I was coaching a group of leaders recently on becoming more authentic in their leadership style, the way they worked, and how they lived their lives. When asked why they don’t take a stand for what they believe in more often one of them responded with, “Well, we don’t want to admit it or talk about it but it’s because of fear. That word, fear, has a negative connotation but the truth is we aren’t true to ourselves because we’re afraid – afraid of being thought less of, getting a lower performance rating, or even being fired.” I loved his courage to admit that in a group of his peers. They did too. This propelled us into a deep conversation about why… why are we afraid to admit that we are afraid?
What we discussed was not real fear – the kind that you feel if you smell smoke in your house or are being chased by a wild animal. That is real fear and is essential to keep us alive. What we talked about were the false fears created by the stories we make up in our head; false future fears such as fear of failure, loss, rejection, or disapproval. These things may be real occurrences but we typically fear them before they ever happen, and, 90% of the time they don’t happen. Yet, the stories we create around these false fears often keep us living a life of dissatisfaction or keep us stuck in careers, jobs, or relationships that aren’t meant for us. Yet, as my client said, we are afraid to even admit we are fearful of these things.
This wonderful group of leaders and I discussed what we believe are the top reasons we’re afraid to admit we’re afraid and how we can overcome them. This all resonates with much of my own work that I’ve done on fear; not only trying to overcome my own false fears which were driving much of my adult life decisions but also those of many of the people I’ve worked with over the years.
The first of these reasons we’re afraid to admit we’re afraid is we don’t want to be perceived as “weak”. If we admit we’re afraid (of the low performance rating, or disappointing someone, or not meeting expectations), others may see us as a weak link. There’s a widely held (false) belief in our culture that strong people don’t fear anything. So admitting that something scares you – something like failing or rejection – may (MAY being the operative word here) cause others to see you as weak or not strong. Truth is ALL people have fears (both false and real). The strong ones choose to not let fears run their lives.
The next reason we don’t want to admit we’re afraid is because it exposes our vulnerability and that my friends, takes courage. If you admit something is scaring you or you won’t take an action because you fear a potential consequence such as being thought less of or even being fired, you’ve exposed a side of you that, in our culture, is typically kept under wraps. We don’t regularly share our vulnerabilities so doing this is uncomfortable. We keep our fears hidden to avoid the moments of discomfort that often accompany being vulnerable.
The third reason we don’t admit to being fearful is because we don’t want to be perceived as “not having it all under control”. This sparked lots of discussion amongst my coaching group. There is a belief that if we are afraid of anything, we’re not “in control” of our emotions. Yet, admitting to any emotion actually keeps us in the driver’s seat. When we ignore it or pretend it isn’t there, it is in control and at the wheel of our actions and decisions.
Our discussion then led to how we can overcome the fear to admit we’re afraid. Ironically enough many of my clients in this group said just admitting it in our group helped them feel more comfortable with the fact that they were afraid to stand up for themselves in certain work situations. They realized they weren’t alone. This is a big one – admitting something, such as “I’m afraid to share my true fears or feelings” sets you free. The fear of admitting it loses its power because you’ve admitted it and, wow, the world didn’t end!
The second thing to do, after you admit your actually afraid is to check your facts. Is what you’re fearing really fact? Or is it a story you’re making up in your head? For example, if you work in an intense environment that calls for some excessively high work hours and are afraid to ask your manager to leave to go home, eat dinner, take a break or even get some sleep (this is actually a true scenario in many work environments) because you’re afraid she’ll think less of you and questions your work ethic, check yourself. Is this true? Or is it a story? If you don’t know, ask. Maybe she’ll validate your fear but in 95% of these situations we discover that what we thought was a story in our mind – not actual fact. Most of the things we’re afraid to admit that we’re fearful of are self-created stories we tell ourselves. When we begin to practice checking our facts, we become more practiced at managing the fearful stories instead of succumbing to them and allowing them to drive our decisions and behavior.
The general conclusion from my group of clients and what was most helpful for them that day was the initial step of actually admitting you are fearful of something. Start with people you trust and you’ll quickly find out that even though we don’t talk about it much, most of us fear the same things. When we finally start to have the conversation about it we realize we’re not alone and yes, we can actually not only admit that we fear something but work though it so it doesn’t control us.