Should I seek counseling for unhappiness?
June 20, 2006 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Is unhappiness with my career, lack of meaning in my life, and a general lack of energy/motivation enough reason to seek counseling?

I'm a 35 year-old computer programmer. On the one hand, I realize how lucky I am to have the life I have: I have a great live-in girlfriend who adores me, a steady job with a good company, my own vehicle, a house, and free time (though I never feel like I have enough free time). On the other hand, however, I'm deeply dissatisfied: I hate having to work for a living...absolutely hate it. My job is boring, unsatisfying, and I find no meaning in it. Yet I'm stuck with it, simply because I have to have money to pay for food and shelter for myself and my loved ones, just like everybody else who is a primary breadwinner. I fantasize about owning a farm and making a living from it, or being a successful writer. Could I learn new technology and find a better job so that I can buy a farm? Maybe. Can I write a novel or children's book? Maybe. I don't know for sure because I simply can't find the motivation or energy after working 9 hours, commuting, doing housework, etc., to do anything proactive.

So, my question is: am I an approprate candidate for counseling/therapy? I don't feel like I have any kind of diagnosable disorder, but I can't figure out how not to be unhappy almost every day. Also, what is the most likely way that a counselor/therapist would approach my seemingly intractable problem?
posted by Raven13 to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I definitely think you could benefit from counseling or therapy. You seem to be open about your concerns and willing and eager to discuss them, and a trained therapist would be equipped to talk things over with you.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:07 PM on June 20, 2006

Remember that therapy can be expensive. I'm sure the right therapist would help brighten your mood, but it's an awful lot of money to spend on something that may not have any lasting positive impact.
(I don't know if you're as poor as I am, but one of the major irritants at the end of each month is my damned therapy bill from six months ago, when I went through a nasty spate of unfortunate events. I thought therapy would help, the results were sort of mixed. After all the therapy I ended up just saving up some money, quitting my job and investing in my joy. And I got that advice over a $6 pitcher of beer. This is a rather long parenthetical.)

There are several free alternatives to professional help that can be quite therapeutic. Do you attend a church? Actively? Finding a spiritual family to lean on when you need a little extra support can be very useful. Or, if you're not into the whole organized religion thing, maybe a service organization. The Second Harvest always, always needs volunteers, and at the end of the day you get to go to bed knowing that you helped feed thousands of hungry people. Which can be nice.

Exercise always brightens me up, too.

I wouldn't jump immediately to the therapy solution. Like I said, it's a lot of money that you could use to really create something cool.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:07 PM on June 20, 2006

It's more than enough reason. Therapy is not a big deal. Give it a try.
posted by bingo at 12:08 PM on June 20, 2006

Also, I would add, the metafilter crowd is pretty pro-therapy, so don't be surprised to see a bozillion people telling you that therapy is a critical step in becoming a "well-balanced" human.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:09 PM on June 20, 2006

A therapist is basically trained to help you sort through your problems and help you develop the tools you need to be successful in taking charge of your life. You don't necessarily need to have a "problem" as much as you need to want to find ways of examining your life, and improving it.
posted by occhiblu at 12:11 PM on June 20, 2006

I don't think that you need to have any type of disorder to seek counseling or therapy. If you're unhappy about a certain aspect of your life and you think that talking about your thoughts with someone who is completely objective towards your situation might help you, then by all means try it.

If it helps, I have a lot of the same concerns as you do in regards to my career and lack of energy/motivation. I've found therapy to very helpful in slowly (very slowly) changing the way I think about things. I definitely recommend it!!
posted by echo0720 at 12:11 PM on June 20, 2006

Heh, Baby_Balrog. It's not about needing it be to "well-balanced," just that hiring a trained professional to help you get a grip on your life -- whether that's finances, or job hunting, or medical problems, or a mental block -- is not an admission of defeat.
posted by occhiblu at 12:12 PM on June 20, 2006

You don't need to have a diagnosable disorder to seek counseling. That being said, you also don't need to pay to get counseling. Often times just talking to someone that isn't connected to you or your situation is enough to help you sort things out. Some good candidates are clergy. It doesn't matter what faith you/they are. Many clergy will counsel you in a fairly non-religious way for some sort of minor, compared to paying a shrink, compensation. I've done this in the past even though I don't adhere to any recognized belief system. I tried Christian, Muslim, eastern, and Jewish holy men, and found that generally Rabbis are the best at these types of things. YMMV
posted by ChazB at 12:12 PM on June 20, 2006

Therapists are always willing to take your money, whether you have a problem or not. So, yeah, go for it. On the ol' risk/reward scale, therapy always makes economic sense.
posted by nixerman at 12:14 PM on June 20, 2006

All you have to lose is your time and money...which is hardly a big deal with your happiness potentially being on the line.
posted by johnsmith415 at 12:15 PM on June 20, 2006

But what Baby_Balrog said is true -- it's definitely expensive, and kind of trial and error. Sometimes you have to shop around for someone you click with. And yeah, sometimes it doesn't help, but you also won't know unless you try.

And a tiny little rant: I completely agree that exercise can help, but you have to understand that if a person lacks motivation/energy in general, it will probably be very hard for that person to start exercising. If you're not feeling up to it, it is really hard to get yourself to the gym or even just outside for a walk.
posted by echo0720 at 12:18 PM on June 20, 2006

am I an approprate candidate for counseling/therapy?

Anyone is, really. The notion that only those who are standing on the bridge preparing to jump are candidates for counseling is like saying, "Well, I don't see anything wrong with my body, so why bother having a physical?"

Look at it this way: you say you generally feel unhappiness, yet are quick to point out that it's not a disorder. Anything you don't want to continue feeling is really sort of a disorder, isn't it?

At the worst, if you go talk to someone for a bit and he/she thinks you just need to bootstrap up out of your ennui, he'll tell you. An ethical therapist won't treat someone who doesn't need it.

Yes, therapy can be expensive... but "expensive" is relative. If you think you have the financial wherewithal, go talk to someone a couple times, see how it makes you feel. It's not a year-long contract; you can opt out whenever you like if you think it's not for you.
posted by pineapple at 12:22 PM on June 20, 2006

Therapy is a proven and effective treatment for people in distress; it has an effect size of ~.80. About 80% of people who go into therapy do better than people who want therapy but do not get it. It's also, contrary to popular belief, relatively quick. The average treatment episode is ~8 sessions.

Different therapists would, I'm sure, approach your problem differently, but were I your therapist, which I'm not, I would start by trying to help you articulate (and by pointing out the highlights of) what you like about your life and what you don't like. I'd likely then try to help you to formulate a plan for increasing the former and descreasing the latter, that formulation to take place within the context of a relationship in which I was being paid by you to help you with your problems without any particular investment in how you end up solving those problems. (In other words, unlike a friend of other loved one, I'd have no axe to grind except yours.) I'd pay particular attention to how any solutions you might set out to implement might or might not recapitulate the things which currently decrease your happiness.
posted by OmieWise at 12:24 PM on June 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Your post struck a chord with me. I don't always feel this way, but I often do. And I really don't know what the answer is. I don't feel therapy is the answer. And I think a LOT of people feel this way.

A lot of people are in jobs they don't like to pay the bills - a lot of people feel trapped by that. How many people can truly say they are doing what they love?

I have no answers, but I completely understand where you are coming from, and I will be watching this thread with interest, although from the looks of it, therapy seems to be the main response.
posted by agregoli at 12:27 PM on June 20, 2006

...although from the looks of it, therapy seems to be the main response.

Thats because the question is "Do I need therapy?" rather than say..."What are some possible solutions? Has anyone been in my situation and what did they do?"

I have no experience with therapy and so cant answer the former. I can answer the latter since I hated my job in 1995 and then simply left it and started a small company etc...but I'm not sure thats what this thread is about...or is it?
posted by vacapinta at 12:32 PM on June 20, 2006

This problem feels familliar.

i had this problem and my work paid for me to see a psychologist. (December 2005) She said to me (after I talked for an hour or so), your work sucks, you should quit, you're in the wrong industry, you're too smart for your colleagues. It was nice having my feelings confirmed but it didn't help me to keep earning money while I studied slowly toward a new career.

Now I'm up at 5am, can't sleep, quit yesterday to study full-time. (Work finally did one last shitty thing that I could not tolerate).

My partner does work, and we'll be able to survive on one wage, and maybe the kids will think about getting jobs after school if they want to increase their spending power. So I'm not saying this option's for you.

I'm nervous as hell but as far as I can tell, I've only got one life, and working where i was, was making me miserable.

So, maybe the therapist would give you a reality check. Maybe s/he could give you some tools to work toward changing your circumstances. In any case, it's a professional ear aimed at a major problem. I don't think it can hurt, but I'm also certain, you won't be able to walk out of there saying "Goody, all better, now i can tolerate those miserable sons of bitches that pay me".
posted by b33j at 12:41 PM on June 20, 2006

Thats because the question is "Do I need therapy?" rather than say..."What are some possible solutions? Has anyone been in my situation and what did they do?"

Yep. I realize that. Doesn't mean I can't hope for some deeper insights than that.
posted by agregoli at 12:51 PM on June 20, 2006

Check and see if your corporate insurance pays for therapy. Big companies commonly offer that as a benefit.
posted by agropyron at 12:52 PM on June 20, 2006

Man, I could have written this question, if you added in a new baby and a wife instead of gf.

Idon't have a perfect answer for myself yet, but you may consider hiring a career counsellor instead of a therapist. I may yet do so.
posted by Kickstart70 at 12:52 PM on June 20, 2006

Work is what you do during the day so that you're able to do things with your off-time. Recently I've started to wonder if it's an American trait to privilege your work time or hold it in equal regard to your free time; we certainly have less vacation and a higher emphasis on enjoying our careers. In the end, unless it's inherently objectionable, it's just a job.

If you feel rushed in your free time, try scheduling regular activities. If you have too many regular activities, try giving yourself some slack time to go for a drive, rearrange the house, or go see a movie. The random things you have to do to maintain your life might be occupying your time -- if so, maybe one of the organization methods that seem to be all the rage might be up your alley. Everyone seems to have this sort of boredom/angst from time to time.

My parents have started a garden, crewed for a hot air balloon, hung out with new groups of people, done their own remodeling, raised kids, and dozens of other activities over my lifetime. I personally have drifted between groups of friends with different interests and have learned more about different kinds of art and music.

Do you live to work or do you live for something else in your life?
posted by mikeh at 1:03 PM on June 20, 2006

On second thought, I'll post the stronger negative.

No, you don't need therapy. There's nothing wrong with you. A good 90% of the human race feels like you do. The general feeling of unfulfillment (I hate when people use 'happy' in this sense) is normal and fine. The proper response is to generally "take a step back" and recalibrate. Taking a step back can mean anything from finding Jesus (not recommended, Jesus doesn't really want to be found) to taking a week's vacation to some place far far away.
posted by nixerman at 1:04 PM on June 20, 2006

The nice part about a therapist is that they're objective. They're not your friends or family, they don't have history with you, they only have what you tell them. I think this makes it much easier for them to pick up on things and question you about them--because they have a more detached perspective.
posted by gramcracker at 1:07 PM on June 20, 2006

Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Hell Yeah! I owe my continued existence to two good therapists (although I've also had to deal with one who would've gotten a credit in my suicide note).

Affordability is an issue... see what your insurance covers - or if your employer has some kind of anonymous Employee Assistance program (even if it only covers a very limited number of sessions). And don't be afraid of counselors/analysts who use a "sliding fee scale" or such; they are the ones who aren't in it for the money (that may be a good thing... or not).

And one thing when first dealing with a therapist: get him/her to talk as much as you do during the first meeting. If anything of what they're saying sounds like bullshit (as opposed to "never thought of it that way, but maybe..."), find somebody else.

If you have any pre-existing religious affiliation, going through a church is perfectly fine (one of my favorite former therapists later became a priest, maybe you find get him :) ), but if not, don't.

A good therapeutic relationship is with someone you can generally feel comfortable with, but can make you uncomfortable (the polite term is "challenged"). You may have to do some "shopping around" so put as little money down upfront as you can.

No idea where to turn? I wouldn't rule out the 12-step Emotions Anonymous to make contacts... just don't tell them you're there for referrals.

Or you could post your problems on MetaChat... (only 60% kidding)

In response to nixerman's A good 90% of the human race feels like you do: Thoreau said "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" about 150 years ago. The only change since then is the increasing numbers who prefer lives of LOUD desperation. Why be typical? If you're a MeFite, you've already partly embraced being NOT typical... (And, yes, I can substitute "normal" for "typical")
posted by wendell at 1:27 PM on June 20, 2006

I'm not sure how folks feel about self-help, but perhaps getting one of the better known self-help books from your public library might do the trick?

Tony Robbins, 7 Habits Of Highly Successful People, that sort of thing. IIRC, Tony Robbins donated his tape program to libaries across the country a few years back. YMMV.

I've read a few self help books, they were somewhat helpful insofar as tools and mental strategies I can use to succeed/get things done/plant a tomato, whatever.

NOTE: I"m not an enormously successful person, but, on average, pretty happy.
posted by eurasian at 1:37 PM on June 20, 2006

I think you should consider the therapy, because I'm not sure you necessarily understand your own issues all that well... at least, they don't seem very clear from your question.

To begin with: "I hate having to work for a living"

immediately followed by

"My job is boring, unsatisfying, and I find no meaning in it."

Which makes me wonder... is it actually a problem for you to have to work for a living, or is it just because currently you have to do it at a job you don't enjoy? It's an important distinction, because if you

"fantasize about owning a farm ... or being a successful writer"

then maybe some totally different field might be just dandy and it's not really about having to work.

But... is there any chance that your farmer/writer fantasies gloss over the grueling, punishing daily workload that these careers entail? Why specifically a farmer or a writer? If you truly hate having to work for a living... are you sure the answer is having to get up at 5 a.m. to shove your arm up a horse to yank out a foal, all while your nostrils are filled with the smell of manure and horse sweat and flies swarm around your eyes? Or spending a huge chunk of time on a novel and then have to shop it to publishers for eight months before finally getting it accepted, getting a pathetic advance, and then having them undermarket it to the point that it's off shelves two weeks after it's released? See daily happiness down either of those two paths?

Being unhappy almost every day seems like an unacceptable state of being. The only way to address this that I could see would be either to be so adroit at internal analysis that eventually you could come away with some of your own insights, or to take it external to someone who could provide an objective perspective and also be able to compare your symptoms to what's already been identified in the wide world of therapy.

I personally went the internal analysis route and after several tough years was able to make some big changes based on what I'd learned/realized about myself and those around me. Those years SUCKED, btw, and I bet I could have cut to the chase by just going to see someone.

Best of luck.
posted by BruceL at 1:52 PM on June 20, 2006

Writing a novel won't replace the salary you currently get from computer programming. Most writers consider themselves to be wild, runaway successes if they make more than $20,000 a year. If you want to write, by all means, write, but it's neither easy nor lucrative for the vast majority of the people who engage in it.

There's nothing wrong with getting therapy for the reasons you outline. It could be helpful.

It's probably not necessary, though. It sounds like you just hate your job. So find a job you don't hate. You don't have to love it - not everybody can love their job - but you have to not hate it, because you spend so much time doing it. At worst, you should be indifferent to it.

Maybe you can parlay your programming skills into another (related) field, or maybe you have a hobby you'd like to turn into a career. We don't have enough information. A therapist might be able to help with this, but it sounds to me like what you really need is a career counsellor. I don't know where people who aren't in university can see career counsellors, but maybe you have a campus nearby who would be willing to see you despite not being a student, or if you take just one night class, or they might could give you a referral to somebody who practices privately.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:26 PM on June 20, 2006

Eh - I don't know. I sought therapy because I was (Still am) in the same boat (Who isn't? Not that many people! It is an extremely common condition, as another commenter has already mentioned)

I got advice like "Try to find fulfillment in your passions outside of work, and use work as the finiancial means to acheive it" and "During your work day, try to find a way to do more of what you like about your job, and morph it into something different" and that I should be exercising and meditating - Stuff I already knew (and already did), really.

A few thousand dollars later, nothing has really changed.

I'd reserve the therapy for more crisis/meltdown situations and save your $.
posted by delladlux at 2:31 PM on June 20, 2006

Oh - also, the therapist I saw told me a career counselor would be better suited to help me.
posted by delladlux at 2:37 PM on June 20, 2006

What mikeh said: Work is what you do during the day so that you're able to do things with your off-time.

Realize that if you choose to start therapy, you must schedule time for that. While you're doing that -- or getting ready to do that -- why not schedule other time that you can experiment with your fantasies of a different life?

You fantasize about being a farmer. Schedule a couple hours a week to plant and maintain a garden.

You fantasize about being a writer. Schedule a couple hours a week to write.

This is not much more time-comsuming than taking time off from work to see a therapist, or much more time-consuming than using your limited free time to see a therpist.

IANAT, but if I were one, I would ask: "What is it that is keeping you from doing what you want to do?"
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:22 PM on June 20, 2006

I say go for it. Forget about the long term money consideration for a bit and just go a few times. If it seems to be helpful, you can gauge just how worth-it it is as you go. If the money starts to look excessive and not worth the results, just stop or try someone else. As far as therapists go, I'm 1-1-1. The current one is fantastic, the last one sucked, and one years ago was sort of so-so. Shop around if you need to.

This is the modern dilemma you're in. It won't fix itself overnight. You've really got to excavate some layers and reevaluate what you truly want out of life. I take issue with the people who say that a job is a job and hardly anybody likes theirs and you just have to accept that and focus elsewhere in your life for fulfillment. I think that's a big fat rationalization of defeat, of giving up, of indulging in the comfort of not changing, trying, sacrificing, stretching, persisting. I've wrestled with the same thoughts, so I do know where they're coming from. Yes, there are practicalities to attend to, mouths to feed and all, but you are the architect of your life and you truly can do whatever you want. And look at the prize. How much more worth it is a totally fulfilled life than a partially fulfilled one where you're unhappy every day? Can you really rationalize living that way? Mate is good, kids are good, home is good, friends are good. But what you do with your life is right up there too. You were made for something (or are here accidendtally but are ideally suited for something). A hammer that is never used to hammer seems like a silly waste/misuse. Go find your nails! If the alternative is that you're unhappy every day, go find your freaking nails. You need nails or you can't fully be you.

If you really want something different, you CAN figure it out and it'll just be a question of which perceived comforts you're willing to let go of in pursuit of being who you really are and living how you really want. And how long are you willing to work at it? What are the tradeoffs? It's all tradeoffs but I firmly believe you can do better than this and you should. There's no way I'm going to spend the majority of my life's waking hours doing something that makes me feel bad and life seem grey and meaningless. No way. I don't know the answer but I'm sure as hell going to keep looking for it. I can't believe people just give up. Joseph Campbell said "follow your bliss" and he was right on. The real trick is figuring out what your bliss is. It often masquerades as something less than amazing and so isn't as easy to spot as you might expect. But then you find it and you're in that groove and life is better. You're good at something. You enjoy something. Something receives your automatic interest. Something turns your wheels. You do it well and lose yourself in it. It doesn't matter what it is. Start there, because if you can do that, then it isn't work.

Start simple and think about what you enjoy. For this exercise, truly do forget about the money, forget about the practicalities, forget about whether it yet exists in the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Figure out what you like and only then figure out how to make it work for you. The first part sounds simple but isn't. It takes some pespective stretching (therapy can help here). Don't be discouraged by not seeing any answers right away. Fix it in your head that it is possible, does have an answer, and that's how you're going to reshape your life over time. Don't think "if" or "how" but "when". You've seen this happen at work. Impossible ideas come to fruition, impossible projects are doable after all, and it never seems that way up front. Trust, and go. Stop listening to anyone who says it isn't possible. Seriously, fix it in your mind and keep after it. "I will have a fulfilling life. I will not settle for meaningless drudgery. I will become who I really am and do something I really like. (I uhh... will likely get there in steps rather than in one leap and that's OK.)"

Good luck, buddy!
posted by kookoobirdz at 3:35 PM on June 20, 2006

Is unhappiness with my career, lack of meaning in my life, and a general lack of energy/motivation enough reason to seek counseling?

Yes. Hell yes. Anyone that tells you otherwise doesn't know what the fuck they are talking about, pardon my French. If you want to see a therapist, do it. Being happy in your life is probably the most important issue you can think of outside of physical health. Go talk to a professional, even if it's just one session.

Helping people solve problems like this is a therapist's job (they're not just employed in "fixing crazy people," which is the mistaken belief that motivates your question, and it's also the belief that will motivates the "no, you don't need a therapist" answers). You may have some mental health problem, or maybe you just need advice. Who the hell knows? But why wouldn't you seek a little bit of input from a trained professional? A professional who chose said career because they enjoy helping people solve such problems? And has ample experience doing it? Go for it.

If your issue really is not neurobiological (meaning, you don't have dysthymia, acute clinical depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, etc. which you should really let a professional evaluate if there is any doubt), you could solve your problem by being honest with yourself, talking to a priest/father/loved-one/whatever, making a plan, find what you love, etc. But if you really knew how to do that, you probably already would have. You can't lose anything but a trifling bit of time and money by seeing a therapist. And there's some small chance it might change your life radically for the better.
posted by teece at 3:58 PM on June 20, 2006

My experience is that therapy pays for itself many times over so it's well worth it. My ability to stand up for myself, network, get better jobs, and be more productive definitely improved with therapy. Concrete example - 13 yrs ago after my mother committed suicide I spent 6 yrs in therapy. I was broke and went to a low-fee therapist for a grand total of $10k over the years. There is no question that my salary at the end of that time was at least $10k per year higher than it would have been without the therapy tools. I was able to get out of bad situations and negotiate better ones.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:19 PM on June 20, 2006

This might be helpful. Seriously, give it a try.
posted by koenie at 9:05 PM on June 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wings Seminars -- (you should do the whole series complete through Lifeworks, I believe). I've been wanting to do it ever since a friend of mine did it, and then proceeded to buy a house, and generally began approaching her life with a positive and adventurous spirit. It helps you come to a deeper acceptance of yourself and then reevaluate what's most important to you, what your key life goals are, etc.

Also, I love therapy. Having a professional to troubleshoot your brain is so valuable. I pay $20/week. Without her, I'd have spent so much more than $80/month on things like painkillers, lost opportunities, and a shallow and negative understanding of myself.
posted by salvia at 12:43 AM on June 21, 2006

(Not that I don't still have one.)
posted by salvia at 7:42 PM on June 27, 2006

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