Why is it so hard to stick with our best intentions and follow through on our goals?
Whether it’s dropping 15 pounds, starting a new business, or finally fulfilling your dream to write a novel, our most important aspirations seem to quickly get derailed and go unrealized.
It’s rarely for lack of vision or desire—most of us basically know what we want and want it badly. And it’s usually not a knowledge problem either—making time for your photography hobby, for example, is difficult but not conceptually complicated.
As a psychologist, I spend my days working with my clients to help them overcome the barriers to their personal success and wellbeing. And without a doubt, the common obstacle I see is this:
The reason we struggle to achieve our potential is fear.
Specifically, there are 4 core fears that undermine our most important goals and aspirations.
Learning to identify and name these fears is essential to breaking through your chronic struggles, so you can begin to do your best work and finally realize your true potential.
The 1st Core Fear: You’re Afraid of Fear Itself
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, in fact, 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 looks like 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, mentally 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 (and irrational) 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.
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
— Franklin Roosevelt
The 2nd Core Fear: You’re Afraid of Missing Out
If you’re a millennial, or happen to live with one, you’ve probably heard the term “FOMO,” or fear of missing out.
In the last 10 years, it’s become a major cultural meme and touchstone because it hits at something many of us struggle with—we’re terrified of missing out on things and the imagined regret we’ll feel as a result:
- 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.
What’s more serious than allowing yourself to be chronically distracted from your most important work?
Fear of missing out means that we end up missing out on the most important things in life because we insist on not missing out in small ways.
Sure you go to the cool party, you read that fascinating article from Twitter, you build a website for that shiny new project you just thought of 30 minutes ago… But at what cost?
- Your goal of committing to a serious fitness regimen 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.
- You 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 partner.
Fear of missing out is a virus. It’s an insidious infection that infiltrates our behavior and, in an epically ironic twist, leads us to miss out on the most important things in life—our highest goals, values, and potential.
To fight back and turn the tide, 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.
Every yes means a thousand nos.
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.
Once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, you can make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.
— Greg McKeown, Essentialism
The 3rd Core Fear: You’re Afraid of Not “Feeling It”
The biggest half-truth you believe is this: Work requires motivation.
It’s a half-truth (or, as I’ll explain, more like a 5% 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. Occasionally, the muse blesses us with her presence and we crank out some tough work.
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:
95% of the time, motivation comes from doing our best 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.
The more we act like the person we want to become, the more we begin to feel like that person.
Don’t be a prisoner to the whims of how you feel. Free yourself to do what matters most by mastering yourself.
The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
The 4th Core Fear: You’re Afraid of Feeling Ashamed
Look, you’re a human being, a person, a member Homo Sapiens.
Whatever else that may or may not mean, it 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.
Shame is a feeling. 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 mellow out your emotional response to others thinking poorly of you, don’t be deceived: You’ll never be free of shame entirely.
So learn to live with it and stop imbuing 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.
If you base your decisions about how to move forward on the imagined potential for future shame, you’re screwed.
Instead, accept that there is always a chance for feeling ashamed. In fact, the more important, meaningful, and ambitions your goals, the more shame, criticism, and self-doubt you should to 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.
I will not allow anyone to shut me up or shame me into silence, and I’m not going to rot away behind closed doors.
— Yolanda Hadid
Did I miss something?
Most of us struggle sometimes to stick with our best intentions and reach our potential. And usually, it’s not because we don’t want it badly enough or don’t have enough knowledge or information.
The reason we struggle to achieve our goals is fear. Specifically, there are 4 core fears that hold us back from our best intentions:
- We’re afraid of fear itself.
- We’re afraid of missing out.
- We’re afraid of not “feeling it.”
- We’re afraid of feeling ashamed.
Identifying where these fears show up in our lives and naming them is a powerful first step to working through them and achieving your most important aspirations and dreams.
But there could be others… Did I miss one? What’s a fear that holds you back?