A career in the City is an attractive position for many with its generous pay packets and high adrenalin assignments but it's certainly not for everybody. It is a driven and highly competitive environment which often breeds a deep fear of failure and rejection and some pretty unhealthy habits as a consequence. In order to succeed and thrive in this cut throat culture many also turn to lying, cheating, back-stabbing and elbowing others out of the way to reach the top. People can live in a perpetual state of anxiety, worrying about not being good enough, mentally beating themselves up, telling themselves that they should be better and comparing themselves unfavourably to others. Although all these behaviours are totally understandable given the world in which these people work there is no doubt that is why so many of them find their way to my office with depleted well-being and often in a state of total burnout, exhaustion and complaining of stress, depression and anxiety.
I have lost count of the number of CEOs and senior business leaders who have walked into my office looking lost and directionless, exhausted and low in mood explaining that their work and life has lost meaning, it all seems so pointless and they often feel like a 'square peg in a round hole', suffering from some kind of impostor syndrome just waiting for the day when they are no longer able to 'wing it', exposed as a fake, incompetent and lose their job. So, why do these people at the very top of their game seem to lack so much self-worth and self-confidence? And what is missing here, why do so many people working in the City feel so burnout, unfulfilled and dissatisfied with their existence?
Well, although they have been seemingly climbing the career ladder in one direction psychologically they have actually been chasing their tails. Rushing around in fear, on autopilot trying to eradicate feelings of failure and rejection is impossible, it's a pursuit of perfection and that's an unobtainable illusion, the result: burnout, exhaustion, a whole host of more severe psychological problems and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and pointlessness. It's important to recognise that feelings like failure and rejection are not a problem to solve they are a condition of life. Their struggle is one with the experience of themselves not with the external world, such as not getting that bonus, not getting the next promotion etc. They have been inflexible, unwilling to accept and make room for the least desirable yet inevitable feelings that are part of life. They have hit the feel good button and held it firmly pressed down (like so many of us try to do), but the consequence of that is that they end up tiring themselves out and not feeling at all.
So what is the secret to happiness and success if it's not what they have been doing?
They have chased the dream like so many of us do, like the media tells us to: attain your goals and all the wealth you can and then you will be happy, forever, YAY! Well whether you are like these business leaders at the top of their game or not you may have also found that your sense of well-being and success is often short lived when you are tirelessly chasing your goals, that dream holiday, that money in the bank, that new car, more and more possessions, the perfect partner, family home or the ideal body weight and shape. We understandably feel anxious and depressed that we don't have what we want, while we are eagerly and single-mindedly striving to achieve it, and then lost, and directionless again when we get it (if we ever do) - how will I be happy now? We have lost touch with the true source of our well-being and success - it's actually within us all and not perpetually out of our reach. We have lost touch with what it is to be a human being, in our pursuit of happiness and success most of us actually rush around like human doings, chasing our tails endlessly on a hamster wheel, exhausting and depressing ourselves in the process. Do we ever stop to think who is actually doing all that doing? So what's the alternative and how can we increase our well-being and live a more rich and meaningful life?
1. Practice mindfulness: It is important that we spend time looking inwards increasing self-awareness and cultivating a more helpful relationship with our undesirable yet inevitable experiences. Mindfulness practice is a great way to do just that. 'Wake up' to your autopilot responses that often get you into more trouble. Learn to lessen your engagement with harsh self-criticism, judgemental evaluation and worry and react to inevitable feelings of failure and rejection with more openness, acceptance and compassion - you don't have to like these feelings, just be willing to let them come and go as they naturally will. Reducing this habitual struggle frees up more energy, time and space to then move on the more important and meaningful aspects of your life. From awareness comes choice around how you would like to be as a human being.
2. Commit to regular pro-social and self-caring behaviour: Stop chasing goals, material possessions and perfect happiness and instead recognise that our well-being and fulfilment are not dependent on anyone or anything else but come from how we are and operate as a human being. Identify your hearts deepest desires; ask yourself how you would like to be remembered once your time on earth is up, is that an egocentric, fearful, greedy person or a caring, contributing, supportive and fun loving person maybe? Commit to taking action aligned with your preferred ways of being (whatever they may be) as often as you can. We are naturally community dwellers, so look after yourself and others. Do random acts of kindness to others (and yourself) which could be as simple as silently, genuinely wishing others happiness five times a day. Try it right now, it feels good to give and be kind, huh?
Dr Michael Sinclair is a Consultant Counselling Psychologist, the Clinical Director of City Psychology Group and the author of "Fear and Self-Loathing in the City: a guide to keeping sane in the square mile" and "Mindfulness for Busy People: turning frantic and frazzled into calm and composed".