If you are a young or middle-aged professional lacking self-confidence at work, are constantly passed over for promotion, or feeling like you aren’t being paid enough, it’s not just because the boss doesn’t like you or the system isn’t fair. You may be an underearner, which means you demonstrate certain habits and behavior that hold you back at work.

“Under-earning is many things, not all of which are about money,” says Underearners Anonymous (UA), a 12-step fellowship of men and women who have come together to help themselves and one another recover from underearning. “While the most visible consequence is the inability to provide for one’s needs, including future needs, underearning is also about the inability to fully acknowledge and express our capabilities and competencies.” 

Underearning is an unconscious process that forms habits and patterns of behavior that undermine one’s efforts. And it’s become much more common in these times of recession and high unemployment. An underearner may feel constantly stressed, or always feel like she is failing. This is especially so if everyone tells her how “a million younger girls would kill for your job.” That may make her more aware of real or imagined shortcomings, increase performance pressure and lead to heightened anxiety.

Also, underearning is more common among women because we’ve been brought up to be more modest and to constantly compare ourselves to others. We tend to believe the inner voice that says You’re not good enough and pile more pressure on ourselves. In these tough times, those who have a job are terrified of losing it, especially when they know how easily they might be replaced.

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Are you so scared of failure that you don’t even consider going for that dream promotion or new job? Or maybe you hold back in office discussions, scared to speak—even though you know you have a valid point—because you feel you can’t find your voice and be assertive? Have you gone into your performance review determined to ask for a pay raise, only to chicken out at the last moment? If you have answered yes to these questions, keep on reading and see if you can relate to the main symptoms of underearning, according to UA. 

  • Time indifference. Putting off what must be done and not using your time to support your own vision and further your own goals.

  • Compulsive need to prove. Although you have demonstrated competence in your jobs or business, you are driven by a need to re-prove your worth and value. So you work way too much, to prove to yourself and others that you are good enough.

  • Giving away your time. You compulsively volunteer for various causes, or give away your services without charge when there is no clear benefit to you.

  • Undervaluing and underpricing. You undervalue your abilities and services and fear asking for greater compensation or even for fair pay based on the going rate.

  • Exertion/Exhaustion. You overwork, become exhausted, and then underwork or stop working altogether.

  • Misplaced guilt or shame. You feel uneasy when asking for or being given what you need or you are owed.

If your career is being undermined by this condition, you need to become aware of how underearning is damaging you inside and outside of your workplace. You may want to attend UA meetings to share your experience, in order to receive support from other people who can understand what you’re going through. If you can’t find a group near you or feel more comfortable facing the problem on your own, here are some tips that will help you build your self-confidence.

  • Make lists. Create a list of your goals and the steps required in order to achieve them. On another list, write down the negative beliefs and fears that are holding you back. The act of writing them down will help you feel more relaxed and  start taking action to create a happier, more prosperous life. You can find useful templates to download at UA’s site. Don’t forget to measure your progress and to reward yourself regularly for your achievements.

  • Take care of yourself. Your wellness comes first. Stop overworking and start taking care of yourself instead. Choose to accept and love yourself, nurturing your body and mind and meeting your needs.

  • Keep track of time. Be conscious of how you spend your time. Keep a written record of it to increase awareness and also keep your focus on your goals and on the actions required to achieve them.

  • Practice consciousness. Discard what no longer serves you in order to foster a belief that life is plentiful and that you will be able to give yourself what you need.

  • Follow up. Ditch the negative thinking and begin to follow up on opportunities, leads, or jobs that could be profitable for you. Choose tasks that empower you and congratulate yourself when you complete them.

  • Find an ally at work. This will help you get used to speaking up in your workplace. Do keep in mind that you can´t download all your stress on him or her.