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The Power Of Self Trust in a Career Context

by Karen Schaffer

How many times have you had someone at the gateway of choosing a new career or transitioning out of an old job, only to have them pull back at the last moment? It’s like they paused on the precipice and then swiftly backed away and declared it the wrong place to jump.

When a career exploration client says to me “I think I’ll just stay where I am” after working so diligently on just the opposite, I always experience a moment of shock followed by a small internal panic – “What am I supposed to do now?!”

Then the panic subsides and I re-focus on the client and what they are telling me by their hasty and undignified retreat from the edge.

They’re telling me they’re not ready

While people can have lots of reasons for not making a decision or choosing a path, there is one invisible principle that is at the foundation of all decision-making. And that’s self-trust. Without self-trust, you are never going to jump off that mountain.

It is virtually guaranteed that people in one will experience fear, rejection and a sense of being “lost” at different times throughout the process. People are at their most vulnerable in a career change, missing the comfort and stability of identity and all that goes with it. A low sense of self-trust then, is a natural outcome of being in a state of the unknown.

However, most people don’t know that their “indecisiveness” is related to self-trust. Most people don’t even know what self-trust is or how it operates. So instead, when they back down from their “great idea” they feel intense failure, shame and anxiety, and then cover up those feelings up with reasons and excuses as to why they are now at a dead run away from something they were so excited about the week before. When a client understands the notion of self-trust, they can create a new set of actions based on what’s needed to build self-trust to get them to feeling fully ready and confident to make the big leap.

What’s the definition of self-trust?

Self-trust is inner decision-making that emanates deeply from the Self (as opposed to opinions/approval/anticipation of what others will say). Self-trust is made up of a few elements: confidence, coherence, safety and a belief in the “possible”.

Inner confidence is very challenging to feel when the way forward is unknown. “Confidence” is not a stable condition – in the real world our confidence goes up and down, often in relation to what is happening outside of us (“I got the interview! They hired the other guy!”). Self-trust ensures that the ups and downs are not so high or so low, and that we are able to return to a stable inner-centeredness no matter what is happening in the external world. Inner confidence also suggests that the person has clarity around what they want and need in a situation, regardless of outside opinion and approval.

Coherence is a unity of thought, emotion, spirit and body. All these levels must be heard, acknowledged and resolved before an authentic sense of self-trust can be reached and a decision made. Your mind may like the idea of becoming a chef but you haven’t yet processed the emotion of how your daily schedule will change or how this job was perceived in your family. Until each of these parts of the Self are in full agreement, you can’t move forward without forcing yourself. And forcing leads to anxiety…which leads to a full fledged panic and running away from the cliff edge.

Safety is about creating steps that are not just achievable but safe – such as taking the time to learn the “lingo” of a brand new field before jumping into the hiring process. Never underestimate how much safety we all need. Safety can be about having our surroundings (having positive, consistent support), our comfort level with something new (researching a company properly before an interview), or learning how to slow things down (taking time to think things through before making decisions even when there are outside pressures to decide). Issues of safety show up everywhere and if the way forward isn’t “safe” – that is if the client keeps pushing into new territory that is well beyond a natural “new things” comfort zone, they will likely freeze or bolt.

And finally self-trust is a deep belief of the possible in the face of the unknown. This leads to a relentless pursuit of alternatives with no attachment to how those alternatives may look. Stuck clients want the outcome to look a certain way and get frustrated or disappointed with the natural morphing of a career exploration process. With a belief in the possible, the client can maintain forward motion by continuing to always look for the next alternative, so as never to get stalled by one process, one methodology, one great idea, one “perfect” field, job or company.

So when a person is connected to their sense of self-trust, they can go forward into potentially risky situations because there is a deep level of trust in themselves and their abilities. They know that they will be able to handle the consequences of their choices, whatever the outcome and thus can feel free to make a choice. They jump, knowing they won’t let themselves down.

That’s the definition. How can we apply it?

So let’s go back to our client who has backed away from the cliff edge just moments after declaring “Let’s jump!” If you consider that you’re dealing with a self-trust issue, rather than someone who is merely indecisive, suddenly the situation looks very different. Your focus is now to uncover what this client needs to feel fully confident, coherent, safe and willing to engage the unknown.

Here are some ways to engage clients in self-trust:

Move away from actions that imply commitment, and move back into activity that has to do with learning. The longer someone can spend immersing themselves in the learning about a new path, the deeper they can get into it without forcing themselves into a decision before they’re ready. At a certain point, they will know enough to know whether it’s right or by exploring discover the “right” situation for them. For instance, one client knew she wanted a more creative career but every step towards a creative career was too scary. She kept her current job and started experimenting with self-trust in small ways – taking a cooking class at night, baking for friends who complimented her cooking and so on until she could envision and take action towards a culinary career.

Ask the question “What do I need to learn to feel more comfortable?” The answer to this will greatly vary – from understanding a piece of software to understanding the process of progressing in the career to taking a course. Learn first what there is to learn, second some alternative ways to learn it, and then (only then!) plot out how best to gain that learning. The learning process should be tailored to the client’s highest level of comfort and play to their strengths to build self-trust.

Find out the alternative paths from those who are already there. Asking people already in the field about what you really need to learn ensures that your assumptions on what will best prepare you are correct. Encourage clients to take the time to talk to lots of people in a variety of ways – online, through groups and associations, friends and contacts. Encourage this before deciding anything and use the information to map the route that works for them.

Ask “Is this something in the learning area or the self-development area?” Oftentimes the “learning” will not be in the “information” realm at all. Instead it will be about doing personal work on a related emotional or spiritual issue – for instance perfectionism, family issues, anxiety, self esteem and re-assessing personal values. I’ve had clients realize they need to divorce their partner before they can tackle a career change. I’ve had other clients realize the first thing they need to figure out is what kind of life they want to be living. Once you realize that the client doesn’t have enough information (be it spiritual, mental or emotional) to make a decision, you can then work towards identifying what area needs the attention.

Practice self-trust in other areas of life. A job or career change is a pretty big leap to start working with self-trust if it’s not strong to begin with. Is there a smaller hill they can practice on before leaping off the mountain? Uncover if the client trusts their judgment in other areas. Where is their self-trust the strongest? Where could they practice building self-trust on a daily or weekly basis without too much risk?

Create a reference point for your journey when you feel clear and confident about it. One career searcher wrote up a document she called “Why I Am Doing This” (“this” being her career change). She wrote it when she was very clear and passionate about why she was going to try to make the leap to be an instructional designer after many years as a facilitator and coach. She included what excited her about this new direction and as well as what she thought she could bring to the field. She found that reading this document could more easily re-connect her to her purpose for taking things in a new direction after encountering a setback or two (or three…).

Helping career clients become aware of their levels of self-trust and then helping them to tune in to what they need to build it up gives career professionals somewhere to go when the “big” decision just won’t be made. On the way, the client becomes able to handle not only that big career jump but all of life’s challenges.

And as a bonus, you too will build self-trust in your abilities, especially when you feel confident in handling any “indecisive” client that walks in your office.

Karen Schaffer is a career coach and counsellor and the author of a number of career books, specifically “The Job Of Your Life” (available at which deals with the emotional obstacles around career exploration and job search. You can follow Karen on Twitter or read her rather sporadic but career insightful blog at  A big shout out to Kelly Cowan for her added insights for this article.

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