Updated: May 23
Like all emotion, fear doesn’t exist independently: it has a cause, a root, a source. As you peel back feelings of fear, it’s possible you’ll find layers of guilt, inferiority, inadequacy, and shame that run deep and affect all areas of your life. How do I know this? Because none of us have gone through life unscathed.
Humanity is imperfect and life is generally unfair. We’ve been damaged, hurt, bruised, and rejected in some way during our lives. That’s why I can confidently say that you’re bound to unearth feelings of inadequacy and shame as you attempt to eradicate fear from your life. However, the good news is that you can begin the healing process and restore the peace and confidence necessary for achieving your goals.
Recognizing Different Forms of Fear If you’re having a difficult time pinpointing the fear(s) holding you back, then remember that they manifest themselves in different ways. Therefore, the core emotion is the same (fear), but you experience it in different forms, such as:
When you identify situations or circumstances that make you nervous, anxious, etc., then you have a starting point for isolating specific fears that affect your life today (consciously and unconsciously). You’ll likely find that it all leads back to these basic human fears:
Fear of failure/success
Fear of abandonment
Fear of rejection
Fear of the unknown
Fear of embarrassment
So, what’s the result of all this fear? We internalize it as inferiority or inadequacy – I’m not lovable. I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. These inherent beliefs about self are where you and I tend to stumble.
The Link Between Fear and Shame
When this happens, we frequently struggle with self-defeating thoughts of not being good enough, smart enough, fast enough, etc. Inevitably, a sense of shame arises out of this internalized fear and negative thinking. According to author and researcher Brené Brown, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
In other words, our feelings of inferiority or inadequacy generate feelings of shame.
Fear→ Inferiority/Inadequacy→ Shame
These fear-driven feelings have different roots for all of us and often stem from:
Something we’ve done that conflicts with our values
Something that was perpetrated against us that we believe we deserved or invited
Imposter syndrome (chronic self-judgment), which is feeling like a phony and believing you’re not as competent as others think
Protecting Ourselves with Shame Screens
According to Brown, when we experience shame-generating fears, we react defensively and employ one of several shame screens to protect ourselves. First, our fight, flight, or freeze instinct engages involuntarily, and then we quickly step behind one of the shame screens listed below. This means we do one of the following:
Move away - withdraw, hide, stay silent, keep secrets
Move against - try to gain power over the other, be aggressive, control
Move toward - seek to please, try to belong
As with most defense mechanisms, shame screens lead to self-sabotaging behaviors, overreactions, or what Robert Hogan defines as “derailing behaviors” that prevent us from engaging others productively and might even ruin relationships or careers.
What to do
All kinds of things happen inside your brain when you perceive a threat (fear) - whether physical or emotional. First, the prefrontal cortex becomes overwhelmed with emotions (amygdala hijacking), which drastically reduces your rational thought process and cognitive function. This fight-or-flight response is triggered to combat the threat or run away from it. It’s a reflexive reaction to protect yourself against attack.
So what’s the problem? This is a good thing, right? It’s a wonderful defense mechanism if you’re facing a real life-or-death threat. But the problem is that the trigger often happens even if the threat isn’t real - or isn’t dangerous to you. Your emotional response kicks your brain into overdrive, and you react to the “perceived threat.” It springs from your interpretation of the event and the risk it poses leading you to overreact.
Imagine this scene playing out in your professional life. What if you’re a leader who is challenged by a subordinate which brings up a fear of inadequacy for not having the answer or knowing how to proceed – you feel threatened (needlessly) and overreact? There can be devastating consequences, right? When you calm down and regain your senses, you seriously regret the incident – whether it’s an angry outburst, an impulsive decision, or abdicating withdrawal, yet the damage has been done.
Our goal is not to overreact (or worse), which means we must reconcile the fears that cause the anxiety or develop better methods of self-management to reduce the stress related anxiety. This is a critical part of developing authentic presence.
As you develop authentic presence, overreaction will diminish. Rather than rattled nerves or emotional outbursts getting the best of you, you’re able to respond rather than react. In other words - you’re not reacting to a perceived threat – either the fear no longer exists or your ability to navigate it is improved. You’re not reacting in fear. Whether the threat is real or imagined, authentic presence allows a leader to remain “other-focused” during periods of stress or uncertainty. This type of measured response requires a higher degree of emotional intelligence, authenticity, and transparency. In other words, you come to own who you are and can therefore stay intellectually engaged rather than becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
Take this step to develop your Authentic Presence further: Reflect on the past week or month: what did you overreact to personally or professionally? What fears were behind the triggering incident?
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