Stepping Into The Unknown: Understanding What Holds Us Back

A little over a week ago, I was standing on a beach looking across the Pacific Ocean. It was a moody sort of day, which tends to provoke deeper musings of things within me. I was standing in wonder of just how vast a distance it was across the brooding water to the next piece of land. In the direction I was looking, the answer was 10,000 kilometers. That would get me to the Philippines.

Being in a space of wonder, I imagined myself without the knowledge of what lay out there. I began to try to put myself in the head of someone in the 15th century standing on the shore in Portugal, Spain or France looking across the Atlantic Ocean.

I first imagine myself as a fisherman who sees the sea as how he provides for his family, but fearing being swept away into the great nothingness of the grey waters.

I next see myself as an explorer, fascinated by what might be on the other side and dreaming of discovery and treasure.

The ocean remains a realm that is relatively unexplored. For humankind, it is a metaphor for the unknown. Our lives can feel that way too. What is in our future? As we stand today looking forward much of it cannot be known for certain. How will we approach that uncertainty? Will we be explorers of our own future? Or the fisherman out looking for the same catch as always, knowing that will keep us safe and comfortable?

When you face the unknown, what do you see?

  • Opportunity – you find yourself thinking of the prospects of something exciting, the challenge of the chase, the discovery of new people, places and things. You wade in boldly knowing you will be just fine.
  • Risk – you become immersed in all of the bad things that might happen if you step off the beach. You recall the failures of others as they dared boldly. You subconsciously take a step away from the challenge, preferring the solidity of the ground that you know.
  • Some of each – you find yourself teetering between wading in and stepping back. You know that you need to learn and grow, but there’s this underlying threat to existence as you know it that makes you pause.

What do you feel?

  • Excitement – the opportunity is too hard to ignore. You feel a strong pull to go and explore. If for a moment you think of turning away from it, a sense of loss appears for you. The thought of your adventure begins to dominate your thoughts.
  • Anxiety – a heaviness comes over you as you think about stepping into the unknown. You find yourself looking for other avenues to pursue, or feel a strong need to dive into the details of the adventure, planning for each and every risk that presents itself.
  • A bit of both – the allure of the new catches your interest and you set your mind to taking on the challenge. Sometimes you find yourself unable to pull the trigger, sensing a need to go over your plans one more time for further comfort.

Our emotions are at work here, and the question is whether they are being helpful or not. Fear arises when risk is present. It is our oldest emotion and its purpose is to keep us safe. At healthy levels, it keeps us alert but allows us to continue to venture forward. Too little and we move to action too quickly. Too much and we might move to a fight/flight response inappropriately. The gift of anxiety is helping us understand when something isn’t right and needs our attention. Too little and once again we might “just do it”. Too much and we tend to be too cautious and planful, perhaps inserting too much detail into our planning.

Understanding how these two emotions act on us can be the key to helping us step outside of our comfort zone, where we learn and grow from our new experiences. Learning to manage emotions in real time can help us stay outside our comfort zone when the pressure gets turned up, because we have mastered the art of recognizing our emotions quickly, and elevating management of our reactions from our subconscious to our conscious mind.

It is easy to talk about doing this, but it’s harder to put into practice. The key step is to get good at recognizing our emotions as they happen. How do we do that?

Start by doing it after the fact. A couple of times a day, take some time to reflect back on the past few hours and all of the situations you have been in. Write down each of the emotions you experienced and the situation that gave rise to them. Put yourself back in the situation and see if you can notice how you felt physically and write that down too. The more practiced we get at noticing and naming our emotions, the better we are at interrupting them in real time.

At a more advanced level, we build the practice of noticing into our “real time routines”. For example, we might be in a review with our manager who seems to be saying that we made a mistake. We are being defensive and we become aware that we are experiencing fear – a fear that our job may be at risk. We elevate this fear to our consciousness, and we can now process the situation rationally and as a result engage in a conversation that diffuses the fear and clarifies the facts.

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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

One thought on “Stepping Into The Unknown: Understanding What Holds Us Back

  1. So your fisherman was thinking of security, the explorer of opportunities and the risk / reward ratios would differ for each and they could each weigh up which was greater (the reward or the risk) and decide on a course of action. However, some situations involve several angles such as retiring and moving away which involves various levels of change (freedom of opportunities, where to live, financial security, stability, social networks etc) and the reward of one may put another at risk. For example a less expensive area or home may provide less social networks yet a more expensive one may be less opportunistic for travel etc. How does one balance out conflicting risk / rewards such as these?

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