Letting Go of Career Beliefs That No Longer Serve Us

By Willa Smith

What are your career beliefs, where did they come from, are they a help or hindrance at this stage of your career and life, and what do you want to do about them – keep them or change them?

These are questions I ask clients who seek counseling because they feel dissatisfied, unhappy, and/or confused about the direction their lifework is going. Their answers often reveal how they make decisions about their career and their life.

What are beliefs, core beliefs, and career beliefs in particular? According to Dr. Judith S. Beck, President of Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, a belief is an idea that we developed in childhood to help us understand our world (Wenzel, 2012).

Core Beliefs
The most enduring beliefs, core beliefs, become absolute truths we have about ourselves, and our world. They can be positive or negative. During childhood, we took in these ideas without judging them. An example might be “I am a dutiful son.”

From core beliefs come what Judith Beck calls Intermediate Beliefs;  those consistent attitudes, rules and assumptions that influence how we think, feel and behave (Wenzel, 2012). For the core belief listed above, they might include:

Attitude: “My parents know what’s best for me.”
Rule: “I must always obey my parents.”
Assumption: “If I do only what I want, I will be disobeying my parents. If I do what my parents want, I’ll be okay.”

Core beliefs can affect all areas of our lives, including our careers. Dr. John Krumboltz’ career decision making and development theory is based on social learning (Krumboltz, 1992). These learning experiences led us to develop beliefs about the nature of our careers and our role in life, which influenced our career choice.

Career Beliefs
Some of us might hold on to beliefs that can prevent our career progress. The Career Beliefs Inventory (CBI) was designed by Krumboltz (1992) to help identify career beliefs that might block us from pursuing our true passion. Such a career belief might be, “I must major in business so my parents will approve of me instead of majoring in art, which they think is frivolous.”

In addition to using the CBI to identify troublesome career beliefs, career counselors can employ Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and other counseling techniques. These can include:

  • asking the client directly,
  • asking questions to reveal negative automatic thoughts and intermediate beliefs,
  • assessing the client’s values,
  • observing client behavior.

Once we identify the beliefs that seem to be blocking our career progress, the next step is to decide whether to change them or not. What are the payoffs for holding on to them if they no longer serve us?

Letting Go of Unhelpful Career Beliefs
All of our beliefs have served us in some way, typically to protect us as we strive to make sense of our world. To think about changing them might be scary. Even though they are no longer helpful to us, they are familiar. To paraphrase many people, “We will remain the same until the pain becomes greater than the pain to change.” Thus the idea of change is often good to discuss with clients.

What comes with change is the concept of “letting go.” So, what does “letting go” mean? There are many interpretations. In an article in Psychology Today,  Dr. Judith Sills said, “Letting go means confronting these invisible emotional barriers (i.e. love, fear and rage); bringing them into your awareness . . . . It means challenging irrational, unproductive thinking until you get your head on straight . . . and reducing it from a boulder to a pebble" (2014).

When we decide to let go and change unhelpful career beliefs, it might be more challenging than we first thought. After all, these beliefs are the truths about us. Letting go is a process rather than an abrupt cessation of thinking in ways that we’ve held true for a significant length of time.

How Do We Go About Changing Our Thinking?
There are various means for letting go of how we think about something we want to change about ourselves. Working with a skilled counselor is important for helping change core career beliefs that no longer serve us. By identifying old negative automatic thoughts that are irrational, and unhelpful to us, we can then identify and replace them with new, more useful ones.

Now instead of thinking, “I am always dutiful to my parents,” we might replace it with, “I can best serve my parents when I am true to myself.” This might be a simple process, but sometimes not an easy one and we might need to keep adjusting the new thought until it feels right and sticks. When we do, our attitude, rules and assumptions will change relevant to it.

In addition to replacing unhelpful career beliefs with better serving ones, we need to take action to positively move forward. Krumboltz (1992) offers several solutions such as identifying a troublesome belief, reframing the problem, and using humor for perspective. A skilled career counselor can help clients make a plan, offer support and share resources as clients put the plan into action so as to pursue one's lifework passion and purpose.

In closing, keep in mind the words of a very wise person who said:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your character,
Your character becomes your destiny.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi

References and Resources:

Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: The Guilford Press.

Gold, M.S. (2015). Stages of Change. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/stages-of-change/

Krumboltz, J. D. (1992). Challenging Troublesome Career Beliefs. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED347481

Sills, J. (2014). Let It Go! Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201410/let-it-go

Wenzel, A. (2012). Modification of core beliefs. In I. R. De Oliveira (Ed.), Cognitive Therapy, Standard and Innovative Strategies in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (pp. 17-34).  Retrieved from: http://www.intechopen.com/books/standard-and-innovative-strategies-in-cognitive-behavior- therapy/modification-of-core-beliefs-in-cognitive-therapy


Willa Smith 2014Willa Smith, M.S., NCC, is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Owner of A Meaningful Life Counseling, is a National Certified Career Counselor and a Distance Credentialed Counselor. She is a Field Editor for Career Convergence and author of journal articles and chapter author (Unfocused Kids: Helping Students To Focus on Their Education and Career Plans). She can be reached at willa@smithlifecounseling.com.

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Kathryn Troutman   on Tuesday 08/02/2016 at 07:33 AM

Hi Willa, how about this one: "My mother told me to never brag." And this person now wants to get a promotion as an IT Specialist Project Manager. And the position requires writing about complex projects this person has designed, lead and worked through multiple problems. And this IT specialist did a GREAT job overcoming everything. This person would do well to overcome his "core belief" and talk about how great the project went, met the mission, custom goals and improved the IT services for users! A little confident "bragging" can help with a promotion. THANKS for this article. Kathryn

Jim Peacock   on Tuesday 08/02/2016 at 09:56 AM

Obstacles are often hard to see with our clients, some people are great at hiding behind things. Asking those good questions to peel away the outside and then really listening to the client is key.

This is a great reminder that we all have 'imprints' deep in our beliefs that often need to be addressed directly and at least "put on the table".

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.