There's a four letter F word that's not offensive to your sensibilities. It won't send your moral compass spinning like a top. But this F word is far more insidious because, unbeknownst to you, it could be the motivation behind a shockingly high percentage of the life choices you make. The F word I'm talking about is fear.

A psychology professor of mine used to say that 80 percent of decisions are based on fear rather than desire. Wait a minute! What? If he was even close, think about what that could mean for your life. What if you married not Mr. Right but Mr. Right Now because you heard your biological clock ticking and thought, "Hey, a bird in the hand..."? Or what if you spend the next decade in some boring, dead-end job because you're afraid nobody else will hire you to do something you love? Do you continue to live with someone who mistreats you because you're afraid to be on your own? Do you make safe choices even if they're not what you really want because you fear you can't do better?

You may be thinking, "No way, Dr. Phil, not me!" But it's possible you've been selling out for so long, you don't even notice it anymore. I get so many letters from readers who feel stuck or are living without the sizzle they long for. Too often we settle for what we don't want instead of reaching for what we do. Why? It's an epidemic that I call fear paralysis.

You can't play the game of life with sweaty palms, so it's time to do a brutally honest "decision audit" to find out what's driving your choices. List the top seven decisions you've made in your life, and think back to how you made them. Ask yourself truthfully if you were driven by an aspiration or if fear ran the show. Were you moving toward something you wanted or away from an alternative that scared you? Were you afraid that if you reached for your true desires, you'd end up falling short? Trying and failing means the world has rejected you and your efforts, and rejection is our number one fear. But living—really living—is about taking chances, so what a shame if you never conquered your fears.

By the way, I am not advocating a reckless risk-to-reward ratio. In fact, feeling fear can be a good thing at times. There's a reason warning bells go off to alert us to impending danger—whether it's in a relationship that's going south or in a dark alley—so we've got to trust our gut feelings. What I am saying, however, is that if you are punking out on your dreams, you need to start believing in yourself enough to go for it instead of settling into your comfort zone.

So how do you conquer fear paralysis? Start by not blowing the stakes of your decision out of proportion. Your self-worth is not a matter of wins versus losses. It's an inherent, God-given quality, so don't catastrophize the consequences of your decisions.

Next, I want you to play the "what if" game, but you need to play it all the way to the end. If you're going to ask the question, then you've got to answer it with a realistic worst-case scenario. What if you quit your job and the next gig didn't work out? Is it an outcome you'd be able to handle? Could you recover?

Think about it: They can kill you, but they can't eat you! You'd likely start over again and be much wiser. If you'd be gambling your rent money or your children's lunch money, then maybe the risk isn't worth it. But if that's not the case, I'm betting that the downside isn't as bad as you think—and the upside could be life-changing. You'll never get ahead by playing it safe.

Dr. Phillip C. McGraw's daily talk show is in its 12th season. He has written seven best-selling books; his latest is Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World (Bird Street).

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