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The Connection Between Fear And Career Regret

Train your brain to react differently in those situations that cause fear and keep you from doing your best work.

The Connection Between Fear And Career Regret
[Photo: Flickr user Marcel Ekkel]

How often has fear held you back from doing something you knew in your gut you should do? There’s a scientific explanation for that hesitation.

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When we encounter a risky situation, our brains become vulnerable to a process psychologist Daniel Goleman refers to as “amygdala hijack.” The amygdala–the part of your brain associated with memory, decision-making, and emotional responses–has a quicker reaction time than the cortex, or rational thinking part of your brain. It’s what sends us into fight-or-flight mode. But sometimes when we’re stressed rather than in real serious danger, the amygdala can overfire, leading us to make bad decisions.

“When we’re stressed the part of the brain that takes over, the part that reacts the most, is the circuitry that was originally designed to manage threats—especially circuits that center on the amygdala,” according to Goleman. “It is important to understand that the impulses that come to us when we’re under stress–particularly if we get hijacked by it–are likely to lead us astray.”

And it’s those moments of being lead astray that people often regret most when they look back on their careers, according to Erica Ariel Fox, author of the book Winning From Within. Fox has worked with thousands of senior executives around the world over the past 20 years and she’s seen a pattern when it comes to their biggest regrets. “People regret what they didn’t do or didn’t say more than they regret what they did do or did say,” she says.

And the rationale behind those decisions? It goes back to amygdala hijack. “When people look back on a decision they regret, it wasn’t coming from a rational business decision or goal,” says Fox. “They were driven by fear.”

The good news is we can flag those fears most likely to trigger feelings of regret later in our lives and begin to train our brains to react differently in those situations. Knowing what some of those fear-based decisions are is the first step.

Dreaming Big Is Scary

Fear has a knack for masquerading as rational thought. Having a big dream or idea is intimidating. What if it fails? What if those dreams are unachievable? Often we find ways to reason ourselves out of these kinds of risks. “If you are hesitating to pursue a dream, but you have all these really important doubts, pause and think: Are these objectively good reasons to wait or are these fears masquerading as thoughts?'” says Fox.

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The mind is good at generating doubts. We tell ourselves: “There’s no way I’ll succeed in that. It’s an obvious idea. It’s too expensive.” We know how to talk ourselves out of doing something when we’re afraid. “It appears these are rational mental arguments that make sense,” says Fox. “But actually this is doubt that is driven by fear.”

The Truth Hurts

What’s that one painfully obvious thing no one is willing to admit? One of the most common failures Fox has seen in the workplace is simply being unable to name the elephant in the room. Stay silent and you will regret it later. “When you get in a situation that is heading south, you’d rather be in denial than admit it,” says Fox. Say, for example, a business idea or project simply isn’t working, yet you’re surrounded by others working hard at it. What do you do? “These things go on for months or even years,” says Fox. “In the end you’ve made it worse by prolonging it.”

You Don’t Want To Hurt Anyone

Speaking up when someone isn’t doing their job or things aren’t going well isn’t easy. Often the thought of giving honest feedback is scary enough to prevent people from telling the truth. “They have so many fears–fear of conflict, fear of belonging, fear of hurting someone, fear of getting hurt,” says Fox. “These fears are so overwhelming emotionally that people often can’t take a straight business approach.”

But not speaking out when someone is in need of constructive feedback can have dire consequences down the line. “In the end, you’ve hurt them much more because their performance at work doesn’t improve,” says Fox.

It’s Usually The Little Things

Often the biggest regrets don’t have to do with major life decisions, but small choices–thanking the people who helped you along the way, admitting when you were wrong. “Are the little behaviors you choose every day in your working relationships something you are going to feel at peace with 20 years from now?” asks Fox.

Sharpen Your Own Fear Detector

Developing the self-awareness to know when fear is dictating a decision is an important first step in taking control of the situation. Fox calls this our “internal lookout”–the ability to recognize when we are afraid and remind ourselves not to make rash decisions in response. “Instead of walking around blindly on autopilot acting in fear, a couple of times a day, stop what you are doing and actually ask yourself: What’s going on in my body? How am I acting and feeling?” says Fox.

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Know Your Driving Fears

There’s a pattern to everyone’s fears. Take a step back and you might notice that many of your decisions stem from one core fear. This could be a fear of belonging, not being the best, or letting others down. “Start to get to know what are the one or two driving fears for you,” says Fox. “Once you know that, you can say: What are the situations that tend to bring that fear out for me?”

Tap Into Your Core Fear

Knowing what scares you most can help you prepare for situations before they happen. If you know, for instance, that you become extremely defensive and competitive during meetings because of a fear of not being the best in the room–prepare and practice what you’ll say in advance so that you don’t let your fear take over in the moment.

Notice those situations that make you act out of fear and prep yourself for them. “If you get to know yourself and you know what your core fears are and which work situations trigger those core fears, you become very purposeful in those behaviors,” says Fox.

Get Close To What Scares You Most

Often experiencing one of your biggest fears is the best way to learn to cope with it. Say you’re biggest fear is losing your job and everything you do is a response to that fear. Lose your job and chances are you’ll survive that experience.

“The best way to learn to deal with a fear is for it to happen and for you to realize you are still alive the next day to tell the tale,” says Fox. “If you stop avoiding the thing you fear and get close to experiencing it, you often find it’s not nearly as bad as you think.”

Make Space Between Work And Personal Life

If you see your career as your identity, the stakes become higher at work–perhaps too high for you to always act rationally. It’s important to create some separation between your personal and professional lives. If your company tanks or you lose your job, you haven’t lost everything. You’re still fundamentally who you are. Creating some distance from your work life can help you make more rational decisions.

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Embrace Fear As A Good Thing

Don’t take your fear in a given situation as negative. Fear is a healthy and natural human reaction. Understanding and recognizing it will help you prevent letting it hijack your emotions. Have some patience with yourself when you have those feelings. “You don’t have to go to regret,” says Fox. “You can also have compassion. I’m doing the best I can and that’s okay right now.”

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.

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