Teasing apart “I want to be” from “I have to be”: a strategy for helping people achieve workplace mental health

Marie-Josée Michaud

Marie-Josée Michaud

Author and consultant in workplace psychological health, leadership and human resources mobilization

An article written with career coaching professionals in mind but that also applies to guiding the young adults in your life!

As career development professionals, we have a social, societal and individual objective to meet: helping our clients understand how they can make a positive contribution to society through their chosen career, while also achieving personal fulfilment.

In your practice, you have some clients who come to you full of ideas and others who are at a loss for them. Some who are convinced there is only one career for them, and still others who feel anything’s possible as long as they set their mind to it! So, you get out your tool box and put your experience and professional know-how to work to help them pinpoint the best fit for their true selves. You take the time to do all this, because you know, from having seen it or experienced it firsthand, the dramatic effect that an inner dichotomy between “I have to be” and “I want to be” can have on a person’s physical and mental health.

I use the term “dichotomy” to stress the dissonance that can exist between a person’s chosen career path (I have to be) and the role they truly wish to occupy in life (want to be). This inner conflict occurs when their lived experience is not aligned with their desired reality. 

Thanks to neuroscience and brain imaging, we now have a better understanding of how our outlook on the world and survival needs influence our perception of reality. In order to survive as a species, we developed the capacity to anticipate dangers that were potentially life-threatening, both real and figurative. Given that most humans no longer actually face the danger of being attacked by a lion in their everyday lives, this threat has been replaced in our modern environment with a feeling, or perception, of what pleases others vs. what displeases them. In other words, “If I’m pleasing others, I’m not in danger,” and “If I’m displeasing others, I’m in danger of ceasing to exist” – be it in my chosen job or even in society in general.

And because this need to please at all costs is unconsciously tied to our survival instincts, it can not only lead to a damaging inner conflict in your coaching client, but also hinder that person from being able to identify this “I want to be” that is a key factor in job satisfaction. It goes without saying that someone who enjoys their work, who feels they’re making a positive contribution, and that they have the freedom to make choices (even at the risk of displeasing others) will have a better chance of attaining a sense of fulfilment that will preserve their psychological health.

It’s important to note that an “I have to be” mentality leads to chronic stress in the majority of cases, because the associated goal is often adopted solely as a matter of survival. And human beings aren’t meant to live in survival mode. This constant feeling of danger causes chronic stress, which over the long term can develop into anxiety issues, burnout or even depression.

You might be wondering why I said that a person’s need to please at all costs could impede them from identifying their “I want to be,” even despite their best intentions. The answer lies in the brain’s ability to perform something called motivated reasoning. This type of thought process can be compared to a lawyer pleading his case. It’s what we do when we alter our depiction of reality to make it conform to a desired outcome, a firm belief, or what makes our story plausible. It’s possible, therefore, that some of your clients are able to fool your tools, so to speak. Their logic seems air-tight, but you detect that something’s amiss, and you’re unable to make them see it for themselves. You can’t seem to find the right words to express your unease with their vehement defence of their desire to work in a given field, but your professional instincts tell you they’re not likely to find happiness there.

With such individuals, it’s helpful to go back to the basics. Revisit those concepts you learned in educational psychology or cognitive therapy:

  1. Who does this profession make you think of?
  2. Why does that person come to mind?
  3. How do you think this person will motivate you to get up and go to work every morning and still have energy at the end of the day?

You probably have better questions than these in your own toolboxes. Don’t hesitate to share them with your colleagues in your conversations. Get creative in adapting them to the individual, keeping in mind that your sole objective is to help them find their way back to who they were as a child, with all their hopes and dreams. Help them see how they changed to please others, in order to exist in eyes of others – perhaps at the cost of existing in their own eyes! 

Recently, I heard singer Marc Hervieux on the radio say something like, “My dad was very proud of my career in computer science. I excelled at it, and I liked it. But after he died, I decided to take up singing. I came back to my first love.”


thanks for sharing!