By John Sonmez August 10, 2015

Which of These Fears is Holding You Back

I’ve sat here looking at this blank page for far too long.

I wanted to start off by telling you about why fear is so limiting.

Why fears—and the various manifestations of fear—are crippling to you, me, and everyone else in this world.

But, the truth is: I… was afraid.

I was afraid that I would start off this post in the wrong way—that I would say the wrong thing.

Scared managerI was afraid that you would read it and judge me.

I was afraid that I would fail to express myself as I intended.

I was afraid that getting starting would mean continuing, and continuing would mean work—which I was also afraid of.

Fear strikes us and impedes us in so many ways.

We quickly recognize fear when we climb to a tall height or come face-to-face with a lion, but we often fail to recognize the less obvious, but still very potent forms of it.

As Sun Tzu says, in order to defeat your enemy, you must know it—and you must know yourself.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

—Sun Tzu

In this post, I hope to unmask the enemy that is fear, and show you the most common forms of it.

The fear of failure

One of the most dangerous and crippling fears in life is that of failure.

We all fear failure to some degree—it’s only natural—but an excessive fear of failure can lead to an almost complete paralysis of action.

When you fear failure, you are afraid to do anything that is not easily within your grasp.

This fear, like many fears, often starts out as a large bubble that slowly contracts around you, leaving you with fewer and fewer actions to take as you discover more and more paths in life where some risk of failure is unavoidable.

You can recognize this fear by your hesitation to take action and your over dramatization of negative results.

The courageous person says, “What is the worst that can happen?” The person stymied by the fear of failure says, “The worst will happen; I know it.”

The way to overcome this fear lies in the marriage of the two viewpoints. To ask yourself the question of what the worst that could happen is, and how likely it truly is. Then take it one step further and ask: What is the most likely outcome?

If you are afraid of failure, perhaps you need to stop trying to avoid it. Failure in itself is not a bad thing—not something to be feared.

Failure is part of life. Failure is part of learning and progress. Without failure, there can be no success.

If you see failure as a stepping stone on the path to success, you’ll learn to fear it less.

The fear of success

graduate standing on the road and watching the stormIs is possible to fear both failure and success?

Most assuredly.

In fact, it is quite a common plight and paradox which we must all face.

Not only do we fear failing at a task, but we often fear success as well.

I’ll be the first to admit that this fear is one of the most difficult to recognize.

The best way I can describe it is the feeling you have when you are at the cusp of victory, when you can see victory all but in your grasp, but for whatever reason, you let it slip through your fingers.

So many times in my life have I been at this point, where I have labored long and hard to complete some task or to win some contest, but at the very end, I sabotaged myself. I pulled the winning punch, dropping my shield at the last moment.

If you’ve ever wondered why you also performed such an act of self-sabotage, the reason may have been the fear of success.

But why would we do it?

Why would we throw the fight in the very last round?

Often it comes from a feeling of self-doubt and unworthiness. At a surface level we may be confident, but deep down we don’t believe that we are worthy to receive the title, win the award, or take the prize.

We are also often afraid of what it means to “win,” to be victorious.

What of all the struggles and hardship along the way?

What of the journey, the striving for the goal?

Victory makes it all disappear in an instant.

We seek the prize, but are afraid of the feeling of loss which it inevitably brings.

Some of my greatest victories in life were immediately followed by a hollow emptiness as I asked myself, “Is that all there is? Is that it?”

When you have poured your heart and soul into a single purpose and that purpose is resolved, it can leave you feeling empty and lost.

I may be wrong, but I believe this is why we fear success.

So, what can be done to overcome this fear?

Strangely, it starts with a realization that life itself is not fair. That no one is worthy of anything. That we can do our best to influence fate, but in the end all things are uncertain.

Sometimes the “most worthy” is met with no reward, and the “least worthy” with a lion's share.

With this realization, we can understand that we need to take what we can get when we can get it, worthy or not. Fate will deal us plenty of unwarranted blows, so we must also accept, with humility, those victories that are also gifted to us.

It is not a matter of worth or deserving, but of some degree of chance combined with effort.

This is not to say that life and victory is all luck—but just to say that one does not have to be worthy to attain success, nor does one have to be unworthy or undeserving to suffer defeat.

You may also find it comforting to know that the emptiness you experience after a victory is not permanent or final. There is always a new pursuit, always a new endeavor to strive after.

The down feeling that follows success is just part of the ebb and flow of life. You could not have highs without lows, and all things must come to resolution.

The fear of what other people think

Colleagues gossiping with sad young businessman in foreground at a bright officeWhile the fear of both failure and success are internal and often unknown to us, an external fear often impedes us from action just as strongly.

Perhaps the ultimate freedom in life lies in overcoming the fear of other people’s judgements of our actions.

As children, most of us were all completely free of this fear.

If you watch a young child playing and interacting, you’ll notice the carefree attitude that prevents them from feeling embarrassed, shy, ashamed, or inhibited in any other way from being themselves.

We are trained at an early age to develop this fear. How many times did your parents, or even you yourself if you are a parent, said things like, “Don’t pick your nose!” or “Get your hands out of your pants!” Parents mean well, of course, but they’re essentially affirming the message that it matters what other people think.

Now don’t get me wrong, some amount of inhibition is necessary for society to function. We can’t all go around doing whatever our impulses desire and not paying attention to anyone else or how they’ll react, but this prudence should come from respect for fellow human beings, not fear of their judgement.

I would tell you how to recognize when you are afraid of what other people think, but if you are plagued by this fear, you already know it.

To be honest, I think all of us carry this fear around with us—just some more than others.

The question, then, is: How does this fear affect you?

What would you do, what would you be capable of, if there was no one there to judge you?

What actions would you take if they were always met with applause and approval?

More importantly, what actions are you not taking because you are afraid of what someone else will say or think, of how you will be judged?

The only way I know to overcome this fear is by trial. To constantly put yourself out there for the judgement of others and to eventually realize that it really isn’t that bad, and that, as my mother used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”

We can’t control how other people act and react to us, but we can control how we interpret it and respond.

It helps to understand that most people are like us—also afraid of what others think. Also making unfair judgements of others, but meaning no real harm.

It helps to understand that to let someone else’s judgement of you and your actions constitutes submission to them and their will.

To allow someone’s judgement of you to affect what you do and say is to allow that person to control you—to own you.

The fear of doing the wrong thing

Sometimes our fears don’t make much sense at all.

Take, for instance, our fear of doing the wrong thing, which often leads us to take no action at all.

We can be so caught up in the fear of making the wrong decision or choosing the wrong path, that we default to no action—which is almost always the wrong one.

Often this finds its roots in a fear of failure, because we are afraid we’ll choose a path that will take us down a road ultimately leading to failure. But often this fear just originates from not wanting to make the suboptimal choice.

Yet, as silly and trivial as this fear seems, I’ve seen it take down countless victims.

I’ve seen college students afraid to pick a major. I’ve seen software developers afraid to pick a specialty—especially when taking my free blogging course.

I’ve seen projects grind to a halt as meeting after meeting was conducted because someone was afraid to make a simple choice between two solutions that were likely to yield barely discernable differences in results.

The key to overcoming this fear is realizing any action is almost always better than no action.

It also helps to acknowledge that life is somewhat like a maze. We don’t have to fear making a wrong decision, because we can often backtrack out of the wrong paths as we discover our way—and gain wisdom in the process.

The fear of rejection

Businessman showing his thumb downClosely related to the fear of what other people think, but not quite the same thing, is the fear of rejection.

Often it is not the direct judgement of our actions that we fear, but instead the actual rejection of us personally.

This can be best illustrated by the fear of rejection one encounters when pursuing a romantic relationship.

Very rarely in this case are we afraid of what the other person might think of the words we say or the actions we take, but rather we are afraid of them rejecting us.

We are afraid of what it means if we are unlikable, unlovable, not good enough.

We are afraid rejection means that, at our very core, we are not worthy of the respect, admiration, or love of another and what that says about us.

So, because we fear this rejection, we seek to avoid it as much as possible.

We don’t act like ourselves, but are persuaded by the popular opinion instead. Other people and general consensus tell us what to think and believe, and how we should feel about social subjects.

We wear a facade and avoid taking risks that would personally expose us to another person who could potentially reject us or our work—which we often see as a direct extension of ourselves.

We go to a conference, but don’t talk to anyone.

We don’t approach the girl.

We sit a table by ourselves, watching other people have fun from a distance.

We live in regret and fear, and left unchecked it develops into envy and hatred and, sometimes, violence.

The good news is that, like most fears, it can also be overcome.

I know because I have learned to overcome this fear myself.

I was deathly afraid of rejection for a good portion of my life.

Those fears cut me off from people and isolated me from the world. I feared that people would reject me, and so they did, because fear is not an admirable quality.

But I overcame that fear by exposing myself to as much rejection as possible.

One day, I went to a mall and made it my mission to say “hi” to at least 50 random strangers.

I joined a modeling agency and set myself up for as much rejection as possible—and harsh rejection at that.

At every opportunity I got, I faced rejection, and you know what I learned?

It’s not so bad.

Really, it isn’t. Once you get used to rejection, you stop caring about it.

The whole world isn’t going to accept you, and that’s okay.

But, like most things in life, it’s a numbers game. Talk to a thousand people and I guarantee at least one of them will like you.

Ask a thousand romantic interests out on dates, and at least one will say “yes.”

And the good news is, the more you learn to overcome this fear, the easier it is to overcome it.

The less your fear rejection, the less you are rejected.

The fear of pain

Surgeon have sadistic look before coming surgeryNo one likes pain. Well, most people don’t.

But, we sometimes have the tendency to avoid pain so much that we actually fear it.

Some amount of pain is necessary in life. It is impossible to avoid all forms of pain.

Some things in life will be difficult and will require hard work and sacrifice to be accomplished. There is a certain amount of pain to be expected—and tolerated—from these actions.

Yet, even though most of us know these things at a conscious level, we often let the fear of pain stop us from moving forward and accomplishing our goals.

We know that a road will be hard, so we avoid it.

We know that sacrifices will need to be made, so we take a suboptimal path.

We put off the things we should be doing today until tomorrow, because we somehow think the pain will be less in the future. (It’s usually more.)

The biggest symptom of this fear is avoiding or fearing hard work, or anything that causes you discomfort.

The fear can also manifest itself in a purely physical form. You may be overly afraid of getting hurt. Many children—and some adults—are afraid of getting a shot, which is really an almost painless procedure.

Regardless, the fear stems from an over avoidance of any and all discomfort.

Everyone wants to be comfortable and, like I said, most people do not want to be in pain. But it is important to understand that some pain is necessary, and that it often isn’t as bad as we imagine.

Seneca said it best when he said “Remember that pain has this most excellent quality. If prolonged it cannot be severe, and if severe it cannot be prolonged.”

I take the stoic approach to overcoming this fear and make it a regular habit to practice some form of physical discomfort.

Fast for a few days and realize that hunger is not all that bad.

Spend a day doing hard labor and realize that hard work is more rewarding that painful.

Understand why a pain is necessary to achieve a desired result and set that result firmly in your mind, and it becomes much more tolerable and much less feared.

The fear of loss

One of the most lethal fears in life is that of loss, because it robs us of so much opportunity.

Many psychological studies have demonstrated that most people have a larger fear of loss than a motivation for a gain.

Give someone $100 and they’ll be pleasantly happy, but rob someone of that same $100 and they’ll be ten times more angry and distraught than the joy they experienced from the sudden windfall.

It is human nature to fear and try to avoid loss, but this fear of loss can be extremely limiting to us. While we are so busy erecting defences around all of our prized possessions, we are missing out on the opportunity to go out and find more.

Some level of risk-aversion is necessary in life. We shouldn’t run around doing foolish things, just because “YOLO, man.”

But on the other hand, too much risk aversion is very limiting and constraining.

Life itself is a risky proposition.

To be overly afraid of loss, which is the same as being afraid of risk, is to diminish some of the downside in life, but at the cost of eliminating most or all of the upside.

Risks and rewards are often disproportionately assigned. Often a small or medium-sized risk can result in a huge reward, because so many people are afraid to take any risk at all.

You can recognize this fear of loss in yourself by paying attention to the kind of choices you make.

Do you always try to think of ways to save money, rather than how you can make money?

Do you have a scarcity mindset, rather than one of abundance?

Do you spend more time and effort in ensuring your job security rather than on developing yourself for future opportunities?

Do you have a hard time giving?

All of these are signs of a fear of loss.

The key to overcoming this fear is transitioning from the scarcity mindset into one of abundance.

It is to realize that the world is full of opportunity. That there is more than enough to go around for everyone.

Try not to worry so much about what you have and realize that you don’t really need much to be happy.

What were your happiest memories in life? Did they involve large fortunes and expensive gifts and toys, or were they the simple things, like enjoying a beautiful day or having a cheaply-made meal over a campfire with friends?

One more tip that will all but guarantee that you will overcome this fear: give.

I give 10% of all the income I make to orphans in India. (I talk about this in my chapter about how I retired at 33 in Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual.)

I don’t say this to brag, but to illustrate a point. It took courage to first take this action. To believe that God would return to me more than I gave.

But everything I have given, He has returned to me a hundredfold.

Now, I do this from a position of faith, but I believe the underlying principle is one of mindset.

I believe it is impossible to give freely if you have a mindset of scarcity. Giving a certain percentage of your income away forces you to develop a mindset of abundance. I would highly recommend it.

(For an entertaining story about loss, check out What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. I really enjoyed this book and got some good lessons from it.)

The fear of the unknown

Blindfolded nice womanOne of the worst fears in our lives is that of the unknown.

I think we fear the unknown more than anything else.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

Nothing evokes more terror than that which we do not and cannot know ahead of time.

The main symptom of this fear is worry.

Worry is simply imaging the worst about a situation that is beyond our control or knowledge.

You don’t worry about something that you know and are familiar with.

You may be fear or dread something that you know is going to happen, but you only worry about that which is unknown to you.

The fear of the unknown is one of the most constricting fears in our lives.

When we are mastered by this fear, we are like an animal in a zoo—forced into an unnaturally small confinement with no foreseeable escape.

This fear takes the vast world and shrinks it down to what we already are comfortable and familiar with.

If you fear the unknown, you can never grow, never expand. The fear of the unknown keeps you right where you are, doing what is comfortable to you and rarely venturing out into the yard.

Conquering this fear is best accomplished by forcing yourself into new and uncomfortable situations, and realizing that everything thus far in life, you have dealt with and handled in some way.

Remember that everything comfortable and mundane to you now was at one point unknown.

Right now I sit here writing this blog post in Amsterdam, having traveled far outside of my comfort zone to visit an entire world of unknowns as I’ve been traveling around Europe.

Yes, some of it was scary. Some things were intimidating. But the more I go forward, the less apprehension I have, because I can rely on all the unknowns I have already conquered and become accustomed to.

The fear of letting go

businessman standing on top of a building in NY cityClosely related to the fear of the unknown is that of letting go, of giving up control.

The world is a crazy place with many twists and turns that we can’t anticipate ahead of time.

There are many things beyond our control. In fact, most things in life are beyond our control. It is only the illusion of control that is so prevalent.

Yet, somehow, we think we can control life to every small degree.

We believe we can control outcomes if we push hard enough.

We believe we can control other people if we nag them enough.

We even sometimes believe we can control the weather—through wishful thinking.

The truth is, there is very little we can control.

We can control our own actions, and that is about it. The rest of the world is only subject to our control as much as it is subject to the results of those actions.

(A good book on this subject, by the way, is: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.)

To rephrase: we can control the actions we take, but not the results of those actions.

I can swing the bat, but no matter how good I am, I can’t guarantee that I’ll hit the ball.

I can do my best to write this blog post, but there is no guarantee anyone will read it or find value in it.

You can execute your good idea, but you can’t control whether or not it is ultimately successful.

You can affect the outcome, but you can’t control it.

You can affect things, but not effect them.

When you try too hard to control results, or when you believe you actually can, that is when you have a fear of letting go.

It’s like gripping sand so hard that it slides right through your fingers.

This fear can inhibit your life in many ways:

  • Prevents you from doing things that you feel you can control the outcome of
  • Causes unneeded worry and stress
  • Removes the tools of delegation from your toolbelt
  • Keeps you from having a good time and enjoying life
  • Teaches you to make wrong decisions as you judge the outcome rather than the execution (you can get bad results from doing the right thing and good results from doing the wrong thing)
  • Limits your actual sphere of control as energy and effort is wasted on the wrong purposes

Overcoming this fear is as simple as gaining a true understanding of what you can actually control and what you can’t.

The clearer your understanding of this reality is, the less likely you are to fear letting go, because you will realize that what you're holding onto is not actually beneficial or productive.

I learned to conquer this fear by playing poker.

Playing poker, one quickly realizes that there is a huge amount of luck involved in the game.

Overall, a person of higher skill will be more likely to to win, but they are only ever “more likely”—winning is never guaranteed.

As I studied poker strategy and became better at the game, I began to realize that I could not control the outcome, but I could influence the outcome by playing the correct strategy to the best of my ability.

I learned that I could only control how well I played the game, but not whether or not I won.

I had to learn that in order to be a good poker player, I had to let go.

True fear

The last category of “fear” is the most common kind the majority of us associate with the word.

It is the kind of fear that the Greeks called “phobos.”

This is the fear that we can feel in our bodies when we experience it.

If you are afraid of spiders, or heights, or scary movies, or flying on airplanes, you know this fear.

We all experience this fear from time to time, but some of us are severely hampered by it—I know I was.

For the longest time, I let this fear be my master in many ways.

man praying over airplane on runway backgroundI was afraid to go on rollercoasters.

I was afraid to go on airplanes.

I was afraid to swim in the ocean or undertake anything I thought was risky to my well-being.

I was even afraid, at one point, that I was going to die, because I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs. (Panic attacks.)

This fear crippled my life.

I missed out on the opportunity to travel the world.

I missed out on all kinds of fun and adventure.

I even almost lost my job, and my sanity along with it.

That is, until I learned to conquer this kind of fear.

The turning point for me was when I started to experience panic attacks, because I felt I couldn’t breathe.

For a few weeks, my life was a wreck and I could hardly function at all.

I thought I would lose my mind and my life with it, until I discovered the secret to conquering this kind of physical fear—to embrace it.

One evening when I was having a panic attack, I listened to someone who was discussing how to overcome panic attacks. They gave some advice that I hadn’t heard before.

The whole time I had been trying to block out the panic attack and ignore it, to distract my mind and think of something else. Even to pretend like it wasn’t happening.

But, that was the completely wrong approach.

It turned out that the best way to conquer your fears, was to face them—fully.

I took the advice and stopped trying to avoid feeling what I was feeling, and instead let panic and pure terror course right through my body, unimpeded.

I challenged myself to experience and much unbridled terror as possible.

I let wave after wave of fear hit me, but I forced myself to experience it in full and then…

… it was gone. Never to return.

I applied the same technique to flying on an airplane, to riding a rollercoaster.

Now I apply that technique to just about any fear I have.

It works. Try it.

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

—Nelson Mandela

About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."