The Greatest Barrier to Reaching Your Potential
There are many reasons that many (perhaps most) people never reach their full potential. And in shying away from the challenges that would enable them to do so, they end up feeling frustrated and dissatisfied—not only with themselves but with their lives in general. But without being proactive in breaking through the barriers that are keeping them stuck, the pursuits that could lead to their greater happiness and fulfillment remain unexamined.
The most common way we safeguard our individual and relational safety—or lessen our worrisome sense of vulnerability—is not to venture outside our comfort zone. And leading a life of caution does minimize what otherwise might (temporarily, at least) upset our emotional equilibrium. For whenever the possibility of failure or rejection raises its unnerving head, a primal survival program that instinctively dwells inside us will raise its voice, vehemently warning us to back off from what it fears could mortally defeat us. Which explains why a self-protective vigilance, or refusal to move beyond such a reassuring mode of “vulnerability management,” has for ages disempowered most of humanity.
Doubtless, the inevitable risks in expanding your life’s prospects can be unsettling. To be sure, the willingness to be bold and “go for it” is not without its hazards. Yet only by summoning your courage to withstand the anxiety so often linked to uncertainty can you make the most of the various opportunities that come your way. And when the scary, and all-too-physical, sensations of anxiety are throbbing inside you, it takes considerable fortitude to stand up to the immediately experienced threat those symptoms transmit to you.
If you can’t resist this internal pressure—physical, mental, and emotional—clamoring for your attention, there’s no way you can get yourself to move forward and, with sufficient effort, meet the challenges facing you. Afflicted by strident messages of imminent danger, whatever energy and resolve you might have in pursuing a project or desired relationship will be depleted. After all, the bullying voice inside you is continually shouting: “Don’t!”
And yet when you’re confronted with a challenge, unless you can bravely face up to it, you’ll never know the true extent of your capabilities. And the last part of this post will outline the personality characteristics that, once developed, can almost guarantee that you’ll succeed in reaching your full potential—effectively becoming everything you were meant to be.
The Various Reasons You May Not “Meet and Greet” Challenges
In this section I’d like to emphasize the core reasons that, up till now, you may not have pushed yourself hard enough to get your life to operate the way you’ve always wanted it to—how, unwittingly, you’ve prevented yourself from grasping what all along has been within your reach.
As already noted, the major impediment to making the most of your life is anxiety. And the likelihood is that this anxiety, regardless of how deeply you may feel it, is exaggerated. That is, in the past you may have tried to say or do something, and the results weren’t simply disappointing but profoundly disturbing, maybe even traumatic. In the present, internal alarm bells will go off if, unconsciously, that younger you (perhaps going all the way back to childhood) falsely associates a current challenge as indistinguishable from the earlier situation so harmful to you.
In an earlier piece of mine for Psychology Today entitled “‘Never Again!’ The Psychological Fallout of Trauma” (2017), I emphasized that whenever you perceive something as traumatic, a “never again” survival program kicks in. And that prompts you to see a situation only peripherally resembling your past crisis as threatening to replicate what so troubled you earlier. Such a false identification compels you to do everything in your power to flee from whatever challenge you might be considering. So when, rationally, it may be advantageous to embark on an undertaking but, emotionally, you experience an irresistible yank from within to forfeit such an opportunity, it’s your unrectified past that’s (over-) controlling your present. And that sabotages your opportunity for healthy growth and fulfillment.
So what are some other psychological impediments that might be preventing you from realizing your full potential? Unquestionably, anxiety is most dominant here and links to virtually all the other deterrents. So reflect upon the following (and note, too, that almost all of the impediments described below I enumerated—though in quite a different context—in an earlier post called “Laziness: Fact or Fiction?”, 2008).
You’re tormented by a perfectionism that leads to endless procrastination. In such instances, you fear that what would be helpful or enjoyable to pursue might not yield the ideal outcome you demand of it. It might not be good enough—that is, perfect. So, plagued by nagging reservations and self-doubts, you put it off until the opportunity no longer exists. Sadly, perfectionism can lead to paralysis of the will, fatally compromising your motivation to strive toward the goals that are most meaningful to you.
You lack a sense of self-efficacy—the conviction that you can successfully accomplish almost anything you set your mind to. Without this self-confidence (viewed here as synonymous with self-efficacy), you may not face up to a challenge because you don’t have enough faith that you can succeed at it. Absent this “can do” attitude, you won’t take on anything you’re not already positive you can handle effectively. You’ll refuse to leave your comfort zone for fear the venture you’re contemplating may be beyond your capabilities—and so exacerbate chronic self-doubts.
You’re governed by fears of failure. Overlapping with insufficient self-efficacy, which reduces your impetus to strive for what matters most to you, the overriding fear of failure relates more to your lacking the emotional resources to cope with the possibly negative outcome of your labors. And this fear inhibits your motivation to give the object of your aspirations your best shot. Learning how to “fail successfully” means you can reframe failure as an important step toward later success (i.e., you’ve ruled out something you earlier thought could work), and many people lack this ultimately “winning” perspective. If your self-acceptance is conditional, you may not be able to tackle something the results of which can’t be guaranteed in advance.
You fear the rejection of others. If what’s paramount to you is securing others’ approval, you might not undertake anything you worry could compromise their validation, belief, or acceptance of you, which regrettably you can’t provide for yourself.
You lack sufficient emotional support and haven’t yet developed the self-trusting independence to “go it alone.” If need be, you should be able to fill up your own cheering section. But if you fear being overwhelmed by a challenge unless you’ve got others energetically waving you on, you’ll either abort a venture already started or avoid undertaking it altogether.
You suffer from depression, pessimism, malaise, cynicism, or a general sense of hopelessness and futility. This grab bag of terms suggests you may not be up for a challenge because of everything that’s getting you down—namely, your negative mood, state of mind, or overall attitude. If you feel apathetic, discouraged, or maybe even bitter, then obviously your drive to take on something challenging won’t be strong enough to actually pursue it—let alone succeed at it.
You lack self-discipline. You might actually have confidence in your ability to achieve your heart’s desire but be without the conscientiousness or industriousness to enable your ideas to come to fruition. Your motivation will eventually peter out if you can’t keep it harnessed to the task at hand. If you have a life orientation of play (vs. work), it’s likely that projects you care about will get delayed or be left uncompleted.
What You Need to Cultivate to Become Your Best, Most “Realized” Self
A spike in anxiety can signal you to stop what you’re doing—or even thinking of doing. But it’s essential to resist this de-motivating message, despite the immediate rewards it offers. For if you heed its avoidant call, the distress caused by your anxiety will quickly dissipate, as will your heightened sense of vulnerability. Nonetheless, following the principle of “playing it safe” carries a high price because it will bar you from taking on the challenges that can help to evolve you into the best, most admirable version of yourself.
Much of what I’ll characterize here will augment the points made earlier about breaking through the barriers keeping you stuck in your (counter-productive) comfort zone. But its emphasis will be on building the mindset and skills that can lead to a substantially altered way of appreciating, and responding to, the challenges that face you.
One author zeros in on this developmental task by seeing physical challenges as analogous to mental ones:
Our body . . . is built to adapt and respond to the demands placed upon it. The stronger the demand, the stronger the response. Physical muscles continue to grow and strengthen through the Principle of Progressive Resistance. . . . The principle is based on the theory that our muscles must be challenged to get stronger and grow, and that they will progressively work to overcome a resistance force when required to do so.
Any performance challenge that stretches us, forces us to overcome adversity, tests our limits, character, and commitment . . . inspires us to say bye-bye to our comfort zone. Our finest self won’t materialize without challenge, without our being pushed to our limits. And, much more important than the . . . challenge itself, are the traits and skills we develop when rising to it. (Maja Petrovic, “Psychology of Challenges,” 05/24/2018)
The last sentence here could be seen as a concise explanation of the popular saying, “Nothing succeeds like success.” For to get beyond the self-imposed constraints outlined in the previous sections, you must be willing to conquer your anxiety about entering uncharted territory. You’re not, for example, born with self-confidence: you develop this inner sense of capability through repeatedly venturing outside your comfort zone and thereby expanding your notion of what’s possible for you. This way you’re empirically demonstrating your ability to achieve things you never attempted before. After all, if you refuse to spread your wings, how can you possibly find out whether you can fly?
Certainly there are times when it’s prudent to avoid a challenge. The problem is when you’re unable to tell whether you’re merely making excuses for not acting because you’re frightened of what others might think of you, or how you yourself will feel, if your efforts are unsuccessful. If it’s your fear that’s talking to you, you need to learn how to talk back to it by assessing your situation from a more objective, balanced perspective.
Remember, feeling some initial anxiety before starting a project is normal. But unless you allow it to overwhelm you, you can still proceed by telling yourself that this venture is simply what’s “next up” for you, that it’s a learning opportunity you don’t want to miss. And ultimately, failure is little more than what you perceive it as being—or meaning.
Here are some of the qualities that, once securely in place, will help you grow your capabilities. And over time your actions will not only strengthen these attributes but also begin to transform your self-image, so you’ll finally become your own best friend:
Courage. Be bold. You may not have exited the womb with this personality trait, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cultivate it. It’s all a matter of persuading yourself to take reasonable risks and not back down from challenges that initially might seem intimidating.
Curiosity. Replace your fear of the unknown with a sense of wonder about how you might best go about dealing with what’s unfamiliar or untested. Regard whatever you tackle as an adventure rather than a threat.
Get clear on your priorities. Your efforts won’t get you to the finish line if finally their associated goal doesn’t matter that much to you. At some point, your determination will flounder and give out. So first determine what you really care about, and then pursue it with the vigor that naturally accompanies what feeds your sense of aliveness.
Be guided by your passion. Closely related to the above, let what you love, or are intrigued by, govern your behavior. That’s what will most vitalize your pursuits.
Take initiative. Rising to meet challenges can’t happen so long as you maintain a passive orientation to life. So consider every challenge you face as offering you the possibility of moving forward in realizing your hopes and ambitions—to, as it were, grab life by the horns.
Be persistent. It’s crucial that you not give up on something unless it becomes obvious that, for you at least, it’s simply not viable. Other than that, when you start to stumble, it’s critical that you pick yourself back up. If you persevere, you’ll generally find that you can discover a way of opening the door that’s (temporarily) been stuck shut.
Be flexible—and resilient. It may be that what you originally thought would be effective can’t work. Can you pivot to another, possibly more productive, approach? It’s critical to not get discouraged when what you tried first emerged as untenable.
Be patient. Allow your plans and strategies time to develop. For they may need to “mature” before the means to your coveted end can be more clearly identified. To adapt a well-known proverb: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Foster self-discipline. Once you commit yourself to an undertaking, resolve to see it though, and regardless of setbacks and complications you couldn’t have anticipated. Don’t let yourself get distracted by things that might interest you but are plainly irrelevant to your pursuit. Save your energy for what matters most.
Consult with others, but be prepared to act independently. Attend carefully to what others might have to say about your project and, when appropriate, invite them to coach you. But don’t let them discourage you either, unless they’ve convinced you that you’ve bitten off way more than you can possibly chew. Additionally, consider that they might be dissuading you because you’re attempting something they themselves can’t achieve, so that your succeeding might make them feel bad about themselves.
Trust your intuition. Sometimes you can’t explain exactly why you’re doing something: it’s just that it feels right. So don’t be overly concerned that you may not be able to precisely detail everything required to complete your project. As long as you can think creatively and confidently, odds are that you’ll end up successful in your endeavor.
Accept failures as necessary steps toward eventual success. You may need to rule out any number of things that won’t work in order to discover what will. So don’t be disheartened by intermittent missteps or failings. Again, adopting the right, “can do” attitude may be the key requisite for final success.
Grow your self-confidence. This is tricky, because it’s the doing itself that fosters self-confidence (the ultimate antidote to anxiety and self-doubt). Still, it’s useful to remind yourself of earlier achievements—and even past failures, which you managed to survive—when, because of encountering obstacles you hadn’t prepared for, your motivation begins to falter.
To conclude, nothing in life is more empowering than accepting challenges that over time offer you the opportunity to prove you have the capability and resources to master them. Further, be aware that you can’t ever reach your full potential as long as you’re hiding out in your (fear-mitigating) comfort zone.
So dare to leave that self-defeatist terrain and, however gingerly, enter your newly formulated, anxiety-defeating, courage zone.
© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.