Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are These 4 Fears Holding You Back From Flourishing?

Conquering the "Four Horsemen of Fear."

Key points

  • Before we can conquer our limiting beliefs, we have to understand them.
  • The four most common limiting beliefs are fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of uncertainty, and fear of success.
  • By breaking down each of them, we can better understand ourselves and what holds us back from flourishing.

Here’s a nightmare scenario: You wake up one day and realize you’re out of time—you’re on your deathbed.

All the things you spent your life dreaming about doing “one day” are no longer an option. You’re out of one-days.

Today is your last day alive. All you can do is look back on all the things you wish you’d had the courage to do but didn’t—full of regret.

Yeah, you were the “good son,” or “caring wife.” You did your duty. You did what you were supposed to do.

But you never did what you wanted to do. You never reached your potential or pursued meaningful, purpose-driven work that fulfilled you.

And you’re not alone.

In her book Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bonnie Ware says the most common regret of the dying is wishing they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves.

Although her book is anecdotal, it’s backed up by a recent study that showed 76% of people have the same regret—they didn’t “fulfill their ideal self.” Meaning they didn’t achieve their hopes and aspirations.

Put another way, most of us accept a mediocre life, then lie on our deathbed regretting it.

But why?

What keeps us from flourishing—from tapping into our potential and building a fulfilling life?

In my experience as a clinical psychologist and executive coach, it comes down to what I call the Four Horsemen of Fear. In Revelations, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse spell doom for humanity. Similarly, the Four Horsemen of Fear spell doom for you, me, and anyone who wants to get the most out of life.

They wreak havoc on our psyches and keep us from flourishing.

Who are these heralds of our mental destruction?

Let’s dive in…

Who Are the Four Horsemen of Fear?

The horsemen are the four most common limiting beliefs that hold us back from putting ourselves out there and doing meaningful work.

Some are easy to spot, some are sneaky, but all are conniving and whisper lies in our ears. The better you understand each, the easier you’ll spot them when they rear their heads.

The 1st Horseman: Fear of Failure

Everyone knows this one because it’s the easiest to identify. It sows doubts like: What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t make this work?

Fear of failure keeps us from ever starting. But its lesser-known brethren are equally debilitating.

The 2nd Horseman: Fear of Ridicule

If you’ve ever let what critics think, or what “they” (your friends, family, society) might say, stop you from putting yourself out there or doing meaningful work—the 2nd Horseman has reared its ugly head.

It whispers worries like: What if people judge me for doing this? What if they don’t like it?

Fear of ridicule tricks us into staying small and never taking a chance.

The 3rd Horseman: Fear of Uncertainty

The 3rd Horseman tells us we don’t have enough information to move forward. It whispers questions like: Which decision is right? Which direction should I choose?

So we constantly seek more. More info. More resources. More answers.

We spend so much time trying to find the “perfect” solution before we start, that we never take action.

Fear of uncertainty paralyzes us in a constant state of overanalysis.

The 4th Horseman: Fear of Success

How could we be afraid of achieving the very thing we say we want?

Because most of us believe success is a binary before-and-after state. If we’ve never achieved success, we only know the “before” version of ourselves. “Post-success” us feels alien.

Since we’re more familiar with our current state, we unconsciously self-sabotage to stay in familiar territory—to live in a world we understand. Achieving success represents crossing a threshold we can’t see beyond. And that’s terrifying.

The 4th Horseman hides in thoughts like: If I succeed, what if I lose my ambition? What if achieving success means I’ve peaked in life? What if I can’t balance power with responsibility?

The 4th Horseman tells us we’ll become a completely different person if we succeed, someone we won’t recognize. As this new person, we might become stagnant, corrupted by power, or ambitionless.

Fear of success tricks us into abandoning worthwhile projects right when we’re on the precipice of victory, to quit the race as soon as we get close enough to see the finish line.

Wrap Up

Every single limiting belief I’ve heard people struggle with falls into one of the horsemen’s domains.

Understanding our fears is the first step to overcoming them. Otherwise, they’ll keep holding us back from flourishing.

So how do you combat them? The next step is to recognize how the horsemen disguise themselves in self-sabotaging behaviors.

More from Corey Wilks Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today