Are your greatest fears holding you back from achieving your biggest dreams? People who hold themselves to high standards may accidentally self-sabotage their success by fearing things like failure, rejection, or vulnerability. But with some daily practices and mindset shifts, you could transform your biggest fear into one of your greatest assets.
Whether you’re on the path to self-improvement, entrepreneurship, or accomplishing a big goal, you’re probably interested in courageously facing whatever is holding you back. Here are the 8 most common life fears and how to beat them once and for all.
8 Biggest Fears In Life
Fear is an innate emotion that humans evolved to protect us from danger. But in the modern day, fears can prevent you from achieving your biggest dreams or leading a happy life.
Fear can rear many ugly heads. In more extreme situations, people often mark it as:
- Stress: The most obvious reaction to fear is stress. This is how our brains naturally register danger and catapult into “fight or flight” mode. Much of this reaction occurs in the amygdala.
- Panic: When intense anxiety triggers physical reactions, panic attacks can occur. These are often in response to intangible and imaginary situations that feel very real inside your mind.
- Phobias: Some of the most common phobias include a fear of snakes, spiders, germs, agoraphobia (wide open spaces), claustrophobia (enclosed spaces), and ghosts.
- Avoidance: When we fear failure or vulnerability, we avoid it altogether. This can perpetuate the fear because you never face it or try to dig into its origins in your psyche.
Regardless of its form, fear can feel like an inescapable mental prison. Fear brings about self-imposed limitations, negative thoughts, low self-esteem, and self-doubt. Instead of seeing all the possibilities, you can achieve, fear takes over your vision and sends your brain the message that these things may harm or even kill you.
Whatever the reaction may be, rest assured that fear is completely normal. Everyone feels it in some way or another.
Many of these fears have psychological roots that likely protected us from harm in ancient times. But in the modern day, your fears may not work in your favor.
Use this actionable guide to identify and overcome the 8 biggest fears you may face in life.
#1 Fear of Failure
We’ve all heard motivational speeches about failure. Thomas Edison conducted over a thousand failed experiments before he finally completed the light bulb. Denzel Washington received a lot of rejections after auditioning for dozens of plays and movies before getting a role.
These are grand, obvious examples that successful people can delineate in hindsight. But when you look at your own life, a fear of failure may disguise itself as:
- Setting goals that are too easy to attain
- Setting goals that are too high so you aren’t hurt if you don’t accomplish them
- Creating low expectations for yourself
- Avoiding new hobbies, sports, or career endeavors (sticking with what you know)
- Hiding your creative talents
- Coming up with lots of ideas and never executing them
- Getting easily discouraged by setbacks and giving up too soon
- Perfectionism (working forever to “make something perfect” as a means of procrastination because you don’t want the project to be a failure)
Fear of failure keeps you in your comfort zone. It prevents you from doing anything your brain thinks is risky.
“Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”—Dale Carnegie
How to Overcome It: Overcoming the fear of failure sounds nice in inspirational quotes, but how do you beat this fear daily?
Try the “Fail at Something Everyday” Method. This is perfect for someone disguising their fear of success as a fear of failure. If you’ve always been good at what you do, you’re probably staying in that comfort zone because it feels good. You like winning, and you don’t have many losses under your belt.
The premise is simple: do something every day that you can fail at. Sounds painful, right? Don’t worry. These can be little things utterly unrelated to your bigger goals. For example:
- Obsessed with perfection? Create a totally abstract, imperfect painting and hang it on the wall.
- Bad at writing? Do a journal entry every day for a month.
- Out of shape? Try joining an adult sports team with other novices.
- Always wanted to try surfing or skiing? Take lessons and keep getting up after every fall.
- A horrible dancer? Bring a friend out to let loose on the dance floor.
- Bad at singing? Go out for a karaoke night.
- Here are another 20 Simple Ways You Can Step Out of Your Comfort Zone.
This process can boost your confidence because it helps you build resilience to failure. Awkwardly trying something, embarrassing yourself, and laughing it off are crucial steps to sharpening your failure sword. You’re trying something awkward every day and getting used to that feeling of sucking.
Most people are afraid to be bad at something, so they never try. Denzel Washington said it best—you will be bad at something, so why not practice building up your failure immunity in advance? You can see his infamous speech at the University of Pennsylvania here:
#2 Fear of Rejection
Fear of rejection is among the most common fears in the world. Science tells us that rejection and physical pain signal the same pathways in our brains.
It’s no surprise that getting rejected is one of the most ancient fears amongst our species. In the primal part of your brain called the limbic system or “lizard brain,” any form of denial or exclusion sounds an alarm: your tribe has left you behind to fend for yourself. Next thing you know, you’re in “fight or flight” mode. Stress and loneliness skyrocket while motivation and self-esteem plummet.
Whether you’re dealing with social awkwardness, letting go of someone who doesn’t want to be your friend, or getting denied an essential professional opportunity, remember that everyone has gotten rejected at some point in their life. For example, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 different publishing houses before she finally found a publisher for the book. You can conquer this fear of rejection by boosting your confidence and adjusting your mindset.
How to Overcome It: Reframe rejection as redirection. Imagine your life as a long hallway filled with doors. You knock on one (perhaps a romantic partner or a new job) and whoever answers thoroughly rejects you. They slam the door in your face.
While so many of us wind up standing there and wallowing in that sadness, the best way to move forward is simply to knock on another door. Maybe that person or opportunity wasn’t meant to be because something much greater lies ahead behind a different door.
Why want something that doesn’t want you?
Overcoming the fear of rejection means holding yourself to the highest standards so you can let go of opportunities that aren’t for you.
Of course, this doesn’t mean rejection won’t hurt. Here’s more about Why Rejection Hurts So Much and How to Heal the Pain.
#3 Fear of Change
Change is indeed the only constant in life. Even the same routine repeated over and over will encounter minor changes daily. Psychologically speaking, a predictable routine satisfies our primal needs for comfort and familiarity. Predictability makes us feel safe.
Yet, many fear change because they feel out of control and out of their comfort zone. On a small scale, a fear of change can manifest as getting frustrated by unexpected changes or plans for feeling overwhelmed by new job assignments outside your everyday responsibilities.
It may also show resistance to changing bad habits or developing new routines. The fear significantly worsens when enormous upheavals arise, such as a major breakup, moving to a new place, or trying to start a new business endeavor.
As you push back against change, it also pushes against you and tries to keep you stagnant. You may feel stubborn or blocked in trying to face your patterns and improve yourself. The fear of change ultimately prevents you from growing and evolving.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”—Henry Ford
We all have to face the fundamental truth: your reality can shift overnight or even in a single moment. One phone call. One conversation. One positive or negative event. That’s all it takes!
Developing an adaptable attitude is essential to shield you from the anxieties and stress of changing circumstances. Instead of resisting change, you can embrace it as part of your evolution.
How to Overcome It: Adaptability is the capacity to adjust to new conditions. It has allowed certain animal species to evolve while others have gone extinct. It’s also one of the most coveted job skills amongst employers.
If you want to become more adaptable, try a few of these simple practices:
- Switch things up: One of the easiest things you can do daily to adapt to change is simply switching up tiny parts of your routine. If you usually brush your teeth with your right hand, try using your left. If you always take the same route to work, try some backroads. If you notice yourself repeating certain words you don’t like, substitute them with new vocabulary. This can help build mental elasticity and improve brain function so you can be a better problem-solver who is more equipped to approach the ever-changing reality.
- Try something new: Exposure to new stimuli links to better memory, more creativity, improved brain health and longevity, and greater overall happiness. Here are 60 new things to spark your creativity and get used to change.
- Be spontaneous: Spontaneity is probably the greatest enemy of someone who fears change. You want a solid plan that unfolds exactly how you thought it would in your head. But getting out of your routine can drastically improve your flexibility around plans and expectations. Try spontaneously heading out on a hike, going for a long drive, or inviting friends for drinks.
- Read a new book: Pick a book in a genre or on a topic you’d likely ignore. Go in with an open mindset and try to understand why the author wrote the book or how you can learn from it.
- Adopt a growth mindset: As opposed to someone with a fixed mindset that thinks intelligence is set-in-stone, someone with a growth mindset believes that intelligence is ever-evolving. This mindset allows you to embrace and even seek change by learning new things. The result is a positive feedback loop— learning new things alters the neurology of your brain, so you feel more prepared to learn more and adapt to changing circumstances.
#4 Fear of Public Speaking
Nearly 30% of Americans rank glossophobia (the fear of public speaking) as one of their biggest fears. Getting up in front of a crowd may awaken nightmare visions of people throwing tomatoes at you or “booing” every word you say.
While it may seem easy for “glossophobia” to avoid speaking in front of crowds, this fear can significantly hinder your success in the workplace and your social life. After all, public speaking isn’t just something you do on stage at a TED Talk.
Whether you’re a high achieving student, C-level executive, or small business owner, speaking is integral to everything from meetings to business pitches to dinner toasts. Finding comfort when speaking in front of a group of people can help you become more popular and a better leader.
How to Overcome It: Ultimately, the fear of speaking is rooted in the fear of criticism. Nobody wants to feel like their words, stories, or perspectives are being picked apart by an audience (whether that audience is 2 or 2,000). However, more often than not, your inner critic is the most ruthless of all.
To conquer the fear of speaking publically, you have to face it. Thankfully, you can start small and approach it with these public speaking resources from the experts behind Science of People:
- 15 Science-Based Public Speaking Tips To Be A Master Speaker, including how to warm up your voice, how to use a “what is-what could be” sparkline framework, and the reason you should avoid touching your own body while talking (hint: it shows that you’re nervous).
- 10 Presentation Ideas that will Radically Improve Your Presentation Skills, like how to leave a solid first impression with a sparkling one-liner and why you should save your best ideas for the beginning and end of the presentation.
- 5 Incredible Public Speakers Show You How to Improve Your Speeches, such as Malala Yousafzai and Brene Brown’s top secrets for speaking slowly and creating a strong non-verbal stage presence.
Want to sharpen your presentation skills and make your ideas more impactful? Whether it’s a video call, conference call, or sales presentation, here’s your free sneak peek at our ultimate science-based course, Powerful Presentations:
#5 Fear of Imperfection (or not being good enough)
Perfectionism is just a pretty mask for fear. It may look like perfectionists seek flawlessness because they hold such high standards for their work. But when you peek behind the curtain, people who claim perfectionism as a strength often struggle with:
- Procrastination: The main problem with perfectionism is how it delays us from putting our work out into the world. If seeking the ultimate unblemished final product, an artist could paint over little details indefinitely. You may do the same thing in your work projects, hobbies, or relationships.
- Poor time management: If it takes an hour to write, edit, and re-read a simple email, you may have an issue with perfectionism. Because you badly want everything to be flawless, you waste a lot of time on things that may not matter in the long run.
- Unreasonably high standards: Perfectionists tend to hold themselves to impossibly high standards and beat themselves up for minor setbacks. This can quickly harm your self-esteem and prevent you from celebrating your wins.
How to Overcome It: If you have been putting off a particular project because it isn’t perfect yet, this is the method for you. Whether it’s developing a product, learning to paint, or creating social media content, try the “Throw Spaghetti at the Wall” Method and “see what sticks”:
- Stop overthinking and take imperfect action: You can always go back and edit later. If you’re writing a book, try these 10 Ways to Stop Writer’s Block Dead in its Tracks. If you want to start a YouTube channel, set a goal to put out 1 or 2 imperfect videos per week. Look back on the first videos ever released by prominent Youtubers and see how far they’ve also come. While you can still work to put out your best work, try to avoid seeking perfectionism every step of the way.
“Done is better than perfect.”—Sheryl Sandberg
- Set strict deadlines: One of the keys to overcoming perfectionism (especially in creative endeavors) is starting every project with a strict deadline for completion. This will help you focus on the largest, most important tasks instead of getting stuck on the details.
- Toss ideas around and execute them instead of ruminating: Get a stack of index cards and make a “brain dump” stack. On each card, write down an idea you’ve been thinking about but not taking action. Then shuffle the cards, grab one, and take action without hesitation.
- Ask people you admire about their mistakes: When trying something new, it often seems like all the successful people in your field have it all figured out. They probably had to undergo much trial and error to get to where they were. Reach out to someone you admire and ask them about their biggest lessons from failures in their business, hobby, or career.
#6 Fear of Vulnerability
In her book Daring Greatly, shame and vulnerability expert Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” There is no denying that exposing your deeper emotions to friends, coworkers, or a significant other can be utterly terrifying.
But the caveat is that this fear can hold you back from major personal and professional opportunities. Science tells us that:
- Vulnerability improves employee motivation and connection with managers
- Vulnerability improves trust in leaders (especially when leaders are vulnerable enough to admit their shortcomings or mistakes)
- Self-disclosure can make others more likely to open up to you
- Vulnerability strengthens interpersonal relationships
Nonetheless, being open about your emotions or deepest fears is super hard. If you’ve been betrayed, shamed, or publicly embarrassed in the past, you’ve probably put up some walls to protect yourself emotionally.
This creates a paradox where:
- On the one hand, we are afraid of being lonely or without meaningful relationships
- On the other hand, we are also scared to open up and be vulnerable because we might get hurt.
Vanessa Van Edwards calls this the “Relational Paradox” that can lead to a vicious cycle of unfulfilling relationships. Here are her tips to stop hiding your true self, like using a “slow opening” to announce your true self, plus why you should tell people you care about them so you feel freer to be yourself around them:
How to Overcome It: Many mainstream efforts have been to “rebrand” vulnerability as courage, but the American culture still ingrains the idea that vulnerability is a weakness. Conquering this mindset requires shifting your mindset and practicing small forms of self-disclosure with people you already trust. Watch this famous TED Talk by Brene Brown to learn more about transforming vulnerability into strength:
#7 Fear of Time
Time anxiety or productivity shame is the feeling that “there’s never enough time.” Perhaps you feel rushed through life or like you can’t get enough done in a day.
“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”—William Penn
But time is the one great equalizer: everyone has the same amount of hours in a day, no matter their class, race, career, or location. Time is the one thing more valuable than any amount of money or a rare precious jewel. It holds this value because, once it is gone, you can never get it back. That is understandably daunting.
However, the fear of not having enough time can cause undue anxiety and stress. Harvard’s infamous happiness study found that people nearing the end of their lives regret working too much. Rushing through life is no way to live. You have to stop and smell the flowers! Plus, you need to be sure you’re using your time to the best of your ability.
How to Overcome It: While a feeling of urgency can be great for the ultra-ambitious, it can also distract you from enjoying life in the present moment. Yes, time is passing with every tick of the clock. But you can take solace in knowing that life is long and you don’t have to accomplish everything right this very moment. Instead:
- Slow down and practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is simply being more present and aware of yourself as you perform daily tasks. It can help you slow down and realize that you have as much time as you need. Research shows that mindfulness meditation can significantly reduce anxiety and improve productivity. Try a daily meditation practice or a phone-free nature walk.
- Monitor your screen time: Mindlessly checking your email or social media every 15 minutes can quickly eat up your most important hours of the day. Start monitoring your screen time or try a digital detox so you can focus on productivity in your own life (instead of watching the lives of others). This alone will help you feel like you’ve magically created more time.
- Improve time management: Little time-wasting habits can quickly devour your waking hours. Do you catch yourself multitasking and taking twice the necessary time to complete a project? Get a planner and start planning your day for the greatest productivity possible.
- Use a productivity hack: Monitoring your rhythms or learning to speed read are little-known hacks for making your time work for you. Try these 14 Unique Productivity Tips: How to Be More Productive with Less Effort.
#8 Fear of Loneliness
Humans are undeniably social animals with a need for companionship. Fear of loneliness is practically wired into our physiology. After all, ancient humans separated from their tribe were unlikely to survive.
However, without the risk of saber tooth tigers or starvation, spending time alone in the modern day is scientifically proven to improve your health and well-being. Studies show that spending time in solitude is correlated with:
- Higher confidence
- More creativity
- Higher emotional intelligence
- More emotional stability in challenging situations
This is likely because alone time allows for deep reflection on yourself and your life. You can metaphorically clear the mirror of your mind to see yourself as you are rather than how others perceive you. If you fear aloneness, you may inadvertently become clingy or unsure of your identity in the absence of other people.
How to Overcome It: The best way to start valuing your alone time is to find something you genuinely enjoy and take yourself out on a date to do it. Get dressed up in your favorite outfit, head to a delicious restaurant or a place where you can do your favorite hobby, and enjoy the act of being you. Practice positive affirmations and celebrate a few things you love about yourself.
Learn more in this guide and video: Are You Afraid of Being Alone? How to Overcome Your Fear
Key Takeaways: How to Overcome Your Biggest Fears
The key factor all these fears have in common is their sneaky tendency to sabotage our success.
In her inspiring TEDx Talk about overcoming your biggest fears, New York Times bestselling author Ruth Soukup describes why identifying and understanding your inner fears is so important. She asserts that every fear has two components:
- What is serving you
- What is holding you back
For example, a fear of vulnerability can serve you by protecting your heart from getting betrayed or hurt again after a terrible divorce. But it can also hold you back by preventing you from opening up and finding love again.
Similarly, a fear of imperfection may protect you from putting out sub-par work, but it can also hold you back from taking action necessary to reach your goals.
Her insights help us remember that fear doesn’t need to be embarrassing or shameful. It is part of your psyche for a reason.
Ultimately, analyzing your fears through this perspective and using the action tips above can help you build the courage to face life’s fears head-on. Learn more about How to Overcome Fear and Conquer Self-Doubt.