When Fear is Holding You Back
As I stood on the fairway, gripping a golf club for the first time in my life, desperately hoping that I was holding it in a way that was at least *halfway decent* so I didn’t look like a total idiot, I prepared to hit my first golf ball. Ever.
But rather than hearing the golf carts whiz past or the small group of people cheering me on right behind me, all I could hear was a screaming in my head: DON’T. SCREW. UP!
I felt paralyzed.
The voice in my head was yelling at me, over and over:
Be cool. Be Cool. BE COOL.
Don’t screw up.
Don’t look like an idiot.
You better hit this. If you wiff it, they’ll laugh at you - and then you’ll look REALLY stupid.
Oh, great, You are going to whiff it. You are - you’re going to whiff it. You’re totally going to miss.
You’re going to look SO dumb. And then what will they think of you?
Even though I’ve been practicing mindfulness for several years and can normally recognize and quiet my inner critics, on this day I lost the battle. BIG time.
It was almost like I was no longer a 37-year-old woman volunteering for a corporate fundraiser at a golf-course, standing on a fairway goofing around and hitting golf balls during a break in play.
Instead, I was catapulted back to 7th grade homeroom basketball play-offs. My homeroom was playing against another 7th grade class for the championship and the whole junior high was there, cheering us along from the bleachers.
Since I’d hated running and generally doing anything athletic as a kid, I normally did everything I could to avoid getting the ball.
But on that day, in that game, with that audience, I somehow got passed the ball.
All eyes were on me, and I was desperate to get it right, to be impressive, to look like I knew what I was doing.
With my heart beating practically out of my chest and my face flushed from exertion and shock, I held the ball tight, and I went for it.
I started running toward the basket. I felt so proud. So happy to be contributing to the team. My mind immediately flashed to me making a basket and being the hero of the game.
And then, they blew the whistle and stopped play.
It turns out, you have to dribble.
A minor point I forgot...
I was MORTIFIED.
Not only was it junior high which was the *peak* of my awkward phase, I’d literally just screwed up in front of the ENTIRE SCHOOL. I mean, it’s basketball - who forgets to dribble?!? I do, apparently…
Between that and a handful of other similarly embarrassing experiences with sports in early life, I deemed myself “unathletic”.
I avoided participating in sports because I wasn’t “good” at them. And if I wasn’t good at something, no matter how fun it might have otherwise been, it felt miserable to me.
Rather than focusing on the sheer enjoyment and play of it, I was concentrating on screwing up: being afraid of screwing up, avoiding screwing up, and then - as self-fulfilling prophecies usually go - screwing up…
Instead of fun, it felt vulnerable - I was leaving myself wide open to judgement, ridicule, insult and mockery. Even though no one ever said anything cruel to me, in my mind, I was convinced everyone was staring at me. I mean, surely everyone had to be thinking how dumb I looked.
As a first-born, perfectionist over-achiever who very much cared what people thought about me, I HATED the idea of looking dumb, of being bad at something, and of disappointing people who were counting on me.
Fast-forward back to this past summer’s golfing event.
While the voices in my head had blown this into a huge issue that I couldn’t afford to screw up, in reality, there were a grand total of THREE people on the course near me. They were all enjoying themselves and I am nearly 100% certain that none of them would have thought any differently about me even if I'd whiffed every single ball.
But I cared. And the need to be good, the fear of looking dumb, the sinking feeling of impending taunts and teases from the people watching was debilitating.
Afterwards I thought a lot about that experience and why I'd had such an extreme internal reaction. That's when it dawned on me: these fears have been debilitating me for a long time.
Whatever I was trying - whether it be sports, hobbies or new things at work - I would measure myself against whoever was the best. Not the average of who was around me but the star. Even if it was my first time doing it and the other person’s 1,000th.
And if I couldn't do as well or better than that person, I didn't even want to try. Because if I couldn’t do what they were doing, in my mind that meant I looked foolish.
I had this dichotomy in my head. If I was the best at it, that's great - that’s how it should be so I achieved expectations and could the get recognition and acknowledgement I so craved. But if I wasn't the best, I missed expectations and disappointed people. And since people’s opinions of me were so important, the idea of letting people down or being judged or jeered by them was terrifying.
And so, I leaned into anything that I was good at and avoided anything I wasn’t. This, of course, became its own self-fulfilling prophecy and also severely limited my path.
Where my field of options may have been broad and many to start with, by continuing to only do the things I was good at without really attempting to improve on the things that didn’t come as naturally, I kept whittling away at the options until my path became pretty narrow.
And that’s how I got stuck.
After my golf course epiphany, I spent a lot of time thinking about what my fear of looking stupid has prevented me from doing. The fun times I’ve passed up on because I was too concerned about what I feared people thought, the talents I’ve never uncovered because I didn’t give them time to develop, the opportunities I’ve missed out on to learn, develop and grow.
Being so concerned about what others might think kept me from trying things and discovering things I might otherwise have loved.
Honestly, when I realized the pattern, I was scared - not just for what I’d missed out on, but what it meant for my future. At the time, I was still working at Google but seriously contemplating leaving so being afraid of looking dumb or being judged didn’t bode well for me giving up a secure, prestigious corporate job that many people admired and some people envied to go out on my own as a solo entrepreneur focused on coaching and speaking.
I knew that if I was really serious about making the leap, I was going to have to get a lot more comfortable with the uncomfortable. Be willing to risk being judged or laughed at for the reward of fulfillment and going after the things I really wanted.
Now that I’ve been out of corporate America and on my own for a few months, I’ve been getting a lot of practice with being afraid of what people think and doing it anyway.
I have to be honest that it’s still not easy.
Every time I introduce myself as a coach and speaker (who would leave Google to do THAT?!), every time I get ready to publish a new post (being vulnerable about my experiences opens myself up to ridicule), every time I start working with a new client or discuss a speaking event (what if I under-deliver and disappoint them?!).
But, as I have said before: I truly believe that we must be willing to have fear without letting fear have us. If this career is what I truly want to do, and it is, I have to accept that my fear is going to come with me for awhile.
The more I practice feeling uncomfortable and doing it anyway, the more rewarding my efforts become: I’m starting to see the positive impact my actions are having on my life and others’ lives - impact that would never have been possible if I allowed myself to be controlled by what I fear others’ think.
The thing that has helped me the most is to take the pressure off. Rather than seeing every action where I put myself out there as an opportunity to look dumb, I am refocusing it as an opportunity to learn something new. It’s “market research”: a chance for me to try out different things, to learn, expand and refine.
So, the next time you find yourself feeling consumed by the fear of being laughed at or of looking dumb, try asking yourself, “What can I learn here? How can I look at this as market research?”
If, when you’re really honest with yourself, you realize you can learn more from doing it than from not doing it, acknowledge your fear and do it anyway. When you focus more on the reward of learning something new and less on the risk of looking dumb, it really does make taking action easier.
I’m still not sure I’ll be doing any golfing any time soon… 😉
This article was originally published on Medium on March 12, 2019