Fear is normal and something we all experience, but if we don’t stand up to fearful thoughts on repeat, we become paralyzed by fear. In this article, I want to talk about what fear is, why it stops us from taking action—especially at work—and how to flip fear on its head so we can move forward instead of feeling stuck.
What is fear?
The dictionary defines fear as “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.” Feeling fearful in dangerous situations is normal and helpful but many of us feel fear in situations that aren’t dangerous to anything but our egos. These include public speaking, presenting or pitching to the board of directors, going after a promotion, being the only woman at the executive table, etc.
Give FEAR a new definition
Use the tips in this article to help fear work for you, instead of against you. You can start by remembering an alternate definition of FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real.
Why does fear stop us from taking action?
Fear stops us from taking action because we want to make the fear go away and the fastest way to do that is by stopping whatever causes the fear. But that’s a false promise because fear is part of the human condition.
As I said at the beginning, fear is normal and common. But did you know that it’s built into us? Fear pops up because it’s an output from our lizard brain that wants to keep us safe; the lizard brain—also known as the limbic system—thinks new experiences are dangerous.
Fear also stems from:
- Lack of confidence
- Negative self-talk
- Living by other people’s assumptions or rules, such as “I can’t have kids or I’ll ruin my career trajectory”
- Judgement (e.g., worrying about what other people will think if your idea fails)
- Our inner critic: the gremlin (The gremlin tries to keep us safe, play small and prevent us from taking risks. The gremlin tells us we’re not good enough to do or accomplish something.)
With all these sources of fear, we can’t expect to avoid feeling fear, but what we can do is remember that when fear pops up, we can always make a choice.
When faced with fear, we have two choices:
- Face it and rise to the occasion, also known as “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”
- Run from the fear instead of moving through it.
By facing the fear and doing what makes us afraid, we add more activities to the list of things we’re not afraid of and this builds our self-confidence. Running from and avoiding the fear makes us more fearful and more paralyzed.
Let’s look at a few examples that might sound familiar.
Examples of fear at work
Fear of speaking up at a meeting
If you know me, you know I’ve never had a problem speaking my mind, even from a young age—and my mother can vouch for that! But I’ve seen the reluctance to speak up countless times throughout my career as a leader and now as an executive coach.
Women are great at second-guessing themselves. In meetings, this shows up as not participating. Instead of putting her hand up and adding to the conversation, she’ll sit back and hope that someone picks her to participate. And the result of this approach is easy to predict; she doesn’t share her thoughts and ideas with the rest of the team.
Fear of judgment for being ambitious and having boundaries
This is especially common for women in leadership roles in male-dominated industries. When a woman is the only woman at the executive table, one challenge is stopping stories from playing on repeat in her own mind. These stories are about what other people think of her. Did she sleep her way to the top? Does she know someone? Is she a ball-buster? How can she be away from her children for so long? How can she leave the office at 5 pm to have dinner with her kids?
This fear of judgment can pile on the guilt and stop women from being their authentic selves at work, which is a big mistake. To learn more about why I believe authenticity is essential for women at work, read my article: The importance of being authentically you.
I’m sure you can think of more examples of how fear shows up at work (and at home). Now let’s discuss how you can choose to move forward in the face of fear.
How to overcome fear paralysis and focus on your goals and aspirations instead
The most powerful thing you can do is catch fear in the moment and shift it from self-doubt to possibility. What would’ve happened to Oprah Winfrey if she had let fear get in the way of her dreams? Would she be known worldwide and have a net worth of 2.5 billion dollars? I don’t know Oprah personally, but I suspect she lets fear work for her instead of against her.
4 ways to overcome fear paralysis:
- Catch the fear gremlin in the moment – When you recognize the gremlin whispering in your ear, acknowledge her and move on. You can say quietly or out loud, “Thank you gremlin for wanting to protect me. I’ll take it from here.”
- Shift from self-doubt to possibility – If you step onto a stage in front of 500 people and your thoughts are about bombing, forgetting your lines or other “failure” scenarios, it’s time to reframe them. Ask yourself positive what-if questions, such as, “What if I do this talk and it’s the best presentation of my life?” or “What if I give this presentation and a young women comes up to me afterwards to tell me it was exactly the message she needed to hear?” What a difference!
- Train yourself to think positive thoughts – It’s so easy to get wrapped up in negative thoughts without realizing it. These negative thoughts get cemented in our memory banks if we allow them to stick around for more than 68 seconds. If you catch a negative thought within 17 seconds you can shift it, which keeps the negative thought from getting locked in and fueling further negative thoughts. To get into the habit of this, you can wear a rubber band on your wrist, snap it each time you notice a negative thought and then reframe the thought.
- Reframe your definition of failure – We’re often paralyzed by a fear of failure but sometimes what we label as failure would be better described as learning. Stumbling over a sentence or two isn’t failure, it’s a lesson about preparation. Elon Musk and his team at Space X have launched many exploding rockets; these aren’t classified as failures but as learning experiences. Even if your project doesn’t meet your objectives, you will grow if you learn from it. That’s the opposite of failing!
When you shift away from fear, you expand yourself and the possibilities. Without fear ruling you, you’re more able to focus on your biggest goals and aspirations. When fear comes along, flip it around and use it to help you achieve your purpose and live your best life!
To learn even more about how to manage fear and use it as a motivator for growth, access our training webinar: Learn how to use fear to propel, not paralyze.
Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.
I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.
WIL Empowered is a year-long program where we use all four aspects of leadership development: Coaching, Networking, Peer to peer mentorship and skills development. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.
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