The Mother of All Fears

Below the surface of every negatively adaptive behavior there is a fear driving the action.

I took a job earlier in my career that I was incredibly excited to get but about which I was deeply anxious because I didn’t feel qualified. The first couple of weeks on the job, I got my hands into many different pots, trying to be as “helpful” and to “add as much value” as possible to defend against the inevitable discovery of my fraudulence.

By not staying in my lane I started frustrating the very people who just days earlier welcomed me with open arms. Little did they know I would try to run the place! Once I was redirected to my area of influence with a sharp dose of feedback I had the chance to consider what was motivating my behavior.

Below the surface, further down than just my fear of being “found out” was a much more painful feeling of having abandoned my family and a potent fear of the repercussions that would follow. I had worked from home for many years at this point, with all of the benefits of flexible scheduling that provides, and the abrupt change to a traditional 9-to-5 office environment 10 days after the birth of our third child left me reeling.

I assumed, wrongly of course, that I had to prove to my family that my decision was the right one and the only way to do so was to make a big impact as quickly as possible. It was an understandable if unfortunate adaptation to my circumstances and one that has been instructive to my personal awareness and the manner in which many people cope with the unseen force of an unnamed fear.

In the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, the protagonist comes to the aid of the King of the Danes who has been under attack by a monster called Grendel. Once Beowulf slays Grendel he discovers that his work has only just begun as he now must contend with the unnamed creature known as Grendel’s mother. To do so, he goes into the lake to her underwater cave and engages her in a fierce battle which he finally though barely wins.

If I had stopped my reflection about my negative behaviors on the job at the first or “Grendel level” – the fear of being found out – I would have been left with something useful but insufficient. Not until I confronted my primary fear at the “Grendel’s mother” level could I follow the bubbles back to the surface, stand on the shoreline and imagine a new way forward.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.