How to Fight Your Career Fears

When you look below the surface at what blocks people’s aspirations, you'll often find fear.

By + More

Curt Rosengren
Have you ever wanted to do something, but felt afraid to take action? And then, when you finally did it, you realized there really wasn't that much to be afraid of, after all? Or, even worse, you didn't do it and later realized your fears were unfounded?

If you have, you're in good company. Fear is the single most debilitating factor standing in people's way of pursuing what they really want in their careers (and life in general). When you look below the surface at almost everything that blocks people’s aspirations, you'll find fear.

[See 9 insider secrets to getting hired.]

The object of that fear varies—fear of failure, fear of success, fear of what "they" will think—but ultimately it all boils down to one thing. We're afraid we can't handle whatever comes up. Sometimes that’s because we make the object of our fear bigger than it really is, and sometimes it’s because our assessment of our own abilities and potential is unrealistically low.

Fear is natural. It can even be a good thing when it helps us steer clear of avoidable problems. But when we let that fear take the steering wheel, we relegate ourselves to riding shotgun in our own lives. The chances of steering toward our dreams from the passenger seat are slim, especially when we keep pouring high octane fear-fuel in the tank.

[See 5 habits for creating a career you can love.]

Here are three ways to take back the wheel and stop fueling your fear:

Check your stories. I often say that the biggest obstacles most of us encounter lay right between our ears (that’s definitely true for me). The lens we look through determines the world we see, and too often that lens is colored—at least partially—by limiting assumptions and beliefs. Those assumptions and beliefs create fear-based stories that block our potential. They fuel the fear because they encourage us to believe (often falsely) that we’re not up to the challenge.

Much of the time, we’re not even aware of them. They’re just our customary way of viewing the world, and it doesn’t even occur to us that there might be other valid realities. One way to make sure you’re not fueling your fear with unnecessarily negative stories is to listen for variations on the phrase, “I can’t because...”

When you hear yourself saying, “I can’t because,” don’t just automatically accept it. Question it. List all the reasons why you can’t. Then, for each reason you have identified, ask yourself, “Is that really true? Is it conceivable that I could do it? What would the situation need to look like for me to be able to do this? What assumptions am I making? Are they valid? Are there any other ways of looking at it? Could there be another story?” Don’t let unquestioned negative stories add fuel to your fear.

Reduce negative inputs. In computer programming and other fields that require quality inputs to get good results, there is a saying: “Garbage in, garbage out.” One excellent way to stop fueling your fear is to eliminate, or at least reduce, the flow of “garbage” into your mind. Two common sources of mental garbage are the news and negative people.

News: In today’s wired age, there is no shortage of garbage to feed your brain. A few minutes ago I stopped by a popular news site to take the pulse of the kinds of stories being covered. Of the 13 stories listed in their recent news section, 10 of them had to do with violence, bad news, or scandal. The rest were pretty neutral. There was almost nothing inspiring on the site. And that’s a pretty typical ratio. (Check out my recent post on my blog about testing the toxicity of your news).

If that’s the kind of input you are consistently shoveling into your mind, how can it not affect your view of the world? To stop fueling the fear, stop focusing on fear-inducing stories. It’s not rocket science.

Negative people: Have you ever spent time with people who are chronically negative? They spout off about what’s wrong with the world, they shoot down positive ideas, they laugh derisively at positive thinking—writing it off as hopelessly naïve. They offer an endless litany of the reasons why dreams aren’t realistic.

The people you spend your time with have an enormous impact on how you see the world. In a very real sense, you start to become the people you surround yourself with. If you are surrounded by positive, inspiring people, it’s almost impossible to resist living in that mold. Unfortunately, the same applies if you are surrounded by negative, fear-focused people.

Take stock of the people in your life. Are there any whose negative outlooks feed your fear? Maybe it’s time to sever those ties. If that’s not possible, try asking them to tone it down around you. Set some boundaries. If that still doesn’t work, at least try to limit the amount of time you have to spend with them.

Put your fear to use. Finally, instead of being controlled by your fear, use it! Rather than seeing it as the end of the road for your goals and dreams, take note of your fears and ask, “OK, now what will help me avoid this outcome?” Use your fears as a point of departure for brainstorming possible solutions. Put them to work for you.

Fear serves a purpose. It’s there to help you avoid a negative outcome. But it can’t serve that purpose (unless you count keeping you limited and stuck) if you just let it run amok. Harness it and turn it into a tool to help you navigate the path to your dreams.

After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As a speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About Work, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.