In literature on changing careers or starting a business, one theme you’ll often hear is that the key product you’re selling is yourself, and that you need to fully believe in yourself if you want others to be interested in what you have to offer. If you’re not confident in your ability to run a business or market your services, the usual advice goes, stick with your current 9-to-5 job for now. Take more courses, read more books, get more on-the-job training, and generally get more experience to build up the confidence to strike out on your own.
On the surface, this seems like sound advice. However, it overlooks a problem I’ve often seen people confront when they’re starting, or hoping to start, a business or make a career change. Some people can earn prestigious degrees in subjects related to their business, and spend years getting experience relevant to their field, but still feel like they can’t promote their products or services to others. They have the nagging sense that, if they “put themselves out there,” they’d be arrogant, they’d bother people, they wouldn’t do it well enough, people would attack or ridicule them, and so on. For people with a deep-seated fear of promoting themselves, gathering more skills and experience isn’t necessarily going to help.
For instance, I know a number of professionals in “high-powered fields” like law, banking and medicine who, despite how successful society and their colleagues consider them, are still deathly afraid of marketing themselves. They can do the day-to-day work of their professions superbly well, but the idea of going out and finding clients and customers just doesn’t sit well with them. In fact, some people have admitted to me that one reason they entered their professions was to have a secure, lucrative job without the anxiety of having to sell their services.
If you experience this type of fear around “selling yourself,” an important first step in removing that stumbling block is to carefully observe the thoughts and sensations that come up when the anxiety gets in your way. When you fully understand how this anxiety feels and how it limits you, you experience a separation from the anxiety, and a sense of choice in how you respond to the world. You become able to spot the feeling when it’s coming up, and decide to act in spite of it. As psychologist Phil Nuernberger says in Strong And Fearless: The Quest For Personal Power, “[a]s we become more skilled in our ability to be an observer, we become more aware of the patterns and movements of the mind and we have a greater opportunity to choose the patterns and behaviors we want.”
I’ll recommend an exercise you can do to develop this sort of awareness. Start by finding a comfortable place where you can sit alone and undistracted. Allow any thoughts and feelings that come up to simply occur, without judging them, pushing them away, or turning to some activity to take your mind off them.
Now, ask yourself: what thoughts arise when you consider doing something to market yourself or your products? For instance, does asking someone to pay you for your goods or services feel sleazy or deceptive? Would it feel like you were boasting about, or drawing too much attention to, yourself? Does self-promotion feel like a mundane activity that it’s beneath someone of your qualifications to do? Do you need to accomplish or learn more to “deserve” to promote yourself?
Next, notice the sensations that come up when you think about “selling yourself.” You probably know already that you experience fear or anxiety, but what sensations tell you that you’re having those emotions? For example, is there tension or pain in some part of your body? Where is it? Does your breathing become constricted? Do you feel warmer or colder anywhere? Does your mouth become dry? Do you start to sweat?
Once you’ve fully experienced the thoughts and feelings that come up for you around self-promotion, allow those thoughts and feelings to gently pass away. Let them subside into the space, the emptiness, from which they came. Just as each breath of air into your lungs is followed by an exhale, so too do fear and other emotions enter and flow out of you. Observe that, even though the sensations of the anxiety are gone, you are still there. Allowing yourself to experience the anxiety didn’t destroy or change what you are. You are still a whole and complete being.
This exercise helps you experience firsthand that sense of separation from your fears I talked about earlier. Often, we make all kinds of efforts to avoid experiencing fear, as if just feeling it could actually hurt or destroy us. We hold ourselves back from taking risks, lose ourselves in unfulfilling “busywork,” or numb ourselves with drugs and alcohol to avoid feeling our fear. As with the professionals I described who chose their careers to avoid the need for self-promotion, many of us design our lives around making sure we don’t have to experience certain emotions.
However, when we allow our fear to run its course inside us, and notice we remain unharmed after it’s gone, we feel empowered to act in spite of it when it comes up. As psychologist Barbara Miller Fishman writes in Emotional Healing Through Mindfulness Meditation, “[t]he meditative tool for probing experience allows us to watch how thoughts arise and then fade, how powerful emotions such as anger and fear emerge and then subside. In this way we learn about the impermanence of experience.”
If you aren’t feeling fully confident in your ability to market your products and services, don’t be too quick to assume you need more education and skills to overcome your anxiety. Acquiring more knowledge has its place, but transcending your fear isn’t usually something you can do on a purely intellectual level. You may feel blocked because, until now, you’ve been unwilling to have the full, intense, visceral experience of being afraid. Take a few moments to simply allow your fear to arise and pass away, and notice how much peace and focus this exercise can give you.