When SoulPancake asked 11,000 people what stood between them and where they want to be, they were expecting the usual suspects: time, money, health, stress, even laziness. They were surprised when the top reason was fear… but I’m not. Fear is what kept me from quitting a job long after I knew it was time to move on.
Years ago I was a financial advisor. I wanted to be “the best”, so I pushed myself to earn the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®) designation in six months (it normally takes two years). It was an incredible amount of work, sweat and tears, not counting all of the hours I’d put into building client relationships and the responsibility I felt to them. So even though I was feeling dissatisfied, disillusioned with the financial industry (it was 2006 when I finally left) and unfulfilled by my work, I felt stuck in place by fear.
Why do you think people often wait until circumstances are unbearable until they make a change? I talk about these fears in regards to professional work, but they also apply relationships and many other areas of life. When the change will be dramatic, whether simply perception or reality, it activates our primal brains (the amygdala), which is not governed by logic but by emotion. The primal or reptilian brain, as it’s often called, is responsible for keeping us safe and alive. It’s all about survival… and that’s a good thing if you’re being chased by a bear, but not so great if your primal brain is getting in the way of your happiness.
The 5 Big Fears
Here are The 5 Big Fears (which I will be exploring in more detail in later posts) that keep you stuck in a job you hate. Which of these fears can you identify with?
1. Fear of the Unknown: I had no idea what would happen if I let go of what I had (a stable, well-paid job). I imagined all sorts of terrible scenarios: bankruptcy, homelessness, ostracism by friends and family chanting “I told you so”, that I would never be able get a job – or a “good” one – again. Fear of the unknown can serve you well if you’re contemplating doing something physically perilous, like jumping off a cliff, but our brains can go on worry binges and elevate a concern or decision point that can be logically thought through to the level of primal fear, which is immobilizing when it comes to moving forward.
What terrible things do you fear will occur if you quit the job that’s making you miserable?
2. Financial Disaster: I was leaving a well-paying job with no prospects of another. My mind offered up this association: No job + no income = financial instability = threat to survival. This fear is also a particularly deep pain point for me from childhood. In our society where money not only equals opportunity and status but whether or not you can put food on the table, quitting a paying job can feel life-threatening.
What’s your worse-case financial catastrophe?
3. Social Criticism or Backlash: Quitting my job and profession seemed illogical to work colleagues, friends and family. I received a lot of negative feedback, usually sounding something like this: “What?! Are you crazy? You worked so hard to get where you are and now you’re quitting?? You don’t have another job lined up? How will you support yourself?” Social pressures and norms can keep people from moving forward with change, even if current circumstances are painful.
Who do you fear a backlash from? Who might feel threatened by your decision? Whose love do you fear losing?
4. Losing Your Self-Identity: I didn’t want to be labeled a quitter, much less feel like one. I’m very ambitious by nature. I drive myself hard to achieve my goals and quitting isn’t in my DNA. I had also identified myself as a financial advisor and CFP® and letting go of that identity meant I had to rethink and redefine myself with no supporting structure to guide me.
Self-worth is closely tied to how you identify yourself. I admit that I derived a feeling of self-importance from making it to CFP® status and in record time. CFP®’s make up less than 2% of financial advisors because it’s a very difficult designation to get. I felt a bit special that I’d made it into the club and felt it gave me standing in a male-dominated profession. Leaving financial planning meant giving up my “special status”.
Where in your life do you define yourself by accomplishments? What are your core values that aren’t being reflected by your current work?
5. The Irreversible Mistake: I had an immense level of fear that I was making a huge mistake by quitting financial planning. I was on a career path with a lot of promise, earning potential and that had some of the qualities I cherish, like self-direction and helping others. I had to do a reality check and admit that I could go back to financial planning if I ended up regretting quitting or find another job. I would just have to start over, but I’d done it before and I could do it again.
If you jumped ship, could you truly never go back or never find another job in that field or somewhere else? What would you do if you quit and you couldn’t go back?
Overcoming Your Fears
Now that you’ve pinpointed your fears around changing jobs or your career, how do you move forward and take the leap into the unknown? If you Google “overcoming fear” you’ll come up with thousands of articles with techniques ranging from psychotherapy to envisioning your life’s purpose, but here is a quick and easy exercise you can do to take the first steps:
1. Write out your fears. Literally write (or type) them out on paper. Get it all out. What are the worst-case scenarios? Describe your Financial Armageddon, negative family reactions to your decision, the feelings you have around letting go of your old job, what it means to how you think of yourself.
2. Now go back to each of those fears and ask yourself: How realistic is it that things will happen like this? For example, will my spouse truly leave me? Will I really end up homeless?
3. For the fears that you identified as being unrealistic and unlikely to actually occur, you can probably easily let those go. If any of your fears got a “yes, this is a real possibility”, then you need to ask yourself a second question: “What could I do about this situation to make a positive difference?” Then list out the possible solutions and steps you need to take.
For example, if you feel you can’t quit your job because you have no savings and you could truly end up homeless or you have a family to support, calculate the amount you’d need to have a financial cushion to carry you through and create a savings plan. Or, if you’re looking at building your own business, start doing it on the side until you have sufficient income to quit your current job.
4. Begin to envision yourself in your new job, doing what you love, feeling fulfilled by the work you do. If you, like I did, don’t have a clue as to what you want to do next for a profession, list the things you personally love doing (Working with people? Being outdoors? Yoga? Coding?) and how you feel when you’re engaged in those activities. Write out how you feel, what you’re doing, what makes you feel alive, what gets you excited.
When I wrote out the “job description” for what I wanted to do next, it was all about how I felt, the connections I had with people, being of service to others, helping to inspire and empower others. I didn’t know the job title, but I knew the qualities of the career I wanted.
I got to the point where all the signs pointed to “leave now” and the stress of staying in a career I didn’t enjoy was taking a big toll. Know that you can overcome your fears and move into a job that is fulfilling, supports the vision you hold for your life and is integrity with your core personal beliefs. I’ll be discussing more about change, overcoming fear and using fear to catapult you forward in your life in subsequent posts.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from my readers. Have you ever felt stuck in a job you hate? What kept you from making a change? If you took a big leap into another career, how did you overcome the fears around doing so?
Please comment below.
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