How to get over 'career fear'

·4-min read
Businesswoman walking at a red wall in the background, putting her jacket on her shoulder
Identifying your limiting beliefs and understanding where they came from is an excellent start to resetting your mindset, say experts. Photo: Getty

Making big life decisions isn’t easy, but it’s something we all have to do from time to time. Whether it’s moving to a new company or a different role or changing careers completely, knowing whether you’re doing the right thing can seem impossible.

From your finances to the impact on your work/life balance and relationships, there are a huge number of factors to weigh up. And the fear of making a wrong decision can lead us to put it off entirely — even when we know we probably shouldn’t.

So why do we get so anxious when making decisions regarding our work?

“Fear around changing careers is incredibly common, I'd go as far as to say that every single one of my clients goes through two or three different stages of fear during their career change journeys,” says Sarah Stoddart Burrows, career change specialist at Thrive Coaching.

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Fear is a natural biological mechanism that occurs when we’re considering any kind of big life change. It has enabled us to assess potential threats throughout history, for example, when hunting for food.

It’s this same reaction that makes career decisions so tricky, particularly if you struggle with anxiety. In 2016, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that anxiety disengages a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is critical for flexible decision-making.

“When we’re thinking about a career change all sorts of mind gremlins can raise their heads,” Stoddart Burrows says. “What if I make the wrong decision? What if this isn’t the right time to make a change? What if I’m too old to change careers?

“What’s important is to dig underneath these surface fears to figure out what is really going on — which is usually that we have some self-limiting beliefs about ourselves or our capabilities.”

Stoddart Burrows adds that she sees a lot of clients with successful careers who suddenly feel like they aren’t good enough or don’t have “what it takes.”

“These limiting beliefs, or negative thinking patterns, may have been formed in childhood or from challenging experiences we’ve had in our lives,” she explains. “Our subconscious mind is an amazing thing but if we have negative thoughts about ourselves often enough it will automate these and they get stuck as a kind of default mode.

“The great news is that you can choose to move on from these old stories, evolve past them and reprogram your default mode.”

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How to deal with career fear

Firstly, it’s important to identify your limiting beliefs and work out what you’re afraid of. It might be a tangible issue, such as a job offer with a lower salary. If you want to do the job, grab a pen and paper and work out if you can afford it and what changes you might need to make to your budget. Try to put your worries aside and work through any problems or obstacles that you think might occur.

You may be just generally worried about taking a big leap. For example, if you’re going freelance or deciding whether to start your own business. Stoddart Burrows recommends thinking about what is underneath your fears and what negative things you might be telling yourself.

“Just identifying your limiting beliefs and understanding where they came from is an excellent start to resetting your mindset,” she says. “What are they costing you? — What have these limiting beliefs cost you in the past? What are they costing you now? What will they cost you in the future if you don’t choose to change them?”

It’s important to try and recognise these negative thoughts and replace them. Instead of telling yourself you are “too old” to change careers, think about how much experience you have to offer.

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“Now you have just one job: to catch yourself every time these fears and limiting beliefs raise their heads, remind yourself that this is just some old, outdated story and choose to direct your thinking towards your positive statement instead,” adds Stoddart Burrows.

“At times like this what we need to remind ourselves is that everything that is worth having in life is usually on the other side of fear – mastering your limiting beliefs will help you to push through this fear and achieve the career change you desire.”