I’ve noticed that three feelings keep me and many others from reaching most of our goals and living the kind of life we want to live: fear, shame, and complacency.
When I step back and look at it, most success seems to come when we can overcome these barriers (or at least continue moving towards our goals despite their presence). So let’s talk about what these barriers are and why they are so good at keeping us from our goals.
I’m not saying that fear is never valid. It certainly can be, and sometimes it is there for a reason. But for much of my life, fear was the boss. I did what fear said, no matter how far it took me from my goals. Fear said I wasn’t good enough, I was going to look like a fool, no one would like me, or that something terrible was going to happen. Fear told me that there were only two choices: hide or run away.
My response to this fear was the same as most people’s: I did what it said. I tried to avoid whatever caused the fear. And if I couldn’t avoid it, I would try to push it away, stuff it down, or get rid of it somehow.
But I found that I couldn’t avoid fear, no matter how hard I tried, because fear constantly moves the goalposts. When I avoided driving because I was scared to have a panic attack, I eventually started to fear public transportation. When I avoided speaking my truth, fear made my voice get smaller. When I avoided going after my goals because I feared failure, I started to doubt the abilities I once trusted.
Resisting the fear was just as useless. The more I resisted fear, the more I focused on it, and the stronger it became. Fear was what caused me to delay applying to medical school. Fear made me avoid public speaking. Fear kept me from introducing myself to new people or applying for new opportunities.
But eventually, I realized that listening to this fear was often more trouble than it was worth.
Things changed for me when I realized that fear was a feeling (a strong feeling, but a feeling), not a mandate to act. I realized that just because I felt fear didn’t mean that I had to run away. Instead, I started packing up my fear and taking it with me, allowing it to be there while I did what I wanted to do.
Shame is probably best described (and well-studied) by Dr. Brené Brown. She describes shame as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Shame used to influence most of my relationships, including my relationship with myself. Shame wanted me to avoid anyone who had seen my shortcomings, vehemently defend myself when I made a mistake, and shut down when I felt inadequate.
Shame, like fear, is also a very primitive feeling. Connection with others is vital to our success as a species and even our survival as individuals. Shame pops up in any situation where we feel that our connection with others might be jeopardized. Shame tells us to hide before someone realizes how messed up we really are because then they will surely leave us.
But shame is usually wrong. Despite what shame says, exposing our flaws often helps us connect with others in a deep and meaningful way. Why? Well, because everyone is flawed- we just don’t advertise our perceived inadequacies. But when we open up about these inadequacies, we invite other (equally flawed) people to connect with us intimately and fully accept their own experiences.
This is vulnerability, and Dr. Brown talks a lot about this vulnerability as the antidote to shame. As Dr. Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly (linked below), vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.”
Things changed for me when I realized that, yes, I am flawed. But that doesn’t make me unworthy of anything- it just makes me human. Now when shame pops up, I’m better able to recognize it for what it is and pivot towards vulnerability.
The acceptance that I’ve felt in response to my vulnerability has brought closeness. And this closeness has brought about a willingness to reach for my goals because I know that my failures will not cause me to be ostracised as I once feared.
I think of complacency as this feeling of resistance that comes up seemingly out of nowhere. We don’t feel particularly bad about anything; we aren’t necessarily scared, tired, or lonely. But still, we aren’t moving towards the life we want to live. Complacency feels like a lack of inertia or disinterest in growth.
Complacency is what makes us say, “I’ll do it tomorrow” or “Just this once doesn’t matter.” And the problem is that complacency is usually right. Just this once usually doesn’t matter, and we can often get away with putting things off until tomorrow. But complacency doesn’t know when to quit. It’s insidious and relentless and will gently whisper “do it tomorrow” or “just this once” until the end of time.
Complacency can be especially difficult to notice because it doesn’t make us feel awful right away like fear or shame tend to do. Complacency actually feels pretty good. It’s comfortable, routine, and doesn’t require any more effort (in fact, it usually requires less effort than the alternative!).
I’ve started to realize that feeling comfortable usually isn’t a good thing. I’m comfortable when I’m scrolling social media, eating something that will make me feel worse later, or laying in bed pretending I don’t have any responsibilities. On the flip side, I am uncomfortable when I’m pushing myself to write a new blog post, figuring out the next steps in my business plan, talking through complex issues in therapy, lifting weights, or going for a really long run.
So I’ve learned to notice when I feel comfortable. Sometimes it’s okay, but sometimes it means I’ve gotten complacent and I need to focus on the hard work that will propel me forward. If I can become aware of the complacency and refocus on my long-term goals, that is usually enough to push me out of my rut.
Shame, fear, and complacency might stop you from doing what is important to you. But I’m also starting to realize that when these three pop up in my life, it’s a sign that I’ve got something important to do, and I need to keep pushing in that direction. They’ve almost become a guide, showing me the path I need to take if I want to live a life of boldness.
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Books by Brené Brown (click for Amazon link- I highly recommend all of her books. They are books that I read over and over, and learn more from every time I read them):