Strategies for Overcoming Fears of Change and Failing

Fear of Change

The average American will work for ten different employers, keep each job 3.6 years, and change careers three times before retiring. With career-related and general forecasts of change, people who are flexible and adaptable will be better off. One might think that the only security is having the confidence to cope with the insecurity that accompanies change. In situations like these, real inner security means trusting yourself to be able to handle the unexpected.

Being afraid to change is natural. You're going from the familiar (even if dissatisfying) to the unfamiliar. Many people desire stability and dislike breaks in routine. Your identity and self-esteem might be tied to your surroundings, your security comes from predictable events, and you know what to expect. However, sometimes desire for routine can lead you to miss out on many of the possible satisfactions in life, including an enjoyable and rewarding career.

Even though change can often initially appear threatening, it can serve as a catalyst to go on to new and better possibilities. Although it is easier to just stay put, try to view change as an opportunity to allow new experiences into your life. If you hang in there, the new situation can also become comfortable, and you will have eliminated the dissatisfying aspect of your former position.

Whether you are forced to take action as a result of external factors or are internally motivated to do so, it is certain to involve some degree of change. Of course, if internally motivated you usually have the luxury of being able to plan for it, as opposed to externally motivated situations where you are taken by surprise.

Some other fears of potential career changers are listed here:

1. Disruption of a familiar and comfortable routine
2. Possible unanticipated events as a result of taking action
3. Risking job security in current position (when change is your choice)
4. Financial risks of being unemployed (when change is not your choice)
5. Self-doubt and the unknown
6. Validating whether you have the skills you thought you had by sticking your neck out in a new career
7. Losing status and sense of identity
8. Not getting along with new supervisor and coworkers

These concerns could lead career decision-makers to make no decision at all or to choose inaction at a time when they either are losing a job or know it's best (or urgent, depending on their circumstances) to make a change.

To overcome your hesitation about career decision-making, you need to face your fears. This implies taking risks. To take that step forward into the unknown, you need to be flexible enough, as well as courageous enough, to leave the familiar routine and try something new. You should improve your chances of success through sound planning, preparation, and research. As a result, you will help to make the unknown more known, which will lessen your fear.

However, if you are unsuccessful, it might mean getting hurt, experiencing rejection in not getting a job interview, feeling nervous while taking a test during the interview process and doing poorly, or finding out that your skills are judged to be not good enough.

As painful as these outcomes may be, try not to be afraid to fail. Failing is a learning experience. If you try your best and take a positive approach and still fail, at least you know you gave it your best shot. Recognize that you are only human, and forgive yourself for not being perfect. Then take the time to figure out what went wrong. Do everything within your power to remedy the situation, and then try again.

Change with regard to work involves important factors such as money, status, power, relationships, self-image, self-confidence, personal satisfaction, and other factors that shape our lives both directly and indirectly. This can result in a fair amount of worry, if not downright anxiety. However, worrying about change tends to cause more anxiety than the change itself.

Usually, change means giving something up, letting go in order to move forward. Letting go can be difficult. It could involve losing some sense of self. Often, letting go is the biggest block for some career changers who want it all.

Fear has a purpose. Once you accept and recognize it, it serves to alert you to take action to protect yourself from possible loss. One approach for coping with your fear of change is to imagine the worst possible result of your decision. What is so frightening about the change? If this happened, what would you do? Can you prevent this? How?

People who are most afraid of taking risks might experience high levels of anxiety that could interfere with their ability to realistically assess their interests and skills, see the various alternatives, and set and accomplish goals. If the fears are severe, there is probably a self-esteem and identity problem to be attended to first in order to benefit from career counseling.

On the other hand, if your fears are more within the norm, you need to recognize the phases involved in making a career change. By breaking down what seems to be an overwhelming problem into smaller, more manageable steps, you can help to eliminate much of the mystery and self-doubt involved in changing your career.

Making a meaningful career decision, one that fits well, takes a combination of understanding your interests, skills, values, and personality preferences as well as career awareness (what's really involved in a particular job). When you accomplish a good match, you'll know it. It will feel right, and you'll be able to proceed with confidence. This will help to alleviate much of your fear about changing careers.

Fear of Failing

The fear of failing is probably the most common fear that keeps people from taking risks of all kinds. If you associate your self-worth with external success to an unrealistic degree, then you might be troubled by this fear. Many people who fear failing are concerned about being judged by others or by themselves. Perhaps they or others feel they're not living up to their own expectations, and their inner voice expresses disappointment. They often fear they'll be found to be deficient in some way and that their best attempts won't be satisfactory.

Often, those who fear failing at tasks equate such failure as failing as a person. Society values success over failing and equates failure with inadequacy. Therefore, one might think, "If I perform well, that means I have a lot of ability, so I like myself and feel good about myself." This person considers his or her performance to be a direct measure of ability and worth. But if performance is the only measure of a person and nothing else is taken into account, self-esteem and confidence can be destroyed by failure. Self-worth cannot be measured by external success alone. You are no less a person if you don't succeed at what you try to do.

What is success anyway? Each of us would define it differently. Success is a subjective perception; it's what any one individual values. Often, those who fear failing measure themselves against an unrealistic standard of perfection of how successful, smart, or talented they think they should be and then fail to measure up. That's assuming they've tried in the first place. Such people often elect not to try. (If they can't attain these high expectations, why bother at all?)

The key to conquering the fear of failing is to ask yourself: How do I define success? Determine what measuring stick you're using to decide whether success has been achieved. Is your measuring stick realistic? Are you expecting perfection or close to it? If you can adjust how you judge yourself and attempt to be more realistic in both your expectations and measurement of success, you will be more inclined to take a chance in situations that you previously avoided. You will be on your way to overcoming your fear of failing.

With healthy self-esteem and confidence, you're not as vulnerable to others opinions at times of failure. You'll be more inclined to pick yourself up, assess the situation, note what needs to be remedied, and try again. It's not to say that you won't feel bad; it's just that it won't feel like the end of the world.

Sidney Simon offers some possible consequences of fearing failing and how it affects us and our lives. The fear of failing reduces the number of available alternatives or keeps you from pursuing them. It also may have other effects, such as:

* Persuading you to set easier goals and do less than your best
* Leading you to create good reasons not to change (perhaps by painting a rosy picture of the here and now)
* Causing indecisiveness and confusion which stop you from knowing what you really want
* Keeping you from asking for help when you need it or accepting support from others when offered
* Distorting your perception of your life and what you can do to make it better
* Keeping you from assessing yourself so you tend to settle for less
* Leading to the development of unhealthy habits and behavior patterns (e.g. substance abuse)
* Keeping you from taking risks and therefore experiencing possible growth

Two Different Outlooks

Martin Seligman discusses how two different types of people, optimists and pessimists, respond to failure. Optimists see defeat as a temporary setback. They view it as a singular situation and do not generalize it to their whole being. They don't blame themselves. If things don't work out, they realize that at least they've tried and make note of what needs further attention to help improve their chances of success when they try again. When optimists are confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try even harder.

On the other hand, pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. Usually the problem lies in their habits of thinking how they view events and their general outlook. If you're more of a pessimist, then you need to develop strategies for correcting distorted thinking (the destructive things we say to ourselves when we experience a setback) and raising self-esteem and confidence. The goal is to go from helplessness to gaining personal control in your life, thereby allowing you a greater chance of experiencing success rather than failure.

Courtesy of David P. Helfand. Excerpted from his work "Career Change" (VGM Career Horizons 2nd ed. 1999).