow professionally. I remember being depressed in university, and sometimes the only thing that would keep me hanging on was imagining how great my life would be when I had my dream career, and was some sort of corporate hotshot. Years later… I’m not the hotshot I thought I would be and my life isn’t quite what I imagined. On one hand, I love my career — I work for a great company, I’m in a role that aligns well with my skill set, I can pay my bills, and I have awesome coworkers. But at the same time, it doesn’t always feel like enough. Rather, I don’t feel like I’ve done enough, or I’m far enough along.

I’ve tried for years to decouple my self-worth from my career accomplishments, but they seem to be inextricably linked. I think part of it is because I’ve justified the gaps or pitfalls in my personal life by saying I’m focused on my career, and my professional goals are more important. But then sometimes I look at where I’m at, and I wonder, “Is this really all I’ve done?” Feelings of inadequacy creep up every time I see an old classmate getting a new promotion, or big accolade, and my self esteem takes a tumble when I hear what salaries other people my age are making. Beyond the title and the pay, the existential questions that my suicidal ideation likes to latch onto begin to get louder: What’s the point in living if life consists of spreadsheets and emails? Why should I fight to be here when all my time is spent trying to achieve the elusive inbox zero?

I think about how my depression has improved since working in my current job, and I am taken back to jobs where my mental health wasn’t so good. A large part was because of the job itself, but part of me started to question whether it was my depressive tendencies and a clinical problem instead of situational. And I think it’s common for people in their late 20s/early 30s to feel a bit stressed out and depressed because their career isn’t exactly what they thought it would be. It isn’t as glamorous, or as fun, and the mundane and tedious nature starts to take a toll. The passion we once had is gone, and everything feels a little more gray. We go through the motions to make it to the next day because that’s what we’re supposed to do, and the days begin to blend together. Sounds a lot like depression, doesn’t it? Being disengaged, having low motivation, feeling lost/aimless can all be considered signs of depression. So how do we know if we’re depressed and need to seek help, or if we’re just stuck in a job that isn’t working for us?

Now that I’m in a better spot, career-wise, I can see that there were some jobs that didn’t fit well for me, and made me more depressed. But at the time, I thought that’s what life was going to be. I thought I just couldn’t hack it, and I wasn’t good enough or motivated enough or smart enough or grateful enough or happy enough.

The thing is, those feelings of inadequacy in a job, and those depression-adjacent feelings at work can lead to a much deeper depression if they go on long enough. It’s important to ask ourselves questions when we’re talking about how miserable we are to be working — are we complaining about the monotony but still doing alright? Or is there something more serious we need to be thinking about? Do we need to make a career move because something isn’t working? Or, is this job actually OK but depression is making it feel a lot worse? Once you’re far enough in your career, it can be terrifying to think of having to pivot and start fresh. Sometimes that anxiety is what anchors us to something that slowly chips away at us, and it takes an immense amount of courage to recognize when we’re slipping and make a change.

I’m not saying that everyone should quit their job tomorrow and go find their passion (though, if that’s what you want to do, I’m so here for that!). I believe part of growing up and settling into our careers is accepting that some of it may be boring, and it may not be as exciting or fulfilling as we expected, but that can be a catalyst for us to find that elsewhere. Maybe I’m not as far along in my career as I’d hoped, but I have time in my life for other things that truly fill my cup, like writing, or trying out new restaurants, or even doing nothing.

It also takes an immense amount of privilege to be able to ask yourself these questions. I was once in a job that was so detrimental to my mental health, but I felt I had no choice but to stay in it because the bills still needed to be paid, and I didn’t have anything else lined up. Another time, I was in a dark place, and was considering an intensive outpatient therapy program at a mental health hospital near me, but I couldn’t afford the time off it would require to participate. Leaving unhealthy situations, or even just not-great-but-not-terrible situations shouldn’t be a luxury — it should be a right.

So if you feel a bit depressed because your career wasn’t as glamorous as you thought it would be, you’re not alone. It’s OK to feel a bit lost and unsure of what to do, and I’d bet more of us are going through it than we’re willing to admit. Or if you know this career path just isn’t for you and you’re looking for a sign to make a change, this is that sign. Or finally, if you know this job is right for you but you’re still struggling every day, you might want to chat with a doctor or therapist to help you get back to feeling the way you want to feel. Whatever you’re going through with your career, I hope you know that doing what you can is more than enough, and it’s not a race to the top. Wherever your path takes you, I hope you find peace and happiness, or at least something close to it. You got this, and we’re all in it with you.

Getty image by mapodile

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