As if straight out of a career fairy tale, some people seem to be born knowing their career path — and follow it all the way to retirement.

In reality, however, most people find that path to be anything but direct. You might be someone who finds the twists, turns and freedom of choice incredibly exciting. Or, you might be among those who find that uncertainty breeds tremendous anxiety.

Whether you’re a college senior studying finance, but having doubts about whether it’s really the right fit for you … or a mid-career lawyer feeling pulled toward a career in education … or a stay-at-home parent ready to return to the workforce doing something different than you did before … “not knowing” can be uncomfortable — or downright paralyzing.

anxiety career change

Recognizing, acknowledging and working through the anxiety that comes from uncertainty around your career path can help pave the way to clarity. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you process that anxiety:

1. Accept the fact that anxiety is a perception.

It can feel very real to you — and it can manifest itself in a variety of physiological symptoms — but anxiety itself isn’t tangible, visible or measurable. Anxiety isn’t rooted in events or circumstances; rather, it stems from your thoughts associated with those events or circumstances. This is really good news because while you can’t control the external factors in life, you always have control (100 percent control!) over your thoughts.

Tip: Increase your awareness of your thoughts, then tweak them accordingly. “I don’t know what my next career move will be, but I’m going to figure it” out has a far more empowering ring to it than “I don’t know what to do next and I have no idea how I’ll ever figure it out — or if I’ll ever figure it out.” Be mindful of the messages you tell yourself; you usually believe them.

Related: Our Accountability Mirror™ and MindMastery™ workshops will help you explore the ways you might be standing in your own way, train you to break nonproductive patterns and facilitate success. The transformation is real, and the results can be game-changing. 

2. Anxiety is uncomfortable, but won’t kill you.

You don’t have to be a full-fledged arachnophobe to let the sight of a hairy, black house spider send you flying into the next room. In your head, you know that it doesn’t pose an actual threat to your safety, but it sure gets the adrenaline pumping. Anxiety is like that ugly spider. You have a much better chance of squashing it than it does of squashing you.

Tip: Put anxiety in its place. It’s uncomfortable, but its threat is only to your peace of mind. Remember that you’re bigger than it, even if it feels bigger than you. Not knowing what comes next in your career can loom large, but in the grand scheme, it is a temporary state — one that will last as long as you allow it to.

3. Resilience is a powerful antidote to anxiety.

Anxiety may be stubborn, but it’s not invincible. One of the most powerful ways to conquer anxiety — around career hiccups, or any other obstacles in life — is to cultivate resilience. Bouncing back from challenges, viewing failures as lessons, and believing that, despite peaks, valleys and dense forests, you’ll be just fine will help you ward off anxiety. You’ll come to realize that anxiety is not only unproductive, it’s actually counter-productive — not to mention an unnecessary drain on your mental energy.

chaos to order

Tip: Focus on developing resilience with the same determination you would toward honing any other skill. Resilience begins with a heightened self-awareness, and a willingness to accept accountability for your thoughts, moods and behaviors. It involves letting go of blame, including forgiving yourself and learning from your mistakes rather than berating yourself for them. And, like any skill, cultivating resilience requires perseverance and consistent practice.

Related: Want to Succeed in Your Career? Build Resilience

4. Anxiety can be a gift.

Anxiety is a signal: Something doesn’t feel right — because something isn’t right. The anxiety around not knowing “what you want to be when you grow up” can be exactly the push you need to figure it out. The anxiety that often accompanies a career crossroads can be a powerful impetus to explore your options. The anxiety you feel on Sunday nights can motivate you to make a change, whether in your career or in your mindset.

Tip: The optimal flip side of anxiety is peace. For some, however, it’s complacency. Quoting Hall & Oates, circa 1976: “The strong give up and move on; the weak give up and stay.” Acknowledging your anxiety — noticing it, labeling it and seeing it for what it’s worth — is the first step in pushing through it … to the optimal flip side.

It really is possible to look forward to Mondays once you identify a career that aligns with your talents, interests and natural abilities. If you’re struggling to find that right fit, our certified career coaches can help you explore your options through the use of a proven, proprietary process.

Author’s note: I am not a coach, but I work with some of the best in the country! For teaching me, inspiring me and helping me overcome my own struggles with anxiety over the unknown, I give special thanks to Jody Michael, Nancy Scheel and Anna Bray.

Stuck in the wrong career - four steps to get unstuck