4 Deep Fears Holding You Back

Do you ever wonder why it’s so hard to follow through on your most important goals…

  • Sticking with an exercise plan
  • Reading more
  • Starting a business or side-project
  • Asking someone out
  • Meditating
  • Being consistent with a creative hobby

The list goes on and on. But you get the idea. There are all sorts of things we value deeply yet fail to stick with or even start. Why?

I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I do have one that’s under-appreciated…


We don’t stick with our goals and commitments because we’re afraid, plain and simple.

Well, maybe not simple…

See, it’s not always easy to admit to ourselves that we’re afraid. In particular, it’s not easy to admit that we’re afraid when we’re not exactly sure what we’re afraid of.

In the rest of this article, we’ll look at a handful of deep fears—fears that are below the surface and often hard to recognize—that often hold people back from their goals and commitments.

The better you are at identifying these deep fears, the better your odds of overcoming them.

1. Fear of Missing Out

In recent years, the acronym FOMO—Fear of Missing Out— has become a major cultural meme and touchstone because it hits at something many of us struggle with but didn’t have a name for—we’re terrified of missing out on things and all the regret we’ll feel as a result.

For example:

  • You know you should spend the extra hour studying for your exam tomorrow, but you’re afraid that that party you got invited to is going to be epic and you don’t want to miss out. You imagine all your friends talking about how great it was and how badly you’ll feel in that moment if you missed out on it.
  • You know you should be writing—because that’s the only way novels get written—but you can’t help wonder what’s happening on Insta, or Snapchat, or Twitter. And so you spent those 3 hours of writing time flitting back and forth distractedly between your writing and social media, never really accomplishing much—all because you’re afraid of missing out.

Even though it can feel like a joke to talk about your FOMO, nothing could be more serious.

The tragedy of FOMO is that because we’re unwilling to miss out on small things we end up missing out on the most important things.

Here’s another way to think about it: What are you giving up because you can’t tolerate missing out on things?

  • Your goal of committing to a serious fitness plan and finally getting healthy keeps getting put off because socializing seems more fun.
  • Your novel never gets written because Instagram always seems more interesting than the blinking cursor in Google Docs.
  • Your marriage continues to deteriorate because staying late at work “just one more time” will prevent you from missing out on that new promotion and becoming a partner.

Fear of missing out is a virus. It’s an insidious infection that infiltrates our behavior and, in an ironic twist, leads us to miss out on the most important things in life—our highest goals, values, and potential.

To fight back, you must cultivate the ability to say no and tolerate all the imagined regret you see playing out in your mind’s eye.

Remind yourself of the opportunity cost of “yes.” Remind yourself that every time you say “yes” to something, you’re also giving up on something else.

And if you’re habitually saying yes to superficially exciting things, there’s a good chance you’re also saying no to most important meaningful things

2. Fear of Low Motivation

The biggest half-truth you believe is this: Work requires motivation.

It’s a half-truth because, when it comes to the relationship between motivation and work, it’s only a part of the story.

See, every once in a blue moon, you get struck by a bolt of motivation and feel ready and energized to take on the world:

  • You wake up at 5:00 just itching to get to the gym and go for a run.
  • You sit down to work on your manuscript and the time flies as you knock out page after page, chapter after chapter.
  • You suddenly feel inspired to finally call that old friend and reconnect.

Because motivation does occasionally strike and make it a whole lot easier to do the hard work we know we need to do, we assume that’s just how important work gets done.

But that model of motivation also implies that if we’re not feeling it—if we haven’t been struck by motivation—we can’t do important work. This belief makes us fragile. It makes us weak. But mostly, it makes us afraid.

Believing that you need motivation to do important work creates a fear that you can’t do it when you’re not “feeling it.”

Like the alcoholic who relies on booze to get them through social functions without anxiety, most of us are dependent on motivation to do our best work.

But here’s the truth about motivation and work:

Motivation comes from doing the work, not the other way around.

The more we exercise, for example, the more exercise becomes a part of our identity. And so, we feel more motivated to work out in the future, even when we’re not feeling it.

The more we write, the more we feel like a writer, and the easier it is to sit our butts down and crank out our 1,000 words for the day.

As James Clear says:

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.

Don’t wait for motivation. Practice generating it by doing the work regardless of how you feel.

3. Fear of Feeling Ashamed

Look, you’re a human being, a person, a member of Homo Sapiens. And whatever else that may or may not mean, it certainly means this:

You’re wired to care about what other people think, especially the people closest to you—family, friends, coworkers, lovers.

Let’s stop pretending this isn’t true.

Stop pretending that if you read enough self-help books and attend enough therapy sessions you’ll free yourself from ever feeling embarrassed, humiliated, or ashamed.

Accept the fact that you will always care about what other people think to some extent. And as a result, some uncomfortable “social emotions” may occur.

Yes, you will feel ashamed sometimes…

  • You will feel embarrassed after flubbing your presentation.
  • You will feel ashamed when you overhear your best friend talking badly about your performance at the 5K you ran last week.

It’s okay to feel ashamed.

Shame is an emotion. It happens. And while you can learn to take a better perspective on things, make your self-talk more realistic, communicate more assertively, and any number of other helpful strategies to temper your emotional responses, don’t be deceived: You’ll never be free of shame entirely.

So learn to live with it and stop feeding it with so much significance.

If you insist on avoiding shame and embarrassment altogether before you get to work, your work will never get done.

Instead, accept that there is always a chance for feeling ashamed. In fact, the more important, meaningful, and ambitious your goals, the more shame, criticism, and self-doubt you should expect.

You have to practice feeling ashamed and doing it anyway—whatever it is that matters most to you: Your work, your art, your body, your passion, your love.

Accept your feelings of shame, be willing to carry them with you. Only then will you rob it of its power. Only then will you be able to get to work.

4. Fear of Fear

What is fear, exactly?

  • Is it an emotion? Something between nervous, anxious, and terrified?
  • Is it a physical feeling? Chest tightness, wobbly legs, racing heart, muscle tension, sweaty palms?
  • Is it a reaction? Stumbling over your words, avoiding eye contact, avoiding the spotlight, running away?

All of the above are ways to think about fear descriptively, in terms of how it looks and feels. But the better way to think about fear is functionally, in terms of what it’s doing.

At its core, fear is simply the result of your body mobilizing its defenses to deal with a perceived threat:

  • Your respiratory rate increases to bring in more oxygen so that your muscles have more fuel to fight or flee.
  • Your heart rate and blood pressure increase so that all the new oxygen you’re bringing in can get delivered to your muscles faster (via your blood vessels).
  • Your muscles tense so your reactions are quicker and stronger (think Olympic sprinter on the blocks…).

Of course, all this stuff feels really uncomfortable. So much so that a sudden spike of fear or panic can make it seem like you’re having a heart attack or dying.

But despite how it feels, your fear response is a normal, healthy phenomenon. It’s simply your body trying to keep you safe.

But why does my body generate a fear response when I’m not really in danger?

The problem is, your body gets easily confused about what is truly a danger and threat to your life and what appears to be a danger and threat:

  • Being chased by a saber-toothed tiger? You better hope your respiratory rate, heart rate, and muscle tension increases!
  • Getting laughed at when you pitch your new idea for a startup to your friends? Not so much…

The first is a genuine threat to your survival and the fear is helpful. The second? It’s embarrassing, but your survival isn’t at stake, so a fear response is largely unhelpful.

The trouble is, if you react to your friends’ laughter and shaming the same way you would react to a saber-tooth tiger—run away, avoid similar situations in the future, worry about and stay vigilant for future scary situations, etc., you’re teaching your brain that the two are similarly legitimate. Which means that the next time you face an embarrassing situation, your body is going to react with an even stronger fear response.

Worst of all, when our fear response becomes strongly associated with certain situations, we start avoiding those situations entirely:

  • You had a panic attack while driving on the freeway, so now you only take side streets.
  • You get embarrassed giving presentations, so you avoid promotions that would require public speaking.
  • You feel anxious anytime someone says something critical of your business ideas, so stop sharing your ideas.

The more you avoid and fight with your body’s fear response, the more your fear grows. And the more your fear grows, the more your world shrinks.

So how do you fight back?

Learn to distinguish your body’s mistaken fear response from a genuine threat.

When you’re consumed by fear in the absence of true danger, simply describe how you feel. Catalog the sensations in your body, mind, and heart. Observe them, describe them, and acknowledge them. But don’t judge them or insist that they go away.

It’s only when you’re willing to be with your fear that you can overcome it.

Train yourself to tolerate your body’s fear response and to pursue your goals anyway. That’s the path to courage, perseverance, and ultimately, success in whatever realm matters to you.

All You Need to Know

If you’re consistently stuck in any area of life—work, love, art, spirituality, health, etc.—it’s worth taking a closer look at the role of fear in your life.

Specifically, there are four deep fears that are often difficult to recognize but impact us profoundly:

  1. Fear of missing out
  2. Fear of low motivation
  3. Fear of feeling ashamed
  4. Fear of fear

The more you expand your awareness of these deep fears, the easier it will be to overcome them and break out of your stuckness.

Read more articles about overcoming your fears

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Add Yours

Excellent and timely article. Thank you Nick.
Your insights and wisdom have been and continue to be extremely helpful.
Thank you.

This article describes very well what I go through when trying to start all of my goals. Thank you for your insight.

This couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. I’ll be performing on the cello for an audience of thousands this evening. Every time I do this, once a year, I feel like I’m going to my own hanging. Now I know why. My heart is still pounding, but, no matter what happens, how many notes I play out of tune or squawk on, I’m still going to start with the first note and end with the last. Thank you, Nick!

Such an in-depth article vividly describing our inner battles faced everyday which not only outrage us to freeze our healthy responses but also destroys every bit of a joyous life. Thank you for a beautiful explanation. It’s really helpful.

“The more important, meaningful, and ambitious your goals, the more shame, criticism, and self-doubt you should expect.” is going into my collection of quotes, what I needed right now.

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