Recognizing and Overcoming Self-Limiting Fears in the Workplace

What if make mistake?

What if say the wrong thing?

What if I disappoint my boss? 

If you’ve experienced these thoughts in the workplace, then, first and foremost, this post is a reminder that you’re not alone. When left unchecked, fear surrounding professional performance can become one of the biggest challenges many people face in their careers.

It’s no secret that fear and anxiety can be tough to talk about. Especially when it seems like there is so much pressure placed on the idea that confidence is key for succeeding at work. But it’s more than common to experience times in your career (and beyond) where you feel less than confident, allowing fear and worry to voice themselves much more loudly than they deserve.

Since it can be hard (read: often impossible) to simply check our anxieties at the door, recognizing the thought patterns that contribute to self-limiting fears can be an important first step in moving forward both personally and professionally.

Common thinking errors are sometimes responsible for developing patterns of negative self-talk. A few examples that present in the workplace include:

1. Black-and-white thinking: Identifying everything as either good or bad – there is no in between.

2. Underestimation: Not recognizing or acknowledging your ability to manage situations.

3. Unfair to compare: Comparing yourself to people or situations that have a specific advantage. 

4. Catastrophizing: Exaggerating the consequences if something were to go wrong. 

With each of these thinking errors, it’s easy to fall into traps. I’m not good enough. I’ll never accomplish as much as [insert colleague]. If I mess up, I’ll never recover.

The good news? There are strategies to avoid these traps altogether – or at the very least, help us find our way out.

1. Rainbow thinking. Contrary to black and white thinking, this approach supports thinking less often in extremes, and allowing yourself to acknowledge the other possible outcomes. 

2. Using fear as storytelling. Novelist Karen Thompson Walker’s Ted Talk focuses on how she views fear as unintentional storytelling, with characters, a plot, suspense and often vivid imagery. As a result, she encourages her audience to think of themselves as the authors/readers of the story, with control over the way the events play out and how they react to them.

3. Fear-setting. In another Ted Talk, technology investor and author Tim Ferris details the writing exercise of fear-setting, which includes defining your fears, listing ways to prevent them and identifying solutions for repair if your fears do come to pass.

4. De-catastrophizing. This involves putting the situation into perspective by asking yourself, what’s the worst thing that can happen? What’s most likely to happen? Will this matter in five years? What are the ways to fix this?

Tim Ferris’s Ted Talk also includes a reference to a powerful quote: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” So many of the things we’re afraid of, don’t actually happen. While, in the moment, this can be an easy reality to forget, it’s an important one to remember.

The next time you feel your fear making an unwanted appearance, consider trying out some of the strategies listed here, and see if you can identify the thinking patterns that might be contributing to your anxiety. At the end of the day, it’s about finding what works for you, and building the tools that will ultimately enrich your life in and out of the office.

For more on this topic, listen to episode two of The Branigan Communications Podcast.