Paradox

Image created by Dall-E on May 1, 2024

Is fear holding you hostage from achieving the success you desire? Historically, fear played a crucial role in human survival, hard-wired into our neurobiology to keep us alert to threats. Today, however, life-or-death dangers are rare, and this ancient alarm system often misfires, leaving us ill-equipped for modern challenges.

Consider this: we live in a world bombarded with social media updates, advertisements, news alerts, emails, and text messages. While not actual dangers, many are worded to grab our attention and can trigger our deepest anxieties about missing out, staying competitive, keeping up, or facing the consequences of not following rules. Faced with this environment, fear steps in as our guardian to keep us safe but struggles to differentiate between real and perceived threats.

As a result, your fear response system becomes an overworked fire alarm, incessantly sounding off, hijacking your attention, killing your focus, and sapping your effort from what truly advances your goals. Surprisingly, the solution is not to shut off this alarm but to adjust its sensitivity.

In this article, we’ll explore the underlying causes of the top 5 fears, how they obstruct your path to success, and provide a practical toolkit for diminishing fear’s grip on your life. You’ll learn to fine-tune your fear response, turning what were once obstacles into stepping stones for achieving your aspirations.

Note: If you are experiencing debilitating fears that significantly impact your daily life, it is crucial to seek professional help. This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Fear of Failure: Who Enjoys Falling on Their Face?

If you ask folks what is the biggest fear that gets in the way of their success, failure is often at the top. On the surface, this makes sense as it causes discomfort on a couple of levels. One is the internal feeling of frustration when you put time, energy, and resources into your big push only to fall short. This pain cuts even deeper if you made sacrifices to march ahead.

The other is the external embarrassment and shame of failing. No one wants to look bad in front of others, especially when pursuing something you want. People might wonder if you have what it takes to succeed.

So, failure is undesirable. Let’s examine the 3 ways this fear hijacks us:

  • Prevents you from taking the necessary action; this is the most obvious blocker. If you feel the odds of success are low, why invest the effort if only to risk humiliation, rejection, and embarrassment? This fear powers any avoidance tendencies you have. You don’t want to do the work because you won’t be successful. You reject worthwhile opportunities because you risk looking bad. Unfortunately, meaningful achievements often require you to go outside your comfort zone and do things you’re not familiar with. There was a time when the world moved slower and things were pretty isolated. Then, your existing knowledge and skills could allow you to stay in your bubble and be ok. Today’s reality is dynamic and fast-changing, with new developments constantly on the rise and in decline. On top of it, the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, so you need to be aware of what’s going on to decide how best to adapt.
  • Increases friction when you decide to take action; if by some miracle you will yourself to move, this fear can increase your workload n-fold. Perfectionists are often the victims of this paranoia. To improve the odds of success (or avoid failure), they must repeatedly check their work to ensure no mistakes will torpedo them. Or ensure all bases are covered so that no critic finds an exploitable weakness. Nothing can be missed. The challenge is there are more ways to screw up than to succeed, so you will always be behind. In short, you are making things more complicated than needed, increasing the likelihood of burnout and quitting, ironically making failure come true.
  • Causes you to take action prematurely. If you’ve ever been harassed by a salesperson who told you this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal for a limited time only if you act now, that’s one example where this fear can trigger you to act despite your better judgment. After all, the “loss” created by not moving, demands you take action, thus creating a false urgency. The conundrum is by taking action, you may have triggered a “new failure” (e.g., buyer’s remorse) as you tried to avoid another failure (e.g., “opportunity loss’)  that may not have existed.

So, how do you tackle this beast?

To address this fear, it helps to explore what failure means. Technically, failure has a black-and-white definition as the lack of success. You either hit the target (success) or you don’t (failure). In short, it doesn’t matter if you hit 50%, 75%, or 90% of the target value. If you didn’t reach the goal, it’s the same as 0%. But this all-or-nothing interpretation places no value on progress or any “gains” incurred in making the effort (e.g., acquiring new skills, knowledge, experience, etc). In addition, this perspective does not encourage experimentation or innovation since the risk of failure is often high when doing something new.

With these in mind, reassess your view on failure by considering the following:

  • Were your past “failures” devoid of any lessons learned? Most people view failure as a personal reflection on themselves when it’s about your hypothesis on how you did things. Sometimes, you get it right, and sometimes, you get it wrong. When dealing with something novel or complex, most of us don’t get it right early on. In other words, not hitting the target is not really about you but that your approach didn’t work. Learn from that and try again.
  • Also, in the lessons learned category, are there any new knowledge or skills that can be leveraged for future efforts? If the answer is no, then your investment will be limited in terms of return. So you should pause about committing. But if the answer is yes, you have comfort knowing you’re getting something out, even if it’s not the goal itself.
  • What happens if failure does occur? Is it because the target exceeded your current resources, knowledge, and skills? Did you set out for something that was simply beyond your reach based on where you are now? If the answer is yes, then reassess your target and try again. Consider if you can’t lift 100 lbs, you don’t double down and say I will work harder and set the target to 200 lbs to compensate. This sounds irrational, but many people feel they must compensate for their failure by working even harder. This isn’t about the sincerity of your commitment. It’s about you’re not ready yet. The point is to lower your target and build your way up.
  • Also, if failure happens, is it irrecoverable? If yes, then there is reason to hesitate. At this point, you must seriously assess if the “win” is worth the risk since the “damage” is irreversible. You should also examine how much is under your control vs. influence. It’s one thing to fail because your efforts fell short; it’s another if success was based on something arbitrary outside your control. For example, you control whether you write a book. You don’t control if it becomes a best-seller. Yes, you can do things to increase the odds of success, but that’s influence, not control (To illustrate, to make the NY Times Best Seller list, you need 5000 people to buy your book in a week, more if nonfiction. That isn’t something most of us have control over).
  • If your failure is recoverable, do a post-mortem, look for lessons learned, and consider how to get back on your feet quickly. Or, if you’re genuinely failure-averse, think of ways to lower its risks and impact. Just be mindful of analysis paralysis—you don’t want to plan for anything that can go wrong but focus on the most likely ones. The power of this approach is you have something to fall back on should things go wrong. And since you do this in advance, you’re not at the mercy of figuring out what to do while panicking, which is not the ideal time to deal with failure.
  • Does the cost or risk of failure decrease if you do nothing? You may think that by not taking action, you avoid failure, but the lack of action is paradoxically an action. You have accepted the status quo and the associated benefits and costs. To illustrate, you might think keeping money in the bank protects your cash. But unless you have a great interest rate, for most of us, the inflation will erode your purchasing power over time.

Success comes with the cost of persistence and improvement (i.e., learning from your mistakes and expanding your boundaries). It’s tempting to think that you can avoid failure by not engaging – after all, you can’t lose if you don’t play. But that doesn’t mean negative things can’t find their way to you.

As hockey great Wayne Gretzky says,

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Fear of Judgment: Doesn’t Everyone Want to be in a Beauty Pageant?

When it comes to judgment, most people automatically think of it as synonymous with criticism. But in theory, it can also be positive. Yet, some folks are embarrassed by praise and attention. So, why the discomfort? It is the state of being evaluated. That is the primary basis for this fear. For better or worse, when you’re being judged, you’re placed on a scale and assigned a value, and that feels threatening.

Consider when you push your product, service, or performance out into the world, it’s hard not to imagine your output as some reflection of yourself. Think of it as almost being like your child – part of you but having its own identity and behavior. Logically, you know that your child is not you, but emotionally, when “your child” gets critiqued, as a “parent,” you feel some responsibility.

Hence, when the output is judged, we take it personally and feel all the fears, anxieties, joys, and concerns from that evaluation.

If we focus on the negative feedback angle, this fear gets in the way of achieving success through the following mechanisms:

  • You hesitate to take action or, having made the effort, are afraid to display your product (always in development, never released); you’re worried it isn’t good enough to stand up to scrutiny.
  • You discard your originality to stick to something safe and established. Why rock the boat? Go with something popular or familiar.
  • You seek external approval, thus giving up control and making you more vulnerable to others’ agendas and influences. If what you and they want align, that’s good, but what if they don’t?
  • You are reluctant to share ideas or collaborate with others to avoid looking stupid.
  • You increase friction when you do take action as you feel you’re being watched and evaluated. This anxiety can lead to burnout and frustration as you exhaust yourself from trying to look good or please everyone.

In terms of “praise,” this can trigger the fear of success (discussed later in this article) as well as other factors that increase discomfort/difficulty through means such as:

  • Imposter syndrome: despite receiving compliments, you feel that your success is not truly merited and that with increased exposure, people will start to see your “defects and shortcomings” that were previously hidden.
  • Increased jealousy/competition/scrutiny: when you get recognition, you appear on people’s radar no matter what. For some folks, this increases their jealousy and competition as you are now seen as a potential rival to be dealt with. Others may want to check you out to see what the commotion is about. In fact, they may be inspired by you and want to know how to get better, leading to more engagement. In any case, you have others’ attention, bringing benefits and costs. Note this can be problematic for introverts or folks who struggle with social interactions.
  • Cultural incompatibility: for some cultures, beliefs, and upbringings, modesty is viewed as a virtue, so receiving praise may cause embarrassment.

Because any of these can make you uncomfortable, you are less inclined to engage in anything that triggers judgment.

So, what are the keys to handling this fear?

First, recognize that being judged is outside your control. You will be assessed whether you take action or not. Whether you ask to be judged or not, it happens. Hiding in a cave might prevent you from hearing their opinions, but that won’t stop people from making them.

While uncomfortable, the reality is you can’t stop people from judging. Since that is the case, it’s crucial that you be true to your values and goals. If you are concerned about what others think, then you are living more for them and not for yourself. The acid test is whether you find their comments useful. This is especially important when you consider the next point.

You can’t satisfy everyone. Even among “universally loved” products and services, there is never 100% satisfaction. There will always be critics who find something undesirable about what you’re offering. In fact, you know that some folks will be trolls, and it has nothing to do with what’s being judged. The point is to be selective in how you take the feedback and balanced in weighing their statements.

It’s also important to be self-compassionate and view the critiques as content for lessons learned. This fear tends to be strong among newbies who lack self-confidence. However, once you have that basic skill proficiency and seek mastery, practitioners view criticism as a way to improve their craft. Their desire to up their game overcomes threats to their ego.

Another tactic is to set smaller goals and seek trusted, constructive feedback. This approach helps desensitize the sting of judgment in two ways. First, since your targets are smaller, they are less threatening. Second, the size gives you more opportunities to get feedback, allowing you to acclimate and practice dealing with evaluations.

As mentioned earlier, judgment is inevitable. If you find the experience taxing, consider contingency plans to mitigate their impacts (e.g., some actors don’t read critic’s reviews of their performance) or a recovery plan to get back on your feet (e.g., vacation, taking a break, so you can come back refreshed).

Finally, when you receive feedback, it’s essential to separate yourself from the identity whose performance is being evaluated. As said earlier, it’s not uncommon for us to feel that a judgment on one part of ourselves puts a label defining all of us. But that is rarely the case. For example, how we behave to our parents, to our friends, to our coworkers, and to our bosses are seldom the same. In short, we have multiple personas, so one perspective doesn’t define us completely. Again, you can think of yourself as the parent of your output. It reflects an aspect of you but isn’t all of you. View judgment as an inevitable cost as you move forward on the things that matter.

As Jim Horning, a computer scientist, said:

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

Fear of Rejection: It’s Not You. Really, It’s Me.

Rejection hurts. When it happens, it’s natural to believe that you, your product, or your services are not good enough and, therefore, unacceptable. After all, you didn’t get selected, so what other reason is there? The problem with this logic is that it discounts the possibility that it’s not you, but rather the person making the decision. For example, if you have a choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream and you like chocolate, then that’s the one you are going to pick. But that doesn’t mean you hate vanilla or that vanilla sucks. In fact, you may pick vanilla if there is a choice between it and pistachio (unless you like pistachio).

So, if you get rejected, it’s good to know the reason and not just assume. If the explanation is you’re not meeting the required specifications, at least you know what to work on. Generally, if the reason is objective, the evaluator will be upfront about telling you. If they are beating around the bush, you might have to rephrase and ask them what you could do to improve. People who are averse to giving negative feedback are more comfortable when asked to provide advice on how to be better. (How many times have you lied when the food was terrible at a restaurant? Imagine if the server asked how the meal could be improved instead. Which case is more likely to generate an honest response?)

But if the decision-making is subjective, you must do some soul-searching to determine what to do next. Do you change to align with the decision maker’s criteria or search for a more compatible group? After all, if you’re vanilla, do you change to be more like chocolate? If so, then are you really vanilla? Or should you look for where the vanilla lovers are?

In many ways, the fear of rejection combines the fears of failure and judgment. So, many of their issues can also apply here. Yet, this fear is more hurtful because we take rejection personally. As said earlier, a common belief is we are somehow faulty. As a result, this fear can block you in the following manners:

  • You may be prone to appeasement – doing things you don’t like because you don’t want to get rejected.
  • You’re super hesitant to take action; why risk failure and humiliation?
  • You forgo opportunities because you’re worried it won’t work and make you look bad to others.
  • You isolate yourself because you want to avoid embarrassment.
  • You avoid releasing your product or seeking feedback since you perceive you will not get any positive response or are terrified of getting negative reactions.
  • You reject others prematurely, thereby preventing them from having the opportunity to reject you. The famous “You’re not firing me as I’m quitting first” mentality.

A key to addressing this fear is through self-examination. Yes, rejection is painful, but recall a time when you were the decision maker and had to do the “rejection.” Sometimes, you turn things down because it doesn’t make the grade, while other times, there is something more preferable. Rarely, unless the event, product, or person offended you, do you reject on a personal basis. In other words, rejection often occurs because of a mismatch between what is being offered and what is being desired.

So, if you’re facing rejection, here are some things to minimize the sting:

  • Accepting that rejection doesn’t mean the end of the journey. If anything, it tests your commitment and how badly you want your goal. If you know you’ll get the door slammed in your face, do you take it personally or just accept that the door you picked is not the one for you?
  • Recognizing that there could be many subjective reasons behind not being selected. And they may not be negative; as with judgment, you can’t expect everyone to like you. The key is to figure out whether you failed requirements (in which case, learn what needs to be fixed if possible and figure out if it is something you have control over) or whether you’re not their top choice because of their likes/dislikes (which is more influence than control and hence more challenging to change in your favor).
  • Starting small, celebrating wins, and tolerating losses – this is about getting acclimated to when rejection happens. You can’t always win. This approach is about developing a thicker skin to build resilience.
  • Understand that you might compromise your values when you strive to avoid rejection. In the long run, you might be suffering unnecessarily for an audience that will never be satisfied with you or, at best, indifferent. Note that this is not saying don’t listen to what others have to say and be uncompromising but to hear and assess if there is any merit to their views. You don’t want to be excessively accommodating, but you don’t want to be rigid either.

The point about this fear is realizing that rejection isn’t always personal and that you can’t make everyone like you.

 As the dancer Dita Von Teese says,

“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”

Fear of the Unknown/Uncertainty/Change: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

According to one scientist, the fear of the unknown (FOTU) may be the most fundamental because of our neurobiology. At its core, your brain is a prediction engine. To operate in real-time, you must anticipate what might happen before it happens if you want things to go right.

Because of that, the brain experiences discomfort when it cannot anticipate what will happen. This situation also occurs with unknown’s siblings of uncertainty and change. Thus, all 3 fears are being lumped together here due to the similar circumstances that trigger them.

Historically, the brain is biased towards generating a speedy response, drawing upon familiar or well-versed actions (ironically, one of the reactions may be freeze in some situations). The brain does this because “doing” involves energy and coordination. That’s why well-practiced moves kick in first. In addition, your brain is an energy miser and doesn’t want to do any more than is necessary to get the job done.

So, why bring this up, and how does it relate to the fear of the unknown/uncertainty/change?  

Fundamentally, the brain doesn’t like not knowing what to do when placed in a situation where it has to take action. The primary reason is it doesn’t want to be wrong since you can end up with bad things happening to you.  The secondary reason is for the brain to rewire itself to address change is energetically expensive. So, it doesn’t want to make alterations unless it knows it will be “right.” The problem is when you face the unknown/uncertainty/change, the odds of being wrong are high – unless the new thing is a lot like the old, it’s hard to predict what will happen. Thus, these 3 states generate anxiety. The brain gets uncomfortable because it doesn’t know if its actions can make things worse.

To illustrate, let’s examine how you can view these 3 states. Starting with unknowns, which are situations where you have no idea of what things could happen. Imagine you’re going to an unfamiliar exotic restaurant, and you stare at the menu. The odds are high that you don’t know what’s on there, and worse if they do not describe their entrees. You’re just lost. The food might be great, but you don’t even know what your choices are. Contrast that to a familiar restaurant, where at least you know what’s there.

Uncertainty is a tad better since you know the range of possible states, but the issue is you don’t know which one is likely to happen. Again, going with the restaurant analogy, it’s like going to a new burger place that just opened up. You know they serve burgers, so you know what’s available. But you have no idea about the quality. They could be great, meh, or disgusting. You just don’t know.

And finally, there is change. Let’s say your favorite restaurant just changed owners. This could be good, bad, or neutral, but the critical point is that it deviates from what you’re used to. You want to know the direction and size of the difference, but you have to experience it to figure it out. Hence, you feel the tension since you lack data to predict.

When faced with these fears, the following possible reactions get triggered and can get in the way of success:

  • You hesitate and avoid taking necessary actions. You don’t want to do anything because you don’t know what the impact will be. Generally, our negativity bias makes us think, “Don’t do it because you might make things worse.”
  • You decline significant opportunities since they are departures from the familiar. You want to stay in your sandbox because it’s “safe and stable.” (Frankly, it’s a known entity you’re accustomed to, for better or worse.)
  • You shoot things down because of unfamiliarity rather than engaging in exploration and discovery.
  • You deliberately slow your pace and move cautiously, since you don’t know what lies ahead.

So, what actions can you take to address this blocker?

The first is recognizing that unknown/uncertainty/change are omnipresent. In fact, the unsettling reality is there is more that you don’t know, don’t understand, nor control than you do.

But there is good or rather not bad news. Remember you have 3 possible outcomes with this fear: 1) things get better, 2) stay the same, or 3) get worse. So, 2 of 3 aren’t necessarily harmful. While this may not make you Pollyannish optimistic, the point is entering a cycle of doom and gloom isn’t helpful either.

What is useful is taking charge where you can. The following lists possible courses of action to take:

  • Minimizing the likelihood of the event happening to you. If you’re convinced that only a negative can happen from the upcoming situation (recall that’s 1 out of 3 possibilities), examine what can be done to reduce the odds of it occurring. This can be like postponing the event or delegating the task to someone else. In short, you’re moving it away from you. Just recognize that this is an avoidance tactic. If you use this to buy time to get comfortable, that’s addressing the fear. If you’re delegating to someone else, don’t have remorse later if they gain benefits from the opportunity. Or gloat if they suffer, and you dodged the bullet – that will strengthen this fear. Sure, you won this time, but maybe not the next.
  • Creating a contingency plan. If the fear is unavoidable, determine how to mitigate its impact. What would you do if the situation turned out bad or simply meh? Speculate as best you can. You don’t want to go into analysis paralysis and anticipate everything that can go wrong. Timebox yourself to consider the most probable scenarios and focus on those few. If that is still too much or unknowable, then another option is to give yourself some freedom to respond. Do not overcommit or overextend yourself when facing this fear so you have some buffer to mount an effective response once you know what’s happening.
  • Building up resilience. If the outcome is worse than your pessimistic predictions, remember your past and list comparable situations you have dealt with. What were your wins with unknown/uncertainty/change- that’s evidence that you survived and transitioned. What were your losses – what were the lessons learned, and what would you have done differently? How would you pick up the pieces to get back up? If you have difficulty imagining this for yourself, consider how you would advise a close friend if they had experienced such a setback. What would you tell them, and why wouldn’t that apply to you? If you know no one, Google it as chances are high that someone has gone through something similar or worse.
  • Learning as much as possible to reduce the unknown/uncertainty/change level. Sometimes, knowing more reduces the tension or gives you time to consider benefits instead of just seeing costs.

In short, don’t assume everything will be bad, but it doesn’t hurt to make plans should things turn out less favorably.

Note that this fear counters adaptability, a crucial element of success. We can’t always predict what’s going to happen. However, growth requires change, and significant change is often unavoidable when it comes to unknowns and uncertainty. So, if you try to avoid this fear at all costs, you risk stagnation, which creates its own dangers to stability and security.

Adapted from an African proverb:

“If you stick to the devil you know, rather than seeking the angel you don’t, doesn’t alter the fact you’re still in hell.”

Fear of Success: Seriously, You’re Afraid of Getting What You Want?

On the surface, this fear seems odd since why would you be afraid about achieving what you set out to do? But if you scratch deeper, you’ll find this fear isn’t about success but the resulting consequences of achieving it. Examples of “fallout” are the following:

  • Increased roles and responsibilities placed on you since you are deemed worthy.
  • Greater visibility. Success has a way of putting you on more people’s radars, increasing exposure.
  • Invocation of envy by others. It’s unfortunate, but when some folks see your win, it can trigger a sense of jealousy, creating new rivals you didn’t have previously.
  • Increased self-expectations leading to more pressure. Success can create the need to safeguard or even increase your reputation, ironically creating greater anxiety about falling short.

This fear emphasizes the half-empty view of success, where your achievement leads to more opportunities to fail, be judged, risk rejection, and deal with change.

Hence, for some, success brings more baggage than benefits and, thus, may not be desirable. As a result, it’s not unusual that this fear blocks you from success in the form of self-sabotage. At some level, you don’t want to succeed because it brings potential misery.

These manifestations can take the following forms:

  • Setting lower goals as you don’t want to attract attention by knocking things out of the park.
  • Stopping short when on the cusp of success because you’re terrified of the increased exposure if you finish.
  • Experiencing increased stress and anxiety leading to burnout since you feel trapped that by moving forward, you’re that much closer to all the negatives success can bring.
  • Turning down big opportunities since you don’t want to be placed back in the ring again.
  • Passing your praise to others; while it’s good to share credit where due, you risk being abused by those who like to bask in the fame while dumping their workload on you.

So, what are the counters for this?

To start, you need to look at the root causes behind why you feel you aren’t worthy of success. Often, the culprit is low self-esteem – at some level, you think you don’t deserve “the win.” One solution is to examine your record of past accomplishments and the level of effort and skill you’ve invested to make them happen. Were your victories due to luck/random chance or concerted efforts? Look at the data. Chances are high that these were not trivial investments. In other words, don’t discount the blood, sweat, and tears you put in. It’s one thing to be humble, but it’s another not to acknowledge your hard labor. Don’t sell yourself short.

And if you feel that your success is undeserved because you needed a lot of help along the way, consider the role you played. Recall that even in a team of talented individuals, folks don’t always self-organize to success if left to their own devices. Usually, they need a kernel to gather around. So, if your role was cheerleader, coordinator, networker, advocate, etc., it may have been essential in moving the work along, even if indirectly.

Another approach is directly tackling your anticipated worries about “fame” and seeing what you can control. For example, you can turn down increased roles and responsibilities if you don’t want the spotlight. Alternatively, you can request the “promotion” staggered so you have time to acclimate. In short, negotiate what’s comfortable as you go up.

In terms of increased visibility, you will be exposed to more interactions than before. So, it’s essential to be mindful of boundaries, learn to say no gracefully, and be willing to delegate to others. For most of us, the unfortunate reality is as you face more excellent opportunities, your maximum capacity is fixed. There is a hard limit to what you can do, so you must be selective.

For issues of envy, this tends to be outside your control since you can’t stop people from feeling the way they do. But acting with kindness, graciousness, and humility goes a long way in creating fans vs. increasing the opposition. But if you have haters, you best be aware of them and their intents.

Finally, don’t forget to use the other solutions outlined for the other fears, as this fear can also trigger the earlier ones.

In the book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” Marianne Williamson writes:

 “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. … There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

Fear Has a Purpose. Listen to Its Concerns and Address Its Intent.

You know what it’s like when someone keeps ignoring you about something you feel demands their attention. Initially, it can be frustrating, but after a while, it can be downright infuriating. That’s the way fear is when you ignore it. It gets stronger the more you avoid it.

Recall that fear’s job is to protect you from potential threats. If it wasn’t very good at warning you, then fears wouldn’t be blocking you. You would just carry on. But odds are if your fears are hijacking you, then it’s doing its job. Don’t blame the messenger, and be self-compassionate when you get overwhelmed. The fear response system isn’t sophisticated enough to distinguish between an immediate, genuine threat and a hypothetical, but unlikely one. It treats all of them the same – something that can generate plausible harm. A conservative alert system keeps you alive; an inattentive one can land you in the hospital.

So, the key isn’t to ignore or dismiss the fears but to listen to what they tell you and assess if the basis is justified. Whether it’s failure, judgment, rejection, unknown/uncertainty/change, or success, you must look at the motivation driving those fears, bring it to the surface, and address the intent. And it’s helpful if you can make the fear concrete so you have something tangible to respond to.

If the data to back the fear is lacking, acknowledge the fear that it’s done its job of alerting you but that there is no need to be concerned at this time. If the fear is legitimate, devise a response plan to address its impact.

Just remember, courage is not about eliminating fear but acting despite it.

Summary of Takeaways

In this article, we cover some of the top fears that get in the way of success:

  • Failure: terrifies you because losses are painful
  • Judgment: puts you on a scale to assess your worth
  • Rejection: scares you by concerns of not being likable
  • Unknown/uncertainty/change: creates anxieties about possibilities
  • Success: burdens you with future expectations

In response to the above, below are some common fear reactions:

  • Avoidance: you avoid the tasks or the opportunities that success requires
  • When taking action:
    • You may experience increased friction, making your effort harder than necessary.
    • You are not working at your full potential since you’re worried it can make your fears come true.
    • You take pre-emptive action – you move not because you’re ready or want to but because if you don’t, something terrible will happen.

Some solutions to get a handle on your fear: 

  • Listen to what the fear is telling you instead of ignoring it.
  • Question the fear basis to see if it is justified.
  • If there is no data to back the fear, acknowledge its role in alerting you and move on.
  • If evidence exists, risk mitigate to lower the fear occurrence or develop contingency plans to reduce the fear impact.
  • Differentiate where you have control vs. influence. For your fear response, understand what you control vs. what you don’t. Ideally, you can reduce the fear, but in many cases, all you can do is regulate your response to it.
  • Make the fear basis concrete so you have something tangible to address.
  • Start with smaller goals and tasks to build up your resilience.
  • Be self-compassionate when you find it hard to overcome fear.

Recall fear’s intent is to protect you. Listen to its warnings and then decide how to proceed.

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