Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.
We all need to ask ourselves whether we want to live in the direction of our fears or in the direction of our dreams.
When I’m not making progress in the direction that I think I want to go, I ask myself, is it because I really don’t wish to travel the path in question or is it that I’m blocked and paralyzed by some fear? If fear gets the nod, then I select and practice a fear reducing technique that allows me to move forward. Whenever you are procrastinating or wallowing in indecision you are probably being held hostage by fear.
The kind of fear I’m referring to isn’t fear brought about by danger or life threatening situations. I’m talking about the fears that keep us from taking sensible risks, from pursuing our goals and dreams, from getting what we want out of life. Fears that don’t allow us to just plain be happy.
Fear can permeate every nook and cranny of our existence. I have learned through teaching my DARE TO DATE course that the biggest obstacle and hurdle to dating is the fear of rejection. This is the fear that prevents people from initiating social contact, making small talk, asking for a first date or even sending the signals that its OK for the other person to ask for a date.
By re-educating the mind, you can learn to accept fear as simply a fact of life rather than as a barrier to success. The difference between those who get on with their lives and those that remain stuck is their understanding and attitude towards fear. People who are growing and realizing their potential have learned how to coexist with their fear. They do not allow fear to dominate their lives and create crippling paralysis. Madam Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” Learning how to co-exist with your fear allows you to take action. Whenever you take action, the fear diminishes. When fear begins to diminish, you will see the world as a less threatening and more joyful place. Unmanaged and misunderstood fears keep us on the sidelines of life rather than allowing us to go in there, mix it up and participate fully. Fear can diminish your life in so many ways:
- Fear keeps you from asserting yourself and naming your desires. It persuades you to set easier goals and gives you permission to do less than you are capable. Fear convinces you to settle for less instead of going for more.
- Fear reduces creativity, preventing you from acting on or even considering all the options and choices available to you in life.
- Fear of failing causes indecisiveness and confusion and prevents you from taking reasonable and necessary risks that are needed to grow and enjoy life.
- Fear of appearing vulnerable keeps you from asking for help or benefiting from support and helping hands offered by others.
- Fear is the ultimate God we appease by developing dysfunctional habits that keep us from having to confront the new and to seriously consider the possibility of real change. Fear triggers all the defense systems that you have carefully nurtured and built up over the years.
- Fear keeps you on a path filled with deep dissatisfying ruts that force you to go in a joyless direction.
- Fear makes us quitters and doesn’t allow us to give life our best shot.
- Fear makes you give up just one step short of your goal, instead of going that final mile or climbing that last hill.
Our fears know no boundaries. We fear the inevitable: aging, children leaving home (some might consider this a blessing rather than a fear), illness, accidents, loss and dying. Woody Allen says he doesn’t fear death; he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens. We fear the possibilities of catastrophes: nuclear wars, rape, floods and fire. We fear being decisive and taking action: going back school, changing careers, retiring, making new friends, relocating, divorcing or ending a relationship. We fear things that attack our ego: rejection, failure, disapproval, and loss of image or looking foolish. Fear of failure is the single greatest obstacle to success. It prevents you from taking that first step that places you in uncharted territory, that slippery feeling turf that’s outside your comfort zone. It is fear that cripples us and doesn’t allow us to fulfill our potential.
A book could be written listing the millions of things that create and trigger fear. The insight that you need to grasp is that the myriad fears that our minds can conjure up all have a common denominator. All fears can be reduced to one simple premise: you feel that you can’t handle the outcome of a particular experience or situation. You sometimes feel overwhelmed and fear that you can’t handle whatever life is presenting you. The truth is that you can and you do. Excessive fear means that you are not trusting your coping abilities and aren’t feeling very good about yourself.
We always underestimate our coping abilities. Ask yourself these questions: have you ever had a financial problem? (Probably yes) Have you ever had a relationship problem? (Probably yes) Finally, have you ever had a health problem? (Probably yes). We have all had these problems. A large percentage of us have been divorced; many of us have lost jobs for a variety of reasons. We have all encountered various problems in life and yet somehow we survive. The experiences might not have been pleasant, but you survived.
When we are in the midst of a crises or unpleasant situation, our perceptions are warped and we fail to trust our coping skills. When you discover that you really can handle anything that comes your way, when you come to accept that you can handle all the curve balls that life throws you, what then do you have to fear? NOTHING.
I once had an overwhelming fear of public speaking and finally developed the courage to do something about it. I joined Toastmasters. Toastmasters provides a nurturing and supportive environment for those who know this fear and want to push beyond it.
The first speech given is called the “Ice Breaker”; you talk a brief time about yourself. How bad can that be? After all, it’s the one subject you should be a leading expert on. But fear is irrational and you are still nervous when you get up to give that first talk. I have a habit of writing everything on yellow pads. I write a lot and leave half-used yellow legal pads strewn all over the place. When I approached the podium to give my first speech in front my toastmaster friends, I glanced at my notes and the first couple of lines read “two boxes of spaghetti, loaf of French bread and one jar of pasta sauce.” I had picked up the wrong legal pad and had my grocery-shopping list instead of the notes for my talk. Panic set in; I prayed for a trap door in the floor to open up and swallow me whole. That didn’t happen. I gave the speech and guess what – the world didn’t end!
Fear makes us consider worst case scenarios and exaggerate what is going to happen if things don’t go as planned. Life never proceeds as planned. The secret is not to let that reality prevent you from living life. You really can handle the outcome or consequences of any action. There is no greater thrill or feeling of exhilaration than to meet a fear head on, do battle and defeat something that’s been limiting and crippling you all your life. One of the sentiments frequently echoed at Toastmasters by members who have found the courage to stand up and give that first speech is “why did I wait so long to do this?” Once you do what you fear, the fear is reduced and no longer has that paralyzing control over you.
A salesman (we will call him Mike) dreaded company meetings where he might be called on by the president to say a few words in front of the sales force about what was happening in his sales territory. He would begin to become depressed, frightened and scared months before the annual year-end meeting of the sales force. His first talk at Toastmasters was life transforming. It gave him an immeasurable amount of self-confidence and joy. He went on to participate in regional contests and did very well. I know the feeling.
We pay a tremendous price, if we allow ourselves to be defined and limited by our fears. Susan Jeffers in her wonderful book Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway lists 5 very profound insights about fear. I carry this list in my wallet and refer to it whenever I sense that fear is blocking my path.
1. THE FEAR WILL NEVER GO AWAY AS LONG AS YOU CONTINUE TO GROW
Whenever you step outside your comfort zone, fear will be your companion. The good news is that every time you step outside your comfort zone, your comfort zone expands.
The flip side of this insight is that if you are never experiencing any fear, you are never stepping outside of your comfort zone. You are stuck big time!
Somebody once asked me, “Why do you want to go around feeling scared all the time?” You don’t. But what’s the alternative? If you aren’t willing to risk the discomfort of stepping outside your comfort zone, you will remain in a perpetual life-long state of being stuck. You will suffer chronic dissatisfaction that can lead to mild or low-grade depression. You will always view the world in dreary black and white, rather than in living color. You will never allow yourself to consider exciting possibilities in a meaningful and real way. You will never experience the exhilaration of conquering a fear.
When surveys are conducted to identify what are the most common fears, public speaking ranks right up there near the top. Barbara Sher (author of Wishcraft) makes this point in her seminars by saying she is going to ask someone in the audience to come up and give a 7 minute talk on their views on personal growth. Everybody that has a fear of public speaking turns ashen white. You don’t understand the crippling power of fear until it’s actually confronted.
2. THE ONLY WAY TO GET RID OF THE FEAR OF DOING SOMETHING IS TO GO OUT AND DO IT
If I were to recommend 5 books on public speaking and you bought all 5 books, underlined all the meaningful passages and took copious notes, you would still have a fear of public speaking. You can’t read yourself through fear; you can’t think yourself through fear; you can’t “seminar” your way through fear. The only way to get beyond the fear is to do what you are afraid of. We all want the fear to go away first and then we will do it. This is “horse before the cart” thinking. It’s the reverse that’s going to work for you. You do it and then the fear goes away.
3. THE ONLY WAY TO FEEL BETTER ABOUT YOURSELF IS TO GO OUT AND DO IT.
I am not saying that you will be clinically depressed for the rest of your life, if you aren’t willing to face your fears and deal with them effectively. What I am saying is that you will be confined to a life of mediocrity. You will always live in this middle gray zone where life isn’t really too bad, it just that it is not great. It guarantees a ho-hum existence. You will never feel that excitement of achieving your potential. George Bernard Shaw puts it this way, “Far better is it to dare to do great things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, rather than join the ranks of those poor miserable souls who neither suffer much nor enjoy much, for they live in gray dim twilight that neither knows victory nor defeat.”
4. NOT ONLY AM I GOING TO EXPERIENCE FEAR WHENEVER I’M ON UNFAMILIAR GROUND, BUT SO IS EVERYONE ELSE
Fear can be a very shaming emotion. Friends will say to us “That shouldn’t scare you” or “Don’t be such an old fraidy cat” or you will say to yourself “I shouldn’t be afraid of that.” Shame is a crippling emotion. It’s the belief that you are defective. When you understand that fear is a universal emotion and comes with the territory of being alive, you no longer need to feel defective or inadequate. It just means that you need to develop the skill to identify and manage your fears effectively. People who get on with their lives have better strategies for managing and co-existing with their fears.
Fear cripples and this is why you need a sense of urgency about understanding your fears and learning how to deal with them effectively.
5. Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.
Conquering fear allows you to approach life with confidence.
Let’s review some ways and techniques to help you reduce and push through your fears:
Understand and apply the power of accountability. We often have good intentions, but we aren’t very good at holding ourselves accountable. The failure to keep New Year’s resolutions highlights the difficulties with self-accountability. We come up with all kinds of silly and convoluted reasons why we didn’t do what we intended or promised ourselves that we would do. If this rings true with you, consider turning the reins of accountability over to someone else. If you have a trusted friend, you would say to that friend, “Nancy, by Friday, I plan to do X, Y and Z.” On Friday, Nancy would ask you whether you did those things. Nancy would hold you accountable. This process of letting someone else hold you accountable feels psychologically binding and there is a greater probability that you will do the tasks. Savvy “self helpers” often form accountability groups that meet regularly. Everyone tells what specific actions they plan to take. At the next meeting, each person reports their progress for the past period and their plans for the next period. You discover it is easier to do the planned tasks rather than trying to convince the group that your flimsy, transparent excuses are valid. It’s a very powerful process.
Another possibility is to make a written contract with yourself saying what you plan to do by a specific date. Sign and date the contract. This will be more of a real commitment and feel more binding.
The size and complexity of a large task can be overwhelming and intimidating. Whatever is undefined is not understood and the lack of understanding is what creates the fear. The secret is to break a large, scary and undefined project into smaller, well-defined, manageable parts. Sydney Harris author of Winners & Losers said “A winner takes a big problem and separates it into smaller parts so that it can be more easily manipulated; a loser takes a lot of little problems and rolls them together until they are unsolvable.” If one of these smaller parts still scares you, break that component into smaller parts until all the parts are small enough that you feel comfortable. Then do the first task.
The action of starting will make you feel good and give you the confidence to do the next step. Confidence is not absence of fear. Confidence is how much your fear is under control. Action make us focus on the task at hand rather than worry about all the things that can go wrong in the future. If you do nothing, you become preoccupied with your negative thoughts. Don’t worry about starting slowly. Just start. Begin with baby steps when learning a new skill. It’s OK to be a beginner. Trust the process. Proceed at your own pace, the more you do, the more your confidence will develop and the faster your progress will be. You will take larger more confident steps as you progress towards your desired goal. After you have done several steps, you will feel the momentum grow, your confidence will increase and you are on a roll.
I am an advocate of using personal ads for meeting people. I met my wife through the personals. Writing a personal ad, calling up strangers and going out on a first date generates all kinds of fears (What if the guy is a serial killer? Will I be rejected? Am I attractive enough? Do I have anything interesting to say? etc.). One of the exercises students do in the DARE TO DATE class is to write a personal ad. You should hear the groans. Not only do they have to write it, they have to read it aloud and get feedback from myself and class members. The experience is always positive. The initial action of taking that first step creates confidence and excitement. Class members feel good and are pleasantly surprised by how supportive the class is and how well received their ad is. Many of the students, sometimes the next day, submit the ad. Having people respond to your ad, having people express interest and wanting to meet you is good for the soul and great for your self-esteem. It generates the courage and confidence needed to pick up that phone, call a stranger and meet for a cup of coffee. Every step taken creates confidence and lessens the fear.
When I was moving into Kathy’s condo, she wanted me to paint all the rooms. I had all kinds of great reasons and exquisite rationalizations why the apartment didn’t need painting. (I like an apartment that looks lived in and peeling paint certainly gives that impression; we might be moving in 5-10 years, can’t we hang on for just another decade; if I paint the place, we are going to have to endure that smell of fresh paint; who knows, future studies may show that paint smells might cause weight on the hips!) I pulled out all stops. A defense lawyer would have been proud of my tortured reasoning and closing arguments.
The real issue was that I was scared that I would make a mess of the project and get paint all over the place. I belong to a Saturday morning support group and had enough awareness to understand that at the root of my procrastination and delaying tactics was my fear of being incompetent and making a big ole mess. I suspect that I also thought that this wouldn’t be the coolest thing to do to impress my new love. I presented the problem to the group and asked for some help and guidance. They asked some very deep questions and said some very profound things. Someone asked if I had bought the paint and a paintbrush. “Uh, No,” but that was something I sure could do. I brought the paint and the brush and eagerly awaited Saturday for some more guidance. “What’s next?” I wanted to know. Well, the next step, some one said, was to take the paint lid off the can, dip the brush into the paint and make a mark on the wall. I can do that, I thought. “What’s the next step?” I asked. Well, dip the brush into the paint again and make a second mark.
Being a college grad, I was beginning to sense a pattern: they were onto something that just might work. It was really as simple as that. The fear vanished when I took action and started. I needed no further help after starting the project.
Be your own shrink. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” as one song puts it; nobody knows your life history and your issues better than you do. A counselor is really just a catalyst. You have to do all the heavy lifting. You have to take the ultimate responsibility for your life and happiness if any real progress is to be made.
Asking yourself probing, soul-searching questions can help you gain awareness about a fear and understand what needs to be done. Remember that good questions always lead to more good questions and the by-product of a good question is good information. Asking the right questions is cheaper than psychotherapy and it’s so much more convenient (no traveling across town, no making appointments and waiting in the outer office with all the other “disturbed” people). Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:
- What is my fear about?
- What am I afraid of?
- What is the worst possible outcome?
- If my fear is on the surface, what lies underneath?
- Is the fear truly about the present experience or does it gain power by evoking some related past experience?
- How is my fear protecting me and do I still need that protection?
- How could I be made to feel safer, while moving beyond my fear?
- What can I do to get out of my fear and into my creativity (i.e. problem solving mode)?
- If someone else were telling me about this fear, what advice would I give him or her? This is a very powerful question. We often know what we need to do, but lack the courage to take that first step.
There is an effective fear reducing strategy called anchoring to a previous positive experience. Unfortunately we obsess on the experiences that re-enforce our fearful thinking. We are conditioned to think in negative and limiting ways. Our disempowering thoughts (thoughts that aren’t good for us) create an emotional climate that is ideal for fears to grow, fester and become unmanageable and crippling. Make a conscious effort to connect with and relive relevant positive experiences. Our past victories and successes can be used to create confidence.
When I first began to teach and do public speaking, it was a terrifying experience for me. The predominant thought would be “Just who the hell do you think you are? Who told you that you had anything new or worthwhile to say?” To counterbalance those thoughts, I would consciously think positive thoughts and mentally relive prior positive experiences related to public speaking. I would think about the Toastmaster speech contests that I had won and all the wonderful, positive feedback I had received from members in my Toastmasters Club. I would get in touch with and refocus on why I was teaching. It’s my belief that nothing is more fulfilling and worthwhile than service and I know that my life works better when I’m a loving person and share what I have learned.
This strategy of anchoring to a positive emotional state can be applied to any area of your life. In my class, HOW TO LEAVE THE JOB YOU HATE AND FIND THE LIFE YOU LOVE, I encounter many people who are stuck and remain in jobs that create dissatisfaction and chronic frustration rather than joy and optimism. I remind these people that their mind is being controlled and dominated by their negative thinking and they need to get in touch with the positive experiences related to their work.
I ask them to consider the following: someone thought enough of your abilities to hire you rather than others who applied for the same job. If you have received pay raises and promotions, you must have some skills and competencies that are in demand. If you have you received “thanks” and other votes of approval from superiors, people you work with and customers who are appreciative of good service, you must be capable of doing a good job. Getting in touch with these positive experiences will increase your confidence level and prod you into the necessary action for change: updating your resume or making that appointment for a job interview. The anchoring to positive experiences technique allows us to see the possibilities that aren’t apparent when you are totally absorbed by negative thinking and fear. Fear distorts reality.