For many years, I was terrified of professional situations that required me to be under a spotlight. On one of my first evaluations, a supervisor described me as “passive.” Devastating as this was to read, it wasn’t wrong. My anxiety would crank up as I walked in to staff meetings, dreading that I may be prompted to speak. I watched as others advocated for themselves, requested opportunities and shared their opinions while I sat silently. When asked for my perspective, I deferred to colleagues or made jokes at my own expense, downplaying my point of view. I would do just about anything to stay under the radar.
Each of these acts of avoidance kept me stuck in very real ways. It’s impossible to quantify the professional chances I wasn’t given, the relationships I didn’t make or the opportunities that I missed out on because I stayed burrowed in my own emotional down comforter.
By far the most consequential cost of avoidance came at the expense of my own sense of self. Each time I made a U-turn away from fear, I was deprived of a chance to see myself grow, to experience anxiety and learn that it could not hurt me. At least not in the ways I anticipated. Avoidance kept me from learning about myself and living my fullest life. In fact, the more I avoided, the worse I felt about myself, the more I believed that I was a passive person and the harder it was to try and speak up the next time an opportunity arose.
More often than not, we give fear far much more power than it deserves. This ancient emotion was designed to keep us alive in the face of life-threatening situations. In the case of an avalanche or bear attack, the fight-or-flight response is critical. Unfortunately, today fear often overshoots the mark. Most of the time that we feel threatened we are actually in situations that are perfectly safe. Sometimes, we even feel fear in response to our own thoughts and worries.
Fear isn’t going anywhere and that’s okay. We wouldn’t survive without it. The truth is, we don’t need to conquer fear to become unstuck. That’s because it’s avoidance, not fear, that keeps us stuck.
It’s acts of avoidance, big or small, that limit our life and hold us back. Avoidance, though it can feel so good in the moment, will by definition lead to missing out on something. It keeps our professional paths stagnant, relationships superficial and lives generally restricted.
In order to get unstuck from the avoidance behaviors that hold us back, facing our fears is not enough. We need to listen to what fear is letting us know about what is truly important. The things that scare us can actually provide pretty important information if we don’t run away as soon as it show up. The individual who avoids social situations because they are terrified of rejection actually deeply cares about connection with others. Someone who uses humor during vulnerable conversations may crave intimacy and acceptance. Because these situations are personally important, they evoke a sense of higher stakes.
As we understand our fears on a deeper level, we can shift avoidant behaviors in to values-based behaviors that provide options rather than limits.
If I were to visualize my fear of professional attention as one side of a coin, the other side would reveal that I care profoundly about making a contribution to a field that I greatly respect. It would remind me that learning how to help others is important to me and that I find meaning when I am sitting with someone in therapy.
Unfortunately, my early professional development was a defined by avoidance. Each time I acted out of avoidance I was metaphorically throwing away my coin. In the moment, I got a break from my anxiety and felt temporarily safe. At the same time, I was completely missing out on the values that were on the other side of the coin. Not sticking it out meant losing a chance to connect with a sense of purpose, feel present and find meaning.
If we accept that fear is part of being human, we can relate to it as a guide rather than a threat. Understanding the larger cost of avoidance is an important propeller to becoming “unstuck” for the long-term. In the face of fear, we have the opportunity use our values to lead us forward rather submitting to avoidance that will hold us back.
I still feel some anxiety any time I have to give a professional talk or meet someone who I admire. I notice all of the urges to retreat, downplay accomplishments and wrap the conversation up quickly. Rather than give in to fear, I use it as a signal that the situation is important and there is an opportunity to move closer to something fulfilling. Sometimes I have to carry my fear with me as I do this. The good news is that I’ve done the math, and I know the benefits outweigh the costs.