top of page

Why You're So Miserable at Work

Okay, maybe you’re happy at work. But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, a lot of the people around you aren’t. In fact, about 80% of my clients tell me in their first session that they feel they’re in the wrong job. Being in the wrong job was also the number cause of stuckness expressed to me by interviewees in The Unstuck Project.

So, it seems a great many of us are miserable at work.

You’ve got to wonder; what’s going on?

In my experience, nine times out of ten, it’s a question of personal values and integrity.

But first, let’s look at a few stats. In the Unstuck Project, the average age of onset for a person’s first incidence of major stuckness was 38. Interestingly, this is consistent with loads of academic research. The most quoted study, published in 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that a person’s self-reported state of wellbeing drops beginning at age 38 and doesn’t begin to improve until age 53 or so. This is also consistent with a study by Happiness Works in the UK that found that people over 35 are twice as likely to be unhappy in their jobs as people under 35.

What typically happens around age 38? Well, life happens. We might have a young family. We might take on a hefty mortgage plus a car loan or two. We might be promoted into jobs with more responsibility, higher pressure and bigger stakes.

In short, life gets more complicated, more expensive and the consequences of screwing up are higher. Suddenly, our needs for certainty and significance take on greater urgency in our day to day lives. And if we find ourselves overly attached to those needs, it's a recipe for unhappiness.

So let’s talk about your needs for certainty and significance. Because your relationship with them determines the quality of your life, your work and your fulfillment.

Certainty and Significance

First of all, certainty and significance are best friends. The thing we want to most certain of is our own significance, and our significance makes us feel very certain about who we are and our place in the world.

Our needs for certainty and significance aren’t inherently bad. They’re meant to protect us. A need for certainty can lead us to plan for the future, save money, take care of our health. And our need for significance can keep us from being someone’s doormat, or drive us to set high standards, or do big things with our lives.

But, an over-attachment to certainty can lead us to never try anything new, to stay in situations that aren’t good for us, or to avoid even reasonable amounts of risk. And an over-attachment to significance can cause us to dominate in social situations or to demand special treatment. And, it creates massive blind spots due to a lack of honest self-reflection.

Sounds pretty miserable right? That’s because when we grasp for certainty and significance, we’re operating from a fear state.


What are we afraid of? The big three are loss, less and never.

We fear we’ll lose our job, a relationship or the respect of our co-workers, spouses or children. We fear we’ll have less money (with which to pay that hefty mortgage), less time (to spend on the things that really matter in life) or less status (in our industry or community). And, we fear we’ll never have the things we want, or the level of success we want, or the appreciation we want.

And at the core of all those fears, is the big daddy of them all. The fear that we’re not good enough. And if we’re not good enough, we’re not worthy of love.

Well that got rather deep rather quickly didn’t it? But it’s there. You, me, everyone in your office, Tom Hanks, Vladimir Putin… we all have the same ultimate fear. The fear that no one will love us.

Damn, right?

So what do we do with all that fear? Well, we try to quash it. We stuff it down as deeply as we can, so we don’t have to face it. We begin to prioritize our own personal comfort over the truth of what’s happening around us. And this is a dangerous thing to do.


When we prioritize comfort over truth, we fall out of alignment with our core values, which are the qualities of life, character and situation that are core to who we are as people. Each of us has our own set of core values, and when we fall out of alignment with them, the consequences are dire.

For example, if you’re a person who values creativity, but you’re prioritizing comfort over truth, you’re not going to create anything great, because discomfort is a very real part of the creative process. Or if you’re a person who values accountability, yet you’re prioritizing comfort over truth, there’s likely to be a big disconnect in your life, that can lead to overwhelming feelings of guilt or shame. Or if you’re a person who values love and connection, yet you’re constantly prioritizing your own comfort over the truth of those around you, well, you’re not going to have a good time.

When we prioritize comfort over truth, we fall out of alignment with our values. And when we’re out of alignment with our values, we’re essentially betraying ourselves. And we know it. And it feels terrible.

Contractive Cycle

We begin to beat ourselves up. We’re ashamed. And from this place of shame, we become entrenched in a small identity. We begin to believe that we are small. This gives rise to limiting patterns of belief and behavior such as isolation, anger and blame. We fall into what I call a Contractive State.

This leads us to feel even more stuck, and more fearful. We fall even further out of alignment with our core values, which leads to even more self-recrimination and the reinforcement of those limiting patterns of belief and behavior.

We’re now stuck in a Contractive Cycle. It looks something like this:

When we're in a Contractive Cycle, we become defensive, reactive and judgemental. Addiction is born here, as is greed. Our focus turns increasingly inward.

In other words, we’re miserable.

Fortunately, there’s also such a thing as an expansive state. When we’re in an expansive state, we’re grounded in core values, but open to new ideas, situations and people. From here, we experience heightened creativity, energy, and joy. Our focus is turned outward.

How to we enter an expansive state? More on that next week.

Hey there! If you'd like to learn more about getting and staying unstuck, sign-up for my weekly newsletter (green box at top right of your screen on desktop, or under this post on mobile) so you'll never miss a post. I promise I'm not a spammy nightmare. One per week, and that's it.

The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Follow Me
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
bottom of page