It’s perfectly natural to feel fear. Without our innate fight and flight response, humans simply wouldn’t have survived. But the ability to confront both physical and emotional fear - and the accompanying adrenaline rush that comes when we do - is also what has enabled humans to achieve so much.
While you are absolutely not alone in experiencing fear, you can teach yourself to face your fear and fulfil your true potential.
‘I feel like a fraud’
Particularly prevalent among high-achieving but self-critical women, imposter syndrome is the constant questioning of your ability and the worry that you will be ‘found out’. However hard you work and however well other people say you’re doing, a little voice is telling you you’re a fraud.
“A lot of very successful people feel imposter syndrome,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School and co-author of Building Resilience for Success. “But this negative feeling can drive successful entrepreneurs to prove themselves again and again and to do better.”
When you feel this fear, Professor Cooper suggests three lines of attack:
1. Remember you’re not that important (while your supposed mistakes may feel huge to you, chances are no one’s even noticed and thankfully no one’s perfect);
2. Stop comparing yourself to others (that work colleague who always seems so competent is probably paddling furiously below the surface just to keep up);
3. Use your fear to motivate you to feel perform better. Fake it till you make it.
‘I’ve got too much to lose - I’ll play it safe.’
If you’re just coasting along doing your 9 - 5, chances are you’ll soon feel bored, dissatisfied and envious of peers who’ve followed their dreams. Redefine your fear of losing, and think ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’
“Successful people don’t coast; they take calculated risks,” says work psychologist Professor Cooper. While you’re young, without dependents or huge financial commitments, is exactly the the time to embrace a little calculated risk and set some life goals.
“You will need to make sure that your goals and dreams, aspirations and projects are set realistically yet make the most of your passion or innate ability,” advises Professor Cooper.
“Start writing down ideas and then an action plan. Make the mental switch from imagining to actually thinking about goals and how to practically reach them.”
‘Last time was an abject failure. I’m going to make a fool of myself again’
Was it really or were you actually the only one who noticed? While self-knowledge is important, we do tend to put ourselves centre stage in our mental landscape, when no one else would. So you felt a bit awkward or unprepared in that presentation? Did anyone criticise your performance, or was it just your mental negative sidekick whispering to you that you’re an embarrassment?
“We all fail sometimes - and you should expect to,” says Professor Cooper. “What matters is the ability to bounce back and learn from the experience.
“You can talk yourself down from this fear with common sense. Yes, you’re a bit tense. That’s good - you won’t treat it blithely but will put effort in. Yes, you can do this. You’ve done it before and it will get easier every time.”
‘This is sooo outside my comfort zone’
And it’s good to step out from safe sometimes. “Every time you take on a new challenge, you will learn something new, you may enjoy it and you will want to get better,” says Professor Cooper, a world authority on work-place stress. “You can develop self-confidence and you can learn to embrace change and become more resilient.”
‘It’s too much effort. I don’t have the time.’
You may be right and learning to say no can be a positive trait too. But ask yourself, are you really sure you’re not using that as an excuse when really you’re simply scared of failing? “You’ll feel immediate benefits when you keep a positive attitude,” says Professor Cooper. “Stay away from negative people and rather than discarding the possibility of change, open your mind up to look at all options.
“Successful people embrace change and are adaptable.”