Is fear of the unknown holding you back?

fear of the unknown

As a coach, I hear a lot about fear. Fear of failure and not knowing what might happen. Having space to consider this and find ways of reframing can make those fears diminish and the thought of trying something new or stepping out of the comfort zone a lot easier.

The unknown.  We dread it.  It’s uncharted territory.  We don’t know what we’ll find there.  There are so many reasons for us to feel uncomfortable about this at best and to fear and avoid it at all costs at worst. We will choose to stay with what we know, no matter how uncomfortable, frustrated, unhappy even it makes us.  We will stay in a job we hate, avoid making new decisions in business, stay with an often stagnant status quo, longing for change, but unable to cross into the unknown.  

Human beings like to take the easy route

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Life can go by very quickly and nothing changes if we refuse to venture into the unknown.  That can mean we never really enjoy our time and rarely live up to our full potential. We are at the mercy of other people impacting our lives. Human beings like to take the easy route, the path of least resistance and that so often means staying put.  This becomes habit, and as we all know, habits are very difficult to break.  There will be a lot of internal resistance, holding us back from stepping into something new.  We will even stop ourselves thinking about it, we just won’t go there, to avoid having to face a decision or whether or not we’ll cross that threshold.  There may be a little voice telling you that change is needed, wanted.  But we are good at ignoring the voice and getting on with the day to day routine.

It can be about control too.  Even in an unhappy situation, we convince ourselves we have some level of control. Moving out of this known into the unknown means we think we will no longer have any control.  And we don’t like that. And it’s about unpredictability – something else we don’t tend to like.  We like the predictable, the safe, the known.

Case study

I worked with a woman a while ago who hated her job, it made her so unhappy and stressed she became physically ill with back ache and headaches.  She had to commute over an hour each way to her workplace which further increased the stress.  She found her manager’s daily micro aggressions chipped away at her self esteem, which was already at rock bottom.  And yet, she preferred to hold on to this unhappy way of life rather than make the decisions to look for something else.  She resisted friends and family who tried to help and make suggestions.  She just put one foot in front of the other, kept her head down and got on with it.  Her husband finally persuaded her to work with me and after some discussion, she said she was afraid of what the alternatives were.  She preferred the known discomfort.  She had a fear of what might be out there.

I’m sure many can relate to this thinking on various levels. So many of us put up with stuff as it’s easier than doing something different.  But this is where we become truly stuck and stagnant.  And for most of us this is not a place we can thrive or be happy.  Some people dread the unknown but will go there as they know change is part of life, it’s where we can find better ways of living and working.  Others have such a strong fear of the unknown that they become paralysed and avoid it at all cost.  In short, moving into the unknown is all about stepping out of our comfort time, big time, and not many of us like doing that!

So let’s look at some ways of changing our attitude towards facing the unknown.

Let me start with a quote.

When in doubt, choose change. I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better. There is nothing permanent except change. I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.

George Lichtenberg

This highlights the necessity of change.  It is something we cannot avoid, hard as we try. 

If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got (Henry Ford) and that’s so true.  How can anything change for the better if we insist on doing the same over and over.  Challenge yourself to accept small changes.  That they are part of life and by making these changes, we can really get to know what we want and like. This is the first step and can lead us to finding the confidence to make change happen.

In the way that people are encouraged to give up smoking by changing the belief from “I am a smoker” to “I am not a smoker” you can change your belief from “I don’t like change” to “I quite like change”.

Choose to change one small thing

By choosing to change just one small thing in our routine and way we do things will cause a ripple.  It can be changing the way you think about something, eg I have the courage to speak to that person or something we do eg I will go and sit with the others after meetings to get to know them better.  Both these things will bring different outcomes compared to those if we didn’t and stayed stuck.  And it puts the power back in our hands, whereas if we remain passive, change will still happen, but it will be dictated by others.

Question your assumptions

Next I’d recommend questioning your assumptions – what are your beliefs around the changes needed? A client I worked with assumed he would never find another job.  This is a big assumption that he overcame by talking to others and researching job vacancies.  This might seem obvious, but this assumption seemed entirely reasonable to him at the time.  He has since found another job and he can’t quite believe that this held him back.

Break it down

Break it down into parts – what do you need to know? Fear of the unknown is often because it’s just that – unknown.  So if we ask ourselves what we need to know, we can start making it a bit less unknown and more known.  For example if you’d love to start a business but just won’t go there, start taking some steps to finding out what it would entail.  How much money would you need, what are others doing in similar businesses? Read as much as you can about it and start talking to people about your idea.  Slowly the whole idea will seem less scary.

See it as part of a story

What also helps is seeing it all as a story. Your story is all about going from known to unknown to known again and it is all connected and all part of life.  See the journey as fascinating, approach it with curiosity. Ask yourself ‘what might happen next?” And see if you can look forward to finding out!  Accept that change to the unknown is part of your story, a story that you are choosing for yourself.  This can be very empowering as I said, bringing the power back to a proactive you, rather than being passive and handing the power over to others.

Look back – you’ve done it before!

Another useful way of tackling a fear of the unknown is to look back.  Take some time to write down occasions where you’ve gone from known to unknown to known again.  It might be when you took your first job.  You didn’t know what it would be like but soon found out and it became part of your life.  Or you might have moved to a new town.  Or it can be as simple as thinking about going on holiday somewhere new.  You didn’t know it and it felt strange at first, but after even a day, we start to feel acclimatised and it feels more known.  The point is, you’ve done it before.  You can do it again.  And will, over and over.  The unknown if you reframe, is actually a process you know pretty well!  You can take this a step further and zoom out into the future and to your imaginary future self.  They will look back in the same way and will know all about the change that happened.  They got through it and learned.  Ask them what advice they’d give you. Try it now – what might your future self say to you now?  9 times out of 10, when I do this with coaching clients, they say, “just do it and believe in yourself”.


A woman I worked with owned a shop. She hated it and was losing money.  It has been for some years, but the fear of the unknown had created a level of paralysis which meant that she had just carried on, running the shop, with levels of stress and anxiety rocketing.  She know it was not sustainable, but couldn’t face making any decisions.  She was at the end of her tether and a family member persuaded her to approach me.  As we dug deeper, it was clear that she just wouldn’t allow herself to consider making any changes – she wouldn’t even go there – so deep was the paralysis and fear.  We stepped through a number of the techniques I’ve mentioned and  it became apparent that the unknown would highlight a number of challenges – culminating with the realisation that her life’s dream of running a shop was not for her.  The complex set of emotions and beliefs she had around this kept her in the spiral of hating her work and losing money.

She made a list of what she needed to know, what her options were, and the changes she’d need to make. By breaking each one down into a realistic, do-able task, she stepped carefully into the unknown.  She realised that she’d been into the unknown many times before – opening the shop was of course one big example of this and that she had options. Slowly her confidence grew and the unknown became less of a scary place. She found ways of improving the business and finding a buyer.  She found a job.  She realised she was not cut out for owning a small business and preferred to work in one.  She saw this as part of her story.  One of the biggest changes she made was to talk to others about her unhappiness.  She’d kept it all silent out of fear of others criticising.  (Another big fear that holds us back – there’s an episode on this you might like!)

She is so much happier now and less stressed.

Ideas to overcome the fear

So if you fear the unknown, and this fear keeps you stuck, perhaps in a place that you’re not particularly happy, remember the following:

  1. Persuade yourself that change is part of life and that you can be curious about it
  2. Change one small thing that you do or think.  Notice the impact
  3. Break it down into smaller parts and ask yourself what do you need to know? Talk to people, read up, do some research.  The unknown will slowly become more known.
  4. Question your assumptions.  A firm assumption that the unknown is bad is not helping you. Challenge it or change it.
  5. Look back at times when you’ve gone from unknown to known.  Realise that you’ve done it before and adapted.
  6. Ask you future self what they’d do.  

Realise that your fears are normal and you can overcome them by seeing things differently. Trust yourself.

I hope you’ve found this useful.  I’ll be continuing with this theme of what gets in the way in the next blog, where we’ll look at something that comes up a lot in coaching and that is fear stepping out of your comfort zone.

If you’d like to know more about how working with me as your coach can help get you to where you want to be, get in touch sign up to my mailing list for updates and insights.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Einstein

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”

How true is that?!