Identifying the Different Types of Fears


Fear is defined as a feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger. In coaching, we call these ‘gremlins’ or the ‘inner critic’, which represent the voices in our head (aka ‘thoughts’) that result in feelings and behavior.

Fear is a biological response that serves two purposes:

1. Keep us safe
2. Set boundaries

Though fear helps ensure our survival, in reinvention we’ll sometimes that same feeling when presented with an opportunity or change, simply because they’re new. Biologically we’re responding like there’s a mortal threat to our survival! But the worst time to freeze is when you need to pursue an opportunity, and you don’t want to flee when something good shows up. This is why you must learn to manage your fear response.

First, you must learn to distinguish between two types of fears:

Functional fear: This is in response to a present danger that requires you to take immediate action to forestall a negative outcome. Something is happening today (or going to happen in the very near future), and your survival will be threatened if you don’t address it.

Example: I have $20 in my bank account and I need to buy a plane ticket.

In this case, you’d be experiencing functional fear because you don’t have enough funds on hand to meet a current need.

False fear: This is when your mind goes to potential negative outcomes that may or may not happen.

Example: I have $20 in my bank account—what if I need something?

Even though you don’t have an urgent need, your mind is starting to extrapolate and come up with ‘what if’ scenarios. So in this case, you’d be experiencing false fear because you’re not facing a situation that needs an immediate response.

The way to tell if your fear is functional or false is to ask yourself: Am I in danger at this moment?

Here are the five most common fears you’ll face during your reinvention journey:

#1: Fear of change: This is discomfort we feel when we face the unknown or are confronted with an ambiguous situation. We worry that things won’t turn out the way we want.

#2: Failure: This is our aversion to the possibility of disappointment. We don’t want to experience the pain of missing our goal.

#3: Rejection: This is the embarrassment we experience when we’re excluded by our peers or those in power. Being excluded from the circle makes us vulnerable.

#4: Not being enough: This is where we think we are deficient in some way. Sometimes this is a functional fear, and we need to develop a skill. Other times it’s false, and our confidence needs shoring up.

#5: Not having enough: This is when we believe we lack something essential, usually money, connections or time. This fear has a high potential for excuse-making!

Coaching Action Steps

As you plan to reinvent your career it is important to understand that fear has a positive purpose. Fear provides opportunity! Fear can:

  • Help you identify areas of growth;
  • Give you a signal that you are outside your comfort zone. Change—good or bad—involves discomfort, so it is useful to be uncomfortable if it means you are working toward a cherished goal. It’s a signal of progress!
  • Give you an opportunity to demonstrate courage. Accomplishing a goal is much sweeter when you’ve had to overcome fear to achieve it.

One problem that arises is when a legitimate fear function begins to take over indiscriminately and stop us from pursuing good things. Unfortunately, those times feel exactly the same as when there’s actual danger!

Spend a minute listing some fears you might have about reinventing your career.

The key is to be able to tell the difference between functional fears (those that keep
us out of danger and create healthy boundaries) and false fears (those that keep us
from pursuing something good).

Look back at the fears you identified and decide if they are functional or false fears.

Click on this link to download the Fears Action Guide for more tips and exercises to help you identify and move past your fears.

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