How to take the unthinkable step, even when you are afraid


There was a time in my life where I felt so stuck that I could not breathe. I was in an extremely toxic relationship. As much as I always tried to remain an optimist, I felt overwhelmed with doom. I lived with a constant ache in my heart, and dull panic in my head.

At Christmas, I quietly expressed my fear to my sister in law Rose. I told her how stuck and afraid I felt, and about my elaborate plan to extricate myself from my relationship. In the month that my partner was away, I was going to organize everything, have multiple conversations to come to a peaceful resolution, and neatly tie everything up.

After a few minutes of listening to me, Rose finally said “The only thing you need to do in this next month is prepare yourself mentally to leave. If you start to organize everything, it will never happen.”

As the month drew to a close, I finally went to see a therapist (to the great relief of my family and best friend) and after hearing me describe my situation, she said “Wow, it sounds like you feel like a prisoner.”

Hearing it described that way, from someone I had never met, was actually quite a relief. I was in a prison, albeit one that I had constructed myself, after giving away my power piece by piece, until I felt I had none.

I left her office, and headed straight for a favorite childhood hiking spot, where I walked for an hour, with tears streaming down my face.

And then I got a blindingly clear message: I had to move (I swear it was the trees that told me — this was in Marin County, after all!).

It is kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?

Of course moving was the logical thing to do in an oppressive relationship.

And yet it was the one step that was unthinkable. I wanted to do anything else BUT that, because I knew that it would send my entire life (as messed up as it was at that point) crumbling to the ground.

Many of us get ourselves in situations that feel impossible.

  • Your career can start as vaguely unrewarding, and turn into a straightjacket of misery.
  • Your casual drink to relieve stress can turn into a full-blown addiction.
  • Your relationship can turn from uncomfortable to abusive.
  • Your writer’s block can turn from mild procrastination to a full blown self esteem bashing panic attack.
  • Your business stress can turn from a headache into a stroke.

I realize that this may seem extreme to some of you, but in my experience, unhealthy situations escalate slowly and insidiously.

I never would have believed that the strong, independent, positive thinking young girl that I was would get caught up in a horrible relationship.

Yet there I was.

If you, or someone you love, is stuck in an unhealthy situation, what is that critical step that you are afraid to take?

The unthinkable step

I think you know what it is. And you can feel it because it shows up as slow-rising panic, when you think thoughts like:

“I could never go to the doctor and find out about the true state of my health.”
“As much as I want to, I cannot make my fingers move across the keyboard to write my book.”

“I could never tell my child who is an addict that I refuse to be codependent anymore.”
“I cannot take one hour off to stop working, because my business will fall apart and my clients will leave.”

“I cannot look up my credit score to begin to get out of this financial mess.”
“I cannot pick up the phone to call a recruiter to begin to find a better job.”

I am here to tell you YES YOU CAN.

I will warn you that when you take that step, you will not feel a huge rush of courage, but rather a big wave of nausea.

When I was packing my things to move out, in garbage bags that I had grabbed from my mom’s house on the way back from my revelatory hike, I was physically ill. I was shaking as I was packing. But I did not stop until I had gathered the very last of my things, and shoved them in my mother’s car.

When I pulled away from the curb, drove to my friend MaryAnn’s apartment, and sat down to have a cup of tea with her, finally extricated from my self-made prison, I felt a wave of joy and courage.

Courage is a symptom of taking the unthinkable step.

As I write this post to you, in my backyard in Arizona, with my Chihuahua Rocky snuggled next to me, waiting for my husband to bring my kids home from school, I can tell you with an open heart and thankful tears that I am so glad I trusted myself enough to take the unthinkable step.

It was not without messiness, and consequence to many I loved. As much as I appreciated my new life, I grieved the beautiful things and people I gave up to get myself to a better place.

But it opened the door to unimaginable adventure and creativity. In the decades that have followed, I have done the best work of my life, and built a network of exceptional friends, clients and colleagues. I have grown a loving family. I have survived economic calamity, and come out swinging. Most importantly, when I find myself feeling fear, doubt or panic, symptomatic of ignoring what is obvious, I can now ask myself “What is the unthinkable step that I am afraid to take?” And with a little goading and support from friends, I take it.

Your unthinkable step

I hope that your unthinkable step is not out of a situation that is as frightening as mine was many years ago.

Maybe you just need to tackle that damned kitchen drawer that is jammed with a bunch of junk and drives you crazy.

Maybe you need to finally launch the website that you have been working on for the last 9 months.

Maybe you need to stop the mad pace of your business and take a day out to hear yourself think, and define what you need to move your business model in a more sustainable direction.

Whatever your situation, I think you know what your unthinkable step is.

I encourage you to take it.

Reader Interactions


  1. Ali Davies says

    A very wise person (that is you in a conversation we had a few years back) said to me during a very difficult time “these dark times will serve you in the future in ways you can’t even imagine now.” You were right. The did and still do.

    Our biggest challenges can be a catalyst for more fulfillment, freedom and meaning in our life, work and relationships. They are a reminder that even when the brown stuff hits the fan, there is an opportunity lurking in there somewhere……if we foster the courage, as you rightly point out, to take the unthinkable step.

  2. Sonia says

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Thank you, Pam. As always you have a way of saying exactly what I needed to hear, exactly when I needed to hear it.

  3. Connie says

    This resonated with every cell in my body. I have so been there and am currently feeling a bit stuck once again. Thank you for all your wisdom.

  4. Marti Konstant says

    Perfect story for encouraging action. People feel stuck so much of the time. Getting the courage and resolution to do something sometimes feels insurmountable.

    You reminded me of a relationship example in my past life (where I had to pack everything when he was gone in a matter of hours), but also of the times when a job situation just needed to change. Taking action when every fiber of your body feels weak is significant.

    Love your headline. Yes, doing the unthinkable is a bold first step to living a better life. Thanks for your story.

  5. Catherine Morgan says

    This was beautiful. I think we have all had situations that we needed to leave, and yet somehow didn’t feel that we could. This is an important piece. Thank you for writing it, Pam.

  6. Melissa Harper says

    I found your article posted on my friend’s FB page. It spoke to me in volumes. I shared it on my page (and also sent her a private “thank you” for posting your gem of an article).

    I am coming up on a “new beginning” anniversary of 3 years in September. Through the amazing grace of a friend, I packed up their car with whatever I could fit and my cat and left a very scary relationship. A few nights before leaving, I phoned my dad and told him I loved him and if he didn’t hear from me – the worst had happened. I moved to a new rental apartment via my retirement account and the very beginnings of my freelance makeup artistry business.

    Over these past few years, I have grown my business, pinched pennies like a pro and experienced getting to know myself again through a wonderful therapist and new found friends as well as just simply spending time on my own.

    Finding courage to take a step(s) forward – as you had so well written – can leave one feeling nauseous in the moment – but to have faith because courage steps in and really does feel grand.

    I was meant to read your article. It has helped me these past few days – in leaps and bounds. And I want to say – thank you. You are amazing. 🙂

    Sincerely, Melissa

  7. robin says

    I want and yet am afraid to unclutter my life. Isn’t that weird? I’m not a hoarder, yet have useable empty boxes stacked in my rooms (plenty of room to walk!). I think if all is clear and basic and clean, what then? What then? Thank you for asking me to do the unthinkable, even though I didn’t know it was.

  8. daoine o' says

    Strange and sad that all these comments come from women. 🙁

    How do we allow ourselves to become entrapped in such horrid situations? I too left a toxic relationship almost 10 years ago and have never regretted it for a second, but do wonder how things turned so ugly.

    My life is so much better now; quite amazing. Did it take starting over for that to happen? And why must we suffer so in order to evolve and rise above?

    Do the men we involve ourselves with have these issues?

    Sorry so many rhetorical questions. Your post, Pamela, opened many little cupboards of thoughts in my mind. Thank you.

  9. Michael says

    In reply to daoine-

    Yes, it is strange and sad that all the prior comments are from women. But as a man (and I hardly take myself as a representative sample) I cannot say that the men you have involved yourself with have these issues (and maybe that is why those issues got to the point of such extreme pain and suffering) but I know that I have.

    I have belief that feelings self-doubt (to the point of self-loathing), confusion, being stuck and trapped are feelings that don’t respect gender. I know I have had (and continue to have) all those feelings. Do all suffer those feeling equally? Looking around I doubt very much that is the case.

    Not sure where I am going with this, but did want to answer at least one of the questions posed.

  10. Felix says

    This is an amazing article. And not because it comes from a woman. Because it comes from a person. There is not gender bias on being trapped. I have know for sometime that I will have to take that step. I keep putting it off for others. My children, her, something. But this was inspiring. I am finding my courage and you helped. Thanks.

  11. jOsh lugEmbe says

    Pam, this one this I’m sure is true:

    The confidence you gained as a result of that unthinkable decision is still pushing you ahead.

    In psychology they say, the winner effect.

    That’s, the moment you succeeded, the moment you walked away from that prison… you kind of felt… what else can’t I walk conquer?

    Fear stops most of us from doing any unthinkable.

    But the unthinkable are only for those who aren’t ready for the next step, for the better experience.
    If you want it so bad, you will find a way.

    Thanks for sharing.


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