Stories / Impact

How to Get Over the Fear Holding You Back From Success

Kandia Johnson

March 14, 2019


Kandia Johnson photo by LisaMarie Photography
Photo: LisaMarie Photography

The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), with founding support by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.

Below, communications strategist Kandia Johnson lays out tactics for dealing with common workplace anxieties, and suggests that a perspective shift can help fear become fuel for greater success.


When I compare my struggles as an employee seven years ago to my challenges as an entrepreneur today, without a doubt, fear is the common denominator. I didn’t share my ideas during meetings because what if I sounded dumb? I didn’t ask for a promotion or raise because what if my boss said no? I often felt guilty about not wanting a traditional life and career path, because I worried about how others were judging me. All of these fears held me back from taking risks to achieve success.
Thankfully, through trials and tough conversations with managers turned mentors, I learned how to deal with my biggest hater—me. Today, as I help women get noticed and conduct leadership development workshops across various industries, I’ve realized women carry more fear than men. But women also possess the skills, experience, and leadership acumen to break barriers.

So why are we still allowing the anticipation of “what if” to keep us stuck?

In my experience, our desire to fit in, coupled with a fear of appearing needy, weak, or incompetent, robs us of our natural abilities to thrive, particularly in male-dominated environments. On top of this, women, especially women of color, often pay a daily emotional tax at work. This emotional tax is an invisible weight; a feeling of constantly being on guard because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity. This daily battle of avoiding and navigating potential issues of exclusion and micro-aggressions not only affects a woman’s health and well-being, but also translates into fears of speaking up or taking risks.

While companies play a part in helping women navigate the emotional burden of achieving success, women can also take the lead by making a routine commitment to work through the fears that are holding them back.  

Here are a few common fears women face, along with mindset shifts and tips to help you conquer them:

Fear of asking for help: I get it, you don’t ask for help because you don’t want to be seen as incompetent. Or maybe you feel like it’s a waste of time since no one can perform the task as well as you can. But here’s the thing—your ability to lead is measured by your willingness to ask for help, to delegate, and to bring out the best in others.

One way to shift your perspective about asking for help is to take the focus off you. When you ask for help, you’re acting in the best interest of accomplishing the goal—essentially, it has nothing to do with you.

Fear of speaking up: author Brené Brown, Ph.D., says trust is built by small moments. When you don’t speak up during meetings, it may unintentionally send the signal that you don’t care, or you’re unprepared. Plus, when it comes to being considered for promotions and special projects, you become invisible to key decision makers. Stumped about how to speak up at work? Preparation is key. Here are a couple pointers:

  • Get clear on the purpose of your question. Ask yourself: what is the problem I am trying to solve?  What type of advice or specific information (e.g., steps, processes, people or materials) do I need to succeed?  
  • Make it a conversation. For example, “Could you explain that? “In my experience, I’ve found or “I’m curious about…can you help me understand…”

Fears of making mistakes or taking on projects where you feel you don’t meet the qualifications: how many times have you talked yourself out of something because you thought you weren’t good enough? Or because you were afraid of making mistakes?

The reality is, fear isn’t your obstacle to success. How you react to the fear is where the problem lies. Rather than seeing fear as a force holding you back, look at it as a guide to the areas where you need to grow. The feedback you receive regarding your mistakes can be the fuel to get you to the next level.

Give yourself permission to learn, get it wrong, and bounce back from making a mistake. You don’t have to meet all of the requirements—everyone has transferrable skills that they can leverage to move their career forward. Focus only on things you can control, and understand that in pursuit of achieving your goal, the outcome doesn't define your self-worth.

Guilt about taking time off or working too much, which leads to a fear of setting boundaries: let’s be real. Women, more than men, struggle with prioritizing work and family. This often comes from a desire to have balance, such as more time with your kids or loved ones. Embrace the fact that your day-to-day schedule may look different than others. It doesn’t mean you’re less of a parent because you outsource routine household activities and can only eat dinner with your family once a week. It’s not about the number of your interactions; it’s about the quality of your connections.

  • Create your own family rules and stop grading yourself based on what’s popular.
  • Manage up: to be clear about your department goals and desired outcomes, ask your manager what concerns they have about taking time off, and then find a way to address those concerns and anticipate their needs with a backup plan.

One of the best “aha moments” of my life happened when I realized fear is a part of the process, and that you always have two options: you can allow it to stop your success or to guide your success. If you decide to let it guide you, trust that you may not always get things right, but just trying is a step to overcoming what previously was holding you back.


Kandia Johnson is the founder of Kandid Conversations, a communications consulting and training company focusing on public relations, leadership development and storytelling for women. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.