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Mental Health: An Essential Aspect of Career Development beyond Buzzwords

Keynote Speech at the Volksblad UFS Matriculant of the Year 2016

Don't let this picture fool you. I am very shy! So shy that the first performance appraisal I received from work as a trainee accountant read something like,"Likeleli is too quiet. She should learn to speak up". No lies were told there, I was indeed incredibly shy and it would take me a good part of that year to learn to use my voice and a little bit longer to be visible in the firm. Nowadays, not a lot of people will believe that I am shy. In fact, my friends and some of my colleagues tend to laugh hilariously when I tell them that I am an introvert. They do not believe this because throughout my childhood and my career, I have not let being introverted stand in my way or define how I show up in my career. I overcame shyness without much external intervention because I had, over time, acquired the "tools" to manage my shyness to a level that allowed me to thrive. This included taking up debate as an extramural activity from Grade 5; observing my outspoken mother (who was also a lawyer) who modelled how to be outspoken and self-expressive and also encouraged us to do the same; and basically learning the skills to show up more confidently even while trembling on the inside.

In an ideal world, we should possess all the "tools" that we need to overcome our fears, our weaknesses and to even overcome traumatic life experiences which impact they way we show up in our lives. Just like I found ways to navigate my shyness, we should all ideally be able to find ways to navigate anything that can stand in our way and prevent us from achieving our goals career-wise (and in other areas of our lives). However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, the magnitude of the internal battles we face, or the impact that external battles have on us and how we show up in our careers are so great that we may not have the sufficient tools in our toolbox to deal with them alone. When this is the case, we then need to enlist external help which may include a mentor, a coach or a therapist / counsellor.

While it was a no-brainer to me that a mentor and a coach could help one achieve their professional goals, it took me going for counselling to realise the important role that mental health practitioners can play in helping one unlock the next level of their professional growth and development. It took my counsellor walking a journey with me to specifically help me with achieving a number of my career aspirations to have this realisation:

Sometimes you are not stuck because you're not smart, or not diligent. Sometimes you are stuck because your trauma is blocking you from tapping into your potential, and you lack the internal tools to get ahead in life and may need an external person to help equip you with the tools you need to get over the line.

In my personal experience and in observing others in the workplace, some of the indicators that external help is necessary are as follows:

  1. Struggling to make decisions about a career path, or doubting one's decisions - which keeps one in a cycle of uncertainty and stress when it comes to thinking about one's career and an inability to make the most of one's opportunities.

  2. Experiencing an imposter syndrome in a way that is debilitating and keeps one from pursuing opportunities that one is qualified for educationally or through experience.

  3. Engaging in self-sabotaging behaviour - like not showing up for work interviews - which has kept one stagnant.

  4. Being overly self-conscious and as a result, shying away from or being overwhelmed by professional interactions - which limits one from showing up confidently.

  5. Having the right knowledge but lacking the ability to transform that knowledge into action in order to make progress in one's career.

  6. Lacking the boundaries to let people down, and therefore overcommitting to the extent that it begins to affect one's professional or client relationships.

  7. Being timid as a leader and struggling to manage one's team in a way that limits one's effectiveness.

While I had been able to navigate my career by reading books and seeking out advice from others (peers, mentors and coaches), the areas that made me seek counselling were those in which the knowledge I had was not sufficient enough to translate into actions that would help me overcome some of the challenges that I was personally failing.

The three main benefits I gained from engaging with a counsellor were:

Firstly, my counsellor helped me come to the realisation that the tools I had used to overcome my childhood trauma (mainly of experiencing parental loss at a young age); which had enabled me to thrive throughout high school and university, were inadequate for me to thrive as an adult. For example, a traumatised child might have to place a one-dimensional focus on academic / school success in order to secure themselves a future. However, as an adult, they would have to expand their focus to include other areas such as thriving social relationships and collaboration in order to thrive as a member of a broader society. Similarly, I came to the realisation that the internal tools I had acquired were designed for me to get me through my "survival season". However, these tools were inadequate to support me in my season of growth and of learning how to thrive as an adult. Therefore, working with a counsellor helped me develop those tools.

Secondly, working with a counsellor helped me learn how to compartmentalise various areas of my life, and to gain the perspective that just because one area of my life wasn't working out, did not mean that all other areas were also falling apart. This is a tool/skill that I lacked as a perfectionist who thought that I had to have all my life figured out before doing certain things (like taking up leadership roles, or pursuing certain business opportunities). If one area of my life wasn't working out, I would suddenly feel like an imposter in other areas, and would often lack the willpower to show up consistently in the areas that were doing well. Working with my counsellor, I learned how to show up confidently in my career and as a leader - even when things are not going well - whilst also not shying away from my problems.

Finally, I learned how to have the self-awareness and consciousness that there are always underlying factors at play, influencing how I show up in my career and in the world in general. Therefore, I am now conscious to use how I manifest in the world, as a gauge of how I am doing and of the areas that may need attention in my life. Whether I feel myself angry, or frustrated, or lacking motivation - I no longer view that as negative - but as an indicator that something deeper needs addressing before I make life-changing decisions that may not be aligned with where I want my career and/or life to go.

I understand that counselling / therapy has a bad rep, especially amongst us African. And that the perception is that people who seek therapy are mentally unwell. However, this is a stigma that we should challenge as there are so many more benefits that can be gained from a career development perspective in seeking therapy.

In conclusion, our ability to continue to grow and to steer our careers in the right direction is largely dependent on our ability to manage ourselves. However, we can only manage ourselves to the extent that we have acquired the tools to do so. Where we lack the capacity within ourselves to do so, mental health practitioners can help us release the mental blocks that keeps us from doing so. So in 2024, as part of practising #selfcare, let's not be shy about seeking out help where we can feel our personal capacity failing to take us to the next level.



Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I am a passionate leader, accomplished professional and a mentor. I believe that nation-building depends on how well we build people. Therefore, my mission is to contribute to the personal, professional and leadership development of people to empower them to reach their highest potential.

I do this through a mentorship program that I founded and through this blog where I share principles I've applied and insights I've gained in the past twelve years of my career and leadership journey.

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