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Career coaching: How to beat the fear of making a change

We don’t actually want to get rid of fear. We simply want to learn how to manage it

Zeta Yarwood

Published: Updated:

Statistics have shown an average of 60% of professionals dream about changing careers. Sadly, less than 10% actually go through with it. The biggest obstacle standing in their way? Fear.

Fear is an emotion induced by perceived danger or threat. To overcome fear, we must first appreciate its intention is actually positive. It serves to protect us. To keep us alive. It’s what stops us from crossing the road in busy traffic. Or jumping out of a window on the 23rd floor.

This means we don’t actually want to get rid of fear. We simply want to learn how to manage it.

The key is being able to distinguish rational fear (e.g. fear of something that could kill us) from irrational fear (e.g. fear of making a career change). It’s irrational fear most of us experience on a daily basis and what stops us from pursuing our dreams.

When it comes to irrational fear, you have two choices. You can let it paralyze you so you stay stuck where you are, frustrated and unfulfilled. Or you can use it to move you forward. Knowing no matter what happens – you’ll be OK. You’ll still be alive. Right?

If fear is holding you back from making a career, here are some quick tips to help you manage your fear to take those first steps to a new beginning:

1) Write down exactly what you are afraid of

Generally, we fear 3 things:

i) What we might lose (e.g. security of a decent salary every month)
ii) The pain of the process (e.g. the hard work required)
iii) The outcome (e.g. what if I fail and people laugh at me? Or what if I succeed and I won’t get to spend as much time with my kids?)

Write down all of the scary thoughts you have about making a career change. This will help you make sense of your fear and give you a concrete list of what you need to work on, instead of just some abstract feeling.

2) Be realistic

Now look at each item on your list and ask yourself, “How realistic is that? How do I know that will DEFINITELY happen? Is this real danger or is it just in my head?”

Let’s take “What if I fail and people laugh at me?”. Be brutally honest with yourself – how many people are actually going to come up to you and laugh at you if you fail? Will that really happen or is that just your imagination? And if you’re imagining they will laugh at you behind your back, stop that right now. Their universe does not revolve around you. They will be too busy trying to manage their own lives and problems. Just like you.

(If you’re staying in the wrong job because you’re worried what people will think, my blog post on how to deal with peer pressure will help).

To help you rationalize your fears, answer the following:

• What's REALLY the worst thing that could happen?

• What can you do or put in place to lower the risk of that happening?

• If the worst did happen, what can you do to minimize the impact?

• What information, skills, experience, knowledge, tools could make this less risky?

3) Focus on what you will GAIN

This is absolutely key. Instead of focusing on what you might lose, ask yourself, “What will I gain if I make this change? What are the best things that could happen if I do this now?” Think about how this change will positively impact you, your energy and mood, your relationships, your health. Create such an exciting vision of this career change that you will stop at nothing to get it.

4) Make friends with your fear

It sounds strange but give your fear a name. Your fear being that little voice in your head that says, “What if?”, “You can’t..”, “You shouldn’t…”. By giving our fear a name it helps us to dissociate from it. Also remember that your fear has a positive intention: it’s trying to protect you.

My fear is called Bob. Bob is like the big brother I never had. He sometimes surfaces when I’m about to do something for the first time. Instead of resisting his presence, I thank him for trying to protect me and let him know that actually – I’ll be OK. Because up until now – I always have been.

5) There is no such thing as failure – only feedback

Every successful professional has experienced failure at some point. But instead of interpreting failure as a reflection of their ability, successful people choose to see it as feedback. They embrace it as an opportunity to learn what worked, what didn’t work, and what they could do differently next time. Adopt this attitude and you will achieve whatever you want in life.

6) Ground yourself in the present

All of these fears are based on an imaginary future. One you are creating in your mind. The fact is - you can’t predict the future. So stop driving yourself crazy with all of those “What ifs?”. Come back to the present and appreciate that in this moment – you’re doing the best you can with the resources you have. For more tips on how to ground yourself read my blog post on stress management.

7) Break it down

Sometimes our goal seems so big it’s overwhelming. Break it down into smaller steps, with at least 3 you can take this week. This will help build your confidence and move you closer to your goal. My blog post on making a career change will also help.