Career Shame

In recent days, I’ve spent a good bit of time talking to people who are in their 30’s and 40’s, and going through career transition.

Actually, in some cases, it’s total career re-definition.

Ever felt “lost” as an adult when you’re in mid-career-stride? Like, in retrospect, maybe you made some really bad decisions?

Yeah, that. It can be a very difficult experience. I know that place.

I think we tend to feel lost and alone when we realize that we’re in a place downstream in our career and we’re questioning why we’re there, how we got there, and if we somehow missed the boat along the way.

We feel ashamed.

I remember, at age 27, having an abrupt change in professional direction, and I was, in essence, starting over again.

I felt confused. I felt “behind” all my peers. I felt a sense of shame.

– I was supposed to have my compass pointed in the right direction by now.

– I was supposed to be making a solid salary by now.

– I was supposed to have an impressive title after my name by now.

– I was supposed to have answers, not questions.

Sometimes, this sense of career shame comes to us when we are surrounded by all the trappings of success – we have the title, the office, the big company salary, the upwardly-mobile career arc. Except we feel like we’ve left the path and don’t know why we feel so lost.

And we can’t tell anybody. Admit to your boss, or your co-workers, or your customers, or your spouse, that you feel empty instead of fulfilled? Barren instead of fruitful?

Shame. We know we should be in our “sweet spot” by now. Except….we aren’t.

Career Shame 2

Even entrepreneurs and solopreneurs feel this way at times. We’re supposed to be the ones who left the corporate rat race for the greener pastures of self-fulfillment, right? So why do we feel like we’ve created our own rut that’s going nowhere?

the mask

Note: Mask needs slight left eye adjustment

So, we put on the “mask of achievement” and plug away. Of all people, we’re supposed to have our act together.

The good news is that we may not be “lost” at all. But the feeling of shame may keep us from talking to supportive friends and colleagues who can help us “edit” our direction, or who will connect us to others that can fill in the missing pieces.

I love my network of talented and supportive friends. They are full of insight and help. However…I’m writing this because I haven’t arrived yet. Yes, nine years into running my own business, I still feel like I’m nowhere near where I should be. I still feel inadequate. I still feel “behind.” And, being intensely independent, and overly private, I try to overcome shame with greater effort. Which is about as effective as trying to run a marathon on a hamster wheel.

Maybe you don’t suffer from these feelings as you ponder your past and present, and I do envy you if that’s the case! I just know, having talked to many others over the years, that I’m not alone (although it can feel very isolating, and even humiliating, yes?)

I have no Top 10 List of Shame-Busting Practices to share with you in this post. If you’re experiencing that same gnawing feeling of failure or lostness in your career, know that many of those you walk past in the hallway or coffee shop are secretly struggling with it too.

Find some safe people to vent with. Be OK with asking hard questions. Get in touch with your deepest professional strengths and passions. You may not have missed the path at all – it’s just that there’s a lot of twists and turns along the way.


Maybe we can help each other out. Why not subscribe to the weekly Clarity Blend e-newsletter here and let’s figure this stuff out together.

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