Five Things We Can Learn From Our Fear
Fear is a feeling that most of us try to avoid. We’ll do whatever it takes not to acknowledge, much less get closer to, a feeling of fear. You could say that we fear fear.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
What exactly did he mean by this – and why should we care? FDR led the United States through the Great Depression. He was speaking during a time when people were running to the banks and withdrawing money. This was adding to the economic crisis in the country. So FDR was essentially telling people that their fear was making things worse.
FDR actually closed banks for several days and called a special session of Congress to give citizens time to calm down and the nation a chance to begin to make recovery plans. He recognized that when fear strikes, it can indeed be crippling.
There’s a lot that we can learn from FDR’s approach of acknowledging fear, taking the time to calm down, and then choosing appropriate action. But most of us were not taught how to recognize fear – to distinguish it from doubt, worry or overwhelm – much less deal with it more effectively.
When you think back to a fearful or anxiety-producing event that you’ve lived through, perhaps you can agree that once you actually went through the experience, any mental images you’d created going into it were worse than the actual event itself. Perhaps you could have saved a good bit of energy by acknowledging it sooner or by taking a different approach.
What is fear, anyway?
Fear is a primal feeling that shows up when we feel threatened. Fear is adaptive. It is meant to protect us. Fear stems from an ancient part of our brain that evolved to keep our ancestors safe say from tigers in the bush. This is why fear can have physical symptoms such as sweaty hands and an increased heart rate, also known as the fight-or-flight syndrome. When we run across a tiger in the bush, we need to be able to react quickly in order to survive.
And while fear is indeed an ally when it comes to keeping us safe, what often happens is that events which are not nearly as dangerous as walking by a tiger in the bush trigger our fight-or-flight response. When we are under excessive stress or prolonged overwhelm, our fear is exaggerated. We can easily have low-level fear of just about any or all future events.
What if I fail, what if I get fired, what if people think I’m foolish, what if I lose money, what if she says no, what if she says yes?
All those what ifs are not actual events, but something we project into the future. And when you’re starting something new, whether it’s a pivot with your career or business, a new project, or a move, too much of this can derail you.
I am not advocating blind optimism or making decisions without considering the facts of a particular situation. But too much fear, especially unacknowledged fear, can keep us from moving forward. It can prevent us from making our best decisions and it certainly makes it harder to enjoy the journey along the way.
This can take many forms. In some instances, we are not truly feeling fear as much as we are worrying about feeling emotions such as humiliation or discomfort in the future.
Fear vs. Worry
When we worry, we are not experiencing the thing in the moment. We are afraid that we might have the experience, feel the emotions we wish to avoid…one day.
This worry can feel a lot like fear. And it can have similar results. You hesitate going forward, you’re indecisive, you even want to hide from the world. You’re not sure if you should be putting yourself out there in a new way because there’s a risk of failing or looking foolish.
Whether it’s fear, worry or some combination of both, too much can sap our mental, physical and emotional resources. And there is much we can gain from facing – even embracing – our fear.
Make Fear Your Friend
On the plus side, fear can truly be our ally. It can teach us a great deal. Learning to recognize when it’s showing up, and even to embrace it as we move forward, can be a real game-changer.
Here are five things we can learn from our fear:
- Fear in the Extreme: In most cases, when we’re feeling anxious about something, the thing we fear is never as bad as we imagine it might be. When we are trying to make a big decision or embark on something new, we’re stepping into unknown territory. Our minds want to keep us safe. That often means avoiding change, even when the situation we’re in is no longer serving us or may be holding us back. The nature of such a change means we probably don’t know what’s coming on the other side of it. And the unfamiliar can be scary, period. When a new opportunity or a change leaves you feeling anxious or afraid, try breaking it down and taking smaller steps.
- Fear as a Signal: Fear can be a powerful signal telling us it’s time for a break. If you notice that more and more things seem fearful or even somewhat overwhelming, this can be a very real sign that your body mind and spirit need a break. Take a day off, take the weekend off, find time for a real vacation. Even better, commit to finding ways that you can replenish and renew. How can you manage your time and energy so that you don’t reach this point so quickly again?
- Fear as Growth: Sometimes fear is in fact alerting us to a risk. But often, if we look at it more closely, what’s on the other side of fear is where our biggest opportunity lies. Try acting into your fear and discomfort. This can be incredibly freeing and even empowering. After all, clarity comes from engaging, not from thinking about engaging. Remember that you can always shift or adjust, you can even reverse course if you find the action wasn’t the best one. When we are taking on something new, growing past current boundaries and limitations, it is natural to have some fear. Try to allow it to be a bridge instead of a roadblock.
- Fear as a Practice: Many of us fear failing. And yet we also know that most highly successful people have failed many times. Have you ever practiced failing? Allowed yourself to try something you weren’t likely to succeed at? Often when we do fail or mess up, we realize it wasn’t all that bad after all. If taking action into your fear feels like too much, allow yourself to visualize a worst case scenario. Imagine yourself taking the action you’re afraid of: making that speech, buying the new office building, launching your blog. Imagine everything going wrong and see yourself living through it, maybe even laughing about it – or at least learning from it – down the road. Now that you’ve experienced your worst case scenario, you may find your fear subsiding. You may even find it easier to connect with a more likely outcome and to move past current boundaries and limitations.
- Fear as a Friend: Fear is a part of life and everyone deals with it at times. I am not suggesting that you try to eliminate fear completely. Not only would that be unlikely, it wouldn’t be beneficial. In fact, a certain amount of fear is healthy. It’s good to be aware and alert – whether you’re walking through the bush, starting a new project or growing a successful business. But too much fear over an extended period of time means your body, mind and spirit are essentially working on overdrive most of the time. This drains resources you need, makes decision making harder and means you may miss red flags alerting you to actual risks that do require your attention. Be willing to acknowledge fear when it shows up, ask what you can learn from it. Try breathing into it or going for a walk. Then, when you feel calmer, ask: is this intuitive guidance that’s in fact steering you in a better direction? Or is it perhaps an old limit or belief getting in the way of you moving in a new direction?
If you could magically remove even 10% of your fear, how would your work and your life be different? What if you could learn to embrace the rest? Consider it for a moment. If too much fear or worry has stopped you from following a dream, practice making fear your friend.
How will you embrace fear this year? How can fear become an ally as you move forward with that big new project, build your business or have that difficult conversation?
If you enjoyed this post and want support in acknowledging and even embracing your fear, contact me directly to see if you qualify for a complimentary strategy session.
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