As an executive coach, I work with the top leaders in organizations, large to small. From that vantage point I have seen successes and failures at all levels. Surprisingly, a theme that is often unearthed, even at the C-suite level, is fear. 

Here are the five top fears that emerge: 

  1. Not being good enough
  2. Being wrong
  3. Failure
  4. Rejection
  5. Emotional discomfort

Before we break down each of these, it is important to note that the fear of “not being good enough” is the most universal. Fear of being wrong, failure and rejection are all underneath that large umbrella of “not being good enough.” Emotional discomfort is different, but we will come back to that. 

Why Do We Feel Inadequate?

It is natural to have feelings of not being good enough occasionally, but when it affects your self-esteem, it is time to ascertain the conversations we have with ourselves. I have observed that most of what we tell ourselves is quite simply – downright lies. 

Someone who suffers from imposter syndrome will tell themselves the same stories and believe them to be true, even when they are not. While there is no grounding for their assessment – it feels true – simply because it has been a mantra for years. They never really stop to evaluate with rigor: is it actually true?

When I have C-suite executives say they are always at risk of being fired even though there is no indication from their own boss of that happening, I challenge them. I start historically. I ask them to tell me how many jobs they have been fired from, how many times they have had a performance improvement plan written up, how many supervisors have given them poor feedback. The most common answer I receive for all these questions? None. We move to the data they have curated from their current job. Answer? Little to none. And yet, these leaders have this insecurity and anxiety that they are not good enough to do their jobs and can be fired at any moment. The measurement we have for ourselves is flawed at the core. And often we are blind to “it’s all in our head.”

How to Stop Feeling Like We are Not Good Enough

The first thing to do to stop these feelings is to ask yourself the question: is what you are telling yourself true? If you think the answer is yes, challenge yourself. Write down all the evidence that objectively shows you are not good enough. Chances are, that list will be short. 

I recently worked with a client who offhandedly mentioned in a coaching session that he was horrible at playing golf. In fact, he declared he was never playing again – he hated the sport! Here is how that conversation played out:

Me: I’ve never heard you mention golf before. How long have you been playing golf?

Jeff (not his real name): I’ve played once early this summer – and then again this weekend. 

Me: Have you taken any lessons? Practiced? Been to a driving range?

Jeff: No, but I played baseball in high school, and I have great hand-eye coordination, so I should be good at golf. But I’m horrible! 

Me: Wait a minute – hold on. Maybe you are horrible. But you SHOULD be horrible – you are a beginner! And how do you know you hate golf? You actually haven’t played golf. Yes, you were on the course. Yes, you were trying to hit the ball. But you are not going to have the experience of really playing golf until you are minimally competent as a golfer. And you are not, you are a beginner. 

I will spare you the rest of the conversation – it was lengthy and got much deeper. But for this article, I wanted to illustrate just how easily we make assessments about ourselves, our ability or lack thereof, and how easily we form our likes and dislikes. 

Once you can identify the moment when you are engaging in an internal or external dialogue around not being good enough, that is the moment you can pull back and check in. Reassess. Redirect. Redesign that conversation intentionally and thoughtfully. In that moment you are setting the foundation to alter your future. That is how change happens. It happens at the moment: one micro-change, one micro-conversation at a time. 

Now, this is not easy by any means, but it can be done. And the more you do it, like anything, the better you will get at it. When you consistently catch yourself, reframe your thoughts, believe what you are saying and repeat it with enough repetition over time – well, that is when your old conversation will be replaced by a healthier and more accurate one. Over time, you will start to feel differently about yourself.

Aptitude + Drive

Now, all of us have some skills in which we just do not excel. When I was younger, I loved architecture. I loved design. In fact, I still do. Back in high school, I thought it could be a potential career path, so I enrolled in two years of drafting. I quickly found out that even though I had deep passion for the field, I struggled with spatial relations. No matter how much I worked at it, it never came easily. Many years later I took some aptitude testing, and I found out that my brain’s processing capability is very low in this area. I have zero aptitude for spatial relations. So, my high school assessment that I would not make a good architect was accurate. It is not an assessment I am making from an inaccurate belief system or repetitive conversations that deepened that belief. 

Generally speaking, we naturally move toward careers and positions that match our natural talent and aptitude. We lean into what comes easily and we find enjoyable. Think about an athlete – they likely had some early success which instilled a desire to get better and better at their sport. When you combine aptitude with drive and passion – that is the recipe for achieving greatness. 

What Happens without Aptitude?

While it certainly helps to have aptitude to excel at a skill, it is often not necessary to learn how to be proficient at something. I once worked with a CEO who declared she was not good at public speaking. When I asked her to deliver her annual “state of the company address” a few days before she was going to deliver it, it took me less than a minute to assess if she was right. Boy was she right. She was quite awful. Given there was only a few days before she would address her crowd, I had her focus on elevating just one aspect for this speech: eye contact with the audience. 

But I planted the seed that next year’s annual speech, my expectation was – she would knock it out of the park. We worked hard throughout the year, slowly building her public speaking skillset one building block at a time. When the next annual state of the company address came around, it ended with her receiving a standing ovation. She went from a cringe-worthy performance to one that was engaging, inspiring, and humorous. She even looked comfortable performing it. She was that much better not because she was naturally gifted in this area, but because she practiced – a lot. She had both the drive to be better and the willingness to put in the work to be better. 

Fear of Being Wrong

Continuing our list of most common fears is the fear of being wrong, which once again is rooted in the fear of not being good enough. After all, the underlying fear of being wrong is that you aren’t smart enough or you aren’t talented enough or you may make a mistake. 

Now with this particular fear, people tend to get very defensive, very reactive. They are primary motivation and reactivity stems from protecting themselves from the pain of humiliation of being wrong. People who cannot be wrong often feel the need to be the smartest person in the room. They will intellectualize, argue with force, and find ways to shut down the listening of others. This need to be right becomes more important than accuracy. 

No one likes the feeling of being wrong, especially if it is in a public setting like a work meeting. Shame registers high on the Richter scale and is one of the deepest emotions, so we want to avoid it at all costs. Unfortunately, when you insist you are never wrong, you lose curiosity. You lose the capacity to learn something new because you are stuck in your view that you think is correct. But your view is just an assessment. It is an opinion or judgement that you are treating as fact. Try to break out of that rigidity and see situations from multiple perspectives. The world is rarely black and white! 

Fears of Failure and Rejection

Failure and rejection go hand in hand, and again, they can be traced to the fear of not being good enough. You may not feel as if you are attractive enough, or smart enough or personable enough, and believe those things will potentially lead to you being rejected. 

Much of this is often related to shame and humiliation that got cemented in early life experiences or one particularly searing memory that cemented a fear of persevering towards anything you fear you may not be successful in. For example, if you once applied to a university you wanted to go to but did not get in, you may carry that rejection around with you for years even though you hid it from others. So, perhaps you’ve learned to lower expectations, or fail to go after a stretch goal. Same may apply if you grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks” and it got reinforced that you were “less than.” You may subconsciously attribute failure to an old tape of not being good enough based on a very, very old tape from childhood. 

If you do not bring the right mindset to the situation, you will not even try because you are afraid of being rejected, which would be a failure. Many people give up and do not even try. They do not ask the right questions. Instead of looking at the possibility of failure, consider the positive outcome when you ask yourself, “How can I make this happen?”

Instead of focusing on times you may have failed, recall your previous successes. When you focus on what you have accomplished, it can reduce the impact any failure or rejection has on your emotions. 

Last, it is worth mentioning that the converse of the above may also be true as well. You may become extremely performance-oriented to prove you are “good enough.” Your whole self-esteem may become built only on how well you perform and driven by comparison to others – so there becomes no space for failure. 

Related: Is the Fear of Upsetting Others Standing in Your Way of Success?

Emotional Discomfort

Emotional discomfort is the one fear on this list that is different. It is avoiding anything which is painful, which we tend to do on some level because it is wired into being human. We are shaped to want to avoid pain and discomfort and move toward pleasure. We do it in all sorts of ways over the course of our lives, and sometimes if we do it in extreme ways, addiction to food, alcohol, drugs, numbing out, etc. can result.

But the biggest sign of emotional discomfort I see played out repeatedly in organizations is avoiding crucial conversations. I have seen leaders make it all the way to the C-suite and to a fault, they are wildly uncomfortable saying something direct to an employee. This can happen for a number of reasons, but most commonly it occurs because they are people pleasers, or they simply want to avoid the discomfort of an awkward conversation. They often just hope it goes away, but usually the need for a crucial conversation does not go away on its own and often, the situation only gets worse. 

When we give into these five fears, they impact how we feel about ourselves, our success, how we show up in life, our self-confidence and even our well-being and health. All these things are impacted when you constantly feel like you are not good enough. When you catch yourself creating and reinforcing those disempowering beliefs, it is in those micro-moments that deep change happens. Change that internal dialogue to break out of your self-defeating cycle so you face your fears and most likely, find them to be unfounded. 

Learn more about Executive Coaching