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3 fears that trap midlife women in unhappy work

Woman sitting in a box

Virtually every week, I hear from scores of midlife professionals around the globe who long for something more, different or better in their jobs and careers, but can’t seem to get out of the gate to take action or decide the best directions to pursue.

At the heart of these questions is one key element: fear. But fear about career change disguises itself in myriad confusing ways that we don’t recognize as fear. The research I’ve conducted over the past 13 years reveals three top fears that keep midlife professionals locked in unhappy careers and in quiet (and not so quiet) desperation, sometimes for a lifetime.

Here they are:

Fear of losing the money they’ve worked so hard to amass.

This may seem obvious, but the fear of loss of money is the most potent block to making any change for midlife professionals. The challenge here is that money, for many, is such a big, confusing and emotionally charged topic that they lose their ability to think and plan rationally around it. And the fear of lost money looms so large that many people won’t even take one micro step to begin to explore what they could do differently in their jobs or careers.

I have clients with millions of dollars in savings, yet they’ve grown up with a traumatic scarcity mentality so that, emotionally, they feel they will never have enough money to be happy and secure. And that fear prevents them from even entertaining or exploring the idea of change.

Others truly do have serious financial concerns and problems, but they haven’t been able to address those in effective, empowered ways. They’re continually struggling to pay their bills, to plan for the future or keep up with the lifestyle they’ve created that may be beyond their means.

Tip: If fear of lost money is what keeps you stuck, seek outside help this month in the form of a great financial advisor to help you take a long, hard and rational look at your money situation. Start planning more effectively, and less emotionally, for the future. And get very clear on your own money story and money programming so past trauma or fears around money won’t continue to influence you in unconscious ways.

Fear that they’re not good, smart or capable enough to build new skills or pursue new directions.

One of my career coaching clients is talented, accomplished and brilliant, yet he doesn’t see his accomplishments in a clear light. He feels flattened by his experiences at work and believes his challenges indicate he’s not valuable or capable.

When we’ve had serious challenges at work (which almost all of us have), or if we’ve been passed over for a raise or promotion, or not advanced through an interview process for an exciting new job, we often feel that we’re a failure or “less than” — not talented, capable or competitive enough to be desirable in the workforce. And often we lose the ability to see clearly what we have to offer. Therefore, we fail to speak powerfully about our own achievements, contributions and talents.

Tip: This weekend, take some time for yourself and brainstorm the “20 facts of you” — the 20 accomplishments and contributions you’ve made over the arc of your career that were important, powerful and moved the needle to greater success for your team, department or company.

Write down all that you did, and how you did it, and detail the ways in which you contributed that no one else could replicate because of your unique set of skills, perspectives and experience. You need to recognize just how you stand out.

Fear of taking a stand, making a decision and choosing between numerous new, exciting directions.

This fear of making the wrong decision around what to pursue trips up so many midlife professionals today. They've shared with me, “I have so many ideas I want to pursue that I can’t choose!” or "I'm just not sure which of these ideas would be best" so they stay paralyzed by the worry that they'll pick the wrong direction to focus on.

Tip: This fear is actually very easy to address with three steps:

1. Try on and explore in every possible way the “living identity” of the directions you’re exploring.

The reality of many of the careers we dream of are often much different than we'd think. In other words, the living experience and role of teacher or therapist or singer or bed-and-breakfast owner (or whatever you dream of) is often very different from the fantasy you’ve projected onto it.

For instance, I became a therapist because I believed that my life would be full of meaning, purpose and value by helping others. For me, it was that, but it was also extremely emotionally challenging and draining, working with rape, incest, pedophilia, suicidality, drug addiction, attempted murder and more. If I had researched more fully the actual living experience of being a therapist and interviewed more therapists doing the real work of therapy in my community (rather than just interviewing a few wealthy therapists who were best-selling authors and didn’t need to take insurance, etc.), I would have understood more clearly the reality of the job and seen it was different from what I dreamed it was.

2. Do the thing you dream to do, alongside your other roles.

As I like to say, “Writers write, dancers dance, teachers teach.”

If you want to write a book, start by taking a writing class and get moving with an ongoing structure, process and accountability. If you want to teach, start by developing the curriculum, then pitch it to a community college or continuing education center in your area. Don’t think you have to throw away all your other work to do the creative projects you dream of.

3. Prioritize and choose the thing you'll regret most if you don't do it.

Finally, if you're still confused as to which direction to pursue, choose the one thing that you'll regret most, at the end of your life, not having tried. The key is to avoid those deep, painful regrets that make you feel you wasted your life in endeavors that failed to bring you joy, meaning and fulfillment.

In the end, fear and excuses will keep you stuck in an unfulfilling career and life unless you commit to finding brave and getting in the cage with those fears. A happier career or role is available to you, but only if you choose to not let fear keep you from becoming the person and the professional you want to be.

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Kathy Caprino is founder and president of Ellia Communications Inc. and author of Breakdown, Breakthrough. For her original post on this topic, visit Forbes.com.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.