How fear keeps us stuck

(and what to do about it)

When you get right down to it, fear is at the crux of so many stuck moments. We’re afraid of being the bad guy. Of getting fired. Of being ridiculed. So instead of taking a chance, we passively limit our lives. We might complain instead of solve. Let others decide our fate. Avoid new experiences. Give up dreams. And scariest of all: stop standing up for what we believe in. Knowing that fear is at the heart of a stuck moment is a necessary first step to moving forward. Here are three common ways we let dread stop us.

I'm not afraid. When it’s too frightening to admit the worst possibility, we lean on a more obvious reason ("He’ll never let me do that," "I don’t have time").

I don't want to know. We steadfastly cling to the fear so we don’t have to find out whether it’s real or not.

I don't need to know. We stay with what’s comfortable, living a steady routine that leaves no time to peek under the bed for monsters.

9 tips to help you move past the fear


What’s the smallest effort you could make to overcome your fear? Do it. Feel relieved. Repeat. Each tiny success makes it easier to have another.


Inactivity is a breeding ground for fear, so stay occupied. Even if you’re not addressing your fear, you won't be sitting around dwelling on it.


Reality-check your fear. What’s the worst that could happen? What are three more likely outcomes? What if you didn’t do it? Which would be worse?


Fear appears when we’re uncomfortable. Build tolerance for uneasiness by putting yourself in a slightly uncomfortable (but safe) situation on a regular basis.


Recall a time when you did something despite your fear and how good it felt. Use that sense of victory to summon up courage.


Fear magnifies when we’re alone. Reach out to friends often, and find a trusted person who will encourage you.


Recognize what feeds your fear and steer clear of it. Possibilities: negative people, the media, chat rooms.


Make a decision related to your fear. Don’t do anything right away — live with it for a week. How does it feel? Do you want to take action?


Come up with a list of your strengths (ask others for input). Then zero in on the best one to help you move beyond your fear.

Making the most of failure

Fear, whatever its context, is about avoiding some kind of failure. But what’s so bad about failure? Everyone experiences it. However, not everyone learns from it.

When you make a mistake or fail at a project, do you:

  • Cover your tracks?
  • Own up and move on?
  • Blame other people or things?
  • Figure out what went wrong?
  • Deny that a mistake was made?

If you own up and figure out what went wrong, you’ve moved two giant steps forward on the path to success. 1. You’ve set your fear aside so you can keep charging ahead. 2. You’ve canceled out fear’s limitations by using it to expand your boundaries.

Failure is an opportunity to find out what’s necessary to succeed. “No one wants to learn by mistakes, but we cannot learn enough from successes to go beyond the state of the art,” writes Henry Petroski, engineering professor and author of “To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.”

By seeing failure as a starting point, you neutralize the fear that comes with it. And without fear, you’re free to carry on!

What you think is the scariest part

A loop of negative thoughts will keep us firmly rooted in our fear, reinforcing ideas like “I can’t trust anyone” and “It will never get better.”

But more than anything else, the two words “what if” will immobilize you. What if I fail? What if I can’t keep up? What if she doesn’t like me? As long as you focus on the “what if” of defeat, you’ll ward off failure, but you’ll also avoid success.

To push forward, flip your question. What if I succeed? Picture it. Feel it. Tell yourself a story that includes long-term results. These are the thoughts that will motivate you and allow you to step beyond your fear.

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