Is Fear Holding You Back?

Consider these five strategies to fight fear and other discouraging thoughts.

By Neena Newberry, MBA ’92

No matter what anyone says, change takes energy — whether it’s positive or negative change. We may tell ourselves that we embrace change and thrive on it, but the reality is that it can be stressful. Change often triggers fear, one of the biggest impediments to success.

So, what is fear exactly? At the most basic level, fear is resistance. Let’s take the simple analogy of a thermostat to further explore this. We are living creatures with systems that operate in a narrow range. For example, the human body temperature is 98.6 degrees and blood pressure falls within a specific range as well. So, in essence, your body has a particular “setting” on a thermostat. If you change that setting even half a point, your body has to expend energy — so your body “resists” in order to conserve your energy and keep you exactly where you are. When you are trying to make a change in your behavior, a similar process occurs. Fear and other discouraging thoughts show up in order to keep things status quo.

So, how can you keep fear from holding you back? Here are five strategies to consider:

1. Tame your gremlins.

The “gremlin” is the internal voice that makes us have second thoughts or fear change. For example, your gremlin might say, “You’ll never find another job that pays this well and has this level of flexibility.” Realize that the gremlin does not always speak the truth. Its function is to keep things exactly as they are … to stop you from making the change. Pay close attention to what your gremlin says to you, and develop strategies to counter its voice. Depending on your circumstances, the gremlin may be very powerful, and you might need outside help to reduce the power of its voice.

2. Take small steps.

Break change down into manageable pieces and tackle each piece one at a time. This will break down your resistance and make the change feel less insurmountable.

3. Identify what is holding you back. Be specific.

Let’s take the example of a man whose stomach turns upside down at the thought of giving a presentation. What triggers his fear? When he starts to think about it, he realizes that his fear surfaces only in presentations to his boss or peers. After we dig a little deeper, he realizes that at the heart of it, his fear is really about appearing incompetent in front of his colleagues. Now he has something concrete he can work to overcome.

4. Play out your fear and develop a rational response.

Play out a video of your worst fear. What is happening? How likely is it that what you see in the video will happen? What is the size of the risk (large, medium, small) and the probability of it occurring (high, medium, low)? If your fear came true, how would you handle it?

When we go through these questions, we often recognize that what we have imagined is far worse than what might happen! But even if our worst fear came true, having a game plan can make it less scary.

5. Get support from others.

Don’t try to take it all on by yourself. Getting help from others will make you feel like someone cares about your success. Create a support system for yourself with individuals who will encourage you and celebrate your successes — big and small.

Change can be hard work, so make sure you stack the odds in your favor. If you need some support to achieve your goals, consider working with a coach.