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Is your Professional Fear holding you back from success?

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

Image: Freepik by @cookie_studio

Fear is a natural reaction or behaviour to protect ourselves from what we perceive as danger or significant harm to our wellbeing. In physiological or clinical terms, we react to fear through the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses which are automatic responses when individuals feel frightened or stressed.

Fear is often considered as an emotional response, but there are physical responses that are triggered by the adrenal gland which produces the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Some examples of physical feelings could be increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweats or chills, dizziness, butterflies, or stomach complaints.

These physical responses cause additional distress and further, exacerbate the fear particularly if the individual is unable to control them.

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On a day-to-day basis, people experience professional fear ranging from anxiety about public speaking, social interactions, worry about change, or uncertainty.

Within the workplace, or in an environment where we deem our performance is being evaluated, fear plays a critical role in self-development, challenge, motivation, or professional growth.

In our professional careers, it is common to have moments of insecurity about our ability to perform, take on new challenges or change an existing way of working.

However, there are times when our fear becomes a barrier rather than a source of motivation.

What maintains it: avoidance, safety behaviours and escape strategies.

Fear can lead to turning down your dream job or not putting yourself forward for a promotion, this is a form of sabotage, conscious or unconsciously orchestrated.

One such way of maintaining our fear is through avoidance of what we fear, a type of learned or maintained behaviour that postpones or averts confronting our fear. In a workplace setting, we may see this with Image: Freepik by @diana.grytsku

resistance to change, stagnation or rejection

of acquiring new skills.

Another is the way an individual may maintain their fear through safety behaviours, for example, if we can’t avoid the fear, we might use subtle avoidance or precautions techniques to avoid confronting our fear. If you fear public speaking but must attend a workshop that requires your contribution, our safety approach might be to stay quiet or to remain out of direct sight.

The least considered strategy is to escape; when someone feels emotionally distressed by their fear and feel unable to confront or deal with it, the flight response kicks in. In a professional setting, we can see this in situations when an individual moves jobs or careers consistently. These individuals convince themselves that the job is not the right fit or their colleagues were the problem.

These maintenance strategies are problematic, as they serve to maintain our fear rather than building the skills and experience to overcome them.

It is also important to highlight that part of the challenge of overcoming professional fear, is identifying them and how to manage them.

I have, therefore, highlighted some common professional fears and how to potentially tackle them:

1. Imposter syndrome - the worry that we are not as good as our peers, or someone will find out our inadequacies is a common professional fear. HR news May 2021 polled one thousand respondents, of which 85% expressed they suffer from imposter syndrome. Often, if we are not supported in our job through training or don’t feel we have the skills to do our job, self-doubt builds.

Where to start with overcoming imposter syndrome?

- Growth mindset - be willing to learn, to see each opportunity as a step closer to becoming an expert or look for ways to acquire more skills for your toolbox, this will help with building your confidence (recommend reading - Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential )

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- Ask for help: you will be surprised how others enjoy the recognition for their expertise, so use this to your advantage. You can also see this as an opportunity to exchange skills with a colleague, find a ‘skills swap buddy’ either at work or someone you trust in your industry. In addition, why not ask for training from your employers, most employers would support growth and if they are willing to invest in you this is a positive sign.

- Challenge self-doubt – actively notice what you are saying to yourself, we are often our biggest critics, and our thoughts create our emotions.

- Identify what you are good at – use your skills and talents to help others, in or out of work. You need to replace those negative inner thoughts with believable and tangible thoughts of your achievements.

2. Fear of public speaking - In the UK, a study by Jobsite (2018) asked 2000 respondents what their fears and phobia were in the workplace and 67% stated public speaking was their biggest fear.

With communication and speaking an essential part of most people’s jobs, this professional fear is difficult to avoid, therefore, the required intervention is to face it. The good news is there are gentle ways in which to confront public speaking.

Where to start with overcoming the fear of public speaking?

- Exposure approach – I can't say this enough; practising is the key to overcoming public speaking. It enables you to build up your experience, through a gradual exposure approach. Start with the least intimidating environment you fear; for example, present to one person, your partner at home, then a colleague or your team, then move to larger audiences and gradually work up to the big event.

- Get proficient - knowing your subject matter enables you to dismiss the negative thoughts of self-doubt. In addition, if you are presenting slides get familiar with the narrative and sequence of your slides, especially if the document was written by someone else.

- Manage your worries and thoughts – catch these negative or fear-inducing thoughts, challenge them, and offer alternative thoughts or statements that are helpful and encouraging.

- Breathing – learn a simple breathing exercise to use on the day to help with reducing the physical discomfort of nerves and anxiety such as Box breathing, 4-7-8 (5-minute Audio)

- Visualise success – in the run-up to the presentation, try daily or whenever worrying thoughts about the presentation appear, imagine, and replay yourself going through the presentation in a calm and successfully way.

- Know your triggers – learn how your anxiety presents and reduce them by using your preferred breathing and relaxation techniques.

3. Fear of failure – If you struggle with perfectionism or work in an environment where unrealistic goals and expectations are set for individuals and teams, then this is most likely a familiar fear.

Where to start with overcoming the fear of failure?

- Avoid rigid plans – Plans and goals are useful, as we need something to aim for, however, many individuals use them as a sign to suggest that have fallen short of the ideal. Rather, try to see them as a trajectory to an end goal.

- Plan for adjustments – This continues from the point above; if we avoid ridge goals we can plan for points of reflection and midway check-ins. This can give us opportunities to adjust our goals, as things don’t always go as planned, variables change, and as long as we understand some factors we can’t influence, we can be less fearful of changing plans to meet our end goal.

- Have a contingency plan – Always consider various routes to success. Having a backup plan ensures you have thought of various ways to avoid failure, which reduces your chances of things going wrong.

- Share the work/risk – It is common to hear someone who struggles with the fear of failure say things such as ‘I rather do it myself’ or ‘I can't risk others making a mistake’. These kinds of thoughts and behaviours often lead to self-induced stress and pressure, which in turn creates opportunities for mistakes.

- Learn a lot from failure – Importantly, mistakes and failure can be opportunities to gain experience what we could do better next time, or tweak to ensure future success. So, if we spend more time taking measured risks than worrying about avoiding failure, we are more likely to more wins.

4. Fear of uncertainty - in professional terms, the worry about losing a job, or the company changing through new ownership or leadership is a real and present factor of modern business. However, worrying about the future stops us from living in the present and taking steps to shape our future. So what are the steps to deal with this?

Where to start with overcoming the fear of uncertainty?

- Don’t get complacent – uncertainty happens when we don’t take stock from time to time. Do you have a 2-year, 5-year or 10-year plan? Why not? Aside from this helping you with a sense of purpose and direction, it also offers a sense of hope and excitement. A willingness to change and move forward.

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- An opportunity to reinvent yourself - Change can be difficult and scary but can also offer an opportunity to reinvent ourselves.

When faced with adversity we tap into our reserve and our survival instinct kicks in. Uncertainty creates transformation and innovation, and we may need to be pushed to realise our potential and remain relevant during changing times.

- Sometimes we need to be shoved – When we are forced to think differently or try an opportunity that we wouldn’t normally put ourselves through, we can surprise ourselves. The human brain is built to adapt, innovate, and change. The scientific term is ‘brain plasticity’ or ‘neuroplasticity’; the brain's ability to change and adapt because of experience. So, although the thought of not knowing what is coming next is scary, the new experience helps us grow and become more adaptable.

Although these are just a handful of professional fears, they all require a willingness on your part to find out what is holding you back from your success. Self-awareness is a powerful skill, and this journey of discovery helps with overcoming our fears.

In addition, we may also want to ask if our fear is being compounded by our current environment – it is not always just what we are doing but other factors we can’t control. Which gives us an insight to make helpful and needed changes.

If you are struggling with worrying thoughts and professional fear don’t suffer alone. Speak to a medical or career coaching professional, or you can contact

Kemi Fadero is a Wellbeing Consultant, Counsellor and Coach based in Cambridge, UK. Kemi works with individuals and organisations offering, virtual and in-person coaching and counselling services, helping individuals seeking to overcome emotional distress and effectively tackle life challenges.

She provides wellbeing consultation and

coaching for organisations and implements

wellbeing programs.


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