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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

The Scientifically Proven Way to Overcome Your Career Fears

The more I work with clients, the more I am convinced that some of the worst things that happen to us in the workplace are of our own making.

When I say that, a couple of specific examples come to mind. For example, consider my client Liza, who tolerated her mistakes being publicly called out by her manager and was terrified to confront him about it.

And there was Mason, who almost quit a job because his boss never followed through with a commitment to give him a raise and promotion.

Then, there’s Teresa, who was overwhelmed in a new job and assumed she’d made a big mistake by accepting the role.

Each one of them was in severe pain—pain so bad they were ready to walk away from what were frankly great jobs! The pain of those situations kept them frozen in one of the biggest workplace adversaries: fear.

Liza was terrified to confront her manager. She told me she didn’t think she could get through the conversation without crying. Mason was indignant about not getting a promised raise but was scared to bring it up. After all, what if his boss said, “Oh, sorry; we really don’t think you’re worth it after all.” And Teresa felt wholly inadequate. She feared being perceived as an imposter; that she must not be as competent as the person who hired her thought she was.

In each of these examples—and probably many that you can cite in your own career—fear kept people from taking action.

Psychologists say that when we are in a state of fear, we compromise our ability to process thoughts and events rationally. Our brain wants to protect us by sending us in a direction away from the pain point.

And Freud’s “pleasure principle” suggests that in almost everything we do, our mission is to avoid pain.

Think about it: When you’re in pain, are you likely to take a risk confronting a manager? Asking for that big raise that was never mentioned again? Or go tell a new boss you need help in a new job?

Heck no! In all these situations, the natural reaction is avoidance. Quit now! Cut and run! Pull up the covers and hide!

So, how do you climb out of the fear morass and start taking steps to resolve these situations at work? Here’s an easy three-step plan.

Step 1: Analyze the Fear

Did you know that as humans, we are innately wired with only two fears: the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling? Those fears are programmed into us to keep us safe and have been passed down through generations.

What that means is that all of our other fears are learned fears. They’re triggered by life experiences that stimulated fear at some point, and now, when we’re in similar situations, that learned fear is invoked again.

If you really want to disarm your fear, name it. Get it out of the closet. Hang it out to dry. Research shows that when we bring our fears into the light of day, we can start making that fear extinct.

To start shining a light on your fears, get out a journal and complete these sentences:

I’m afraid of: (for example, getting fired from my job.)

This fear is caused by: (insecurity that results from not getting validated with praise or recognition.)

As a result of not dealing with this fear, I am: (completely stressed, not sleeping, and gaining weight.)

If I take constructive steps to address this fear: (I will have a much higher quality of work life.)

Once you identify what fear is holding you back, you’ll have an easier time taking action to release it.

Step 2: Make a Plan With Exposure Therapy Techniques

When psychologists work with patients to overcome the fear of say, spiders, they do so by taking gradual small steps. First they show them a picture of a spider. Then, they put the person in the room with a spider.

Next, they touch the spider with a feather, then with a gloved hand, then a bare hand, and finally they hold the spider. It’s a process called exposure therapy This type of therapy rewires your brain around the fear you have and allows you to move past it.

You can do the same with your workplace fears, sans feathers and gloves.

In Liza’s case, we identified three actions she could take.

First, she could ask her manager for a weekly meeting, since it’s hard to address a big issue without any other ongoing communication. Then, she determined that the weekly meeting agenda could include both a recap of her accomplishments and a discussion about where she needed help from her manager. This would engage them in a mutually supportive conversation.

Finally, she could include a designated time to exchange feedback in that meeting. This would help open a healthy avenue for sharing feedback with her manager, where she could work toward addressing the issue of being called out in public.

By using concepts from exposure therapy, you can drop the ultimatum-making (“I’ve got to quit that job”) and instead, design your own exposure therapy regimen to confront your fear and take action.

Step 3: Execute

In all three of these situations, we were able to design plans to help the employees overcome their fears—and once they acted on those plans, they were able to resolve the issues.

When Liza conducted structured meetings with her manager, she was able to bring up her concern about being called out publicly for making mistakes. Once her manager was aware of her concerns, they were able to work together to develop a more effective solution.

Mason resolved the raise and promotion issues after confronting an executive who was known for big promises and virtually no follow-up. And Teresa realized she had a lot more leverage in her new job than she thought, and she learned to use it to her advantage to get much more strategic visibility in her new job.

All much better results than succumbing to fear and running away.

Look at what’s keeping you paralyzed in fear at work. Analyze that fear and use exposure therapy techniques to develop a plan and take action to resolve the situation at hand. It’s not a comfortable process, but you’ll be surprised at what’s on the other side.

Just ask all those people who used to be terrified of spiders.

Photo of parachuting people courtesy of Shutterstock.

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