I was so proud of my wife when she decided to change jobs. Her old job was very good to us. It had a lot of benefits that we gave up when we moved to our current town. The insurance was better, the pay was higher, the retirement plan was much much better.
It was a great job, and Crystal and I are so thankful that she had it when we were first starting out. But I also know she felt stifled in it. She told me how much she wanted to do something more, something different.
She wanted a job that paid more, so we could make some actual progress on our finances. She wanted to feel like her work was meaningful. She wanted a career instead of just a job. She wanted to go back to school for a graduate degree and launch an attempt at something great.
Then she told me she was so, so scared of trying to reach for that.
I don’t think I was really prepared for that. I should have been, I suppose. Between the two of us, I’m the risk-taker. I don’t mind launching myself into an entirely new and alien experience and adapting to it on the fly. I don’t mind failing miserably if what I’m doing has even a slim chance of success, because I know I can do exceptional things with limited resources, if I really work hard at it. For me, failure has always seemed like a temporary thing that only lasts until you succeed again. That’s not to say I rush blindly into things, but I do tend to make decisions quickly and I’m willing to take some risk in order to get a bigger reward in the end.
Crystal is far more cautious. She likes sure bets. If there’s a chance she might not succeed, she’s very reluctant to launch into a new endeavor.
I think our childhoods have a lot to do with our different opinions of risk. I grew up in a family where the financial situation was always improving. My father has worked a steadily advancing career within the same company my entire life, and his seniority and work ethic within his company has led to greater and greater rewards over his career. At the same time, my parents were constantly evolving and finding new ways to better manage their money. Growing up, my parents encouraged me to experiment and try new things, even things that other people scoffed at as unrealistic or too audacious — if I failed, I could pick up the pieces and try something else without much detriment to myself.
Crystal’s family had a much less stable financial environment. Her parents worked (and still do) very hard, but available work for their skill sets was sometimes unstable. They never went hungry, but there was much less surety in their cash flow. My father-in-law worked jobs as he could find them, which produced a working life full of experience and a highly varied set of skills, but not much in the way of a particularly stable career, although he still came out of it with a nice pension. From that, I think Crystal learned that failure could have serious consequences. When you had little, you couldn’t afford big risks, even if it meant making slower strides. Trying something new or something radical wasn’t practical and could be a very bad decision.
Neither of these opinions is wrong.
My tendency to take risks could be a dangerous one, especially if I overestimate my ability to recover from failure. On the other hand, it’s equipped me with a resourceful and adaptive nature that has served me very well. Crystal’s tendency to avoid risk has it’s downsides — it makes her wary of trying to reach for something better for herself, and sometimes get corrupted as guilt: she starts feeling like reaching for something better means she isn’t being grateful for what she has. On the other hand, that aversion to risk means she tends to make solid decisions that aren’t likely to fail.
Together, these different opinions work in tandem as a strength for both of us. I push Crystal to reach for better; she reminds me not to reach too far and overestimate my capabilities.
Why Is The Thought Of Doing Better So Scary?
I’ve been pondering this question for a while.
When you are dissatisfied with your current situation, that dissatisfaction and frustration comes with a lot of complex emotions. It comes with depression and sometimes hopelessness, a feeling that you’ll never do better, even if you tried. It comes with anger. You can be angry at yourself for not feeling confident that you can do better, or you can be angry at outside forces that keep getting in your way. You can be angry and frustrated at other people for not supporting you and helping you to do better. It can come with dread, an emotion that makes you do things like start hating weekends because as soon as they end, you have to go back to the grind.
Those emotions are exhausting to process.
Most people don’t want to feel them, don’t want to be wrapped up in that kind of negativity, but it’s exhausting trying to fight them off. You’re expending extra energy every single day just trying to keep your mood positive when you’re slogging through a job you hate. If you’re in debt up to your eyeballs and are being hounded by bill collectors, you’re stressed out of your head trying to make ends meet, and facing that day after day is absolutely exhausting.
Now the idea of doing better comes up — you want to pursue a higher paying job or even an entirely new career.
But getting there means expending even more energy — it means expenses you aren’t sure if you can afford, it means finding time when you don’t have much, it means study and practice, it means networking and application, it often means rejection. Finding the energy for those things when you’re already so worn out isn’t easy.
That exhaustion is the little crack in your resolve where fear starts to grow. What if this doesn’t pay off? What if I’m not good enough to do better? What if I don’t deserve a higher paying job?
Fear feeds on itself. It’s like a bundle of mucky vines in that little crack — as it grows, the crack widens. The fear deepens. It sends off runners and starts digging into other weak spots in your emotional sidewalk, like your self-esteem and confidence. What if I don’t look professional enough for this kind of career? What if I look like a fraud?
Unless you find a way to contain that fear and keep it from growing, it can grow so tangled and so thorny that it chokes the life out of the idea of reaching for better. So how do you stop fear from paralyzing you?
Logic Is Weed-B-Gone For Fear
When Crystal told me she was scared to pursue something better for herself, I started asking her to tell me what exactly she was afraid of.
Fear feels so big. It feels so massive, but when we’re afraid of something, it’s very rarely ever just one big fear — instead, it’s a collection of tiny fears and tangential fears and peripheral fears that are all tangled together in one emotion. Each of those individual fears was preceded by an unspoken clause, “I can’t do this because…”
So I wanted Crystal to get specific.
I wanted her to really identify the component parts of her fear and address them one at a time. When she focused on one and announced it, I’d respond with a logical solution or answer.
Fear isn’t logical. Fear takes small problems and amplifies them to make them seem bigger than they are. When you scrutinize them with a little dusting of logic, you realize that they may be legitimate problems, but aren’t quite as big as they seem. Here’s some examples:
I can’t do this because…
…I might not find anything out there better than what I’m doing now.
You won’t know unless you look. If you’re right and you don’t find anything better, it hasn’t cost you anything and you keep the job you have.
…I don’t have the right kind of professional clothes for this interview and we don’t have the money to get them.
We can sell some things to provide the cash to buy what you need, and we can look carefully for affordable alternatives.
…people who work in this field are more attractive or look the part or have great hair and I don’t have that.
No, they don’t. Like any field, they’re as varied as they come. Some are short, some are tall, some are skinny, some are plump, some are old, some are young. You have a place in that diversity. If “looking the part” would make you feel more confident, though, we can find ways to facilitate that.
…getting my MBA will cost a lot of money and we’ll have to take on more student loan debt.
An MBA will almost certainly provide you with a much higher income earning potential. Also, student loans are one of the easiest forms of debt to deal with, and we can take advantage of income-based repayment options if you get your MBA and can’t immediately find a higher paying job.
…people will think I’m acting like I’m better than them or that I’m ungrateful for what I have.
No, they won’t. The people who care about you want you to do the best you can and to achieve everything you have the potential for, even if it’s better than they’ve achieved themselves. You won’t come across ungrateful because you’re not ungrateful, and you make sure to let people know how much you appreciate the opportunities they’ve given you.
…I just don’t have the time to look for jobs or study for school.
We can find better ways to manage our time, like a written schedule or calendar. I can take on extra chores so you have more time to look for work or study. You can also study or job hunt on your lunch break or on weekends.
In each case, Crystal and I were able to clear away a little of the tangled mess of her fear. That’s not to say she came out of it totally unafraid. She was still afraid, but she was able to manage her fear. She was able to recognize what she was afraid of and why she was afraid of it, and then find logical solutions to make it less scary.
How To Overcome Your Own Fear Of Doing Better
If you’re facing this fear in your own life, here’s how to face it.
- Calm down. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, get to a place where you can think.
- Identify what you’re actually afraid of. Break it down into the smallest pieces you can.
- Ask yourself why you’re afraid of it. Is it a legitimate hurdle?
- If it is a legitimate hurdle, what’s the logical way to overcome it?
- What needs to happen, what do you need to acquire, what do you need to do to make this fear less frightening?
- Hop to it!
Take it slow. It’s difficult to muster the courage to make a big life change overnight. Instead of letting your fear wear you down, wear down your fear. Keep pestering your fear with logic until it start to shrink and becomes something you can manage. It’s okay to be afraid. Just don’t let your fear keep you from the success you’re capable of achieving and deserve to have.
Are you or have you been afraid to reach for your own success? What have you found helps you be less afraid? Are you still struggling with your fear? Tell us in the comments!
Photo by Tristan Schmurr