How to overcome the tendency to back away from challenges.

Share story

Q: I have received several challenging opportunities, both at work and in my personal life, and always find myself backing away at the last minute. I end up feeling frustrated with myself, as though I’m not stepping up to my potential. How can I break this pattern?

A: Channel the regret you feel for past opportunities to help move you forward.

This requires a lot of self-reflection, so give yourself some time and space to do this. After all, if there were an easy answer, you wouldn’t be in this situation. At the same time, don’t try to figure it all out at once. For major life work like this, continued reflection is essential to establishing new behavior.

Treating this as a new project you’re launching, set up a “kickoff” meeting with yourself. Plan for at least an hour and select a location where you’ll be comfortable and able to focus. Then set an intention that this will be a challenging but enjoyable time.

Here’s your agenda — to establish your vision for the future, identify barriers to getting there, and plan your next steps.

Start with your vision. Let yourself slip into a daydream, taking some deep breaths and letting go of the present moment. Envision yourself as the person who rises to the challenges you’ve been offered. Hear the words you’d use and the actions you’d take, and then notice how you feel. It may be hard to do this. If self-doubt creeps in, step back and try again. The ability to envision success will serve you well (athletes know this), so it’s worth practicing.

Now on to barriers. What could keep you from living your vision? Underlying fears may be responsible; the key is knowing what you, personally, are afraid of. It may be fear of humiliation or failure; conversely, it could be fear of success and the responsibility that it entails. At some level you may feel like you don’t deserve recognition or may simply lack the skills and not know how to get started.

You need to be clear about this; vague awareness of your personal risks to success will not help you move forward. It may be uncomfortable, as it may require some reflection on past decisions you’ve made. Plan to be kind to yourself, not considering the past to be “failures;” treat the opportunities that have gone by as learning opportunities to prep yourself.

Finally, your action steps. When your next opportunity is at hand, how will you approach it? Use insights from your visioning work to plan conversations you’ll have and steps you’ll take.

Coming out of your kickoff meeting, schedule check-in meetings with yourself. Even if it’s for 15 minutes a week, notice how you’re doing, even with small challenges, and refresh your connection with your personal vision.

In practice, you may find that your past experience is pushing you backward. When you are offered new challenges, avoid snap decisions, which could hold you down. Instead, ask to “sleep on it,” and reflect on how stepping up could move you toward the self you envision.

Submit questions to Liz Reyer at