As a brand identity designer, I help clients who want to be seen and valued as experts in their field to increase their visibility and impact. Unfortunately, many people don’t feel emotionally prepared to receive all the attention, so they keep putting off their marketing activities like social media and website launch, creating a video series, pitching stories to the media, etc.
When you start putting your ideas out there, it’s a matter of time when someone might disagree with you or make fun of you, and that seems scary. In this article I offer tips and techniques to shift your mindset and prepare yourself before you step into the spotlight.
Some people find it easy to put our name and face out there (especially those of us who have been using the social internet since we were teens), but others keep their social profiles locked, and are worried about being so exposed. I totally understand it.
There may be legitimate reasons why you wouldn’t want to be identified. Maybe you ran away from abusive family members, an ex partner, or a stalker. Having a photo of your face blasted on the internet might put you in danger, and I’d never want that for anyone. If that’s your situation, please disregard this article, and any other advice that says you must do it. We don’t know what’s right for you. Someone who had this experience, or who is trained to help people in your situation, is a much better source of information.
Maybe you haven’t had a stalker yet but are worried that you might attract one. Women on the internet bear the largest brunt of unsolicited dick pics, inappropriate messages, invites to “meet to get to know each other” via LinkedIn, and obsessive behavior which crosses into illegal territory. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for LGBTIQ folks or people of color who regularly have to deal with other types of abuse. (I’ve only seen screenshots of it and they’re horrifying.) The internet is a mess.
Before you get out there in the public, take safety precautions to protect your privacy. Request data erasure from any website that posts your home address online, and don’t have your address listed on domain records. (Some registrars like NameCheap offer privacy protection for free.)
It’s not likely that you of all people would be targeted and harassed unless you get involved in a public dialogue on a sensitive topic. You may occasionally get some flirty messages, but you can rebuff them with “Not interested, I’m here for business”, and they’ll go away. If they don’t, block them. The block function is your friend—use it very liberally.
If you do want to get involved in public dialogue on sensitive topics, you’d be better advised by activists who know what it’s like to be a target of harassment, and have the tools and resources to deal with it.
On to the actual topic.
The possibility of being criticized or ridiculed in a public forum is scary. For some, it may be enough to completely silence us. I think that’s too big of a price to pay, and that if we have something valuable to share to the world, the risk is worth it.
People say outrageous things online all the time. It’s very unlikely that something you say or write will cause a reaction you won’t be able to recover from.
Elizabeth Gilbert shared in a podcast episode with Brene Brown something that her therapist had said to her:
“The thing you’re the most afraid of has already happened.”
Many of us have emotional wounds from our childhood when someone criticized, ridiculed, or rejected our ideas or our creations. Some people end up shutting down completely and never offering up their contributions again. Others find a way to heal and learn that not all criticism, ridicule, and rejection means failure.
Exposing your ideas on a larger scale will trigger all of those wounds, and you will feel a very real fear of it happening again. But the worst is already behind you.
No one else can hurt you as much as they’ve hurt the young you, because you’re stronger, smarter, and more resilient than ever before.
You have the resources and support you didn’t have as a kid. Keep this in mind as those old fears arise.
I know this process very intimately, and I will share the methods that helped me in growing more comfortable with visibility. Some of them come from people much wiser and more experienced than I am. I’m thankful to have found those resources when I needed them.
(If the following text sounds familiar to you, it’s because I previously published it in the second chapter of my book “The Human Centered Brand”.)
10 steps to getting over your visibility blocks
There will be moments when thoughts like this appear in your mind as you’re preparing to show up in front of an audience:
- This is stupid.
- Who cares?
- This is embarrassing.
- I couldn’t possibly say this publicly.
- My team members would laugh at this.
- My current clients would dump me if they saw this.
- [Famous influencer] will think I’m copying them.
- My peers will think I’m a hack.
- This would never work.
- This might work for someone else, but I don’t have what it takes.
It’s very rare that a truly new idea will show up for you without any pushback from the basement crew of inner critics, who are working non-stop on undermining your optimism.
What do you do when these voices show up? Here are some tips from my wealthy experience of dealing with bouts of inspiration and enthusiasm, immediately followed by crippling self-doubt and anxiety.
This is intended as a list of steps you can do in order to get the greatest benefit, but you can skip those that don’t resonate with you at all, or replace them with another practice that suits you better.
1. Acknowledge that things are going according to plan
You’re not the only person who has these doubts. Even the most brilliant, successful people doubt themselves and their ideas. You’re not broken, and you’re not beyond help. The fact that these fears are rearing their ugly head is proof you’re changing something. That’s a good sign.
Give your discomfort and fear some space and simply be with it.
Too often we try to suppress our emotions with unhealthy habits like workaholism, substance abuse (including sugar), getting lost in excessive reading, video games, or social media.
Suppressing emotions doesn’t make them go away, they just remain unresolved. By releasing our emotions in a safe way, they get weaker, and no longer hold us in a grip. This may look like crying in the privacy of your room, punching a pillow, walking it off, or whatever method you like that doesn’t damage other people or anyone’s property.
You don’t have to do anything to your emotions. They’re not bad or wrong, and willing them to go away won’t work. It’s OK to feel however you feel. This temporary hiccup is not indicative of what your life is really like. It doesn’t mean anything about you or your ability to succeed. We all have bad days, and that’s all this is.
The biggest lie our insecurities try to sell us is that this is permanent. It’s not. Try to remember a time in your life when you felt similar as you do right now. What happened after that? Did you manage to get your inspiration and drive back? If you have proof that this has happened once before, it can happen again—no, it will most definitely happen again because that is how life works.
2. Write down your fears
Writing has many benefits. First, it places a thought outside of you, so you can examine it more objectively. Second, the fact that you have it written down means you don’t have to keep it top of mind, and you can say to yourself: “See, it’s written down, I’m well aware of it. No need to think about it anymore.”
Another benefit is you can refute your negative thoughts in writing using proof—for example, the kind words your clients, friends or total strangers have said about your work. When the same thought comes up again, look up the proof you’ve gathered, and that alone will diffuse a lot of that pressure. Many psychological studies have found the benefits of expressive writing both in the cases of severe traumatic experiences, or everyday issues. A study that focused on engineers who have recently lost their jobs found the following:
“In an experiment with 63 recently unemployed professionals, those assigned to write about the thoughts and emotions surrounding their job loss were reemployed more quickly than those who wrote about non-traumatic topics or who did not write at all. Expressive writing appeared to influence individuals’ attitudes about their old jobs and about finding new employment rather than their motivation to seek employment.”Expressive Writing and Coping with Job Loss
Stefanie P. Spera, Eric D. Buhrfeind and James W. Pennebaker
Simple as it may seem, writing is a very powerful tool. You don’t have to save what you write. Shredding or burning it is fine!
3. Question the source
Our inner monologue originated from somewhere. Often it’s a disappointing childhood experience, like other kids ridiculing us when we did something ’weird’, or our parents chastising or even punishing us for a mistake we’ve made. Some of our negative conditioning comes from education or the corporate world.
Very rarely do your critical thoughts come from true wisdom and foresight. More often than not, it’s just a reflex that we’ve developed way back when, in a situation when we couldn’t stand up for ourselves.
Writer Havi Brooks has a saying “Now is not then.” The painful memories are just that, memories. Those bullies that laughed at you because you wore mismatched socks to gym class are not relevant predictors of the success of your business. You are currently smarter and more well-informed than any of the naysayers were when they said those hurtful things.
4. What’s the worst thing that can happen?
Counter to the “think positive” advice, I encourage you to examine your greatest fears in detail. I’ve found that knowing what you fear specifically helps you with preparing contingency plans in the event that things really do go wrong. You might also find that your fears are unfounded. I recommend picking up your journal again, and answering the following questions:
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
- What would this mean about me?
- Why would that be so bad?
Continue with the question “Why would that be so bad?” until you can’t find an answer anymore. The final statement you arrive at is likely your core fear.
For each of those statements, and especially the last one, repeat the third step of this process: question the source. Your core fears may have originated from real events in your past, but your future doesn’t depend on them. You can move past them.
Examining your fears is not the same as inviting them. They are already here, whether you want them to be or not. Repressing and ignoring your fears isn’t the same as overcoming them. The power lies in conscious acceptance of your fearful side, and deciding that you’re not going to allow it to limit you. Visualizing your fearful aspect as a child-version of yourself may help you see your fears with compassion, and find the courage you need to take responsibility for your adult life. What the afraid child-you needs is acceptance and reassurance, not neglect and judgment.
If that will make you feel safer, make a contingency plan.
What will you do if the worst thing happens? Think about it and try to come up with ideas or a rough action plan for any of the (unlikely) negative scenarios. Having this in writing will make you feel more equipped and ready to face whatever may come.
5. Face your buried emotions
When you scratch beneath the surface of an issue, this may open up a huge can of worms you didn’t expect. The previous step may have revealed some nasty lifelong fears that have kept you paralyzed whenever you wanted to reach for the next level of your business growth.
In my experience, these uncovered emotions can come on even stronger than those initial nagging annoyances from the first step. For this reason, I advise that you do this exploratory work in the privacy of your own home or office when you’re not going to be disturbed by anyone, so you can be fully present with whatever comes up. It’s difficult to explain this work to colleagues and family members, especially when you’re upset.
People in our culture have been trained to suppress overwhelming emotions, and to see them as a weakness that should be eradicated. But many psychologists suggest methods to discharge repressed emotions and truly integrate them, instead of just burying them.
The simplest method for integrating an emotion is to stay present with it without trying to change anything about it, and breathe deeply.
While this method seems deceptively simple, it’s the exact opposite of what we reflexively do: we typically switch to shallow, constricted breathing and try to take our mind away from our emotion, sometimes by engaging in an imaginary monologue.
Try to pause any thoughts and focus on the felt emotional experience without judging it or making it mean something. Whenever your mind wanders, focus on your breath and get back to feeling the emotion until the feeling dissipates. This process may take a few seconds, or a few minutes.
The benefits of deep breathing have been documented in literature, and a 2017 study illustrated:
“the potential for diaphragmatic breathing practice to improve cognitive performance and reduce negative subjective and physiological consequences of stress in healthy adults.”The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults
Xiao Ma et al.
Just changing your breathing pattern can trigger physiological processes in your body that lead to a calmer and more focused state.
There are also advanced methods for dealing with strong emotions. Here are some resources I’ve found helpful which may be suitable for beginners:
If you don’t like this approach and don’t want to even give it a try, that’s fine—I won’t try to change your mind.
In any case, I credit these emotional healing tools for my ability to do the stressful work of putting myself out there in the public eye, despite being a sensitive person. I treat my sensitivity as a gift and not a flaw to be fixed. These tools enable me to enjoy all the benefits of open-hearted vulnerability, while being able to quickly get back on my feet when things don’t go the way I planned.
If any of this becomes too much to bear or opens up difficult trauma, ask for support.
There’s the option of in-person psychotherapy, online therapy sessions, as well as phone, text, or chat mental health support. Research what’s available in your area. There are many pro bono services, too.
If you can’t find a therapist you can afford, reach out to a friend you trust and tell them you need someone to hold space for your difficult emotions and be with you as you’re grappling with them, or to take your mind away from them if you feel that’s what you need. Friends can often start troubleshooting right away because they want you to feel better, so stating what you need from them helps them give that to you.
6. Give yourself a break
Be gentle with yourself. You don’t need to resolve all your emotional blocks at once. Taking a break isn’t the same as giving up.
Switch to a pleasurable activity and get some distance from the problem you’re facing. Often in those moments that look like you’re not doing anything useful, a flash of realization will appear seemingly out of nowhere. Your subconscious mind is working even when you’re not. Once you give it a task, like figuring out why you always freeze when you need to introduce yourself to someone at an event, it will dig up the information and the insight you need when you’re ready to access it.
We cannot be “on” 100% of the time. Our bodies, minds, and our businesses need periods of rest to be able to function optimally. Give yourself more time to rest than you think you need. Resist the initial itch to go back to your problem, and wait a bit longer before you indulge it.
7. Access your inspiration
The one thing that is always stronger than your fears is your devotion to your work. There are reasons why you love the things you do. There are reasons why you want your business to be more successful. Maybe you want to work on more fulfilling projects. Maybe you have a passion project that requires time and funding. Maybe you really want to travel with your partner. Whatever this thing that infuses you with energy is, bring it into focus and stay with this vision for a while. Fill up on this vision until you feel like you’re bursting with energy, and can’t wait to get to work on bringing it to life.
Do not do this step first.
Go through at least one or two (ideally, all) of the previous steps first, because often when we’re in a bad mood, our inspiration is gone and the vision appears lifeless and deflated. You can’t jump straight from feeling bad about yourself to feeling excited—the change is gradual. Still, it can happen in a very short time.
8. Check in with your community
If you’ve been spinning in circles for a while, it’s healing and validating to hear another person say: “You’re not crazy. This is great stuff.”
Every business owner and creator needs a few friends or mastermind buddies to confide in. If you can’t find them in your neighborhood, search for them online. Which community you choose depends on what kind of people and topics you’re attracted to. There are communities for ambitious go-getters, startup owners, artists, writers, wellness professionals, spiritual people, social justice activists, women, people of color, and many other niches. Some are free, and some have low-cost membership. Ask around and you will certainly find a group to your liking.
Intimate communities provide a safe space to test your ideas without risking public humiliation.
It’s like an incubator where your ideas meet the world for the first time, in a way that allows you to gather feedback and evolve them before fully committing. You can ask people to comment on your biography, tagline, sales page, article, video, book cover, or any other creation.
You don’t have to implement all the changes people suggest if you don’t agree with them, but this will give you a preview of what kind of comments you can expect once you launch your thing to the public.
Remind yourself of the positive comments you’ve received.
The human mind is subject to a strong negativity bias, which means that negative events impact us more strongly than positive ones. If you receive 9 kind comments and just one critical one, you’ll probably be bothered by the critical one and hardly be able to appreciate the many nice ones. To offset this imbalance, pay more attention to the positive things people have said to you and do it frequently.
Years ago I read a blog post by a career coach Michelle Ward on creating your own Win Book: a record of all the compliments given to you by your clients and your audience. To make your own win book, collect all the kind messages, comments, and testimonials into a single place where you can look through them when you need a confidence boost.
I’ve started mine immediately after reading that post as a Google Drive document, and I still keep adding to it. If you have a self-care first aid kit, this is an excellent item to add to it.
9. Empathize with your clients
We often believe that other people expect us to be a certain way, for example to wear a certain style of clothing to meetings, or to be very impersonal on a business website. But do they really? Is it something potential clients consciously think about at all, or is it just what we’ve been used to because few people step outside of the mold?
What about you—do you expect people to be a certain way, or would you gladly work with a tattooed website developer wearing a Mastodon T-shirt, or an online advertising specialist who posted a photo with her four dogs on her about page? You might find that you’re more tolerant of other people’s display of humanity than of your own. When they do it, it feels refreshing. When you do it, you fear it looks dumb.
Think about a person who comes to your website in search of someone to understand them and give them exactly what they need. They might be bored, nervous, or even frustrated if they’ve been looking for a while, and didn’t find anything useful. They stumble onto your website, and suddenly you and your team appear like really nice, approachable folks they can talk to. They chuckle at a nerdy pun in your blog post, and they notice that cheeky P.S. at the bottom of the footer. Would they mind that you don’t wear a sharp suit, prefer dogs over cats, or watch Star Trek? Would it really be a deal breaker for them not to work with you?
The things you might worry about may be totally irrelevant for your clients at worst, or at best, be the very thing they love about you. We are desperate to find an honest, true relationship these days when everything is transactional. Authenticity is refreshing.
10. Collect data and testimonials to prove your results
If you’ve been working with clients for a while, you must have some results that prove that your methods are effective, and that you know what you’re talking about. If you don’t have any data yet, ask your clients about the results they’ve had. They may be willing to share it publicly, or confidentially with you. In that case you won’t be able to divulge this information to other people, but it’s still valuable to you.
If you are allowed to share the results with others, you can write compelling case studies that explain a bit about your methodology, and how your clients have benefited from it. You can compare the typical results your clients get with industry averages.
These case studies serve several purposes. They make you look more impressive to potential clients, and they also prove that you deserve to have a platform. It will raise your confidence in your skills, knowledge, experience, and your creative process.
When you know for sure that what you do really works, the fear that you’ll be “exposed as a fraud” will decrease.
This won’t remove the entire emotional burden (that’s what the previous steps are for), but at least your rational mind will be on board. It’s also reassuring to have results you can cite when someone questions the effectiveness of your methodology in public (like comments on your articles or social media posts, or audience questions during a talk).
Take small steps to build your confidence
It took me years to develop the confidence in my own self-expression and my ideas. Hearing encouraging feedback from friends, colleagues, clients, and readers is what made this possible. It wasn’t just one instance, either—I’ve had to get compliments and ’thank you’ emails repeatedly to start believing that people actually mean it, and it’s not a fluke. A community that believes in you can help you grow your confidence faster.
Sending the first newsletter is always a challenge. Pressing the ‘Publish’ button on an article where you mention your chronic illness for the first time can be nerve-wracking. Declining a client that isn’t the right fit for the first time can cause a meltdown.
But the second time gets easier. The third time gets even easier. By the tenth time, you’ve grown your tolerance so much, you can take an even bigger risk. You don’t have to jump out of your comfort zone—expand it gradually instead.
Learn how to create a genuine, professional brand and step into the spotlight
My book The Human Centered Brand teaches you how to express the inner beauty of your business to the world through clear words and appealing visuals. Create your magnetic brand and promote your business with clarity, ease and authenticity: download the free chapter and bonus resources.