6 Fearful Barriers to Growth & How to Overcome Them

“Who is more foolish, the child afraid of the dark or the man afraid of the light?” – Maurice Freehill

How does fear hold you back from doing the things in life that you truly wish to do? In what ways does your fear keep you locked into perpetual patterns of behavior that restrict your true potential? The capacity to experience fear can be useful and adaptive when it serves as an effective warning signal from legitimate threats in the environment. On the other hand, fear can become harmful and maladaptive when it becomes immobilizing and prevents you from stepping outside of your comfort zone in healthy and growth-oriented ways.

Consider the story of Alexander the Great grappling to unravel the puzzle of the Gordian knot. He approached this task by trying to unravel the thing, but quickly became frustrated with his efforts. As he stepped back and carefully considered the task in front of him he realized that the most effective way to take the knot apart was not to unravel it strand by strand, but rather to cut it in two. This knot represented a barrier in his path. The way that you choose to approach and handle barriers has a significant impact on your success in life. When you allow fear and frustration to paralyze you, you can become immobilized and stuck. When you let go of frustration and self-doubt, you can break through the fear.

The first step toward overcoming barriers of fear is to learn to clearly recognize those barriers when they present themselves in your path. It is much easier to effectively identify and deal with difficulties and hurdles when you clearly see whatever barrier might be preventing you from success. Once you become more mindfully familiar with your own personal barriers of fear in life, you can begin to develop effective strategies for overcoming them when they occur.

Read through the following six common barriers of fear and reflect on your own personal tendencies and patterns. Think about what types of fearful barriers you experience when life presents you with opportunities for growth that seem new, frightening, or challenging. Similarly, reflect on which fearful barriers you encounter when faced with something that pushes you outside of your physical, mental, or emotional comfort zone.

(1) Ambivalence

It is not uncommon to experience ambivalence during times in life when you are faced with significant changes. Often, these changes represent leaving behind important aspects of your life for something exciting or challenging, yet also unknown. Change can be understandably scary – but, without making the choice to overcome doubts, self-invalidation, and fears of the unknown, many opportunities might be missed. Ambivalence is often experienced as a desire for change accompanied by an unwillingness to experience the doubts and tensions associated with that change.

The reality is that you can’t have it both ways. When you open your heart and mind up to allowing yourself to experience the doubts, tension, and discomforts associated with facing fears and making changes, you allow the possibility for real growth to occur. If you find yourself continuing to sit on the fence (physically, mentally, or emotionally) ask yourself what benefits you are receiving from that behavior. What do you gain from your inaction or self-doubt? What do you have to lose if you take the risk(s) that you fear?

(2) Reactance

The tendency to react can be experienced as digging one’s heels into the ground metaphorically. There is a resounding sense of unwillingness and even defiance. This fearful barrier often presents itself when you look upon taking action as getting in the way of your freedom to stay “safe.” Things that are familiar feel safe, even when they are unhealthy or do not promote personal growth. There can be a great deal of fear associated with abandoning the familiar to embark out into the unknown.

Consider the gains that you experience from your reactance and defiance. For many people, reactance toward change can provide the sneaky benefit of allowing the person to avoiding having to directly confront their fears. Ask yourself what you are really afraid of. Perhaps you are considering moving across the country to start a great new job in a place where you don’t know anybody. You might rationalize to yourself that you are fearful of the newness of it all. Look deep within to assess what your underlying fears are and address them directly. What parts of your identity do you feel you might lose with this change? Rather than focusing on potential losses, shift your mental focus toward all that you stand to gain from confronting the fear and making the change.

(3) Perfectionism

The fearful barrier of perfectionism can often serve to keep you stuck in a comfort zone or prevent you from taking action. Often times there is a false belief that you “can’t” take action unless you are able to do so perfectly. Ask yourself what benefits you receive from your perfectionistic tendencies and where you may have learned those patterns of behavior. Think back to times in your life when you first remember feeling that you could not or would not take action unless it was “perfect.” What was the core fear?

You can begin to address perfectionism by taking responsibility for your own behaviors and making a thorough assessment of all that you stand to gain and lose from continuing on in your perfectionistic tendencies. Ask yourself how your life might look different if you were just a little bit less concerned with things being perfect. Perfectionism is only a barrier if it is truly preventing you from leading the life you wish to lead. Only you are able to honestly assess what perfectionism means to you.

(4) Procrastination

Procrastination can serve as a barrier to action and change for many people. It can assume different forms and can be more or less severe for different people. As with all fearful barriers, the key is to honestly examine the real benefits and losses that procrastination causes in your life. Sometimes it can be tough to see the benefits upon first glance. If you tend to procrastinate, you might think, “What benefits? This causes me nothing but problems!”

If you choose to look a bit deeper, you might see that procrastination often provides the benefits of avoiding unpleasant activities and potential failure(s). When you trick yourself into believing that there will always be a “better” or “right” time for important things in life, you may wake up one day 20 or 30 years later and realize that you have still not done those things you set out to do. The trick is to find the balance between recognizing when the conditions are right for action and when there really is no time like the present. Ultimately, things generally don’t just “happen” upon you – in the end, you must act.

(5) Emotional Reasoning

Emotions can be incredibly useful sources of valuable information just as they can be great hindrances to effective action. When you become more familiar and comfortable with stepping into “wise mind,” you will begin to more readily see the times when your emotions are keeping you stuck versus times when they are working in your best interest. Emotional reasoning may act as a barrier of fear when you engage in the false belief that you “have to” feel comfortable or at ease before engaging in something that might be uncomfortable.

It is normal to feel afraid and to emotionally convince yourself to back out of something important, even when it is something that your mind knows is good for you. Perhaps you are afraid of public speaking, yet your job (that you love) requires you to make presentations in front of large groups. Maybe you feel deathly afraid and anxious before your presentations and convince yourself at the last minute that you “really” hate the job. This is an example of emotional reasoning that is preventing you from overcoming your fears and reaching your full potential.

(6) Helplessness Thinking

Think about the ways that you get in your own way of success. Perhaps you sabotage relationships that you “know” are good for you or healthy in some way. Or maybe you quit important projects just before you are about to finish. Helplessness thinking occurs at times when you defeat yourself before you’ve even had a chance to start. This type of thinking is often associated with fears of the unknown or even fears of truly being happy.

Ask yourself at what point in your life you learned that you weren’t worthy of happiness, weren’t “good enough” for a healthy relationship, or didn’t “deserve” success? These are all false beliefs that get in the way of you being not only the person you want to be, but the person you really are.

The beauty of recognizing any of these fearful barriers in your own life is that once you identify them, you can begin to see them for what they are – untruths. When you are confronted with changes, familiar fears, or opportunities for growth, you can release yourself of the fears and lies you are telling yourself about why you “shouldn’t” or “couldn’t” succeed.

You can approach your fears in the future much like Alexander the Great approached the Gordian knot. Step back from the knot and see it clearly. Stop the endless frustration and struggle and simply cut it in two. You can break through your fearful barriers once you see that the only thing getting in the way is you. If this realization seems frightening or overwhelming, try to find peace and freedom in it. Just as you have the power to spin your wheels in the mud, you have the power to move forward. Which will you choose?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Knaus, W.J. (2008). The cognitive behavioral workbook for anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Afraid by topgold / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

What's On Your Mind?