How a Psychotherapist Says Fear Is Holding You Back

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Confidence Gap" by Russ Harris. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is fear holding you back? How do you know if you’re controlled by fear? How do experts say you can overcome fear?

Fear and negative thoughts are instincts that serve an important evolutionary purpose by making you attuned to dangers around you. However, fear also holds you back from confidently doing the things you want to. 

Keep reading to learn psychotherapist Russ Harris’s advice for coexisting with your fears.

Is Fear Holding You Back?

According to psychotherapist Russ Harris, fear is holding you back if you find that you’re waiting for your confidence to naturally arise. He claims that you’ll likely wait forever and never be able to live the rich life you want. This is because you can’t get rid of the negative thoughts and feelings that stymie your confidence—especially the feeling of fear. Fear is an instinct that serves an important evolutionary purpose. Fear and negative thinking make you attuned to dangers around you. However, fear also holds you back from confidently doing the things you want to. 

We can use a simple example to illustrate how fear can hold you back—if you wait until you stop feeling nervous about doing stand-up before you sign up for an open mic night, you’ll likely never do it because you’ll never stop feeling nervous. 

Harris adds that there are specific negative thoughts and fears that undermine your confidence:

  1. “I can’t meet these expectations.” Unsatisfiable expectations: You expect the impossible of yourself and thus don’t believe you can achieve them. 
  2. “I’m no good.” You think negatively about yourself and your abilities. 
  3. “I’m afraid, so I won’t do it.” You try desperately to avoid the feeling of fear, which makes the fear loom larger in your mind. (For instance, if you fear and desperately avoid public speaking, the act of public speaking will only become more terrifying.)
  4. “I don’t have the skills.” If you don’t yet have the skills or the experience required to do something well, you won’t be confident about doing it. 

If these negative thoughts sound familiar, keep reading to learn how Harris says you can learn to coexist with these kinds of fears and build confidence at the same time.

Relate Skillfully to Negative Thoughts and Fears

Because you’ll never magically gain confidence, lose your negative thoughts, and banish all fears to pursue your goals, the better route to stop letting fear hold you back is to relate to inevitable negative thoughts and fears differently. 

In other words, rather than either pushing bad feelings and thoughts away, “treating” them with positive thoughts, or just waiting for them to vanish on their own (all approaches that won’t give you long-term confidence), develop a different perspective on the thoughts and fears. 

This lets you do things that require confidence without having to wait endlessly for that confidence to arrive. If your dream is to do stand-up, for example, you can go out and do it without waiting for the confidence to miraculously show up. 

The bonus is that when you take the actions that require confidence, you become better at those actions and thus become confident in doing them. For instance, when you attend open mic nights, you inevitably become better at stand-up, and that improvement gives you confidence. 

It Takes Practice

Harris stresses that learning how to relate more effectively to your thoughts and fears requires continual practice—just as you must practice to improve at doing stand-up, for instance. 

In addition to practice, there are three additional steps to the cycle of improvement: 

  1. Application in the real world: You must use the mental skills you’re practicing. 
  2. Assessment of your progress: When you use the mental skills, gauge if they’re helping or hindering you from achieving your goals. 
  3. Modification of your approach: Based on your assessment, change your approach if necessary. 

Once you reach the third step, you return to practice and perform the cycle again.

(Shortform note: In Make It Stick, the authors provide even more guidance on how to effectively practice a skill, like relating to thoughts and fears. They say you can practice best when you’re solitary, when there’s a goal you’re working toward, and when you strive to build upon your current ability. The authors agree with Harris that you must then go through the cycle of applying those skills, assessing your progress, and modifying your approach in the real world, adding that you might consider recruiting a coach—who might just be a friend you’ve told about your intention to relate differently to your thoughts—to provide encouragement and pointers.)

Make Room for Your Fear 

When attempting to pursue your life goals by taking on a new challenge, you’ll often experience the thoughts and feelings of fear. To stop letting fear hold you back, Harris writes you can deal with fear by making mental room for it (a step he calls “expansion”). 

Instead of trying to push away your fear (a tempting response for everyone because no one likes the discomfort of fear), let it exist. Doing this draws power away from the fear, allowing you to pursue your goals with your fear present but not impacting you. What’s more, allowing the fear to exist lets you harness its energy to better pursue your goals. 

(Shortform note: Harris writes that you’ll often feel fear when you pursue important goals. In The 10X Rule, Grant Cardone takes this idea even further, saying that feeling fear indicates that you’re taking the right steps in life. This is because you feel fear when you push yourself out of your comfort zone, which is almost always necessary to accomplish big goals. Cardone doesn’t offer thoughts on how to make mental room for fear, but he does recommend using fear to positively guide your actions. He explains that when you take actions that scare you, you gain confidence from having overcome a fear. Doing this consistently helps build long-term confidence and an exciting life—the goal Harris wants you to achieve, as well.)

You can overcome fear holding you back by making room for and harnessing your fear in three steps, writes Harris: 

Step 1: Recognize and label the feeling and thoughts of fear in your mind. This is the same as the process of recognizing and labeling your negative thoughts, except now, you’ll also pay attention to your body. How does fear feel physically? Does your jaw clench? Do you tap your foot? Whatever they are, let those thoughts and feelings remain in your mind and body. 

For instance, when rehearsing your stand-up routine, you might notice a tightness in your chest and become aware of negative predictive thoughts like, “I know already that this will go badly.” 

(Shortform note: Harris advises you to label your thoughts and feelings of fear, but this won’t be equally easy for everyone. Some people struggle to label thoughts and feelings and can only use a few descriptors for a wide variety of emotional and physical states. Labeling emotions is even harder for people with alexithymia, who are unable to identify or understand their emotions. Though they do experience physical symptoms—which Harris recommends you pay attention to—they don’t understand how they’re connected to thoughts and emotions.)

Step 2: Welcome the fear in your mind. You must not only leave your fear in your mind and body, but actually welcome the fear. Harris recommends that you do this by mentally speaking to your fear as if it were a trusted friend whose goal (though misguided) is to help and protect you. You might thus say to your fear: “Thanks for being here; I know you have my best interests at heart. Make yourself comfortable and enjoy the comedy routine I’m rehearsing.”

(Shortform note: The idea of welcoming such an unpleasant sensation as fear may at first seem impossible. To help yourself embrace fear, it might be useful to turn to Buddhist traditions. In Buddhism, suffering is seen as inherent to life. Buddhists believe that all beings suffer and in fact, that trying to get rid of fear tends to make suffering worse. However, when you can accept your suffering—in this case, your fear—you can work to eliminate it by changing your perspective on it.)

Step 3: Harness the fear. Finally, tune in to your body again and consider how you can use your experience of fear to take more energetic action. If your heart rate is elevated, your hands are jittery, or you can’t sit still, you can use that heightened physical state to vigorously burst into action. 

For instance, if you’re about to perform, use the energy of your fear to propel you on stage and project to the last row. 

(Shortform note: To stop letting fear hold you back, trying to harness your fear may not always be the right move or even possible. For instance, if you’re afraid of having a difficult conversation with your partner, harnessing your fear might make you jumpy and inattentive in the discussion. You might thus try a different third step—for instance, thinking about difficult conversations you’ve had in the past and how none of these have been as bad as you thought they’d be.)

How a Psychotherapist Says Fear Is Holding You Back

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Russ Harris's "The Confidence Gap" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Confidence Gap summary:

  • How negative, limiting thoughts and fears prevent you from achieving your goals
  • Why trying to ignore negative thoughts doesn't work
  • The three steps to detach yourself from your negative thoughts

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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