The One Word That's Holding You Back

By Marcia Reynolds
Marcia Reynolds

What are you afraid of?

I sometimes get a glimpse of something my clients would like to do or achieve in their lives. Too often, though, they mutter the aspiration and then speak the dreaded word:


The word but signals that my client's brain has quickly conjured up reasons for not taking a risk, for not doing something different, or for not asking for what she needs because she might be rejected.


The primary purpose of the brain is to keep you safe and alive. Being funny or smart is a nice plug-in you may or may not be able to activate. But whether you are asleep or awake, your brain is always on the lookout for harm.

The result: You do not give the same weight to the potentially positive results of an action as you do to threats and negative scenarios. Your choices are filtered through this lens of protection. And then your brain masterfully lists all the bad things that could happen and highlights the worst-case scenario.

I recently had a client who couldn't seem to find the right time to ask her boss to broaden her responsibilities. There was always a good excuse for not making the request. I asked, "What is the worst thing that could happen if you ask for what you want?" She said she was afraid her boss might see her as wanting his job. I asked, "What happens if he does?" First, she admitted that he probably wouldn't respond that way and even if he did, she said, she could find a way to spin her request so it wasn't a threat.

Finally I asked, "What are you most afraid of losing?" and she spilled out, "Credibility, my current job, distance from my boss if I make him feel guilty...and then what if I am not up to taking on more?"

Once all her excuses were on the table, we could look at the reality of each one. How likely was the negative outcome? What would she do if it came to pass? In the end, my client found no good reason for not making her request.

Most of time, the fears that keep you from moving forward are fears of losing respect, credibility, position, significance, positive regard, and love. You seek to avoid feeling humiliated and embarrassed, looking stupid, being wrong and being rejected.

The outcome: You spend more time defending inaction instead of planning actions to take.

The word but allows you to take fewer risks, delay making vital changes, avoid intimacy, resist suggestions, rationalize the status quo, numb your brain with chemicals or mindless entertainment, and decrease your capacity to see opportunities and different points of view.

SUCCESS TIP: Acknowledge your fear in order to hear.

Before you can see and hear new possibilities, you must acknowledge the fears that might exist. Be honest. Be thorough. Look for the little fears you tend not to notice but that direct your choices. Name them even if they are clearly illogical. Because your brain loves to protect you, fears small and large are sparked in our minds all the time. The reactions have nothing to do with logic.


  • Am I open to trying something new or speaking my mind about this issue?
  • If not, what feelings are stopping me: fear, guilt, embarrassment, or anger?
  • What am I afraid of losing, really -- being right, feeling significant, or being liked? Or, what do I think is being taken from me -- respect, love, attention, dignity?
  • Am I willing to focus on self-acceptance and my own worth and value over the fear of losing face? If so, what will it take for me to shift to this stronger state of mind?

What would I do if I had nothing personally to worry about? What if no buts existed? What decision would I make if I were brave?

Self-awareness is the first step to outsmarting your brain. Know what your brain is doing. Question the first choices your brain made to see if there are other things you can choose instead. Then choose to act in your highest good.

If you think you need help outsmarting your brain, consider hiring a coach!