The Unbearable Anxiety of “Reaching Your Potential”

There is just so much we want to do in this “limited time only” life, and while most of us are aware we’ll barely reach the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg(s) we aim to conquer in the 4,000 Mondays we’ve got to work with, we do like to fantasize about Doing and Being It All, don’t we?

There’s a natural give and take to living a life worth living:

  1. We want to experience all that life has to offer (i.e.: suck the marrow out of the bones of life and all, per Henry David Thoreau). This is the taking part.
  2. We want to contribute something in this life (i.e.: Be All You Can Be and all, per the US Army). This is the giving part.

Some of us are more motivated by the give, and some of us are more motivated by the take, and no one’s here to judge you either way.

The thing that causes a giant, coffin-sized existential gasp in most of us, though, is part b above—the idea of not becoming who we’re capable of fully being. Of not “reaching our potential.” (Shall us over-achievers just gasp in tandem at that fear, right now? On three …)

A quick understanding of our desire to be Even Better

Generations of the motivated and inspired have aspired to reach the top of Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization pyramid … becoming everything that one is capable of becoming. Here’s a jolting line from the pyramid man himself (who apparently never organized his thoughts into a pyramid shape, but that’s a story for another day):

“You must want to be first-class … meaning the best, the very best you are capable of becoming. If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.”

Oh Geez. Are you evading your own capacities, too? Evading your own possibilities? Is deep unhappiness emanating from … evaded potential?

Best Possible MoiHumanistic psychologist Carl Rogers’ theories from the 50s still hold true: unless we’re stoned all the time, we have natural desires to realize the best versions of our actualized selves.

There are unlimited versions of who we could become—better versions of ourselves, if you will. Most of us are striving to act like (and eat like) that person, and sometimes we get glimmers of Us at Our Best.

The Us at Our Best version of ourselves has somehow cracked the code. They’ve opened the vessel that houses our vast and enormous potential, and oh! How impressive that payload is!

Many of the clients I work with are acutely aware of their capabilities—they’ve peeked into that treasure chest of possibilities and like what they see—yet they’ve debilitated themselves into paralysis out of good old fashioned fear. Shall we call this phenomenon the Paralysis of Potential?

You and your angsty, untapped potential

The treasure that is known as untapped potential is equally alluring and terrifying. We can be attracted to the notion of what we might create and who we might become and what Success magazine will have to say about us—resting into the quasi-comfort of statements like, “someday I’ll …,” because it positions our potential a safe enough distance away from where we are today. Potential begs to be procrastinated because it comes laced with pressure:

  • “What if on the road to reaching my potential, I can’t reach quite far enough, and I fail?”
  • “What if I risk starting my interior design business and then I lose everything?”
  • “What if I go for the big job and I make a fool of myself?”
  • “What if I get onstage and don’t live up to the hype?”
  • “What if I reach all my goals and I’m still not happy?” (That question demands a stiff drink in hand.)
Potential at

Everything at is this funny.

Even more terrifying than the fears that prevent us from taking action on our dreams (possible rejection, failure, social ridicule, etc.) are the fears we harbor about not taking action on our dreams. What if we don’t get to do the things we long to do … the things we believe we’re capable of doing/ the things we know deep down we’re uniquely qualified to do/ the things we secretly fantasize about doing? What if we don’t have time to become the person we know we’re meant to be? What if we die with a trove of potential locked up inside of us? You’ll notice all this fretting falls into two categories:

  • Category #1: Time (a.k.a.: that dwindling resource)
  • Category #2: Balls (a.k.a.: gumption)

Re: Category #1. The belief that we are running out of time to take a shot at our dreams is stressful, and also totally true. WE ARE ALWAYS RUNNING OUT OF TIME. WE WILL NEVER NOT BE RUNNING OUT OF TIME. Can we choose to let that unfortunate facet of reality be the whip that cracks us into action? Can we banish the phrase, “someday I’ll …” from our vernacular? Maybe replace it with “today I am specifically taking these steps up the pyramid towards self-actualization…”? (Please don’t say that line out loud or you will annoy everyone straight out of your life.)

Re: Category #2. The lack of balls kills more dreams than alarm clocks do every morning around the globe. We wait for confidence to show up and announce itself (blaring a bugle) so we can then get started on the pursuit of potential. But every now and then we smarten up and remember what’s really true: that confidence doesn’t show up until the afterparty, after you’ve done the thing that felt scary/ risky/ nerve-wracking/ butterfly-inducing. Can we stop waiting for confidence and assurance and certainty to issue us permission slips to step forward? Can we summon up the courage to do the thing that matters, and then bask in the glory of confidence that we’ve earned?

Midlife Crisis Exhibit 1Roy Baumeister (social psychologist extraordinaire) wisely notes that unfulfillment of our potential has the potential to lead to mid-life crises, which no one benefits from other than Corvette sales people. There is a cost to not tapping our potential, it would seem. Many of us are paying that price today, with that prickly sensation that can best be described as a regret-in-the-making. We know when we’re letting our potential languish and we know it doesn’t feel fabulous.

Psychologists also warn that our tendency to endlessly ruminate dwell over our unfulfilled goals gets in our way of pursuing further goals in life. So how do we prevent this potential-zapping downward cycle? Accomplish one small thing at a time in the direction of what lights you up—giving the middle finger to the delay tactic of “someday I’ll do it,” and by stabbing your fear in its throat.

What if life called it curtains on you tonight? Would you feel the pang of regret for not taking more risk/ action/ giving two shits about your life/ playing to win/ saying Yes to life? If you are a human, the answer is probably yes, and here is where I put my arms around you in what you will think at first is a hug … but then realize is a (loving) shove in the direction of your dazzling potential.

Now’s a good time for that Marianne Williamson quote, right?

“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? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Your treasure chest full of potentialGo play the piano in front of a crowd and let people in on your talent. Go start your podcast so people can learn and laugh from your ideas and musings. Go stand on that stage and speak/ do improv/ pirouette, so you can delight the people that get to witness what makes your heart sing. Go start that coaching program/ Etsy shop/ PhD/ real estate license class/ whatever it is you long to become, so we can be inspired by your own commitment to self-actualization.

Time is ticking. You have so much in store. Don’t squander it, friend. We need even more of you to show up and shine.

Jodi Wellman

P.S.: You, me, Instagram. Let’s do it.

P.P.S.: Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!

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