Overcoming our Fear of Greatness

Jan 21, 2018

By Shannon Thompson 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

- Marianne Williamson

This winter I marched down the steps of the NAU Skydome, yellow cardboard sign in hand. On the sign I’d written inspiring phrases for the NAU women’s basketball team who would soon begin a game that evening – phrases we’d agreed describe the team at its best. I sat alone, a few rows above the bench. I hoped the team would see me, and I feared that they would. I was embarrassed to hold my sign. Eventually, once noticed, the players were hesitant to look too long, and nervous to smile.

Last summer, a dear, brilliant friend sat across from me. He’d spent the preceding hour describing his struggles, fears, and perceived inadequacies. Grateful for his openness, yet seeking more from this complex soul, I asked him to recall moments when he’d been at his best. Lightly, he explained that nothing came to mind. Never mind.

Notes of admiration unacknowledged, downcast eyes when one’s beauty is spoken, mistrust when I recognize your courage, puzzled silence when you’re asked to recall your best moments; these are responses I encounter daily. The beautiful, brave, best in us … why of these are we so afraid? Why do we doubt them so adamantly? Why are you more comfortable with my pressure than my praise?

This piece arose from my frequent observations of the human suspicion of sincerity, mistrust of hope, and reluctance to accept our full power. So many of us cling to our shortcomings, and choose to shelter within our perceived limitations. This tendency can prevent us from living out the full range of possibility within numerous areas of our lives. Our reasons for behaving this way are examined in countless books and theories (see these on: negativity bias, fear of success, fear of foolishness), so I’m not going to venture there in this article. Instead, I will focus on three easy strategies to gently recognize the beauty in one another, and accept it within ourselves. These are: recognition, trusting, and wielding.


To begin with, I want to address the human resistance to recognizing the good in ourselves with a thought exercise that I hope will help you recognize the best in you. Take a moment and bring to mind a precious person in your life. What about them is beautiful? What unique space do they hold in this world? What would your life be without them? Do they know how rare and irreplaceable they are to you? Does it hurt you to suspect they might not? Does it feel tragic that you know you’re almost certainly unable to genuinely convince them of their value? 

Now turn around. Someone is having these thoughts about you. How would you live if you were to accept the strengths they see in you? Who would you be? What would you give? There are few frustrations more relentless within me than my inability to enable you to feel how beautiful I think you are.

Ambition asks, doesn’t recognition of the good within ourselves put us at risk for complacency? No. Research shows that positive emotion, optimism, and hope raise us to our highest physical and mental capacities. We literally see, hear and think more expansively in the presence of these perspectives. We learn faster from a mental climate of hope, and this climate is contagious – raising those close to us to their best also. Researchers assert that the ability to view oneself as competent is a basic psychological need for optimal human functioning. These findings show that we simply must acknowledge our strengths in order to contribute well to the world around us.


I feel mystery physically. It tingles in my chest, and infiltrates my hands. It’s happening right now as I consider how far across the line to go in this piece. “The line,” you know there is one. The line of difference, of sincerity, of belief in forces larger than us… I’m getting close. I might have crossed it. How much of myself should I share with you? This is a curious fear – of showing you all of me. I’m very careful both in my personal and professional life with respect to which views and stories of mine I share. The more unconventional they are, the more fearful I am of putting them forth. However, when I do leverage the thoughts and methods that feel most “mine,” I frequently suspect I’ve done my best work. There’s something about my client when she leaves – she’s more touched, more connected, more satisfied. 

Ask yourself, what do you think of someone who is bravely open? A person who shares what she loves, and fears, and envisions? What do you think of others who call out the raw anguish of the painful, and the genuineness of the beautiful? How do you see an innovator who takes the path less traveled? We crave truth-tellers. We salute pioneers. And despite how most of us overwhelmingly and secretly admire them, we constantly refuse to be one.

Trusting in the value of our unique qualities is often a choice, an act, not an emotion. It is a decision to walk onto the path where our fear and desire collide, and then offer forth the particular gifts that we find there. This path requires that we suffer the relentless longing of hope, the vulnerability of initiating change (for ourselves and others), and the exposure of being different (and we must dare to be different – we mustn’t fit in). This is a furnace, rife with pain of a different kind – but if there is a price to be paid for the riches of our lives, surely this is the currency. The cue to start walking is uncertainty. Fear is the light that guides the way. You’ve found the path when you feel the tingling in your hands, and hear the question: how much of myself should I share with you?


You’re caught off guard when I affirm that the work you deeply wish to be good, is. Your eyes search mine for a mistake, but there’s already a spirit between us that assures you that there is none.

Wielding. What exactly do I mean? I mean giving bravely and generously to the world, but not in the way that you might be thinking (i.e., charity, volunteering, etc.). I mean in tiny, everyday moments, “as common as flowers, and as singular;” I’m talking about a few words of recognition to a friend, co-worker or stranger that are terrifyingly kind, and which leave us both defenseless. I mean unexpected and unnecessary interactions, when you could easily choose to let the other pass by, smiling quickly, varnishing the wall between you.

I use the example of passing in the hallway because that was precisely my scenario this week. “Shannon,” called a friend, “can I talk with you?” He went on to tell me earnestly about a group of athletes he’d observed that week, and with whom I’d recently conducted a workshop. I’d had fun with this group; lively and quirky they’d seemed to enjoy themselves, but as usual I had no idea regarding the impact of our time. My friend wanted to share the shift in energy that he’d witnessed within them that evening: “There was a change!” he told me; “they were talking about what you did, saying ‘now I’m ready to go!’” He wanted me to know that in that moment my time and efforts had made a difference.

I can remember a handful of interactions in my past where others have taken the time to share genuine, positive observations of me. No doubt you can recall your own. I’ve carried these rare gifts for years, and have secretly drunk from the belief within them when my own has run dry. These fleeting moments of potent power have frequently changed my world, and yet they cost the giver but a moment and a breath. Why don’t we offer more of them?

Sometimes we feel foolish in offering because of the awkward response we often receive from the person we’re speaking to. “Thank you” is a hard phrase to utter, because it means, “I needed that,” which means, “I needed you,” which is a terrifying admission. But you know, beneath the responder’s downcast eyes, denials of his desert of your praise, and eager escape from your exchange, you’ve possibly fanned a flame. Alone, he might sit down, search empty space (within and without), and feel the stirring of tears that might never reach the surface (or they might). Once he recovers from your kindness he’ll meet something or someone with more energy, more joy, more confidence. He’ll recall your words for years to come. And, you’ll probably never know.

The beautiful, brave, best in us, why of these are we so afraid? Why do we doubt them so adamantly? Why are you more comfortable with my pressure than my praise? The answers to these questions are worth exploring with the appropriate experts. In the meantime, try to recognize your beauty as you would that of someone precious to you. Dare to share your unique gifts with the world, and compliment others on theirs. Little by little we can help ourselves and each other illuminate our paths and corners.

Last Monday I hung over the railing of the NAU outdoor stadium. The late summer sun cast playful patterns on the soccer game below. Once again I grasped a yellow sign. Earlier that week I’d tried to express to the NAU soccer team what I just shared with you. One-by-one, each player noticed my sign. They smiled, some waved; we saw each other, no longer afraid.

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Cras sed sapien quam. Sed dapibus est id enim facilisis, at posuere turpis adipiscing. Quisque sit amet dui dui.

Call To Action

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.