Taking Action in the Face of Fear, Part Three
In part two of this series, we discussed those “movies in our minds,” and how the brain can freeze both the images and the meaning of something into place, sometimes never to be questioned again. These “premature cognitive commitments” can and do influence our decisions today. Now, in this final installment, we get to the central promise in our subtitle: How to take action in the face of fear.
I once worked with one of those high-powered executives who claimed he wasn’t afraid of anything. And it really looked like he wasn’t. He jumped out of planes and off of cliffs, and enjoyed all sorts of activities us mere mortals would quickly label risky and fear inducing.
And one day while sitting with him in his office, I watched as he was gripped with anxiety as he reached for the phone to make an important call. He couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked, innocently.
“I’m not afraid!” he snapped. “I’m just nervous.”
It seems this decidedly “macho” non -acceptance of the reality of fear permeates our culture. We can be so ashamed of admitting we’re fearful – especially when we imagine that “everyone else” wouldn’t be afraid in a similar situation – we may look at our fear as a sign of weakness, or a sign that we’re helpless or even powerless.
Maybe this is another one of those premature cognitive commitments?
Weakness into Power
It can be tempting to look at the successful, powerful people we admire and think; they must have conquered all their fears, nothing can stop them. We revere the brave and courageous among us, and for good reason.
But these acts of bravery are only half of the equation. In order to be brave and act courageously, one must first experience fear. Those who have lived a life marked by exceptional acts of courage have experienced exceptional fear to match.
It turns out fear is often the natural byproduct of stepping up into a new, unfamiliar territory of life.
In fact, we could look at the process of growth as a staircase, with each fear we master becoming another step towards growth. I love what super-coach David Neagle calls this; “new level, new devil.” To grow, we need fear because that fear indicates a stepping -up point. Every time we step through a fear, we become wiser, and more powerful.
We can’t “banish all our fears,” if we’re growing, fear never goes away. As soon as we overcome one, another appears to urge us on: Indicating that we are ready to grow and move on.
Looking at it this way, it’s obvious that some of the people we admire most have faced and moved through many fears, and they do so every time they face a new challenge. In fact, it may be this very process that made them great. And in doing so, not only do we become great, but also gives us extra added benefits to help us enjoy life’s new experiences that much more.
Because fear is also a physical experience. We get a little burst of extra energy, our senses are sharpened, the mind becomes more alert and we feel a sense of increased readiness. Writes Peter McWilliams in Life 101:
The only difference between fear and excitement is what we label it. The two are pretty much the same emotional reaction. With fear, we put a negative spin on it: Oh, no! With excitement, we give it some positive English, Oh, boy!
The Intrinsic Security in Risk-Taking
The greatest benefit to facing our fears could be what this very act does for our self-esteem. Sometimes, when hounded by a fear that appears to be crippling, we can look for ways to cope. Faced with uncertainty, we naturally seek security, something external we can hold on to (or buy) for comfort.
Each experience of turning fear into excitement gives us an opportunity to show ourselves that we CAN handle a situation, which can only add to our confidence. We create the strength of intrinsic security in our lives every time we prove to ourselves that we can handle what life throws us. The more we know we can handle, the less we feel the need for fleeting external sources of security, and the stronger our character becomes.
O.K., by this point, I’m going to assume we have all the reasons we need to re-frame our experience of fear. So how do we do it? A wise approach to fear was voiced by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said simply, “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” In other words, feel the fear, and do it anyway!
Time for some action!
We’ve established that fear is here to stay; it’s our ally, our good pal.
Here’s a nice re-framing of the experience of fear. In Life 101, Peter McWilliams writes:
Most people treat fear as a wall. It is the edge of their comfort zone. As they approach the wall the fear increases, they turn around and walk away. They do not do the thing they fear. Hence, the belief that fear is a limitation and not a prelude to illumination is perpetuated.
If you want learn about whatever it is you fear doing, that is the very next thing you need to do. Fear is not a wall; it’s just an emotion. Walk through the fear. Keep taking step after step toward the thing you want. It may become quite uncomfortable; then, suddenly, it will be less. Once you start doing the thing you fear, the “wall” experience of fear disappears.
The Principle and the Process
Now that we see fear as our greatest supporter, maybe the next thing to consider is the only fears we’re going to successfully walk through are those we have a good reason to deal with.
Are all of the fears in your life a challenge?
Faithful TransformNation readers know it seems I can’t make it through a post without quoting Seth Godin. And it just so happens Mr. Godin gives us a relevant entry on his blog:
Your most vivid fears are almost certainly not the most important ones. We pay attention to the loud and the urgent. This can lead us to ignore the important and achievable paths open to us–because we’re so busy defending against the overwhelmingly dangerous (but unlikely) outcomes instead.
How about this for a good start: Write down your worst fears, and then ask yourself about each one, “Is this fear getting in the way of what really I want to accomplish?” If the answer is yes – if your burning desire to do something is greater than the fear that holds you back – then that fear is a challenge, you can begin taking steps in that direction.
Some fears may not be a problem right now. For example, the idea of having a boa constrictor coiled around my body, friendly though he may be, definitely scares me. If I wanted to deal with that fear, I could go buy a pet snake. But does it bother me that my fear is in the way of having a better relationship with serpents? Nope, not a bit. That fear doesn’t pose a problem in my life, so I’m not going to deal with it right now.
Once we’ve determined which fears are our primary stumbling blocks, here’s the principle for facing those fears that stand in our way: break the fear down into small, manageable pieces.
Divide and Conquer
Let’s say you want to get to the next level in your business, and it’s time to contact people to partner with, create alliances and affiliate relationships. But as you reach for the phone to call, or for the keyboard to write an email, a common “level one” fear pops up: The fear of rejection. This fear is based on the perception that you can’t handle whatever the person on other end of the phone or email will say or do.
The only way you’ll overcome this fear is to break it down into smaller bits. Then, give yourself a few experiences that prove that yes, you CAN handle it.
Begin with a few questions that both challenge your perception that you can’t handle it, and also break it down into smaller thoughts. We don’t get rid of anxious thoughts by simply willing them out of existence. Instead, we replace them with other logical, positive thoughts that contradict our fears.
In essence, we “film” a new mental movie – frame by frame – right over the old one.
Ask Yourself a Few Questions…
Dynamic, successful people who regularly walk through their fears aren’t smarter or braver than you are, they’re just in the habit of asking good questions that break down their fears and give them confidence that they can handle what may come next.
Staying with our phone call/email example for a moment, you might ask yourself:
- What’s the worst that could happen, if . . . ?
- What if they say no? What will happen to me?
- Will I be rendered unable to function for the rest of my life?
Then ask yourself, “What if I weren’t afraid of making this phone call, or writing this email, what’s the next thing I’d do?” You’d pick up the receiver and dial the number.
Several decades ago, I jotted this quote down from an old issue of Esquire Magazine, by a writer named Lee Green:
The advantages of progressing slowly might seem obvious, yet people still jump in over their heads and have a traumatic experience of it. Or they allow themselves to be drawn into situations for which they are unprepared. Move progressively so that you are always operating out of that stable sense of I can do it.
Lightning and Thunder
It’s true: Facing our fears - even if we break them down first – requires courage. Walking through a few of our fears requires that first brave step into uncertainty. That moment of time between fear and courage are bridged by faith, a faith that as we act in the presence of fear we will find the courage to handle whatever comes our way. Writes Lawrence Block in one my all-time favorite books for writers, Write For Your Life:
Someone once told me that fear and courage are like lightning and thunder; they both start out the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner. If we just wait a moment, the requisite courage will be along shortly.
Five Encouraging Facts about Fear
1. Moments of fear will never go away as long as I am growing, stretching my capabilities and taking new risks.
2. The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it. The act of “doing it” comes before the fear goes away. In the process you get a bonus: You feel good about yourself and in turn, you build confidence.
3. Remind yourself there are no magical, immune people: “Not only am I going to experience fear whenever I’m on unfamiliar territory, but so is everyone else.”
4. Fear is not a signal to retreat but rather a green light to move ahead.
5. Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness. People who refuse to take risks live with a feeling of dread that is far more severe than what they would feel if they took the risks necessary to make them less helpless — only they don’t know it.
List adapted from Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, Ph.D.
Other Books quoted in this series that I recommend highly:
On our Premature Cognitive Commitments: Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer