In these next few posts I’m all about some quick examples of what I mean when I use the word “unpacking” – making the effort to sort out and deal with our anxious thinking.

I use that word because this work of dealing with anxiety and fear is very much about opening up the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place – a lot like opening up a suitcase, or cleaning out a messy closet.

So hang on to your hats – here we go. Remember that the names have been changed to protect the anxious… 🙂

Applying For a New Job/Changing Careers

An old friend and co-worker, Martha, has been wanting to change jobs for the last 5 years. She really wants to chase down a new kind of work experience, something much closer to what actually interests her about work.

She loves to cook. She has taken cooking classes, she follows the Food Network like an addict and she is constantly experimenting in the kitchen (just ask her husband.) But she’s afraid of making the jump…

We have sat and talked several times about this, attempting to unpack her anxiety about this move she wanted to make. At the start all she was clear about her fears was that she wasn’t confident that she could make a living as a chef.

She makes pretty good money doing what she does now (accounting work, manager). So her first clear worry was that she’d take a big hit financially, and that fear alone had stopped her cold from making any change.

So we talked about that fear. She admitted that she really hadn’t done any research about what chefs can make at the start, or how long it can take to make even better money as they get some experience.

She realized that even thinking about seriously looking at cooking for a career was scary, so scary it had made her run away from any good data-gathering. She was (say it with me) seeing it as a crisis, rather than as a puzzle and a challenge to better understand.

The next time we talked she done some of that research, and discovered that she stood a good chance of making something close to what she was currently making. She’d take a small hit, but in a couple of years could definitely be back up to where she is now – and she would be enjoying her work a whole lot more than she does now.

One Fear Down – Wait, Here’s Another

But as she was getting this information she found herself, after some initial loss of anxiety, getting anxious again. Now she was confused – why was she still anxious?

As luck would have it she was talking to a co-worker, and the co-worker said nervously that she’d NEVER risk anything as scary as cooking for someone else – what if she made a mistake? What if she really blew it?

My friend Martha realized that she was also afraid of that, and that in fact she had been afraid of this potential for failure all along. So there was another fear in her head, and as she sorted out the making-enough-money fear this second fear pushed its way to the front of the line.

She wondered aloud to me in our second conversation if this wasn’t the most serious fear of the two – and I suspect she was right.

We brain-stormed the actual seriousness of her failing at cooking. She had already demonstrated she was pretty dang good at her interest/craft, having done it for years and years.

She knew from her work experience that she would make mistakes in her new job, but that she would also learn and get better at her work.

She said she was sure there would be bad days and good days on the learning curve, but the more she thought about it the less scary it seemed to make some mistakes on the way to a much more interesting work life.

She finally decided to throw a party at her house and cook for the whole thing – something, interestingly enough, she had never done. The next time we talked she was pretty pleased with herself – she had made dinner for 15 people, including dessert, and it came off great.

She said she freaked herself out all day about making a mistake, only to forget as she got down to cooking, and the next thing she knew the party was over!

She said it had definitely helped to understand that she was afraid of taking the chance of failing, and that the baby step of cooking for friends had been a good first move for her facing her fear

Alright – Nice – But Wait, There’s More Fear

About two weeks later she called and told me she was seriously freaking out. She had been getting very excited about really deciding to make a move, and had been talking about it with her husband.

He had been supportive of her interests and research, but now that she was actually talking about becoming a cook for a job it rattled it some of his own fears (in his case, money and her having a different work schedule.) This in turn sparked one of her fears – what if he was unhappy with her for making this move?

The good news is that even as we talked she was starting to unpack it on her own. She told me that she wanted to still give it a try, and that she would talk it through with him – she wasn’t going to let her fear, or his fear, stop her from seeing if this was a thing she really wanted to do. She realized that she had never really discussed the specifics of what she could make as a chef with him.

She also realized that just because he was afraid didn’t mean she should decide FOR him that it was too scary for him to deal with. HE needed to let her know that, and she was willing to take the time to let him sort out his fears about her making this career change.

She wasn’t precisely sure how that would work, but she was becoming more confident that things would work out as she kept facing her anxiety.

Open Up That Suitcase!

This is all pretty interesting to me. She had three specific fears around this major decision, and she needed to move through all of them to be free to make her move.

In each case it was converting the crisis of her anxiety (what if she didn’t make enough money, what if she failed as a chef, what if her husband got angry with her?) to the problem each of them actually was for her.

In other words she directly challenged her “what if?” thinking, and each time it helped sort more of her anxiety out in her thinking.

I hope you see in this first example how we can have layers of anxious thoughts that make us fearful, and that often we’ll sort out one anxious worry, only to have the next in line start to try and make us crazy.

All of that is to be expected, and we don’t need to make it a big deal. We’ll feel anxious, sure – even panicky and terrified sometimes. We can expect some of that as we sort out what is scaring us. That is unpacking.

OK, there’s an example for you to chew on (and maybe apply to your own situation.) Next up – another example of unplugging anxiety in our thinking.