Cutting through fear

In my book, Cutting Through the Grass Ceiling, I explore the elements that either block women, or free us to take action.  These are fear, risk, curiosity and boldness – and they manifest in our livesdifferently.

In this article, we look at fear. Fear is an emotion that can block us from acting for extended periods.  Fear can take three forms in how it impacts our career decisions.  We can experience fear of loss, fear of failure, and fear of success.

Fear of loss

When we are afraid of losing something important to us, we might not act on an opportunity.  We are afraid that choosing to act means giving something up.  Fear of loss holds us back from taking up our choices.

Daniel Kahneman along with his colleague Amos Tversky developed prospect theory[i] in the late 1970s. Through this work, they concluded that people experience ‘loss aversion’They defined this as people tending toprefer avoiding loss rather thanacquiring gain. Later studies have suggested that losses may even be twice as psychologically powerful as gains.


Fear of failure

Sometimes we say no to opportunities because we are afraid of failure. Fear of failure can be a paralysis that stops us from acting.  Remember exam time at school?  Remember your weakest subject?  Can you recall what it felt like to be afraid to fail that subject, or to fail that class based on your results through the year?  That fear of failure made many students throw away their books and give up. “I’ll only fail this subject anyway, so there’s no point studying for the exam.”

Fear of failure can get in our way and stunt our growth.  It can stop us making the best choices for our lives. It can stop us from knowing joy.


Fear of success

Fear of success can also stop action.  We sometimes stall our careers because we are fearful of what success might mean.  Many of us remember the feeling of being teased or bullied at school for doing well. Whether this was academically or on the sporting field or in creative arts, we might have been the ‘teacher’s pet’ or the ‘tall poppy’.  Sometimes, we represent having the talents or achievements that others desire.

Some writers recognise this fear as the Jonah complex.[ii]Often credited to Abraham Maslow or his colleague Frank Manuel, the Jonah complex is the fear of success which prevents us reaching our full potential. It can mean that we avoid our destiny and keep ourselves smaller.

Often, for women, this fear can relate to the potential impacts of success.  It might mean not being liked, damaging relationships with loved ones and friends, being criticised as undeserving of achievements, or gaining more responsibility.

It not only stops action, it can create self-sabotage. We have all seen examples of women who have closed social media accounts because of ‘online trolling’.  Their success has affected others in such a way that it can erupt into public criticism and derision and sometimes threats.  Yet, it doesn’t have to be so dramatic to stop us from making change.

I had an exchange with a woman who attended one of my workshops.  She said she had almost decided not to attend after enrolling because she couldn’t access her usual childcare.  She had to take her son to her mother’s home for the day.  When I asked her why that was something that might have stopped her attending she said, “Well, I couldn’t tell my mum I was doing a women’s career workshop.  I’ve never told her what my career means to me or what my goals are.  She just doesn’t get it. I’ve actually made decisions to not apply for jobs based on what my parents would say if I got the job”.


Meet ‘Julianne’

Julianne’s manager wanted her to take a promotion to team leader—he saw her potential and could see she was bored and under-stimulated, and that it was affecting her behaviour. He knew she described ‘hating’ her job to a couple of trusted colleagues.  He also knew she was so afraid of failing that he couldn’t convince her to change roles.  He wasn’t sure why.  He referred Julianne to me.

 When Julianne came for coaching, we dealt with the immediate presenting issues she faced at work. After a few sessions, she revealed her deepest career fears, and why she thought she might be holding herself back. At key points in her life—primary and secondary school and in her first job—she had been disciplined harshly for failing at things.  She had not been able to develop the perseverance and growth mindset required for her to trust new tasks and changing situations.  Her view was “I’ll be no good at the team leader job. I’ll just disappoint my boss and my team”. Julianne came to see how negatively this was affecting her life overall and worked on turning that around.

Are you sometimes held back by fear? Which fear has held you back most recently? Which one is present in your life more than others? Using Julianne’s experience, what can you learn about your fear, and how might you act on those insights?


[i]Kahneman, Daniel; Tversky, Amos (1979). “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk” Econometrica47 (2): 263. doi:10.2307/1914185ISSN 0012-9682.


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