Is Feeling Scared Keeping You Stuck? 3 Ways To Outmaneuver Your Career Change Fears

Cliff jump

What's keeping you paralysed in your career change? Afraid of having to take a pay cut? Scared to wind up in a new career that's just as bad? Worried about looking a fool? Sonia Lakshman shares three practical strategies for overcoming your fears, from an unlikely source.

When I was a kid, I was afraid of the dark.

Not just a little afraid – this was full-blown, no-holds-barred panic.

And I'm betting that if you're considering a career change, some part of you feels a version of that fear too.

Maybe you're afraid of making a mistake, afraid of letting go of everything you've worked so hard for, afraid of stepping out alone into the unfamiliar, afraid of finding out that actually, there is no 'right' career for you, and that you'll never be happy…

"What if it all goes wrong? What if I can't pay my mortgage? What if I'm no good?"

"It's too competitive. It's too late. It's out of reach for me."

Sound familiar? Yes, that's exactly what fear sounds like.

The irritating thing about fear is that reason and logic seem to make no difference to it. No matter how grown-up you're being about your fear, you still end up feeling like a scared child.

And that's because fear is ultimately about survival. It's an instinct. It exists as a human function specifically designed to keep us safe, to keep us alive.

But simply surviving is one of the main reasons most of us want to change career. We don't want to just survive. We hate doing things just for the money. We want to love what we do, to feel alive, to use our potential, to be in flow, to feel connected and engaged, to feel great. And yet here we are, trapped by a survival instinct that wants to keep us safely in exactly the place we want to get out of.

Fear isn't a bad thing. It's a brilliant internal warning system and we should be grateful to it for keeping us out of danger.

We mustn't fight our fear. We simply have to outfox it.

Just like I did, aged five.

There I was, lying in bed in the darkness, mind whirling. How was I ever going to fall asleep in such a state of terror?

I had three primary strategies.

  • Five-Year-Old Strategy 1: Distraction (in the form of a bedtime story): Alone with my thoughts, I couldn't focus on anything but my fear. But if I was diverted by a story, I would eventually nod off.

  • Five-Year-Old Strategy 2: Hit the lights: It took me a while to sum up the courage to stick my arm out from under the covers, but then I'd flail about madly until my hand found the switch and light flooded my room. Whew. Demons gone.

  • Five-Year-Old Strategy 3: Run to base camp: I'd fix my eye on the door, then charge for it, down the corridor to my parents' room and fling myself between them. Instant safety, instant calm.

So, as career changers, what can we learn from my fearful five-year-old self?

Let's take a look at the grown up version of my strategies, and how they can help you to outfox your career-change concerns:

Strategy 1 (the grown-up version): Divert your focus

Why: Whatever we focus on feels bigger.

You know this one. If you feel you don't have any experience in the field you want to get into, all you can think about is how far out of reach it is. You tell yourself it's impossible. A pipe dream. All you can see is how good / experienced /ahead of the game everyone else is. How can you ever compete with them? What chance do you stand?

That focus is the cue for fear to take centre stage, and it swoops in like a diva in full swing. It's enough to cause even the most valiant of us to stay captive at the job we so badly want to leave.

But what would happen if you diverted your attention and focused on learning and doing instead (a course, volunteering, a shift project, talking to people who do the things you'd love to be doing and learning from them...)?

This is what happens: just like with my bedtime stories, the fear quietens.

You're focusing on what you can do rather than what you can't do, or on what you think everyone else is doing. Fear quietens when you do, and it gets louder when you think.

An important note here: diversion is not escape or avoidance. It's a productive channelling of your energies into something that helps you, instead of worrying, which is non-productive, energy sapping, and exhausting.

Strategy 2 (the grown-up version): Shine a light on the situation

Why: There's nothing scarier than the unknown.

Every Hollywood horror-movie filmmaker knows this, and has used it to compelling effect. The unseen villain left to the power of your imagination becomes a monster in your mind; so much so that it's often a disappointing anticlimax when you finally see the real thing. It's the same with career change; so much of what scares you isn't reality – it's imagined.

So, whatever's scaring you? Turn a light on it. Let's have a look at this beast in the cold light of day. This works especially well for practical stuff. Worried something you're thinking of won't pay enough? Go and find out the reality. Worried you'll make the wrong decision? Go and find out more about the area you're thinking about. Worried you won't be any good at it? Try it out for size.

Even if it confirms your fears, guess what? You don't have to worry about it anymore. Because this time you're not wildly imagining; you know the truth. If you can't think of a way to get past it (and there usually is a way) then you can stop wasting your time and energy on it and look at some of your other ideas instead.

Strategy 3 (the grown-up version): Build a support team

Why: Our fears magnify when we're alone.

Changing career presses just about every fear button you have, because it's so closely linked to your survival. So why make it harder by doing it all by yourself?

Nobody needs to be a hero about this. Surrounding yourself with people who support you helps immensely. Don't make it your guilty secret. Soldiering solo hardens you. Asking for help softens your heart. It's a happier journey when it's shared. Get a coach. Seek out other people who are changing career. Find a trusted group of friends to run to when things feel dark.

There's another way to conquer fear, too – a way that my five-year-old self hadn't yet discovered.

And that's the thrill of risk, adventure, truth, boldness, audacity and bravery. The side that makes our soul sing. When your soul takes the stage, fear just disappears.

If you've ever been inspired, moved, captivated, enthralled, or expressed yourself in an authentic way, or been lifted by something bigger than you are, you'll know this. It's like a direct line to our hearts.

The great thing is that you can access this at any time, just by doing more of what you love (even if it doesn't immediately lead you to work you want) and surrounding yourself by the things that nourish and lift you. It's a simple habit, but a transformative one. It turns the volume down on the buts and the can'ts and amplifies our spirit and sense of possibility.

The thing is, it doesn't really matter what strategy you use to conquer your fear. It just matters that you try different ways, and that you find a way to do it in the way that works for you. Staying scared isn't working for you, so it's time to try something different. We're talking about what you want most: to do work you love and fully be who you are. And you can't let fear stop you from experiencing that, can you?

What are you most afraid of when you think about changing career? And which of these strategies could you use to tackle that fear? Let me know in the comments below!

Join Sonia at our 'How To Find The Work You Love' intensive London workshops, which take place approximately twice a month.

Learn more about her one-on-one coaching.

Or drop her a line, follow her blog and read more about her coaching programmes at Happy Mondays.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content and Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.