How many times have you said you want to make big changes in your life, finally do the thing you’re passionate about or go after the life you’ve dreamed of? You start out unhappy with your life then you get motivated to make changes, run into a setback and then stop trying and give up until you get so unhappy again that you start the cycle all over. This happens for a lot of us, we say we want to change but we keep ourselves stuck and limit our potential by holding ourselves back and staying safe.

Below are some ideas and concepts around how we hold ourselves back, why we do this and how we can overcome these barriers. These ideas are related to the work of Gay Hendricks in his book Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level and Tara Mohr in her book Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead.

What are some of the ways we hold ourselves back?

While there are many ways holding ourselves back shows up, here are a few of the more common ones.

  • We concoct stories or things to worry about. How many times have you prevented yourself from doing something because you come up with a million worries? Examples are “I can’t go after my dreams because if I fail, we’ll wind up homeless.” or “I can’t start this business because I have to focus my energy on my full-time job/I’m too old/young/inexperienced/qualified that no one will trust me.”.
  • We deflect when we are successful. We don’t take credit or celebrate. We tell ourselves and everyone else that the success wasn’t due to anything we did, it was all someone else or being in the right place at the right time or it was all someone else. The impact of this behavior is that we are repeatedly telling ourselves we’re not good enough and we start to believe that. Not only that, we start to train our brains to ignore success and instead focus on “failures”.
  • We avoid negative feedback. We often crave praise from external sources. We post something on social media and constantly check to see if anyone liked, commented, or shared it. We bring our idea to our boss and wait with bated breath to hear how they love it. When our efforts are ignored or not embraced, we crumble. Seeking external validation in this way can be dangerous and damaging to our self-worth and can cause us to start to not trust ourselves. This in turn can drive us to avoid negative feedback. We then hid all our ideas, dreams, potential so we don’t have to feel the sting of negative feedback.
  • We lie to ourselves to hide feelings we don’t want to accept. We don’t want to admit we’re scared of failure or criticism, so we instead project other feelings like anger or outrage. Our energy focuses on these emotions and prevents us from truly feeling something we’re too scared to feel or face.
  • We tell ourselves that we need to do X before we can do Y. It might look something like this “I need to get the degree in Psychology before I can help people.” or “I need to get my website created before I can start selling my services.” or “I need my resume reviewed by everyone I know before I can apply for my dream job.”.
  • We spend time on things that don’t really add value or get us closer to our dreams. This one is related to needing to do X before we can do Y. Instead of getting something out there to get feedback on we perfect, polish, tweak, and update over and over again. No one is going to find us if we just sit behind our desks and wait to be discovered. By hiding, we don’t get early feedback or insight into how our ideas will be received and we potentially create something that misses the mark.

Why do we hold ourselves back?
The quick and easy answer is that we’re scared. Scared of criticism, rejection, judgment. But there’s often more to why we hold ourselves back and limit our potential.

  • We believe we are fundamentally flawed. This idea may start innocently in childhood, a comment or idea we attach ourselves to that takes root and grows into a belief. We believe something is wrong with us and that we don’t deserve success or happiness.
  • We fear that we will outshine those around us. Maybe it’s a sibling or a spouse. We want them to feel good and succeed so we dim our own talents or successes.
  • We are afraid of being abandoned and alone. We worry that if we succeed that we’ll be abandoned by our loved ones or that we’ll somehow be seen as being disloyal to them. Sometimes those around us want to stay just as we are, it’s comfortable for them and they know what to expect. Or in unfortunate cases they want us to stay the same because they can control us or make themselves feel better. As we change or grow to achieve our dreams, we risk those we care about not being able to accept who we’re becoming. In some cases, to achieve our dreams we’ve had to go against how we were raised or the unspoken family rules and this is seen by our families as being disloyal.
  • We worry that we’re a burden. Maybe growing up we felt like we were a burden on our families and if we succeeded we’ll be either putting pressure on them, changing their lives, or drawing attention. For those of us who felt like a burden (through no fault of our loved ones) when we were young we probably stayed small and kept out of the way so as to not be more of a burden. This can carry over into adulthood, we don’t want to rock the boat or draw too much attention so we hold ourselves back.

How do we out of this pattern?
Below are some tactics we can use to stop this pattern of being unhappy, gaining motivation to make changes, running into setbacks and then giving up?

  • Starting before we’re ready. Putting ourselves out there is scary but it helps us understand if we’re on the right path. It allows us to course-correct and adjust our approach. If you invest the time and money in a killer website for your business without testing your idea you’re likely to have wasted valuable resources.
  • Truly challenging our beliefs. By taking a look at what we believe we need to do to accomplish our goals and asking ourselves if this is true, we’re able to determine if these barriers are real and accurate or if we created them.
  • Recognize the ways in which we’re holding ourselves back. Acknowledging that we’re allowing ourselves to be held back shines a light on the behavior. We can get curious about why we’re holding ourselves back and challenge ourselves to let go of these limiting behaviors and thoughts. Label those thoughts and then let them go.
  • Know that identifying the ways in which we hold ourselves back and shifting our thought patterns takes practice, it isn’t a quick switch. We need to frequently examine these thoughts and make changes over time to break through these barriers we’ve constructed.

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels