How to Move Forward Even in Fear

Sheila Murphy
November 1, 2023

“Knowing is better than wondering. Waking is better than sleeping, and even the biggest failure, even the worst, beats the hell out of never trying.”

                         - Dr. Meredith Grey, Grey’s Anatomy

What Dr. Grey recognized in the season 1 finale is that if we don’t try, we do not know what is possible, and we don’t obtain the learnings from it. But too often in our careers, we let fear of failure prevent us from moving forward. We pretend that it is protecting us and reducing our risk, but we allow fear to stall us. If fear is holding you back, here are some tips for moving forward:

Tip 1: Change Your Mindset

You need to change your mindset from a fear mindset to a growth mindset. That is appreciating the benefits of letting go of your fears and of their perfectionism.

My client, “Jane,” keeps a list next to her computer of the benefits of letting go of her fear and embracing new situations. That list includes growing as a leader, improving her skills, increasing efficiencies, and enhancing her professional profile and network. She has tackled new projects, received accolades, and improved her performance reviews by doing this and celebrating taking small steps to step into the fear. This reminds her daily to lean into what she was avoiding.

You need to understand that fear is not helping you and is harming you. In fact, Jane’s manager told her she was not promotable because she was not taking on larger projects. When Jane dug in, she realized she had been avoiding these projects out of fear of failure, and she knew this fear was not helping her — it was holding her back. Now that she has worked on this fear, she is on the promotion list.

Tip 2: Recognize Fear

You need to recognize when fear of failure appears in your inner thoughts. This is not always easy. Fear of failure often disguises itself as a rationale reason. For example, you may think: “I would take on that new project, but given my heavy workload — I could not possibly do an excellent job on this.”

You cannot conquer any fear until you can identify when it shows up for you. One of my clients, “Mary” had trouble distinguishing between wanting high-quality work and fear. Mary asked allies to help her identify situations where fear was holding her back. Knowing when fear appeared for her — allowed her to develop more effective strategies for conquering it.

Tip 3: Stop Over Analyzing

Fear is often all we can focus on when faced with opportunities to try new things. We become ruminators who have difficulty letting go of negative thoughts.

You need to develop a process for breaking up these unhelpful thoughts. Some ways to do this are:

  • Leveraging mindfulness techniques
  • Concentrating intensely on something else, whether the ridges of your fingers or staring at a project.
  • Writing down the negative thoughts and either crossing them out or ripping them up.
  • Visualization — imagine you are somewhere else and doing something out there. My client, “Sam,” pictures herself looking at the waves at the beach to stop her from staying on the hamster wheel. She then can assess the situation more effectively.

Tip 4: Reframe

You want to change the narrative. To start with, if you are thinking, “There is no way I will succeed on this with this budget, and I will be fired,” you can reframe it to say:

“My fear is saying that I can’t succeed without more budget, which is not true. Fear also says my manager will fire me, and clearly that will not happen. My management chose me because of my talents, and I will succeed, and even if I don’t, I am so valued I will maintain my position.”

Next, consider what fear costs you and the benefits of letting it go in these circumstances. When doing this, it is best to look at the big picture of the project and not focus on just your aspect of the assignment.

You also want to put yourself in control when you reframe. For example:

“My fear is telling me not to take on this assignment because I have not done it before, and the leader of that organization is a real stickler for thoughtful work. But I know that by taking this assignment, I will grow my skills and have the opportunity to develop a new sponsor, as well as new skills.”

Some clients write down the benefits of each specific situation to help them reframe and let go of their fears.

Tip 5: Be Your Best Leader

Finally, when you see the fear of failure rearing its ugly head, think about how you want others to view you as a leader. Do you want to be seen as someone who cannot tackle new experiences or challenges or an innovative leader who engages teams and brings about significant positive change? Picture that inner leader and then decide to act like that leader consciously.

When I feel fear creeping up, I picture myself as Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, who is fearless. This visioning puts me in the right mindset to take on any challenge and quash any fears.

By conquering fear, you will move forward — it may not always look like success, but it is because fear failed to keep you in place. Remember that Dr. Grey also said: “Progress looks like a bunch of failures.” Don’t let fear stop that progress. 


Want to learn more about how to become the in-house leader you are meant to be?

Check out Sheila's 10 Tips for In-House Counsel Struggling to Advance.

In this guide, Sheila shares her time-tested tips for in-house counsel to release fear, jump-start your career, and propel towards promotion.

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