Fear of Flying: When Self-Doubt Paralyzes You into Inaction and Keeps You from Pursuing Your Dreams

by Dr. Reisha Moxley

So you have the drive and determination that it takes to make big things happen in your life. You’ve created an action plan and taken those initial steps towards reaching your goals. You’ve packaged your genius, moved beyond a one-person show and made yourself a priority.

And then, almost suddenly, doors begin to fly open and opportunities to reach the next level are coming at you faster than you ever could have imagined.  

But, instead of reacting with enthusiasm and being energized by your plan coming together, you begin to doubt yourself. This doubt, left unchecked, often leads to dread. Over time, you notice that your task list gets longer and longer. You avoid making those calls, taking those meetings and planning your next move.  

Your initial drive and determination transforms into resistance and stagnancy.  

Your forward momentum comes to a screeching halt and you find your action plan in a state of inertia.

Perhaps you never really considered what would happen when your dreams actually materialized.  

Maybe, in the midst of dreaming, planning and working you never considered what it would mean to wake up in a reality that far exceeded your initial imaginings.

If this sounds familiar, perhaps you have a fear of flying.

Excess baggage can cause flight delays

As a mental health clinician, I often encounter folks who have reached a stalemate in both their personal and professional development. At this point, my clients cannot take flight as they are weighed down by unnecessary baggage.

In these cases, one of the first things I do is assess my clients’ readiness for the goals they have established towards success. Often times, my clients find that their ultimate goal is not as clearly defined as they once thought, that the opportunities being presented to them feel overwhelming and beyond their current competence, or that they are so used to providing support for other people's dreams that they feel uncomfortable pursuing their own.

I also find that many of my clients who are high achieving, female, gender nonconforming, queer and/or people of color have unique difficulties in predominantly straight White male dominated spaces.

Individuals who represent the minority in their respective fields consistently internalize their failures while externalizing successes.

Folks in this cycle are convinced that their success is due to chance, luck or nepotism and not hard work, tenacity and skill. Internalization of failures can be exacerbated by the memory of previous failures, the influence of negative people or thoughts, unnecessary guilt or shame, comparison to others or anger over the seeming success of peers.

I often find that these individuals react in ways that are directly opposed to their stated goals. In this way, they not only become stagnant, but they begin to actively sabotage their progress.

Clearing the runway for take-off

If what I am describing resonates with you, it is not too late to move from standby to active flight status.

One of the first steps is to explore underlying issues that may have prevented progression in the past. Consulting with a mental health professional about these matters is a wonderful way to excavate core issues that are preventing your progression.

A therapist can also accurately assess your readiness for change, provide you with uniquely tailored techniques for optimal interpersonal effectiveness and offer methods you can use to incorporate mindfulness in your future planning and execution strategies.

In addition to exploring your resistance, you can employ these supplementary strategies to remove obstacles from your path.

1. Research successful people that share your most salient identities (e.g. gender identity, racial or ethnic background, socioeconomic history or level of education)to give yourself motivation and ideas regarding ways to push past apathy.  

2. Document your previous trials and triumphs. This is another way to challenge periods of inertia. Keeping a journal of your thought processes during tough times can serve as a flight plan as you look to regain altitude. As you reflect, take notice of any patterns or triggers that typically cause doubt. Mindfully engage methods to disrupt these patterns. Also consider whether there are spiritual or self-care practices that you may be neglecting. You may find that your inactivity is due to fatigue as you have missed opportunities to decompress and recharge.

3. Make note of each of your successes, no matter how big or small. Writing down each of your milestones can provide reassurance for you in the future. This fresh positive perspective in your abilities can build your stamina and quell fears that you cannot sustain the energy required to move towards your goals.

choose co-pilots and passengers carefully

Although a clear path to victory appears to be ideal, do not underestimate what is to be learned through adversity. One secret to success is learning to anticipate points of turbulence as you reach higher altitudes.

Many of my clients and colleagues often admit that fear of public failure and subsequent gossip and harsh judgment keeps them from ascension. At times, this fear can prevent upward mobility altogether, grounding many flights for life. Do not let fear of what others will say keep you on the ground.

Haters, naysayers and ne’er-do-wells may be disguised as friends, lovers or business partners. If you find that you are often left feeling depleted, uninspired or discouraged after interacting with an influential member of your team, it may be time to reevaluate the usefulness of that relationship. Be sure to surround yourself with people who offer both constructive critiques and encouragement.

If the negative people preventing take off or causing turbulence are not a part of your inner circle and can hide behind anonymous social media accounts, make strides to avoid prolonged or unnecessary engagement with these folks. Whether they are in your virtual or physical world, be sure to block and delete with reckless abandon.

You are now free to move about the cabin

As you ascend to higher heights, know that diversions and redirects can be a natural part of successful journeys. As each obstacle is presented, it is possible to reframe layovers as opportunities for self-reflection. Perhaps inertia is an indication that your goals need to be updated or clarified. Or maybe it is time for some rest and relaxation before you implement the next phase of your strategic plan. Either way, strive to use slow or stalled progress as a refueling opportunity and not a signal that your itinerary is complete. Wheels up!

About the Author | Dr. Reisha E. Moxley is a Staff Psychologist at the Johns Hopkins University Counseling Center in Baltimore, MD. She is also a PYGA mentor.  Dr. Moxley can be reached via email at reisha.moxley@gmail.com.