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The Messy Middle: How to Keep Going When Career Change Starts to Bite.

Career Change can be a long, challenging journey. Here's how to keep going when the going gets rough.

You've decided your current role, perhaps even your entire line of work, is no longer tolerable. Congratulations are in order, because it's not easy to turn away from the familiar. But you are. Perhaps you've had to overcome some avoidance behaviours that kept you stuck for a long while, and that takes courage.

Now though, you're turning your gaze towards something new. And here's the thing: It's taking a while to actually figure this out, yet alone land in a new career.

In this gap, this in-between state, this period of limbo, it's easy to fall between two worlds. Not this thing anymore, but not yet this other thing either.

There is uncertainty, overwhelm, and even more frustration to contend with. Let's unpack how the 'messy middle' can feel and how to move through it.

A woman sits working at her laptop in a cafe, thinking about the messy middle of her career change

A Question of Identity

One point to recognise, is that this is a significant transition, and this significance comes largely from a questioning of identity.

In the West at least, when we introduce ourselves to someone we immediately ask "So, what do you do?"

It's a way of anchoring our understanding of what this person is about, and providing our brain with a shortcut needed to make time-saving assumptions. "Ah - Doctor. Must be ambitious, driven, smart."

Beyond this, what we do is a signal to ourselves and others of how 'successful' we are. It's a yardstick by which, sadly, so many of us measure our worth.

When you're in the Messy Middle, we have no such anchor to offer, no such yardstick to measure against. Against a back-drop of comparisonitis on social media and the hustle culture of our society, this untethering can feel threatening, unnatural and quite uncomfortable.

A Question of Overwhelm

Right now, you're in the thick of it. You're likely going through all the hard work, to figure out what kind of future would be more aligned to you.

Whilst I believe the notion of 'dream jobs' are a myth, you can certainly find a role more aligned to YOU. A role which aligns to:

  • Your strengths

  • Your drivers

  • Your transferable skills

  • What gives you energy

And to do this, you're undertaking some research, some experiments, and some informational interviews. You're likely speaking to people who are in these roles now, learning about what they love and dislike about the roles that have captured your interest.

This activity can be overwhelming.

Perhaps you're an introvert who finds reaching out in this way to be really hard. Perhaps you're feeling disenchanted from speaking to 20 people in the design world, only to realise none of the jobs are what you thought they were. Perhaps you've taken on too much too soon.

There are set-backs, and disappointments in the Messy Middle. Hurdles to overcome. It takes persistence, and that takes energy.

If you feel that you've bitten off more than you can chew, it's easy to put the whole thing off.

So, how do you move forward from these states of identify crisis and overwhelm? Here are 6 tips to getting through this period without giving up on your career change!

Tip #1: Don't Put Off Your Life

At the start of this blog, I spoke about the feeling of being in limbo and between two worlds. It's easy to put yourself on 'pause' during this time, thinking that once you've sorted out the career change, your life can begin and your happiness will be guaranteed.

Here's the thing, you're falling into the Arrival Fallacy. This is the belief that once we achieve X thing, we'll finally be happy/start living/achieve complete fulfilment. It doesn't work that way, because we're designed to keep shifting the goal-posts and focusing on the next thing.

Moving into a career that suits you better can greatly improve your happiness and mental health. I really believe this. I've lived it, and I see it in my clients. But the time before the career change is complete isn't wasted time. It's still your life.

The Swiss psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz talks about the phenomenon of the 'provisional life':

"There is a strange feeling that one is not yet in real life...there is always the fantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about".

It's an illusion. Your life isn't a fake until you land this change. You won't become a magically different person, occupying some alternate realm of realness. Go see your friends, continue your usual hobbies, get rest and move your body and live your life.

Question to ask yourself: What in your life are you putting off right now, and how can you restart it?

Tip #2: Remember That You Are Many Things

Take some time to let go of the 'hook' that you hung your identity on. Perhaps you need a moment to grieve for the identity your career gave you all this time.

Perhaps you need to recalibrate who else you might be.

If 'Sophie from PR' is no longer in PR, who is Sophie? Well, she'll undoubtedly be many things.

A woman in her 30s. Perhaps a mother. Someone who loves Bake-off, and 90s R&B. Sophie is someone who will be there for you at the drop of a hat - she's a loyal friend. Sophie is someone who shows up with thoughtfulness, and enthusiasm, whatever the scenario.

Sophie isn't one thing, her identify is multi-faceted and is certainly not tied to one job.

Question to ask yourself: What are the many things that make up your identity?

Tip #3: Bite-size It

This is about breaking it down into baby steps. The only decision you're making, at this stage of the process, is the decision to explore.

Don't say to yourself: "I'm going to figure out what other career I can do".

That's too big, too nebulous, too unfathomable.

Instead, frame it into it's bite-size actions and steps.

  • Today I'm going to ask some friends about their careers.

  • Next Thursday I'll ask Jane if she knows anyone in Sales.

  • On Monday, I'll draft some notes I can send to people on LinkedIn.

  • Next Friday, I'll send some of those connection requests.

Just focus on the one thing you have in front of you, not the entire mountain.

Question to ask yourself: What one thing can you do tomorrow?

Tip #4: Listen To Your Language

In her book The Gift, Edith Eger talks about the power of language when undergoing a transformation,

"When we say "I can't", what we're really saying is "I won't". The language of fear is the language of resistance. And if we're resisting, we're working very hard to ensure that we go nowhere. We deny growth and curiosity. We're revolving, not evolving, shutting down opportunities for change."

So observe what words you're using when you think about this, and when you talk about it with others.

Are you using I can't, I won't? Or I can, I will, I am, I get to?

This isn't something that you MUST do, it's something you're choosing, something you get to do.

Language matters.

Question to ask yourself: Which words do you need to switch out?

Tip #5: Give Yourself Time

If you have set yourself an arbitrary deadline of figuring this all out within the next 3 months, for instance, you've created a whole ton of unnecessary pressure.

This isn't a race, and I know it feels so ANNOYING when you just want to get going with something new! But you need to give yourself the time, the grace, and the space, to really do this well.

There may be setbacks you hadn't prepared for. You may go quite far down one path, only to discover that it isn't right after all.

That's why it's so important not to put off living your life (see tip 1) before you land your career change. It is important, and so it takes time.

Question to ask yourself: What deadlines have I unconsciously set myself, that I might challenge?

Tip #6: Get Support

Hopefully, you're not doing this by yourself. My hope for you is you have a coach alongside you for this important journey, helping you recognise your progress, and supporting you with accountability.

If you don't have a coach, tell people about what you're doing. Explain why this matters to you. Your friends can ask you how it's going and help celebrate your successes.

Another avenue is to join an online community of career changers and give support to each other!

Remember, it feels hard because it matters, but you don't have to do it all alone.

Need More Help?

If you're in the midst of your Messy Middle or are considering a change and want some guidance, my 1:1 coaching can help.

Not in the market for coaching? Grab my Career Clarity Toolkit, which will take you through how to figure out what matters to you in a career, and how to explore your options without the overwhelm!

Always on your side,

CEO and Founder, Clarity Coaching with Louise


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