Fear – the biggest obstacle

Is there something you want to accomplish, some goal you want to reach, but you can’t seem to get there? Maybe you want to go back to school, or look for a new job. Maybe you want to start a business. Maybe you want to create something artistic, or maybe you just want to meet new people. So often, we have a goal we would love to achieve, but we find ourselves beset with obstacles, and the goal seems out of reach. This is frustrating and disheartening. It’s also very common.

There are numerous obstacles that keep us from accomplishing our goals. One obstacle is money, or the lack thereof. It’s hard to move toward a goal when you can’t seem to afford it. Another obstacle is time (or again, the lack of it). There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Or maybe we have the time and money, but we can’t muster up the energy to go after our goal. Or maybe the time just isn’t right yet – we need to wait for some future event to fall into place before we can proceed.

All of these are real obstacles. But there is another, larger obstacle that lurks in our hearts and minds, and will often use the problems I’ve listed as a way of hiding from us. It can hold us back from reaching our goals indefinitely, and its name is Fear.

Fear of what? Fear of failure? For many, that comes pretty close, but if we want to get a little more specific, we would probably put it better by using the statement: fear of not being good enough. This will take the form of such thoughts as, “They’re going to laugh at me.” “People aren’t going to like my work.” “She’s out of my league.” And on and on.

Interestingly, for some people, it is the fear of success, rather than failure, that stymies them. A friend of mine told me he was dragging his feet when it came to a film project he wanted to undertake, and I asked him, “What’s holding you back? Fear of failure?” He responded by saying, “Failure?! Heck, no! I’m intimately comfortable with failure. It’s success that scares the hell out of me.” Yet even in this case, I believe the underlying fear was that his project, if it succeeded, would mean it would actually be seen by lots of people, and they might not like it. My friend avoided having his work seen, and criticized, by never completing any projects – by failing. It was safe.

Take the case of Alex. Alex was a people-pleaser. He spent a lot of energy trying to figure out what everyone wanted him to be, and then he tried to be that. He was polite and unassertive, because he didn’t want to rock the boat. His fear was that others would not like him, because that meant he must have done something wrong. By the time he came to see me, Alex felt exhausted and beat down. Therapy helped him realize the futility of his attempts to make everyone happy. At one point, I said to him, “Here’s a simple fact: some people are going to like you, and some people aren’t. Some people won’t notice you at all. It’s the same for all of us. No one is universally liked.”

Alex later told me the above statement was the most useful bit of information he has learned in quite some time. He is no longer a people-pleaser, although he is still a nice guy. But now he feels the freedom to simply be himself, and let people either like him, or not. He is no longer afraid.

Here’s a little analogy for fear: Fear is a companion in our car, and he is along for the ride. Fear loves to tell us all the reasons why it’s not safe to pursue our goals. He will say things like, “Now is not the time. Who are you kidding? You’re not good enough. If you proceed, you will be humiliated. They won’t like you. You don’t belong up there. It’s safer to just stay put for awhile.” We can’t shut him up, and we can’t kick him out. So the question is: Who is driving the car? You, or Fear?

If Fear is driving the car, you know exactly where you’re going: Nowhere. Fear will sit there with his foot on the brake until the day you die, if you let him. But here’s the thing – if you say to Fear, “All right, move over, because I’m driving now,” and you mean it, Fear will obey. He will protest, he will fire off all kinds of warnings, but he will move over and let you drive. And now you’ve actually got a chance of getting somewhere. At this point, I would suggest we say to Fear, “Get in the back, and buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

This is not to say all fear is trivial or irrational. Fear actually serves a very important function. It can keep us from doing foolhardy things, like climbing over the railing at the Grand Canyon in order to snap a good photo, or trying to pet a shark, and so on. When we feel truly threatened, we have the “fight or flight” response, which prepares us to defend ourselves ferociously, or run for our lives. But as a therapist, the vast majority of fears that I hear about from clients have no actual power to harm them. For instance, one of the biggest fears people identify is “rejection.” Fear of rejection prevents many people from doing things like going out to social events or asking someone on a date. We all know logically that no one ever died from being shot down by a prospective romantic partner, but that might not stop us from avoiding the prospect of rejection like it was the plague. So we don’t take a chance, and remain alone, because it feels safer than risking that awful feeling of inadequacy if our advances are rejected.

Another big fear is simply not being liked, or that others might have bad thoughts about me. A lot of clients have told me they refuse to do things like go to a restaurant or a movie by themselves. Why? There’s nothing inherently dangerous about either of those activities. When pressed to explain, the response is usually, “Because of what other people might think of me. They’ll think I’m pathetic, or a loser, because I can’t find even one person to go with me.” Guess what? They might think that! But if they did, chances are you would never know. More than likely, they’re too busy with their own stuff to pay much attention to the person sitting by him- or herself. They might think, “Wow, I wish I had the courage to go to a movie by myself, like that guy.” Or they might be thinking, “Why are Star Mints so freaking expensive at the theater?” Or they might be thinking, “What a loser.” None of those thoughts by other people have any power to affect your life – only your thoughts can do that.

I try not to seek wisdom from bumper stickers, but there’s a good one that says, “Other people’s opinion of me is none of my business.” (My other favorite is, “Don’t believe everything you think,” but that’s a topic for later.) When we make an effort to not be overly concerned about what other people think of us, we are taking steps to release ourselves from fear. It’s a worthy goal. Imagine being free of the fears that might be holding you back. It can happen – but probably not overnight. A good first step is to dig around and discover what your fears really are, and then asking yourself, “Is this thing I’m afraid of actually dangerous?” Now, can you guess what the answer usually is?

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