Avoiding Cliffs: What to do When Fears Are Holding You Back

Focussing your attention on the manageable next steps

We tend to get way ahead of ourselves—thinking many, many steps ahead or of worst-case scenarios. We attempt to protect ourselves by imagining all that can go wrong or of all the difficulties that can come our way. We stare at the biggest cliff we can find and then recoil back from it, justifying why we shouldn’t take action toward what we want if it will lead to that. So what to do?

I begin each day by journaling. I find this a very effective way to reflect on where I am at, process all that is going on, work through any fears or frustrations, and determine next steps.

(1) Air your fears. 

Look at your fears, write them out, air them and try to understand them. If they are inner critics, identify them as such. If they come from a person who is currently in your life, consider temporarily creating a protected space from that person. Write ALL your fears out in a journal or talk with a friend, partner, or coach about them. Don’t brush them aside or bury them, they will only get bigger and harder. It’s important to shine a light on them, unpack them, figure out whatever is at their root.

(2) Identify the root of the fears.

Determine whether they are real concerns or a runaway fear. I have found that, often, once looked at directly, their power fades. Their cracks begin to show. It can help to identify the source of the fear (usually something very basic, very human). Fear of rejection? Fear of being trapped? Fear of being broke? Break it down. Write it out. Be kind to yourself in this process. Give this process time. It is not instantaneous, but, often, working through this process will demystify and remove the sting of the fears. Sometimes what is at the root of the many surface fears will surprise you.

(3) Find the next right step and take it.

I say this a lot but it’s because it works. All you need to do is take the next right step. Each step creates momentum and confidence. Action begets more action. You begin to believe that you are the type of person who shows up and does the thing. So, take small steps. Go gently and kindly. Do the little thing that seems right and that nudges you a little closer to your goal. Over time, these small steps will get you a long way. They will be the right steps because you decided them as you went a little at a time. Taking them regularly like this will also create deep habits and self-belief. You can do this.

Many a small painting has surprised me by coming together on a day that I thought nothing would be achieved. Small steps add up.

(4) Seek someone who will support you.

This could be a group, a close friend, someone else working to achieve a similar goal… or it could be a podcaster, an author, or another mentor who is further along the path. Whether you actually converse with them or you keep their company in other ways, feeling accompanied and supported is huge in keeping yourself going. I have several books, podcasts, or blogs I return to when feeling stuck. It’s great to have someone who can find the next right step for you, if you become uncertain, but you can also do this yourself by creating space and allowing time for introspection. Usually you do actually know what you most need, if you allow yourself time to get quiet enough to hear your intuition. I often do this in my journal pages or by going for a walk. I ask for answers or guidance and then I always do that next thing, however small. Go for a walk? I go for a walk. Make a cup of tea? I make a cup of tea. Write a blog post? I write a blog post.

(5) Allow yourself designated space to vision and dream.

I find it works best to set aside time to envision all that I want for myself. I find it most effective when kept separate from the act of doing and from the nitty gritty of taking action. Visualizing is fun and empowering. It helps you to understand your goals, motivations, direction. It gives you the chance to check in with yourself and ensure you’re still on the right path. If fears come up, run through the above steps with each. Keep taking small actions toward your goals while you create the space for visioning, dreaming, and ideation.

The trickiest thing about thinking many many steps ahead, is that we imagine ourselves far down the road, but as the same person we are now. The thing is, once you get that far down the road, you will not be the same person.

Dreaming of things to come while also feeling grateful for what is.

Looking at your trajectory rather than what you think will happen

The trickiest thing about thinking many many steps ahead, is that we imagine ourselves far down the road, but as the same person we are now. The thing is, once you get that far down the road, you will not be the same person.

You will have changed by everything that has transpired between now and then. This is one of the hardest and most wonderful aspects of living a life that is open and true to yourself. You change. What you want changes and evolves with you. I have begun trying to look at the underlying trends and patterns guiding my life and using the trajectory of those to guide my current actions. Instead of looking at what I currently expect to be my next goal, I look at the underlying themes (or values) guiding my recent choices and try to look at a trajectory that keeps those at the core.

It’s not possible to try to anticipate everything. Unexpected things will happen – bringing both difficulty and setbacks, and excitement and joy. Instead, what you can do is take action on your own behalf – each time you do, you are making yourself stronger, more capable, and more assured. Your realm of possibilities expand.

Don’t let those fears get in the way of something wonderful

Remember that it’s just as likely for wonderful new opportunities to come our way, and for things to be better than we ever imagined. So often, the fears, risks, and unknowns, hold us back and prevent us from showing up and doing the things that are most important to us.

So, next time you find yourself paralyzed by that cliff, stop.

Take your eyes off the cliff and narrow your focus to what you can do now. Look at what is immediately before you – at the next task in your list. Arm yourself with support, if you need. Breathe deeply, and do that one thing.

You got this.

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If your fears were triggered by a mistake or perceived failure, I share my learnings around finding wisdom and strength in your mistakes. It includes a short list of books (and one video) that I’ve found enormously helpful in navigating fears and failures.

If you’re still struggling to get started, check out my post all about how to get out of your own way and start creating. Whether you’re an artist or not, it applies to all creative work.