• Advice

How do you know if you’re uncomfortably growing – or just unhappy?

No job, no career, no freelance gig is 100% happy all the time. That is, unless your freelance position is Nitrous Oxide Tester – and that’s probably, er, quite dangerous.

Even the most fulfilled freelancer occasionally finds themselves in irritating, onerous, or stressful positions. This is especially true when we’re in periods of extreme growth. They’re good for us, those stressful periods – times when we’re striving to become better and challenge ourselves.

What ISN’T good for us is staying in a gig that makes us chronically unhappy, just because we think it’s “character-building” or “practical.”

So how do we tell the difference between productive-but-uncomfortable growth... and pure unhappiness? When is something “good for us”... and when is it just bad news?

The great news is unhappiness is a symptom – not a moral failing. It’s a signal that you need to shake things up again, re-evaluate, and examine what you really want.

Sometimes, we have trouble distinguishing between uncomfortable growth and unhappiness because we’re numbed out from stress and overwork. If you’re unsure if you’re in that camp, ask yourself: are you letting yourself feel ANYTHING before you’re in total burn-out mode?

If you find yourself consistently shutting down emotionally, you may be unhappy under all of that Spartan apathy. I’m not talking about the kind of bleary-eyed numbness that occasionally sets in when one is really, really exhausted; it’s natural to sometimes be a little hyper-focused emotionally when pushing through a deadline. I’m talking about the kind of numbness that lasts days, weeks, months.

Take a few steps back and look at what’s making you feel so anesthetized. Is it a defense mechanism against progress? A refusal to let yourself process events? It’s hard to really grow when you’re never letting yourself feel.

Another good question to ask: do you find yourself giving up hope? When you think about the future, do you feel overly cynical or despairing? Some ennui is normal, as is self-doubt.

But if you have trouble conceiving of any positive change at all – or if you’re not working towards some kind of long-term goal, however unrealistic it may feel day-to-day – odds are you’re not experiencing the discomfort of growth. You may just be unhappy.

Another useful experiment is to try to evaluate your professional situation as you would a romantic relationship. If you were “dating” your job right now, would you describe the relationship as happy?

If your current work situation is the equivalent of marrying that mediocre third date because he happened to return your calls, it’s time to re-evaluate. There are other (professional) fish in the sea. You’re not condemned to work at a lousy job until you die, any more than you’re stuck in a bad relationship forever just because you, at one point, committed. You can re-assess!

If that method feels a little close-to-the-bone for you, try breaking things down mathematically. “Happiness” can be hard to define, so instead, focus on “fulfillment.”

What percentage of the time do you feel fulfilled at your job? How often do you feel challenged in a good way? Has that percentage been consistent, or does it fluctuate with time?

Everybody has great times and stressful times, professionally. But if the percentage of time in which you feel fulfilled/productively challenged has been low for a long time (and you’re not working toward a long-term goal that’ll change things – such as a graduation or a certification), you may need a change of pace.

If you’re still unsure if you’re really unhappy (or just momentarily uncomfortable in a period of change), take physical stock of yourself. Our poor bodies often scream the truth to us before we’re ready to face it, ourselves.

Do you feel invigorated after a day’s work, even if it’s hard? Or do you feel wrung-out and hopeless? Are you having panic attacks, chest pains, mysterious gastrointestinal maladies?

Again, physical symptoms of stress are not necessarily a sign that you’re in the wrong career or job – you may just be stressed. But if your body is FREAKING OUT, don’t ignore it! That’s how minor aches and pains turn into big issues.

Endless suffering does not build character. No, it really doesn’t – that’s one reason why we shouldn’t dismiss bad experiences that happen in others’ lives as “making them stronger.”

Overcoming things, learning more about yourself, and channeling grief or despair or anger into positive change makes you stronger – but bad experiences often just suck. Don’t condemn yourself to a bad job or a bad work situation because you feel like it will be “good for you” in the long run.

Some discomfort is a natural part of almost any effort. Highs and lows will always happen, and it is possible to be unhappy in a given moment and still be making considerable forward progress. But if you’re feeling yourself habitually discontented, examine what, exactly, is at the root of your stress: growth, or unproductive stasis?

If you’re stagnating in your current job or gig, it may be time to dump the unhappiness and reach for (possibly-uncomfortable) growth... and in doing so, you may just find joy.

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.

Kate Shea Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily.