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Shall I return to work or not? Ambivalence and transitions

I keep having nagging worries about going back to work, so does that means it’s not the right thing to do?” 

For many career returners, this uncertainty can keep you awake at 4am, inwardly debating pros and cons and never coming to a clear-cut conclusion. Even if you’re really motivated to restart your career, you might be worrying about the impact on your family, or whether the timing is right, or whether you’re ready to disrupt your life. Because you feel ambivalent, you question whether it is the right decision. But if you want to feel 100% certain before starting your return to work job search, this can be a mind-trap that keeps you stuck.

Coping with ambivalence and transition

William Bridges, who has been researching life transitions since the 1970’s, reassures us that few changes are universally positive, “letting go [of our old life] is at best an ambiguous experience“. Even with a positive and much-anticipated change, there will be a sense of loss. So just because you feel confused and unsettled, it doesn’t mean that you are making the wrong choice. Bridges explains that when we make a change in our lives we go through a transition period of psychological readjustment, when up-and-down emotions are completely natural. If we anticipate this unsettled period, we are less likely to retreat back to our comfort zone without even exploring the alternatives.

Overcoming ambivalence

Rather than letting those worries keep you awake at night, a good place to start is to write them down. You can then talk about them with your partner or a friend and work out whether they are genuine concerns or if they are worries that can be overcome. Some may even disappear altogether once you have talked them through.

Another way of getting past your indecisiveness, if you’re stuck endlessly debating rational pros & cons of returning to work, is to use your more intuitive side. These are two ways to do so:

  • Imagine yourself at 70, looking back on yourself today. Is your 70 year old self sympathetic or impatient with your current indecisiveness? What advice would your future self give you? Would she encourage you to make a change and relaunch into the workplace now or to wait a while longer or maybe to make other changes to your life?
  • Imagine two different scenarios of how your life could be a year or two from now. The first scenario being that things have remained as they are. The second being that you have returned to work. How are you feeling? What are the positives of this scenario? What is missing from this scenario? What is the best thing about this scenario? Now take a step back and think about which of these two scenarios is more attractive and fulfilling for you and why. If it is to return to work, you can then go back to rational planning, thinking about what action steps you can and want to take towards making the transition back to work.

Managing transition

To help you manage those ups and downs that you experience both during your job search and when starting in a new role, it’s useful to give some thought to who is in your support network. Who are your supporters and encouragers? Who can be your sounding board and encourage you to take the next steps?

If you start now to take some action steps to prepare for your return, this can also reduce feelings of anxiety about potential negative impacts on your life. For example, if you’re worried about whether your family can cope, try listing out all the chores/activities that you currently do and then discuss these with your partner/children. What can be shared out? Can you outsource something? What can you stop doing?

Once you start to manage your worries and mindset, you are likely to gain more clarity and feel less stuck in uncertainty. Be prepared for those inevitable doubts about your decision to creep in again from time to time, even when you’re back in a fulfilling role. Ask yourself what is the worst and what is the best that could happen? Be brave and take that leap of faith into action.