All of us have things that we’re unsure about or afraid of. In fact, the more accomplished we are, and the bigger and more ambitious the goals that we set, the larger the scale of the fears and doubts that we will deal with regularly.
Ideally, we would simply be able to acknowledge and make use of any truth or lesson held within those negative feelings, and then to let the feelings go as we progressed forward toward our goals in a state of perfect fearlessness. Obviously, feeling fearless is wonderful, and when we’re in that state we feel like we can conquer the world. However, it’s unwise to anchor our effectiveness to a emotional state that can come and go without warning. Instead of chasing the feeling of fearlessness, it’s much more powerful to create habits of fearlessness.
Most of our biggest goals – professional, personal, interpersonal, financial, emotional, spiritual, and so forth – will involve some degree of fear and doubt. After all, a significant goal without emotional obstacles and challenges is just an exercise in planning and logistics. In fact, much of the value of reaching a significant goal comes from the challenge and resistance that we break through in order to reach it, and from the person that we become in the process.
By the time we have actually reached a major goal, we’ve already been anticipating it for a while. The actual instant of “getting there” often arrives as an afterthought, or even a letdown. However, the experience we gained and the growth we experienced by facing fears and challenges along the way will be a part of us forever – we have been permanently changed, and permanently improved.
Therefore, the best approach to handling our fears is not to avoid them, or to attempt to make them disappear, but instead to develop habits and techniques that help us press forward toward our goals, even from within a state of fear, anxiety, or doubt. Feeling some level of fear when we’re working toward a goal is actually a positive sign – it means that we’re doing something that challenges us and operating outside our comfort zone. This will inevitably make us grow and improve.
Arranging our lives in order to avoid facing our fears is a recipe for short-term comfort and long-term pain. By creating an intricate and fragile house of cards to avoid triggering any of our fears, we actually give all our power away. Our powers of self-determination, creation, and choice become subordinate to the fears that control and shape us. This is no way for a person to live.
On the other hand, pushing forward in the direction of our greatest fears – although it will definitely feel uncomfortable – is a way to guarantee that we’re moving in a direction of real growth.
The question is simple: do we want to feel comfortable, or do we want to grow?
Five practices that destroy fear
Performing the following five practices will help us develop the habits of fearlessness. They will enable us to grow and move forward to our goals continuously – regardless of whether we feel fearful, neutral, or fearless at any given moment.
A vague sense of unease and doubt is difficult to address – we don’t even know where to start. However, a specific fear is easy to start working on, even at the basic level of brainstorming possible solutions.
For example, “I don’t like being around people” is vague and probably too general. Conversely, “I find professional networking events intimidating because I don’t know what to say” is specific and descriptive, and suggests a range of possible remedies.
Create a plan
Once we’ve identified the fear as specifically as possible, we are able to create a plan to counteract it. The more detail we have about how the fear manifests, the more specific we can be in drafting our plan.
In the example above, we could try several different approaches, such as: rehearsing “talking points” or answers to typical questions so as to avoid being caught with nothing to say; meditating or deep breathing for a few minutes prior to the event in order to relax; or bringing an experienced and outgoing friend along to help us network with new people.
Question the feelings and beliefs that give rise to the fear
There are a range of different ways to question our fears and to drill down the the underlying belief system that gives rise to them. One fun and effective way to question our fears comes from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). By tracing a hypothetical chain of thoughts by saying “and it means that…” after each one, we can identify and correct the erroneous, automatic thought processes that arise and create the emotional experience of fear.
I won’t know what to say at a professional networking event.
and it means that…
I will look stupid in front of people who might have a big influence over my career.
and it means that…
No one will want to do business with me or hire me.
and it means that…
I won’t have a way to earn a living.
and it means that…
I will be homeless and out on the street.
and it means that…
I will die alone and unloved.
Wow! We went from “not knowing what to say at a networking event” to “dying alone on the street” in just five steps. Pretty harsh! And yet many peoples’ real fears create thought chains at least as absurd as this. Now that we have a snapshot of thoughts and beliefs written down, we can start to rationally address each link in the chain. We can start to dismantle the automatic series of thoughts that generates the feeling of fear.
The link between each statement and the next is made via one or more cognitive distortions. By observing how these cognitive distortions carry us through increasingly irrational and unlikely thoughts, we can interrupt the sequence of thoughts and counteract the fear. The book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, MD, is an excellent resource for self-teaching and practicing several different CBT techniques that counteract irrational negative thoughts and beliefs.
The statements that emerge from exercises like this are also ripe for deconstruction by methodologies such as “The Work” and by other tools that help us question and release our unwanted thoughts and beliefs. Always remember: we don’t need to believe everything that we think and we don’t need trust everything that we believe. It can all be changed.
Get the community involved
Facing fears alone can be tough. The good news is that we don’t have to do this. A range of support groups, communities, and clubs exist to address many different fears, either as their primary mission or as a side effect. Such groups can be found both online and in real life. An example of such a group is Toastmasters, which has helped many people get over the all too common fear of public speaking.
Supportive family and friends can also help us get past fears and negative emotions. It may be challenging at first to reveal our vulnerability to people close to us, especially if we haven’t done this in the past. We are the best judge of the members of our own communities, so it’s best to follow our own intuition and hearts when it comes to choosing those with whom to share our personal fears. For our own benefit, it’s important that we select positive and nurturing people instead of critical and negative people. When this process goes well, it can provide multiple benefits – we gain support in addressing our fears and doubts, and we build closer connections and trust with friends and family.
Ultimately, all the planning, thinking, and sharing in the world will do nothing for us if we refuse to step up to the plate and face our fears directly. In other words, like the Nike slogan says, “Just… um… Do It”.
Most of our fears aren’t life-threatening and most life-threatening things don’t frighten us. We aren’t “afraid” of walking in front of a bus, we just avoid doing it because we know that it’s truly dangerous. On the other hand, most of the nagging fears that hold us back aren’t really about dangerous things – they just involve the perceived risk of being told “no”, looking foolish in front of others, or otherwise being rejected in some way.
For each our fears, it’s a helpful exercise for us to answer the question: what’s the worst thing that could (realistically) happen? Would we enjoy it? Probably not. Would we be able to handle it? Probably. Would we learn and grow from it? Probably. JFDI.
Fear and doubt go hand in hand. When we’re not vigilant about the idle action of our minds, fear and doubt creep into the spaces of ambiguity and confusion in our thoughts. Unexamined and unchallenged, they can influence our lives and our decisions in ways that we would not choose if we were thinking completely consciously. By identifying our fears and their origins, talking back to them and deconstructing them, and taking positive action to do the things that we fear, we can counteract all forms of irrational fear.
Which of your fears are you going to break today?
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