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Your 4 Biggest Fears and How to Overcome Them

Experts agree: Franklin Roosevelt was a pretty smart dude. Turns out, the only thing we have to fear is in fact fear itself.

A number of different fears hold us back. Only by recognizing which particular one is biting at your ankles will you be able to overcome it and move forward. Here are the four biggies. See if you can kick them to the curb once and for all.

Fear #1: Failure

“Most fear of failure is short-sighted,” says Tellman Knudson, a Vermont-based hypnotherapist who works with entrepreneurs and CEOs around the world. “What we really fear is failing to do something right the first time.”

Knudson says that expecting we’ll be pitch-perfect when we first step into a project is unreasonable. Very few people, he points out, get it right first time. Consider the list of famous failures who found success: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg for starters. All were college dropouts. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, even though he also hit 714 home runs, and Michael Jordan notably said: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The point? If you don’t embrace failure, you’ll never know if you can beat the odds.

How to overcome it: If the possibility of failing to achieve a goal leaves you unable to act in the first place, set a series of small, achievable goals instead. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work, writes that incremental steps toward important goals are easier to achieve than big breakthroughs. “In work, people develop an increasingly strong sense of self-efficacy each time they make progress, succeed, or master a problem or task.”

Fear #2: Change

Many people avoid embracing the new. But according to research, a further reason for this fear is the reluctance to give up something old. It seems that if we’ve been doing a thing in a certain way for a long time, we subconsciously decide that it must be the best way to do it. Same goes for long-established products or services—our gut reckons they’ve lasted because they rock.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the longer something was thought to exist, the better it was evaluated. In the experiment, participants who were asked their opinion on acupuncture were more likely to give it the thumbs up when they were told it was 2,000 years old than those who were told it was only a 250-year old practice. Equally, judgements of art, nature, and even consumer goods were valued more highly if the study participants believed they’d been around for longer.

How to overcome it: Always test your assumptions by asking whether a new experience really has less to offer, or whether you’re just afraid of moving beyond what you know. The Spartan Race tagline is “You’ll know at the finish line” for a reason. Translation: To grow, you must embrace the new.

Fear #3: Feedback

“There is no failure,” Robert G. Allen, author of The One Minute Millionaire, once said. “Only feedback.” Yet, he also noted that so many people avoid feedback, fearing the perceived criticism that comes with it.

One of the reasons for this, according to Jay Jackman, psychiatrist and human resources consultant in Stanford, California, and Myra Strober, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education, who have written extensively on this subject, is that people often link feedback with the fault-finding that may have come from parents or mentors when they were young.

How to overcome it: Jackman and Strober recommend reframing feedback to be more accepting of its benefits. “Specifically,” they write in Harvard Business Review, “this involves putting the prospect of asking for or reacting to feedback in a positive light so that negative emotions and responses lose their grip.”

Fear #4: Confrontation

According to Amy Morin, therapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, one of the biggest fears holding people back from being successful is their unwillingness to come clean about the things that upset them. “Workplace issues, relationship troubles, and interpersonal problems could likely be resolved if only people were able to address their concerns in an open and direct manner,” she says.

How to overcome it: Confrontation won’t always lead to a clash, Morin claims, but silently stewing over an issue might. “However, you won’t change your behavior unless you believe that your current behavior isn’t working.”

Morin suggests listing all the ways avoiding confrontation is doing you more harm than good. Perhaps you’re thinking about the problem all the time. Maybe it’s stressing you out or damaging your relationship with the person or others. Follow this list with another citing all that you might achieve by speaking up. “Be specific about the things you stand to gain,” she says.

Each time an issue arises and you’re tempted to keep mum, review your lists as a reminder of what might be resolved if you state your case instead.

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