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I Am Miserable at Work: Why Can’t I Leave My Job?

I Am Miserable at Work: Why Can’t I Leave My Job?

By Eric Dean JD, MBA, MA, MA, LPC

James was completely unhappy in his job as an associate litigation attorney at a large law firm. After joining the firm right out of law school he was excited, proud, and driven to make partner. However, after two years of working 80-hour weeks, he felt burnt out and unmotivated as his levels of dissatisfaction, stress, and anxiety were increasing by the day. His physical, mental, and emotional health were deteriorating, and he was starting to drink more and more alcohol to calm down at the end of a stressful day and put himself to sleep. At this point, his goal was no longer to make a partner, but to merely survive as an associate. 

Unfortunately, James’s story has become increasingly common in a society where one’s career often makes up a large part of one’s identity, and a culture in which working excessively long hours is viewed as a status symbol and badge of honor.

An outsider may look at James’ situation and ask the reasonable question: “If he is unhappy and his health is suffering, why doesn’t he just leave?” In James’s case, it was because he had on Golden Handcuffs.

Golden Handcuffs is a term that refers to someone feeling locked into a job, not because they find it fulfilling, but because of the compensation and prestige, according to career coach David Smith (2020).

Understanding the Golden Handcuffs

At just 27 years old James was making $200,000 — nearly four times the national average — which put him in the 98th percentile for his age. In addition to high compensation, James’s law firm handled large cases and was one of the most profitable in the country. When James told people where he worked, they were immediately impressed. 

Despite myriad negative health effects, the high compensation and prestige were difficult to give up. What made it even more challenging was that James’s lifestyle and spending were now aligned with his income; thus, leaving his job would mean sacrificing things that he had grown accustomed to, such as nice dinners and designer clothes. Combined with a large mortgage payment, he felt trapped.  

What to Do

A Benjamin Franklin quote that I often refer to: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is applicable here. Ideally, we don’t get locked into the golden handcuffs in the first place. One way to do this is to live below our means. One impediment to James leaving his job was that he wouldn’t be able to continue living the lifestyle to which he had become used to. Living modestly and below our means gives us more flexibility to accept a lower-paying — but more satisfying — job if we feel burnt out in our current role.  

However, if you find yourself already in the golden handcuffs, here are some suggestions:

  • Explore your reasons for feeling dissatisfied with your current job
    • Do your feelings stem from your manager, the hours, the unpredictable schedule, or the actual tasks you are doing?
  • Explore reasons for staying in your job
    • Aside from high compensation, are there benefits?
  • Assess your current financial situation — understand your assets, debts, income, savings, and investments — and write down your financial goals
  • Identify what you would do if you left your job for one with lower pay
  • Identify lifestyle changes that you would need to make with the reduced income to sustain yourself

Meeting with a financial therapist can be a strong first step toward assessing your current job situation and considering your feelings and values when making significant career and financial decisions.

Remember, you are far from alone in feeling trapped in your job, and in my experience: you are not stuck. 

If you would like support, explore our counseling services online to see how therapy can help, and contact Symmetry Counseling today to connect with a Chicago therapist and get started with financial therapy.


Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Golden handcuffs definition. Merriam-Webster.

Smith, D. (2020). Council post: Free yourself from the Golden Handcuffs for a more purposeful career. Forbes. Retrieved March 26, 2022, from

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