One of the most common questions I get when speaking about stepping outside your comfort zone is, "How do I know if I'm avoiding something out of fear or out of a true and honest lack of interest?" In other words, how do I know when I decide not to take that promotion, have that conversation, or pursue that business opportunity if it's fear making me stop short of taking a risk or simply the fact that the promotion, conversation, or business opportunity isn't something I actually want to do—for other legitimate reasons?
It's a really great question that I think many of us struggle with. Here's my current best answer:
1. Do a thought experiment.
Imagine for a minute that you had a "magic eraser" and somehow you were able to erase, at least temporarily, the fear and anxiety you feel about whatever you're contemplating avoiding. If this were essentially anxiety-free, is it something you'd actually like to do — or learn to do? If the answer is yes, that's your first hint that fear might be driving your decision — and perhaps, if the benefits to your life and career and self-regard are high enough, it might be worth taking the leap and giving it a shot. Remember, courage is the ability to take action despite the fear you experience.
2. Do some mental accounting.
Take stock of the fears and anxieties you experience about this situation, alongside the potential "upside" or reasons to do the particular task or activity. On the fear side: what are you worried about? Are you concerned that if you have this difficult conversation, the other person will "hate you?" Are you worried that if you take this promotion, you'll feel totally inept in your new role? And then on the benefit side: what's in it for you, potentially — for your work, your personal life, your career, your sense of confidence, courage, and well-being? Sometimes taking a step back and actually writing this down helps clarify things — at least for me.
3. Compare the present with the past.
The last tip is to think back to other points in your life when you experienced similar struggles at the threshold of taking a particular action. Nothing will likely be identical to the situation you're thinking about now. But chances are, there is something similar. Think about situations where you didn't take action — perhaps out of fear — but now, in retrospect, wish you did. Think about the reverse as well: Are there situations where you took action despite fear and regretted it? Doing this will allow you to look back and see if something already in your personal learning bank of the past can help you make this decision today.
In the end, it's not easy to parse out legitimate concern from excessive and unrealistic fear...or a true lack of interest from a manufactured and over-rationalized lack of interest. But by asking these key questions of yourself, you'll have a better shot of personal discovery and of making the best decision going forward.
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Andy Molinsky is the author of Reach and Global Dexterity.
A version of this article was previously published at Inc.com.