Overcoming Fear in Your Career

Don't let fear prevent you from reaching your true potential.

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Fear is probably the single biggest limiting factor when it comes to stepping into our true potential in our careers—and life in general. We take a look at something that’s beyond our easy reach, and the fear propaganda in our brain takes over. “That’s too risky,” it tells us. “You would probably fail. You would look stupid. You’d end up living under a bridge. Just stay put.” Those negative messages, if we listen to them, are toxic and debilitating.

To be effective, your mind’s fear propaganda depends on your reptilian brain response: fight or flight. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that requires no critical thinking. You end up like the rodent that automatically freezes motionless when it sees a hawk.

The full force of that fear can seldom stand up to the critical lens of inquiry. So to diffuse your mind’s fear propaganda, start asking questions.

[See 10 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Internship.]

Where am I thinking in black and white?

When you find yourself thinking in binary, with only two possible results, it’s a good bet you’re doing some unrealistically black-and-white thinking.

Typically that looks like something along the lines of, “Either I will be a raging success at this, or I will be a complete and utter flop.” Or, “I have to make this happen in one giant leap,” which is accompanied by the underlying message, “You can’t make drastic and immediate change, so you can’t make any change at all.”

Black-and-white thinking is usually both unrealistic and limiting, because you reduce yourself to only two options. When you catch yourself thinking in black and white, ask yourself, “What are the other possibilities?” Challenge yourself to find more ways of looking at it.

What’s the smallest step I can take?

Sometimes fear stems from inertia. You’re at a standstill, and the action your goal requires seems too big and unmanageable. Better to just stare at it and let the propaganda tell you it can’t be done.

[See How Loving Your Job Helps You Succeed.]

But a funny thing happens once you start moving. That starts to create a positive inertia. Things start happening. Action creates opportunity. Doors start to open that you didn’t realize were even there.

When I feel completely bogged down in procrastination, I will sometimes say, “Just five minutes. I’ll work for five minutes, and then I can stop.” Almost invariably that five minutes turns into a longer stretch. All I needed to do was create a small amount of momentum that would carry me even further. It’s the same thing with moving toward a fear-blocked goal.

How can this fear help me?

As I often say, fear can be one of your career’s best friends. But only if you harness its potential. To do that, ask the question, “Where is the kernel of truth here? What insight does this fear have for me? How can I use that to increase my chances of success?”

Fear gets a bad rap, primarily because we let it jump into the driver’s seat and take over the journey. To harness your fear’s ability to help you succeed, don’t treat its message as the end of the line. Treat it as the starting point.

Let your fear have its say (through journaling, for example). For each fear you listed, ask if it is a realistic fear (often it’s blown out of proportion). If it is, follow that up by exploring what you could do to minimize the potential of that fear becoming reality. Use your fear as a warning system that alerts you to potential danger spots so you can explore ways to navigate around them ahead of time.

[For more career advice, visit U.S. News Careers, or find us on Facebook or Twitter.]

How am I feeding this fear?

We often cooperate with the fear propaganda by feeding the fear. That might be by focusing excessively on the worst case scenario, by listening to chronically negative people’s opinions and beliefs, or by any one of a bazillion other ways we pour fuel on the fear. Ask yourself, “How am I feeding this fear? How am I fanning the flames?”

The more you are aware of how you cooperate with the mind’s fear propaganda, the better equipped you are to stop.

Remember, if you want to do anything outside the humdrum and ordinary in your career, if you want to live your full potential, fear will find a way to come along for the ride. But that doesn’t mean you need to let it drive.

After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About, 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.

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