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Are You Trapped in the What-if Cycle of Despair?

How to stop worrying about What If and move into action

A woman sits at a desk, thinking about What-ifs and working on her laptop

As a Career Coach, one of the most common objections I hear from potential clients, about why they have felt unable to move forward with a career change that they know they need, is actually a hypothetical worry.

It's the worry of What-If.

This simple phrase somehow got an iron-clad grip on our subconscious sometime in adolescence and never let go.

Let's break down what it it, what it does to us, and how to loosen it's strangle-hold on our brains.

What Is The What-If Trap?

This is the incessant, nagging worry that something which has not yet happened, and for which you have no evidence WILL happen, may still come true.

As I discussed in this earlier article, it's very easy to let fear keep us stuck. When we are in jobs we dislike, What-Ifs can sound like:

  • What if I change roles, and hate it?

  • What if it's too late to do a career change at 30?

  • What if it's too late to do a career change at 40?

  • What if people judge my decision?

  • What if I never find something I like?

  • What if I have to take an enormous pay cut?

  • What if the next role is worse than this one?

What Does The What-If Trap Do?

This thought-loop of worry has some teeth.

It keeps us trapped in rumination, inaction and indecision. It's an issue with mindset, yet with real-world results.

We feel unable to actually take a step forward, because the simple threat of What-If is looming so very large in our minds.

“You'll never get anywhere if you go about what-iffing like that.” – Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The result of this can be that you stay where you are, paralysed in fear, and unable to make the change that you know is in your best interest, out of worship of this all-fearing, yet entirely hypothetical, thought.

And where might this get you? Trapped in a job you don't enjoy, with damage to your mental health, sleep, relationships and happiness.

It means business.

So, how do we wriggle free from it's grip? Here are 3 tips to consider:

Tip #1 - Ask It For The Numbers

What's the likelihood of this actually happening?

The What-If power comes from not knowing, so let's find out, shall we?

Let's say you want to do a different job, and the worse-case scenario is that you'll hate it.

OK - so what would have to happen, in what order, for that to come true? Well, you'd have to:

  • Be lied to in the interview

  • Not ask any of the questions to find out about their culture

  • Not do any of the research about the company

  • Have a boss who is worse than Margaret in accounting

  • Have somehow accepted a job which violates all your non-negotiables on pay, commute, working pattern, etc.

  • Be given awful projects, with awful clients, alongside awful colleagues, all at once

So, what's the chance that just one of these things come true? What's the chance that all have to come true, in the right order, for maximum devastation? Let's say it's less than 5%. This puts a fresh perspective on it doesn't it?

And then, in the case that this 5% does come to fruition, well, what would you do? This brings us onto the next point...

Tip #2 - Make A Plan

What-Ifs feel overwhelming because you're focused on the thing coming true. But, let's say it does come true.

How would you cope with it?

Because again, this is about taking the fear away by minimising the 'not knowing'.

Here, you can make a plan for exactly what you would do. You now have an answer to the What-If question.

What if that 5% chance comes true and you DO hate the job?

Well, then you might make a plan such as:

  • I would probably be able to tell within 3 months

  • I would hand in my notice

  • I would get temp work if I needed to in the interim

  • I would apply for a different job, and now I would know more info about what I am trying to avoid

  • I would get really clear on how to explain this on my CV, which is simple really given this happens all the time

  • If I absolutely had to, I could reapply for a similar role to my current one, knowing I can do it, and make a fresh plan from which case I'll be no worse off than I am now.

Now you have quite a specific mental model for what you would do to manage this, on the slim chance it did happen.

Remember, there will likely be hundreds of examples in your life where you didn't know how something was going to pan out, but you did it anyway.

Tip #3 - Flip The What-If On Its Head

Let's say that you're resigned to the idea of the What-Ifs as here to stay.

OK, let's flip the focus. Think about What-Ifs from the other side.

What if you never find out what other roles are out there for you? What is the opportunity cost?

What if your ideal role is within reach, but you decide to settle for a job that's 'fine' out of fear of getting it wrong?

You see, two can play this game.

What if you never attempt it and stay unhappy?

Step Out Of What If and Into Action

If you're ready to step out of your thought-loop and into action, why not book a call and let's discuss how coaching can help you move into a new phase of your career, without the overwhelm.

Always on your side,

CEO and Founder, Clarity Coaching with Louise


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