6 signs you’re letting fear dictate your career decisions, according to career experts

You’ve probably experienced some form of fear at some point in your career. You might’ve felt bursts of fear when you were deciding what to do after college, second-guessed yourself after a less-than-glowing annual review, or felt afraid to take the next steps before a career change. This kind of fear is completely normal. But when fear starts dictating your every career move, it’s time to take a step back and investigate why.

There are a lot of reasons why fear can motivate your career.

Your brain could be subconsciously protecting itself from feeling rejected, failing, or—let’s be honest—succeeding (which can be just as scary). It’s constantly trying to make sure that you feel safe. And even when you want a better job, it may find excuses not to move forward.

“Being motivated by a subconscious ‘fear of failure’ rather than by the ‘anticipation of success’ can be common when making career decisions,” career coach Suzanne O’Brien tells HelloGiggles. “For example, my clients [have] come to me saying that they have applied for a role more junior than their capability because they feared they would not be able to achieve the actual role they desired in practice. But trying to protect yourself from rejection by under-selling your worth often sets you up for real failure. We must hold a balanced view of ourselves and recognize when our fear is potentially sabotaging our career decision-making.”

But how do we know when our fears are taking over our decision-making abilities? Is there a difference between everyday stress and uncontrollable fear? We connected with two career experts to determine the difference and highlight the signs that debilitating fear is dictating your career decisions.

1Your work/life balance is out of sync.

When fear begins to control your career decision-making abilities, you may notice that not only is your work off-kilter, but your personal life is as well. This occurs when your fear of the future becomes so delibating that you’re not able to focus on anything else, even when you try.

“Pay attention if you find yourself preoccupied [with] work outside of working hours. For example, perhaps you’re responding to emails 24/7, waking up in the middle of the night to take a call with overseas colleagues or clients, and/or regularly working on weekends or during vacation time,” career coach Nicola Simpson tells HelloGiggles. “[This indicates] that our energy is being overly directed into our job/career at the expense of the rest of our life.”

2You’re not growing financially.

“Fears based around finances can be so great that they trap us in a role that we have long grown out of or lost interest in. Poverty-based thoughts include the belief that ‘I have limited potential to earn money,’ that ‘I won’t get paid what I am worth,’ that ‘I will have to take a 20% pay cut to change jobs,’ and so on,” says Simpson.

Experiencing these thought patterns on a regular basis can throw off our confidence and prevent us from taking financial risks. And when we begin to believe these fears, we can develop a scarcity mindset that can be hard to break away from.

“Such thoughts can shackle us to a role and/or organization, and yet our fears rarely reflect reality. Rather than focus on the worst-case scenario, do your market research, understand your worth, and negotiate hard to achieve the best-case financial outcome related to any future career decision,” says Simpson.

While a career coach can aid with this, your financial fears can also be deeply rooted in past personal events. If you’re able to do so, seek a mental health specialist who can assist you with this journey to find financial freedom.

3You’re unable to separate yourself from past events.

Let’s be honest: It can be hard not to take professional negative situations personally. When you get fired from your dream job or are told by a colleague that you’ve dropped the ball, fear can step in and assume that these scenarios will, indeed, happen again.

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to separate yourself from past events. Recognize and accept that which you had control over in the situation and then release yourself from carrying the burden of that over which you had no control (e.g. company culture/decision-making),” says Simpson. “If you are struggling to heal a past situation, please don’t suffer alone. Remember, whatever happened is now over and gone and you can have trust in your tomorrow.”

4You’re asking for advice more than you normally would.

Whenever fear begins to take control of your life, you may begin to trust yourself less and less. You may be constantly afraid that you’re going to make the wrong move or forget how to listen to your gut—and in turn, you look to others to give you all the answers.

“There’s usually a voice inside of you telling you something isn’t right, and in those moments, we seek out advice from friends. The problem is that sometimes, peers also can’t see the forest from the trees,” says O’Brien.

If you believe your fears are preventing you from listening to your own advice, take note of how often you ask others for help and what exactly you’re going to them for. Are you asking about big decisions that could be life-changing? Or are you constantly asking how you should reply to an email? While there’s nothing wrong with reaching out for help, you don’t want to depend on others as your career crutches. You’re truly the only person who knows what’s best for you and your career.

5You’re making decisions at a snail’s pace.

“When we make fear-based career decisions, we often find ourselves to be ‘slow to act,’ lack motivation, [and] feel drained of energy,” says Simpson. “In contrast, when we are making confident career decisions, we feel excited. There is a sense of rightness and anticipation for the future, along with an eagerness to get started.”

When fear is controlling your every career move, you may be overly cautious and overthink even the most mundane and subtle work decisions. This means that it could take hours to answer emails, you may procrastinate more than you’d like to admit, and you may even escape reality until the “right decision” magically appears in your head.

To combat this, Simpson says, “it can be helpful to draw your attention inward and notice how you feel. What emotions do I hold around this career decision? Does this career move expand me or close me down emotionally?” But if you’re still feeling fearful, she says to “acknowledge and then challenge the feeling. Are my fears real or perceived? What practically can be done to address my concerns?

6You’re feeling fear of retribution from a boss.

Debilitating fears can warp our reality and make us believe that our greatest worries can come to fruition. When this occurs, our judgment is affected and can make us feel easily crippled from external factors, such as the fear of retribution from a boss or HR organization. It can make us believe we are out of control when in fact, we have all the control we need.

“[This is a] sign that you need to go find work elsewhere. That same fear may be holding you back from looking because you’re concerned that your boss will give you a bad reference or somehow sabotage your career move,” says O’Brien. “99% of the time, your boss has far less power in the field than you give them credit for. Staying around for another year, or six months, will not change your boss’s vindictive, mean-spirited behavior. Don’t tie your ship to that sail. Break free and go find a new, supportive, healthy organization.”

It’s time to let go of the fear. You got this.