Fear is pervasive. Michel de Montaigne, a French Renaissance statesman and writer noted about 500 years ago: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.” Indeed, studies show that up to 95% of what we worry about in life never happens.
At times, fear sneaks on us, like a nagging feeling, when things might seem too good to be true. Other times, it is there, ubiquitous, unconsciously shaping our behaviors and thoughts, well anchored into our childhood histories and environment. James Hollis, a Jungian psychoanalyst and author of several books notes in his book “Living An Examined Life” that “more energy is spent in any given day on managing fear through unreflective compliance, or avoidance, than any other value“.
There is also the more extraordinary fear – at, call it, crossroads moments in our lives when events or situations put a bigger choice in front of us. For instance, do I say yes or no to… moving to another country, staying in a marriage or a relationship, leaving a job, starting a business or simply accepting an invitation to talk at a conference.
Fear can be paralyzing and likes to tangle us in our status quo. Therefore, not unsurprisingly, fears abound when we are at a point of getting out of our comfort zone. After all, the main question at a specific “crossroad” moment is do I choose to be afraid and stay where I am, or do I choose to move forward by saying yes and taking a first step, in acceptance of uncertainty and risks. At the end of the journey of facing fear in the face, usually breakthroughs happen. For instance, something you thought you couldn’t even imagine yourself doing turns out “feasible” in the end. So it’s not a surprise that many of us can point to specific actions or decisions underpinning significant growth at a personal or professional level, but which only came about as result of turning back on our fears.
‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said. So what are some myths around fear?
- If there is fear, then it must not be the right thing for me. Fear is insidious and chameleonic. Being afraid of unknown, changes, losing control, or failing doesn’t necessarily mean we are straying away from our righteous paths. The feeling of fear could simply be a measure of our understanding of the situation at hand and its short or long run implications. In the same “Living An Examined Life”, James Hollis talks about how “something within always does know what is right for us and what is wrong”. Discerning through what exactly we are afraid of and why will release the stronghold that fear might have on us and liberate us from its grip to make the right call.
- If there is fear, then I am going too fast. This is a myth that can only be understood once you start growing. In other words, once you experience some level of growth, you understand that fear might actually be a good sign. For instance, if there is nothing on the horizon or in the calendar that give you some anxiety about it, you are not stretching and dreaming big enough. Brené Brown in her “Daring Greatly” book notes: “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make. Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”
- If there is fear, but I choose to move forward, everything will go smoothly and I won’t experience any or much pain or stress. While a conscious decision to move beyond fear will help you push through, there is no guarantee that the process will be smooth. In the 9 Things Successful People Do Differently, Heidi Grant Halvorson talks about the difference between a realistic optimist and an unrealistic optimist. Realistic optimists believe they will succeed via efforts, planning, persistence, strategizing and overcoming challenges. Unrealistic optimists on the other hand, believe success will happen to them, as some sort of reward for their positive thinking. Heidi notes that “believing that the road to success will be rocky leads to greater success, because it forces you to take action”. In other words, stepping out of your comfort zone and choosing to look fear in the face doesn’t mean to blindly believe things will work out without challenges or pain. James Hollis in “Living An Examined Life” likes to call this “We have to risk feeling worse before feeling better, and we have to risk the loss of the oh-so-comforting misery of stuckness”.
Having understood some of those myths around fear, it becomes obvious that fear is universal, however if tamed, it is one of life’s biggest gifts.
What are some strategies to tame the “Fear” beast?
- Journal. Every day, journal on your fears and feelings in general. What did you feel? What did you think? What did you do? Looking back and analyzing what might be holding you back, what control you might have or not, or what the worst outcomes might be is the soil where fears lose their grip as a more self-aware, determined and brave soul arises. In James Hollis’ words: “fear is unavoidable, but a life in which fear calls the shots is one that results in terrible malformations of the soul….and sooner or later we all have an appointment with our soul.”
- Reach out. Ask for help or reach out to someone you trust to talk about your fears, especially if it’s something more complex or complicated that you are struggling with. We are craving and made for connection. Knowing we are not alone empowers us to stand against fear, either because someone else has gone through a similar situation and can share his/her perspectives, or simply because we are being heard. Strength is not defined by the ability to carry everything on our own shoulders, but to know our own limits and that we can become stronger with help from others (e.g. a coach, a mentor, online or in-person support groups, like minded people or simply individuals in our lives who have earned our trust).
- Take massive imperfect action in motivational speaker Tony Robbins’words. Action helps us to reclaim our rights to a better and braver life. Identifying a practical way to address a fear or situation has a domino effect for both our mindsets and success. Like the saying “God doesn’t steer a parked car”, nothing can change without intentional action. Philanthropist and author W. Clement Stone liked to call it “when thinking won’t cure fear, action will.”
By journaling and making conscious decisions on how we respond to fears, they end up guiding us in finding ourselves and developing our potentials.
Fear is omnipresent, however, there is a lot of opportunity built-in with it. In her book “Feel the Fear…and Do It Anyway”, PhD Susan Jeffers notes “As long as I continue to push out into the world, as long as I continue to stretch my capabilities, as long as I continue to take risks in making my dreams come true, I am going to experience fear.”
To sum it all up, authenticity, growth and purpose lay on the other side of fear.