Understanding Anxiety about Changing Careers

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Reader’s Question

I am a male in my 20’s. I come from a stable family, a good home and good schools. I have a good job at my family’s ranch and have been very successful in my career. Overall, I have a pretty good life, but I feel completely unsatisfied.

For the past several years I have had an overwhelming feeling of needing to do something ‘better/special’ with my life. Until recently, I’ve had the luxury of knowing what it is that I was meant to do — my calling in life. I believe that path is a specific ‘field’ in a particular government agency. Over the past year, I have devoted hundreds and hundreds of hours to physically preparing myself to the necessary level required for this type of lifestyle. Now, I am at the point where I am prepared physically and it is time to ‘join’ and make the commitment. However, when I go to the office to take the final steps, I get anxious and downright afraid. When I am at the office, signing papers, I get a terrible feeling of dread and feel like I shouldn’t be there. In my mind, I know this type of lifestyle is completely different from my current life; it requires that I leave my friends and family for a long time and, in all likelihood, it will be more than a 10-year commitment before I will have the option to decide whether to return home, or to continue in that career.

The fear that I feel is very irritating. It is also debilitating in that it causes me to question myself to a point of becoming depressed. I’m angry that I can’t do something that, in my mind, I truly believe is what I am meant to do and what is best for me.

When I picture myself staying on my current path, I get depressed and feel the need to do something more, or different. I can picture myself many years in the future, unhappy with myself that I didn’t do something better with my life.

When I think about the ‘other’ life, and the process required to get to the point where I want to be, I get scared and doubt whether the decision is the correct one. However, when I think about being in that life and working to achieve my ultimate goal, I feel excited about it, and it feels like the correct choice.

I cannot quite place why I have this fear — whether it is fear of committing, fear of change, or fear of doing something that sub-consciously I know I am not meant to be doing. I am at a complete loss.

Psychologist’s Reply

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Ten years is a long time, so I can certainly understand that you might question if this new career is the right one for you. However, it seems like you have known about this lengthy commitment for a while, you’ve weighed the pros and cons, and the idea didn’t keep you from training for it. Consequently, it seems like the anxiety is about something else.

Although I cannot know for certain, my guess is that the anxiety has to do with the big “what if” question. Whenever people prepare for a major undertaking, they generally ask the “what if this doesn’t work out?” question. People who decide to make a significant move have to wonder if they will like their new location. People who practice for hours at a particular skill have to wonder if it will be enough to achieve their goals. It could be that you are experiencing a similar type of anxiety. You’ve done the research, spent “hundreds and hundreds of hours” preparing yourself physically, and presumably have announced to family and friends that this is what you’re planning on doing. That is a lot of time and effort to have given if it doesn’t work out for you. And if it doesn’t, the next question is: what now?

The presence of anxiety can be helpful in that it forces people to evaluate whether or not their actions are right for them. However, once it has been determined that they are, that’s when it gets in the way. Anxiety is difficult to manage, but one of the keys to overcoming it is exposure: confronting that which we fear. Thus, people who are afraid to fly get on planes; people who are afraid to talk to others make themselves do so, and people who are afraid of clowns may go to the circus. It will be extremely uncomfortable at first, but facing the fear eventually will get easier.

Whether you realize it or not, your letter was pretty clear about what it is that you want to do. Consequently, it seems like it’s time to listen to yourself and do what it is that you feel you need to do in order to be happy. It could be that this new career is not the right choice for you. If so, you will figure out what to do then. Too many people allow the fear of tomorrow to influence what it is they do today. You need to decide if you’re going to be one of them.

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