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6 Signs That Fear is Holding You Back

Fear lets you see only the downside, and that won't get you very far.

Source: staras/Shutterstock

Fear is a basic human emotion. It was wired into our systems for a beneficial purpose—to signal us in times of danger and prepare us physically so we could accomplish what is necessary for survival.

When warranted, fear can be one of our most vital resources.

But as Helen Keller said, "Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold."

These days, fear has become big business rather than a helpful, valuable resource.

We live in a climate fueled by fear. The media manipulates fear to earn higher ratings with headlines such as "Will Ebola Hit Your Neighborhood?" while merchandisers tap our fear to sell products. Politicians stir up fear to accumulate votes, religious leaders employ fear to keep flocks in line, and parents wield fear to keep kids from misbehaving. Fear is woven into the fabric of our lives, perhaps affecting modern adults even more than it did our caveman ancestors.

A recent article in the New York Observer recently claimed that “fear is the new normal.”[1] Fear influences the choices we make. Yet making decisions motivated by fear is flawed, if not dangerous; it will never lead to the healthy, fulfilling lives we crave.

What is the primary motivating factor in your life? Here are 6 clues that you may be fueled by fear not freedom:

  1. Fear sees only the downside. While nearly every choice has an upside and a downside, someone in a fearful state only identifies the worst that could happen. Considering a blind date? It might be awkward or boring. Have an opportunity for a new job? You might not be qualified because it's too difficult. Like the addictive gambler who sees only wealth and riches as he approaches the roulette wheel, fear sees only failure and pain.
  2. Fear doesn’t let you stop to think it through. Fear tells you to react immediately. If a wooly mammoth were chasing an early human ancestor, this response could save a life. But today, when you’re trying to decide whether to accept a lowball offer on your house or to have a particular medical procedure, stepping back to analyze the options is a good thing.
  3. Fear tells us to avoid anything new or unknown. Whereas fear used to appear only in response to real threats to survival, now its alarm sounds whenever we stick a toe outside our “comfort zone.” Fear prefers that we stay in a familiar—even if painful—situation, rather than step into the unknown. For example, fear could dictate that we stay in an abusive relationship or dead-end job.
  4. Fear constricts rather than expands who we are. Fear tells us not to smile at strangers or speak our opinions too loudly. Instead of pushing our boundaries, fear encourages us to avoid any potential failure or rejection. For example, we should not write that book, ask for that date, or apply for that promotion. If it was up to fear, we would hide in bed instead of growing into who we could be.
  5. Fear obscures your intuition. Great decision-makers often talk about trusting their “gut instincts.” There’s no room for that small, still voice when fear is present. All you can hear are the spiraling thoughts coursing through your mind. When you’re consumed with fear, gut instincts are hard if not impossible to recognize.
  6. Fear often keeps us from making any decision at all. A wise person once said, “Choose a path or a path will be chosen for you.” Fear is the root of some people's "decidophobia," the fear of making decisions. While most individuals do not freeze in the face of any choice, fear keeps many second-guessing themselves into avoiding decisions whenever they can. Of course, no decision at all becomes a decision!

If fear dictates your decisions, what can you do?

First, recognize when you’re coming from fear using the checklist above. Give yourself time and space to hear other voices besides fear’s in any decision. Consider making a concrete list of pros and cons in a given situation. Then, wait until you’re in a better place to make whatever decision you need to make. In Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), we call that better state a “resourceful state,” when you feel strong, capable and clear.

If the fear persists, get help to release it. Fear that is chronic and unwarranted stems from a previous “root cause” event that is captive in the unconscious. Using something like the Mental Emotional Release® process can rid you of that inappropriate fear and allow you to make empowered decisions.

Make your next decision from a place of freedom. As Marcus Aurelius said, "It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live."

Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of The Empowerment Partnership. Author of several books, James has trained thousands of students to be totally empowered using Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Huna, Mental Emotional Release® (MER®) therapy, and Empowerment Fit. Download his free nlp eCourse here. To reach him, email or visit his blog.


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