Have you ever felt paralyzed with fear thinking about the next step in your career?
So riddled with indecision you can’t think straight?
Seeking out any diversion you can find to avoid sitting down and updating your resume?
Or just shrugging your shoulders and deciding to let fate determine your outcome, turning over your power and self-determination to the wind?
If so, you’re not alone.
And whether you’ve just been laid off, are contemplating your next move internally, or desperately need to find a job by the end of the month, the path forward requires the same mindset – Through, not Around.
Through, not around
“I feel like I’m standing at a crossroads, and I’m completely frozen. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know where to start.”
“I know I need to apply for jobs, but I just don’t know where to start.”
“I’m afraid to make the wrong choice. I’m feeling pressure to make a decision, but I’m afraid I’m going to make the wrong choice.”
“I look at tons of job listings, but I don’t apply to many. They’ll just reject my resume.”
“The requirements are so high and I don’t think I’m qualified.”
“Any time I get my hopes up about a job posting, I get crushed when I get a rejection email. It’s a gut punch.”
The desperation and paralysis many face during a job search can often be traced back to one root cause: fear.
Not just a fleeting worry or mild concern; for many, it’s a deep, phobic fear that clutches at the very core of our being.
As the days press on and the overwhelm increases, the job search and all the activities that go with it, hits a standstill.
Whether it manifests as a reluctance to click the “apply” button, blanking out during an interview, or writer’s block while updating your resume, this paralyzing fear can be overwhelming, and its roots often run deep.
It’s not simply the fear of failure or rejection, but a complex web of fears that intertwine, each one amplifying the others.
These fears may present themselves in different ways, but their impact is uniformly debilitating.
The fears act as barriers, blocking the path to personal and professional growth, rendering the most talented and capable individuals paralyzed and mentally stuck.
We try to find an easier path AROUND these obstacles, finding infinite diversions from the pain that don’t ultimately get us closer to our desired outcome.
The behavior is pervasive at every stage of our careers.
This fear is what keeps people from asking for a raise or a promotion, or keeps them in an unhappy job with a bad manager in a company going nowhere.
The fear associated with making a change is greater than the pain and misery of the current job.
There is a path forward though.
As the title suggests, the path to a new job requires small, incremental steps THROUGH the fears we experience.
To find our way out, it helps to understand the specific fears and how they exert their paralyzing influence.
Fighting Through the Fear of Rejection
Fear of rejection is a common and insidious obstacle that many job seekers face.
It manifests in various ways throughout the job search process.
Perhaps you find yourself hesitating to apply for a position because you don’t feel quite qualified, or you avoid following up after an interview, fearing how you’ll react if the answer is “no.”
The fear can cause you to shy away from networking opportunities or connections in your LinkedIn network that could provide valuable leads and referrals.
The damage caused by the fear of rejection is multifaceted.
Left unaddressed, it leads to missed opportunities, stagnation in your career growth, and diminished market value as your peers advance while you stand pat.
On a more personal and corrosive level, the constant dread of rejection erodes your self-confidence, making each subsequent step in the job search even more daunting.
So how can you work through this fear and advance your job search?
Embrace the rejection
Recognize that rejection is a natural part of the job search, not a reflection of your worth.
Every “no” is a step closer to a “yes.”
If rejected, try to obtain feedback. As more companies use impersonal, automated rejection notifications, it’s harder to gain feedback when all you’ve done is submit a resume.
In this case, reach out to a close group of your peers and recruiters who understand what employers are looking for in resumes.
You can use that feedback to update your resume and increase the likelihood of getting past the gatekeepers.
If you’re in the midst of an interview, ask the hiring manager or recruiter directly what shortcomings they feel you might have based on your experience and conversation.
Put THEM on the spot to reject you in person or over the phone.
It doesn’t matter what they say. Take their feedback in stride and use it moving forward.
Whether it’s positive or negative, this is likely your best shot at getting real feedback since most rejection notifications share little actionable feedback.
Build a Support Network
Share your job search journey with friends, family, or mentors who can provide encouragement and perspective.
In general, I don’t advocate using your personal network for anything more than to keep your spirits buoyed and your perspective in check.
Their advice CAN be helpful, but often it can be just as overwhelming and conflicting with the professional and objective guidance you’d receive from an objective, experienced recruiter or professional mentor.
Rejection is often a part of the journey.
By working THROUGH the fear head-on and reframing the rejection as more time to focus on the next great thing, you can turn a potential roadblock into a stepping stone.
One of my favorite examples of reframing rejection is in this video clip of Frances McDormand describing how she flips the script on rejection and her value as an actress during auditions.
Fighting Through the Fear of the Unknown
The fear of the unknown looms large during a job search.
- What is the company’s culture like?
- Will I be able to handle the job responsibilities?
- Will my peers accept me?
For many, these are just questions.
Easily answered, yes or no.
For others, they are the questions that trigger a fear that leaves them speechless and stuck in their tracks or worse yet, on an endless search down an internet rabbit hole looking for an answer that doesn’t exist.
This fear chokes the size of your comfort zone and your willingness to stretch your potential.
You might find yourself only applying to familiar companies or roles, neglecting to explore new industries or opportunities that could suit you better.
Someone with a strong background in marketing might balk at an opportunity in product management, even if they possess many of the transferable skills needed.
This fear stems from discounting their existing traits and potentially overestimating the company’s expectation that they need to know EVERYTHING about the industry’s intricacies, terminologies, and cultural nuances on Day 1.
It’s an irrational fear.
Without applying and without putting oneself “in the mix”, you’ll never give yourself the opportunity to be recognized for your potential.
Left unaddressed, this fear stagnates your career.
By avoiding unknown territories, you miss out on chances for growth, fulfillment, and potentially higher compensation.
To work through this fear:
Set a Time Limit on Your Research
Allow yourself to explore your concerns about culture, role, responsibilities, etc., but set a definite deadline. This prevents an endless loop of research and procrastination.
Have Clear Action Steps and Time Limits
Realize that you can never have all the information before applying for a job. Outline a plan, execute it, and understand that the truth will reveal itself incrementally over the search.
Always Have a Next Action Step
Whether it’s applying, networking, or seeking further information, keep moving forward by having clear, actionable steps lined up.
Give Yourself Permission to Say No
If, after due diligence, a job, department, or company doesn’t feel right, trust your judgment. It’s okay to decline and refocus your search.
Set a Follow-Up Plan
Once you’ve executed your plan, have a strategy for follow-up. Whether it’s a thank-you note after an interview or tracking responses to applications, maintain momentum.
Move on to the Next Prospect
Don’t linger on one opportunity.
Pursue multiple leads and continue exploring until you find the right fit.
Fighting Through the Fear of Being Judged
Fear of being judged can be a profound obstacle in a job search, striking at the very core of personal and professional insecurity.
It’s the sensation that every word, action, or even thought is under scrutiny, and the anxiety it creates can be crippling. It manifests in many ways:
You might find yourself agonizing over every email or cover letter, fearing that a single typo or awkward phrase will cast you in a negative light.
After an interview, you may dwell on every response, convinced that you’ve said something wrong, even when you haven’t.
Fear of judgment might lead you to bypass valuable networking opportunities, fearing that others will evaluate and find you lacking.
If left unaddressed, the fear of being judged can spiral indefinitely into a profound lack of confidence and despair.
It impairs performance in interviews, leads to hesitation in networking, and can even result in withdrawal from the job search altogether.
Some steps to counter the fear of being judged in your job search
Reframe Your Perspective
Instead of seeing yourself as a victim being judged, take control by flipping the script.
See the job search as your opportunity to “judge” companies, jobs, and hiring managers.
You’re evaluating them to find the best fit for you, not merely waiting for them to pass judgment on you.
Focus on your genuine skills and values.
People typically respond positively to authenticity, and when you are true to yourself, judgment from others carries less weight.
Preparation chips away at fear of the unknown.
Preparation also chips away at the fear of being judged and increases your comfort and confidence in the subject matter and role you’re interviewing for.
Look for ways your unique strengths align with your target roles.
Knowing you’ve prepared can alleviate the fear of judgment.
By identifying your hidden strengths and matching them to a specific job, you’re able to present yourself naturally in a positive light, rather than as a candidate with scripted, robotic answers.
Give Yourself Permission to Be Human
You’re going to say the wrong thing and your resume will never be perfect.
Make a commitment each day of your job search to accept this as fact, especially if you’re inclined to be a perfectionist and fearful of what others think of you.
Fighting Through the Fear of Disruption
The fear of disruption, particularly in personal life or family routines, is a potent obstacle in a job search.
This fear is deeply rooted in our need for stability and the concern that change might lead to chaos for us, our families, and our careers.
Fear of disruption and change manifests in many ways during a job search:
Avoiding job opportunities that require relocation
This fear might lead you to dismiss roles that require relocation, fearing the impact on family or social connections.
For example, passing up on a fantastic opportunity in a new city because of uncertainty about schools or community.
Ignoring opportunities for advancement
You might refuse opportunities that require longer hours, thinking of immediate family routines without considering the long-term benefits such as career growth or financial stability, for fear of having uncomfortable conversations with a spouse, your children, or a close family member.
Refusing challenging positions
If a job threatens your current work-life balance, you might avoid it, even if it promises a significant boost to your career, or personal fulfillment, or aligns more closely with your passions.
Left unchecked, fear of change can lead to being “stuck”, trapping you in a role or field that might not fulfill you or your family long-term.
It might keep you stuck in a comfortable but unchallenging position, hindering your ability to achieve your full potential, all because you chose to avoid exploring stretch opportunities that require uncomfortable conversations with family.
Here are some ways to tackle fear of disruption and change.
NOTE that I’m not suggesting there are not valid reasons to stay put.
Personal and professional damage occurs when there isn’t a full exploration and conversation about stretching your comfort zone.
Stifling or avoiding these thoughts is what leads to issues, NOT a fully vetted decision that takes into all the implications for yourself and those around you.
Engage family and friends in your decision-making process, with the condition being to seek out those who can provide unbiased objectivity without their self-interest leaking in.
Include them in the conversation about the benefits and challenges of potential opportunities, so they can understand your choices.
For instance, discuss relocation’s pros and cons openly, allowing everyone’s concerns to be addressed.
More often than not family means well; make sure to seek out family members that can balance their self-interests with your own and who will be unconditionally supportive of your end decision.
Consider the Long Term
Assess the broader career trajectory and potential personal growth, not just immediate changes.
For example, a job requiring longer hours might lead to a leadership role that could ultimately provide more time with family in the future.
Working through a short-term disruption of your work-life balance often has a dramatic positive benefit on your long-term happiness.
Seek Flexible Opportunities
Although they may be few and far between, look for roles that offer adaptability in location or schedule.
Hybrid roles or remote work opportunities might align with your needs, allowing for a new career direction without upending your family life.
As much as work-from-home and flexible work arrangements have become more pronounced after the pandemic, be careful not to assume this is the norm.
Be self-aware enough to recognize if you are putting up unrealistic expectations for your next job as a defense mechanism to avoid your fear of change.
Reframe What Disruption Means
Sometimes, what seems like a disruptive change can become a new norm that offers growth and happiness.
A move or a change in routine might open doors to new friendships, experiences, and personal development that enrich your life.
Fighting Through the Fear of Reliving Past Failures
The fear of facing past failures is a crippling one, especially in a job search where every experience counts.
The fear of having to relive past failures, whether it’s while you revise your resume in private, or publicly being cross-examined by a hiring team, can short-circuit your best efforts unless it’s addressed. Ways it manifests during the job search include:
Avoiding Similar Jobs or Industries
If you’ve previously experienced failure in a particular role or industry, you might avoid applying for similar positions, even if they align with your skills and interests.
This can limit your opportunities and force you into a narrower job search that may not reflect your true potential.
Downplaying or Omitting Past Experiences
You might choose to downplay or even omit experiences you perceive as failures from your resume or during interviews.
This might include a project that didn’t meet its goals, a job where you were let go, or a business venture that didn’t succeed.
While it may seem like a way to avoid uncomfortable questions, it can lead to gaps in your history that may raise more questions from potential employers.
On top of that, YOUR perception that you failed may not be viewed as harshly as a prospective employer, who may view your lessons learned as a benefit, not a drawback.
Overcompensating in Interviews
The fear of revisiting past failures might cause you to overcompensate during interviews, trying to prove that you’ve moved beyond those experiences.
This can lead to aggressive self-promotion, excessive highlighting of successes, and downplaying the valuable lessons failure contributes to professional growth, not to mention coming off as inauthentic and arrogant.
Lack of Confidence in Your Abilities
All unaddressed fears sap your self-confidence when under duress, leading you to question your abilities and judgment.
You might find yourself hesitating to apply for positions that you’re qualified for or accepting a lesser role because you fear that you might fail again.
This lack of confidence can be sensed by interviewers and might make them question your fit for the role.
Note in these cases it’s the lack of self-confidence rather than the actual failure that causes the interviewer to reconsider your fit, NOT the actual failure.
Reluctance to Network and Seek References
The fear of reliving past failures might not only manifest in reluctance to network but specifically in hesitating to ask for references.
If you left a job under difficult circumstances or faced challenges in a particular role, you may perceive your peers from that time would not give you a glowing recommendation.
This fear can extend into avoiding networking events or one-on-one connections with individuals from that period, believing they might remember or bring up your past failure.
Even if these fears are unfounded, they can cause you to miss out on valuable connections and insights that could lead to new opportunities.
The result can be a job search constrained to impersonal online applications and job boards, lacking the rich personal connections that often lead to the most fulfilling opportunities.
This fear-driven approach narrows your options and affects the way potential employers perceive your professional relationships and ability to collaborate within a team.
By recognizing and addressing this fear, you can reconnect with valuable professional contacts and open up more pathways in your job search.
Here are 5 ways to overcome the fear of reliving the mistakes of your past.
Embrace Failure as Growth
Understand that failure is not a dead end but a learning experience. Reflecting resilience and adaptability, failure teaches invaluable lessons. For instance, a failed project could have led you to new insights about team dynamics or project management, making you better equipped for future success.
Prepare Thoughtful Responses
Frame past failures positively in interviews.
Focus on lessons learned and how they have shaped your current success.
Instead of hiding a failed initiative or missed quota, discuss how it led you to develop new strategies or approaches that are now part of your professional toolkit.
Frame past failures positively in interviews
Focus on lessons learned and how they have shaped your current success.
Instead of hiding a failed initiative, discuss how it led you to develop new strategies or approaches that are now part of your professional toolkit.
Consult with Mentors
Seek guidance from mentors or career counselors on how to navigate questions about past failures, turning them into assets in your story.
Their perspective and encouragement can help you see past failures not as stumbling blocks but as stepping stones.
Acknowledge, Don’t Hide
Accept that failure is part of every professional’s journey, and that it’s not a weakness to have faced setbacks.
The ability to overcome and grow from these challenges is a strength that many employers will value.
Fighting Through the Fear of Being Exposed
The fear of being exposed, commonly known as imposter syndrome, can be particularly crippling in a job search.
It’s that nagging voice that insists you’re not as capable or talented as others might think.
This fear might manifest in various ways during your job search:
You downplay your abilities, underestimate your skills, and rate yourself lower than others would.
This self-criticism makes you seem less confident during interviews and makes employers question your abilities.
Avoiding Opportunities You Are Qualified For
Imposter syndrome may manifest in avoiding applying for jobs where you might be overqualified.
The fear of being judged as an imposter might make you think that you don’t deserve the positions you’ve already proven capable of handling.
This could lead you to miss out on opportunities where the job requirements might change to fit your qualifications or where a lower-level role that fits your expertise might also be available.
The fear of being exposed or “found out” limits your options and keeps you from a potentially fulfilling role that could lead to growth in a new direction.
Stress and Anxiety
The grinding fear of being “found out” as an imposter can create continuous stress and anxiety, impacting not only your job search but your overall well-being.
Unaddressed, this fear can cause a persistent and chronic feeling of inadequacy, even if you land the job.
To work through this irrational fear, consider these strategies:
Acknowledge Your Achievements
Reflect on what you’ve accomplished and recognize you’ve earned your successes.
Write them down, create a portfolio, or discuss them with a mentor to solidify your confidence in what you have achieved.
Seek Objective Feedback
Talk with peers, mentors, and an experienced recruiter in your field who can provide an honest and constructive appraisal of your skills.
Sometimes, an external perspective can break through the internal narrative of doubt.
Commit to Learning
Recognize no one knows everything, and it’s okay to learn as you go.
In fact, being capable of continuous learning and forward progress in a dynamic, ever-changing labor and business climate is more important than skills or experience earned 5 years ago.
Embrace continuous learning as a career-long journey.
Take courses, attend workshops, or read industry materials to keep growing.
Apply your past lessons and experiences as you embrace the present reality, even if it’s unknown and unclear.
Reframe the Narrative
Instead of seeing yourself as an imposter, see yourself as a work in progress.
Everyone, even the most successful people in your field, started somewhere, and it’s the continuous effort and learning that matters.
The fear of being exposed is a common yet surmountable obstacle in a job search.
By addressing it with conscious effort and supportive strategies, you can silence the nagging voice of doubt and take incremental steps forward toward success.
Fighting through, not around, your fears
Deeply rooted fears can significantly impact our thoughts and behaviors, especially when it comes to career growth and job searches.
We’ve examined how various types of fears manifest; whether it’s the fear of rejection, the unknown, being judged, disruption, reliving past failures, or the fear of being exposed as an imposter, each has unique ways of manifesting and obstructing our progress.
- Fear of Rejection: Stops us from applying for roles we aspire to.
- Fear of the Unknown: Paralyzes us from taking chances that might lead to growth.
- Fear of Being Judged: Makes us overly cautious and inhibits authenticity.
- Fear of Disruption: Limits us to our comfort zones, hindering professional development.
- Fear of Reliving Past Failures: Forces us to avoid challenges and ignore potential growth opportunities.
- Fear of Being Exposed: Holds us back from recognizing and applying for roles that align with our true capabilities.
We outlined practical strategies to meet each fear head-on, embracing small steps, reframing perspectives, and shifting mindsets to conquer these obstacles.
This article can only go so far as to help people experiencing the symptoms of fear in their job search and doesn’t replace seeking professional help and therapy.
Trained therapists and healthcare providers are best suited to help you advance through fears that are impacting your mental health and ability to function.
Fears are not to be avoided or worked around but faced and worked through.
They are a natural part of everyone’s personal and professional journey and must be acknowledged and addressed.
Avoidance only leads to missed opportunities, while courageous confrontation opens doors to unforeseen heights in your career.
In every job search or career development, understanding these fears and employing the strategies we’ve outlined can empower you to take the next right step.
About the Author | Through not Around
Bob Pudlock is the President of Gulf Stream Search, an executive search firm that works with companies across a wide variety of industries in North America, successfully closing hard to fill jobs with hard to find talent.