My Career Break Failed Because Fear Got the Best of Me

I’ve written before about how I decided to take a step back from full-time work to take a career break and pursue my own projects and passions.

I wanted to focus on my own work, my personal life, and recovering from burnout. So I turned in my notice and resolved to spend 2019 doing all that, and maybe freelancing a little here and there.

Quitting my job was risky and I thought it would be the scariest part of this process. Hoo mama, I was so, so wrong.

January to February: floundering in fear 

Staring down the wide-open days of my career break was terrifying. It brought on panic and deep, irrational fear — and I wasn’t even sure why. It didn’t make sense that removing demands and stress from my life made me feel more scared and stressed.

But it did. And fear is also a tricky emotion. It’s one of the most difficult emotions to manage because it’s inherently instinctive, not rational. I can reason with shame, self-doubt, jealousy, anger, or other uncomfortable emotions. But I can’t necessarily talk my nervous system into believing it’s safe when it’s perceiving that I’m surrounded by threats. 

I didn’t expect this intense fear, so it completely blindsided me. It got to me bad. I was the opposite of a Brave Saver in the first few months of this year. I bent to the fear. 

Publishing on Brave Saver intensified my fears and sent the alarm bells ringing in my head, so I did it less often and only after days of tweaking and perfecting a post. 

I worked a few freelance gigs, which quieted my panic brain and felt comfortingly safe. So I chased more of those, but without much discretion. I found it hard to turn down work — even when it was less pay or more work than I was looking for. Saying no to opportunities and walking away from money scared me more than saying no to myself and walking away from my free time. 

I retreated into the safety of overwork. In no time, I was overcommitted and working as much or more than I had at my full-time job.

My mantra at the time: a panicked “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

What am I really so scared of?

I was self aware enough to know I was overcommitting and letting my fear run the show. Yet I simply watched myself make these weird, nonsensical choices, held in place by anxiety and unable to bring myself to step away and change directions.

This career break was everything I’d wanted, and yet I couldn’t stop stomping all over the good intentions I’d had for it.

My inner dialogue ran through the whole thing, again and again. Why did I just email that person back, when I’m already as booked as I care to be? Why am I agreeing to this deadline that I can already tell is too near? Why am I so scared to post to Brave Saver?

What am I really so afraid of?

Slowly, I picked apart my fears and better understood the hurts and worries at their roots.

Turning down work brought up fears that I wasn’t contributing enough to my family’s finances, or that I would damage my career. But on closer look, there were underlying fears: that I’m just afraid or unwilling to do the hard work, that I’m lazy, that I’m a burden. That I must constantly be working to prove and earn my worth.

Committing to Brave Saver meant putting myself out there in a new, vulnerable, and exposing way. I was used to making content for other websites or outlets, often assigned to write articles based on others’ ideas. But with my own site, the possibility of failure was more real — and more personal. Putting faith in my own ideas left me with no editor or big brand to hide behind.

In both cases, I was stepping out of my comfort zone. My safety blanket of overwork and perfectionism had protected me from others’ criticisms and disappointments with me. I wasn’t yet ready to give that up.

March to May: Forming my anti-fear strategy

As I teased out the fears, I had to be honest with myself: my fear-based choices were taking me far from the path I intended to walk, and very fast.

It caught up to me in March, when I was hit with the full force of my overcommitments. I scrambled to get everything done and turned in on time. I pulled late-nighters and worked on the weekends. It was a month-long sprint to button it all up, and by the end of it, I was exhausted.

I did it to myself, but I knew then: I was unwilling to keep doing this. I needed to make some big changes to how I managed my freelance business:

  • I set concrete income goals in line with my personal money goals. A “bare minimum” floor I needed to surpass each month, and a “nice to have” amount that would give us more room in our budget without overloading me with work.
  • I took my income goals seriously. As long as I hit my income minimum, I wouldn’t seek out new clients. And once I hit the “nice to have” number, it was time to start turning down assignments.
  • I pared down my client list. I scaled back on the work I dreaded the most, which immediately opened up my schedule and eased my stress.
  • I committed to saying “no” more and asking for allowances when I needed them — even if doing so made me deeply uncomfortable. I knew the upfront awkwardness of resisting my people-pleasing impulses was worth it to avoid the more intense and harmful discomfort of overcommitting and overworking.

As I made these changes, little by little, things started improving.

The fears were still there, and I still spent hours dealing with them — but I now had a strategy for doing so. Moment to moment and day to day, I chose to recommit to building what I wanted (balance, time to do non-work things, fun) rather than spend all my energy avoiding feelings I didn’t.

My new mantra: “This is scary and hard. I’m doing it anyway.” 

June to July: Owning What I Want

April and May were huge improvements over March. I had begun to find my confidence in carving out my own path.

I also had to admit that I still felt a bit lost. While my freelance work was more manageable, I still wasn’t sure it was what I wanted to focus on. 

For my 30th birthday in June, I visited my friend Shannon (she’s also a writer who shares top-notch advice for creative professionals). With her help, I sorted through what I was feeling, thinking, and wanting. Slowly, my next steps crystalized:

  • I wanted to take six months to focus almost exclusively on building Brave Saver.
  • I wanted more time to spend with my family and managing my household.
  • I wanted to slow down and create more fun and enjoyment in my life.

These were the same things I’d wanted all along. But now, I’d worked through all my options and obstacles enough that I finally felt ready. It would still be scary and hard, but I would do it anyway.

And this time I followed up with what I wanted. I reviewed my finances yet again and made a plan to ensure the bills were paid and financial goals were adjusted according to my loss of income. I told several clients that July would be my last month of availability for the rest of the year. And I began the process of shifting my mindset and daily actions to be in line with the priorities I’d set.

Up next: A second chance at a true career break

Now, July has ended and I’m wrapping up the last of my paid work that’s winding down. I’m keeping one or two clients, working 4-8 hours per week. Beyond that, I’m setting out to create more balance in my day-to-day and focus on my priorities: Brave Saver, my family and home life, and my own joy.

I’m only planning for it to last 6 months. After that, I’m not sure what. And that’s ok — I’ll figure it out as this break draws to a close.

For now, I’m really enjoying the power and freedom of being able to say what I want and really go for it, even if fear’s riding along with me.

Photo by Patrick Fischer on Unsplash

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7 Comments

  • Reply
    Abigail @ipickuppennies
    August 1, 2019 at 3:42 pm

    Anxiety is a hard thing to battle for sure. I’m glad you were able to deconstruct some of the fears and get to the root of the issue. And that that allowed you to overcome your fears enough to go for what you really wanted. Way to go!

  • Reply
    Elise at Financial Fitness Fanatic
    August 2, 2019 at 7:33 pm

    I appreciate your honesty in writing this post. Anxiety in general is not yet openly discussed enough in this community. And yet, it’s an especially important topic, as it is completely reasonable and sometimes expected to experience a certain level of anxiety when making a massive shift in one’s work-related life. It does sound like you have dedicated some time for thoughtful reflection towards this, and I am hoping you find clarity as you go forward on this journey!

    Elise

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      August 9, 2019 at 10:57 pm

      Anxiety is hard to deal with. And in retrospect I can see why this big change brought a lot of it up, but it’s not something I knew to expect. Thanks for pointing out that it makes sense to have some fear come up with such big changes. and thanks for commenting!

  • Reply
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life
    August 5, 2019 at 10:10 pm

    I’m glad you had a long enough break planned that you could work through that fear and anxiety before running out of time. Just the thought of taking a break like that gives me the shivers, personally, so hat’s off to you that you’re back on track even with fear sitting in the sidecar.

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      August 9, 2019 at 10:55 pm

      To be honest… I didn’t have a long break planned. But I worked (and earned) enough that I can afford to kind of start over. Thanks for commenting!

  • Reply
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