A survey on global well-being conducted by Gallup in 2013 discovered that less than 2 in 10 adults worldwide and 4 in 10 in the Americas are thriving in what they call purpose well-being. They define this as “liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.” One of the reasons that purpose well-being is so low is likely because we inhibit ourselves from fully living our purpose and expressing our potential. Almost 50 years ago, Dr. Abraham Maslow, a psychiatrist and leader of the human potential movement proposed our fear of greatness (and success) holds us back as much as our fear of failure. This is driven by five core concerns that keep us from becoming all that we are capable of becoming.
Fear of Responsibility
If we succeed beyond our wildest dreams, we reason, then we might end up being responsible for more than we’re comfortable being accountable for or believe we’re capable of delivering. The paradox is that the more we agree to live into our own greatness, the more freedom we have to make choices in our own lives and work. To paraphrase a verse in the Bible, “To whom much is given, much is required.” And that fear of assuming greater responsibility holds us back from taking the next step to more fully expressing our gifts.
Fear of Rejection
A second fear that keeps us from expressing our potential is that we worry that if we step into the life we’re capable of living, that people we care about (or even those we don’t know) might be jealous of our accomplishments and reject us. So we hold ourselves back in order to fit in with others and uphold the status quo, rather than befriending people who are secure enough in their own self-worth that they are honored to celebrate our accomplishments with us, rather than trying to pull us down.
Fear of Becoming Overwhelmed
A third fear that makes us hesitate from living a bigger life is that we’re afraid if we really step into our greatness, we’ll be completely overwhelmed. Maslow used the metaphor of “staring into the sun” when describing this fear. But the reality is that unleashing our full potential rarely occurs in one foul-swoop. Typically, our life experiences lay the ground-work to prepare us for what’s coming, and our gifts unfold as we are ready to receive them. Our job is to find the courage to say yes to the opportunities that come our way that allow us to express them.
Fear of Losing Control
A fourth fear that holds us back from fully expressing our potential is that we’re afraid of losing the stability we’ve come to count on−that living a bigger life will mean we’ll have to leave our comfort zone and we’ll disintegrate, to use Maslow’s term. This is the time when questions like these arise, “What if taking the next step means I have to leave a job that pays the bills but is slowly robbing me of my soul?” Underneath the fear of relinquishing control is the fear of letting go of what’s known and entering foreign terrain. What we have to remember when this fear surfaces is that barring illness, death, natural disaster, or poverty, we get to choose how much and when we let go of the parts of our life that no longer serve our growth in order to make room for the new.
Fear of Being Viewed as Arrogant
The final fear we must address to step into the life we were destined to lead is to face our apprehensions that if we step into a bigger life, others might view us as being prideful or arrogant. Underneath this fear is the concern that others might take advantage of us and our relationships won’t be authentic. For example, will people want to be our friend because they really like us, or because they want to bask in the glow of what we’ve done? And even more important, will we allow our own pride in our accomplishments to allow our ego to drown out our good judgment?
The good news about these fears we have that keep us playing smaller than we need to is that many of us share them, so at least we’re in good company. What I’ve discovered in my own life and in my coaching practice with hundreds of leaders over the years is that you can’t find your way out until you first go in. The steps to overcoming the fears that limit us from fully expressing our potential are to No. 1) be mindful of the fears that drive your life, and No. 2) commit to doing the work to transform them. Are you willing to help create a world where all may thrive by looking at the fears that hold you back and taking the actions that will enable you to share your greatest gifts, become your best self, and live your most fulfilling life?
Photo by Nicolai Berntsen
Donna Stoneham, Ph.D.
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- Are Fears Keeping You From Reaching Your Full Potential? - April 17, 2015