Are you where you should be in your career, considering your age, academic record, professional achievements, work ethic, and talent? Or is there unfulfilled potential, just waiting to be tapped… if only you could overcome something holding you back? Is that something external or circumstantial, such as nepotism in your company or conflicting personal obligations? Or is that something internal; is it a psychological barrier or fear that can be overcome?
Many people struggle to acknowledge that what holds them back in their careers isn’t anything external or beyond their control. It’s hard to admit that our own minds can betray us, but they often do. We’re human and susceptible to the following psychological barriers, but because we’re human, we also have the level of consciousness necessary to recognize and break free from these constraints:
Fear of Failure or Loss
There are several underlying issues in a fear of failure. One is a legitimate concern about the consequences of failure. You may be in a predicament in which you cannot afford to lose a job or take a step back financially. No room to fail is a valid concern, but one that in most cases can be addressed through careful planning, including contingency planning.
Another reason for fear of failure is imposter syndrome, the worry that you will be discovered as a fraud or someone who really lacks the ability to get the job done. Imposter syndrome often has roots in childhood or earlier life experiences. Prior failures, such as a traumatic public speaking experience in school create memories that arise at inopportune times, and an inner voice that reminds us of the possibility of failure and consequences such as embarrassment and poor grades (which could translate to poor reviews). This negative thinking may arise from natural human self-preservation instincts, but it can sabotage our careers. Successful people have learned how to listen to the inner critic without putting too much stock in what it says.
The messages we have received from our parents can also cause imposter syndrome. Often parents plant seeds of doubt, knowingly or not, that can linger for a lifetime. Even non-abusive parents do this; with the intention of steering their children away from failure, they may inadvertently send the message that a child isn’t capable.
Shame is another reason for fear of failure, and some people are more prone to these feelings than others. If past failures in any endeavor have brought about feelings of shame, it’s likely that this is a culprit in your fear of failure in your career.
Regardless of the driver of this fear, it helps to have expert, objective guidance, whether in the form of a counselor or a career coach, who can help to pinpoint these issues and then provide a constructive plan for overcoming these hurdles. Many talented people are held back throughout their careers because they don’t seek such help.
Fear of Success
Motivational speaker Anthony Robbins teaches two valuable concepts related to this fear. One is that all action is motivated by one of two things: pursuit of pleasure or avoidance of pain. Another is that we each have a personal success “thermostat,” and when our subconsciously expected level of success is reached, we shut off the engines that drive us and become complacent.
As to the first concept, many of us unwittingly associate success with some forms of pain. It might be that we look at successful people in our company and see that they work more hours than we would like to work, or they are under more pressure than we can handle. In many cases, fear of a particular definition of success, such as being promoted into a certain position, can be rational. Perhaps you would rather work 40 hours per week than 60. But in many cases, we have irrational associations that are not true. For instance, you may imagine that the pressure in a particular position would be unbearable, but if you talk to people in that position, you may find otherwise.
As to the “thermostat” concept, many people are driven by a need for comfort, and the thought of unrelentingly pursuing success causes a fear of discomfort. A career counselor can talk you through these feelings and the underlying associations that cause them. This can help you to associate the pursuit of success with pleasure, so that you don’t reduce your drive after attaining incremental goals.
Fear of Specific Steps on the Path to Success
One of the most prevalent psychological hurdles to success is a fear or uncomfortable feelings regarding a particular necessary step in the process of achievement. Often, people find certain aspects of the work natural and enjoyable, while other aspects are less aligned with what we do well or enjoy.
Networking is a great example. Those who don’t enjoy crowded conferences and professional networking events may hope that they can attain success without networking – and it’s possible, but unlikely. Sure, there are ways to network online, such as LinkedIn, but these are ideal for supplementing real world networking, not replacing it. If you don’t enjoy networking, write down the components of networking, such as introducing yourself to strangers, carrying on conversations in noisy rooms, or having to repeat an elevator pitch over and over again. Identify which particular aspects you find most challenging and why. Is it a matter of competence or comfort? Talk to people who know you well, or find an objective third party career counselor to break through these barriers. If it’s a matter of competence, you may need to learn specific skills, and there are avenues for that. If it’s a matter of comfort, you may be able to overcome that by learning more about yourself through counseling, or by getting more familiar with the process until you are more comfortable with networking.
Perhaps the most important concept to understand in dealing with the fears that hold us back is that an object in motion stays in motion. Passively hoping and waiting for change won’t produce the results we seek. Success depends on acknowledging our weaknesses, getting help to define them and to plan a course of action, and then taking daily, proactive steps toward our goals. The feeling of confidence and happiness we acquire in the process may be an even greater reward than the success we ultimately hope to attain.