Overcoming the Fear of the Unknown in the Workplace
Dealing with fear of the unknown is difficult. Even though we order our lives with schedules, patterns, and habits, there is always the unexpected. Accidents happen, people get upset, and disasters occur. When things like this happen on a regular basis, a person can get stuck in "fight or flight" mode, and forget what "normal life" is like.
Negative anticipation of what might happen leads to worry, and worry has its physical symptoms:
- stomach upset
- sweaty palms
- overactive salivary glands
- digestive distress
- numbness and tingling
The resulting state of mind inhibits individual work productivity and strains relationships. It leads to poor judgement during the decision making process, self-depreciation, and feelings of depression. Irrational thought patterns take over as automatic responses continue in a downward spiral of negativity that is difficult to break.
In order to change the fear of the unknown, it is necessary to understand the irrational beliefs that are at its core. The "I Am" wheel shown below illustrates how thoughts, feelings, actions, and desires all affect one another, and have at their center the core belief system based on the "I am" self-concept.
For example, the self-concept "I am weak" leads to the thought that others are stronger and thus have more power. The result includes feelings of inferiority, getting out of other people's way, and a desire to withdraw in social or work situations.
The following irrational beliefs are seeds of fear of the unknown:
- I am in control
This particular core self-concept is problematic in that it does not allow for flexibility. Dealing with the unknown requires the ability to adapt. Planning and preparation are necessary for a successful life, but it is impossible to be ready for everything that happens. The unexpected will surely occur, and does so on a regular basis. People drop by, phone calls come, mistakes are made, and thankfully, life goes on. Believing that we can be in control of all outcomes we are involved with is irrational because it is impossible. Trying to do so brings constant anticipation with hyper-arousal at its peak.
"I am in control" equals "I am responsible for the outcome." Success or failure becomes personal and stress levels are at an all time high. Replace "I am in control" with "I am prepared." "I am prepared" equals "I make a difference and am willing to work, no matter what happens." In this way, plans and preparations are in place for those situations that occur frequently, yet can be changed as circumstance require. Success or failure are no longer personal, rather the result of working with others in such a way as to bring out the best possible result given the situation at hand.
- I am competent
Competence is based upon knowledge and learning gained from prior study and experience. Unfortunately, the unknown is unpredictable, and does not always fit into the categories of our understanding. We do not know what or who is coming, and how to prepare in advance. The anticipatory anxiety leads to racing heartbeat and its accompanying overwhelming thoughts. We try to consider all of the options and end up unavailable for the present in an effort to be ready for the future.
"I am competent" equals "I am right and I know what to do." When the unexpected occurs and the knowledge base is insufficient, "I am competent" becomes "I am incompetent" and feelings of self-worth plummet. Replace "I am competent" with "I am able." "I am able" equals "I am a human being with talents and abilities, I can figure this out." Feelings of self-worth are preserved in spite of the difficulty of the situation. The five senses are employed in gathering information, and the brain is able to process and proceed.
- I am important
Unexpected situations, especially those that are considered crises, require immediate action. It is necessary to set aside whatever agenda we are working on at the moment and deal with what is happening, including our own feelings of what we thought needed to be done in favor of what others may bring into the picture. It is easy to feel bothered or annoyed by the other person, or even to feel that we have been robbed of the time set aside for a particular project. Unfortunately, these feelings are readily evident, and we may appear to dislike the other person or to have something against them. We may be branded as a "stick in the mud" or someone difficult to work with.
"I am important" equals "I am high priority, therefore, my needs will be met and what I want to get done will get done." This leads to feelings of competition between workers, and even power struggles with employers. Replace "I am important" with "I am needed." "I am needed" equals "I am a vital part of this organization. I have good ideas, and the things I am working on matter; however, if I need to put them aside for a moment to deal with this situation, I can and will do so." Agendas can be adjusted, and priorities shifted, they are not set in stone, and being willing to make these types of changes makes you even more valuable as a member of the organization. Once the unexpected is taken care of, it is possible to go back to the status quo.
Resources for dealing with anxiety in the workplace
- I am indispensable
The belief that we are the only one who can do what we do is a fallacy that sets a person up for failure. Talent and ability may be innate, but they can also be acquired. Teaching others within the organization to do what we do is enabling success to be spread out and shared by all. Unexpected situations especially require more than one person to deal with them adequately. It may mean someone else taking over what you are doing temporarily while you take care of the emergency, or allowing someone else the learning experience of dealing with the unknown while you take care of other things.
"I am indispensable" equals "I am the only one that is able to do what I do, therefore, I am guaranteed a spot where I currently am." Unfortunately, that is rarely the case, and if something unexpected happens and you do not deal with it appropriately, you may be removed from your place. Change "I am indispensable" to "I am a vital part of this organization." "I am a vital part of this organization" equals "I am here to provide a valuable service. I do the best that I can and help others to do the same." Camaraderie is developed with employers and co-workers, and a spirit of cooperation is engendered.
Changing irrational beliefs
Step 1: Awareness
Noticing the bodily symptoms that are being manifest and that they are connected with what is happening in the environment is becoming aware. For example, I was waking up with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that would gradually increase as I got ready for work. It would peak when I arrived at work and checked the message light on my telephone. If the light was blinking, I would begin to sweat, and my heart beat rapidly. Once the message was dealt with, the symptoms subsided. I was anticipating the phone messages from employees that they would not be at work. Since we were shorthanded, it left me having to do other people's jobs, increasing my level of stress.
Step 2: Identification
There are many ways to become more aware, such as observation, journaling, and talking to others. Through these methods, it is also possible to identify the thought patterns that accompany the symptoms. It may be surprising how strong the thoughts are and the feelings that are associated with them. Sometimes, this is all that is necessary, and the irrational beliefs stick out like a sore thumb. For me, the thoughts centered in "What if..." "What if (name) is not at work? What will I do? Who will take their place? How will (task) get done?" These all seemed to be centered around my irrational belief of "I am competent." If I was able to deal with the situation, I remained competent in my own mind. If I could not, I automatically became "incompetent" by my own definition. Choosing the core belief "I am able" enabled me to retain my feelings of self-worth as I dealt with the situation. It helped me have the courage to ask for help from others if I did not have the resources to fulfill the responsibilities of those missing for that particular day.
Step 3: Replacement
Replacing the negative thought patterns with positive ones is simply a matter of refuting them with truth. In my case, the "what if" thoughts were leading to major symptoms in my stomach. My focus was on the negative aspect of the "what if" statement, meaning the employee not being at work. Not knowing whether the employee would be there or not, changing my "what if" focus to positive, (i.e. "what if (name) is at work?") gave me time to plan the way I would interact with the employee if they were there. I would let them know how valuable they were and how much we needed them. Changing my thoughts in this way helped me to feel better on the way to work, and gave me something positive to focus on. Rather than judging myself as "competent" or "incompetent," I focused on "I am able," realizing that I could help the person feel valued as a person, and perhaps have a desire to come to work more frequently. My relationship with the employee improved, along with my own feelings of self-worth. Some irrational thought patterns are simply not true, and pointing that out to ourselves allows us to replace them with those that are.
Step 4: Renewal
Going through these thought process takes time and effort, and can leave a person feeling exhausted, mentally and physically. Renewal only comes from getting adequate rest, proper nutrition, and allowing the mind and body to relax with pleasant activities. Feelings of self-worth can be reinforced through positive affirmations available through listening to uplifting music, reading things that are inspirational, prayer, and spending time with others. As feelings of self-worth are strengthened, irrational thoughts and beliefs are more readily recognized and refuted, taking less effort in the future.
Step 5: Readiness
Just like physical exercise keeps the body in a state of readiness for physical activity, these steps keep the mind and spirit ready for the unexpected. The first time is always the most difficult, as well as the most painful. Practice brings proficiency, and the ability to more readily recognize irrational thought and belief patterns. Use of these exercises, however, does not preclude the need for counseling or psychological services if mental illness is present.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Denise W Anderson