Talking to Fear

Last week, my first edition of the Courage to Change challenge ended. Essentially, this program was a 7 day journey from fear to a place of taking action in the direction of our goals.

While creating this program, I spent a lot of time researching, reflecting, drawing out on my own experiences, and listening to people talk about their fears and, most importantly, about their relationship to fear.

We are all looking to escape fear. We are all looking to do ANYTHING we can to avoid this feeling, as well as all the other difficult emotions: sadness, grief, shame, guilt, hopelessness… And while not being super THRILLED about having to feel these emotions is very understandable, aiming for a life that is somehow shielded from uncomfortable feelings is A. Unrealistic B. Unhealthy for the human psyche C. Frustrating.

Fear has an invaluable evolutionary role. This reaction is what essentially helped us stay alive and safe during times where predators were out to eat us, food resources were scarce and we literally had to fight for our lives every minute. This unbelievable instinct helped our bodies enter into a state of vigilance and fast response, pumped up adrenaline in our system and made us able to run or fight. The problem is that today, we have the same reactions we used to display in front of a wild animal chasing in totally different situations. Just exactly how helpful it is to have our adrenaline, our heart rate going high when we are about to give a speech in front of a group?

Psychology evolves far faster than biology, and since fear is still going to be an automatic, impossible to suppress instinct, it is time to use our superior understanding of mindset and emotions to channel our energy in a better way.

The chase for happiness might be what saves us or what trumps us. Russ Harris, an amazing psychotherapist and coach, wrote this in his best-selling book ”The Happiness Trap”

To find happiness, we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.

The problem is that our old definition of happiness was that it is all about feeling good all the time (or at least, you know, 80% of it). That is problematic and again unrealistic. I think a much more balanced perspective is to see happiness as a way of living that is meaningful, rich and that involves us acting on our values. You can read more about the difference between the two perspectives on happiness in one of my previous articles HERE.

Another problem is we cannot selectively numb and shut down emotions. When we try to shut down fear, we also shut down our sensitivity, our ability to feel all the other emotions (including excitement, happiness, joy, connection). We also limit our lives a lot by deciding to stay only on the playground where fear does not show up. And by the way, that is a very small and dull playground.

Everytime we step up our game, we tackle a more ambitious goal and we leave our comfort zone, fear is going to show up.

So if we understand and accept that a meaningful life involves feeling a certain degree of fear and insecurity, how can we still hold it together, move forward with what we want to do even if we are feeling afraid?

Well, we can do so by transforming our relationship to fear.

And here is what you can do the next time fear shows up in your life:

  1. Acknowledge it: One of the simplest and most powerful tricks that I learned, again, from Russ Harris is to become aware of the fearful thoughts. Just go ahead and say to yourself, out loud or in your mind: ”Oh, here is that fearful thought again. Oh, look, there’s this thought again about how I will not be able to make it. About how I am not good enough”, etc. When you do this, you put your fear into the spotlight. You avoid completely fusing with it, because there is a huge difference between saying ”I am afraid” and ”I have fearful thoughts”. When you name your fearful thoughts, you avoid completely fusing with them. That puts you in a state where you can take positive action, rather than feeling completely overwhelmed by emotions.
  2. Accept it. Say to yourself, kindly and compassionately: ”It’s normal to feel afraid. To have self-doubt. It is such a profound humane experience. Everybody feels this on a constant basis. I am not the only one. It’s difficult, but I am still okay.” And, indeed, you are.
  3. Get the message. Ask your fear: “What is the danger you are trying to signal to me? What are you trying to keep me safe from?”. You may have amazing insights upon doing this.
  4. Make room to feel it. Most of the times, when we feel fear creeping in, we tense up or become agitated in order to either choke the feeling, or run away from facing it. But that just buries the fear even deeper, beyond our conscious level, leaving us unable to successfully cope with it. How can you work with something you are not aware of? So the next time you are feeling fear, take the following simple actions. First, breathe deeply. Visualize where in your body do you feel that fear. And imagine that with each breath you take, you bring more space around that fear. You expand your ability to hold that fear. After you have done that, expand your awareness to all the other areas of your body and, slowly, to your environment. What else are you feeling, hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, tasting? And that’s the nuts and bolts of how you stay with fear.
  5. Take the most positive action you can in the moment. Take the most positive action you can in the moment. While still acknowledging fear, invite yourself to consider what else is important for you in your life. Think about your dearest goals, remember the kind of life you want to live and the kind of person you want to be. And just take a first action that is aligned with your values and goals. I have seen many people determined to face their fears and that was the bottom of it; I don’t think that is the best perspective. We want to face our fears not because that should be a goal in itself, but because of what we can accomplish when we confront them. So if you are setting out to be more courageous, just remember that your guiding North Star should be your values and your vision of what a meaningful life looks like. If you only focus on fears — even with the purpose of overcoming them, it becomes so easy to get confused, intimidated, lost.

Now notice what you are thinking upon reading these lines. Is your mind objecting to this? Are you thinking ”Yeah, you make it sound sooo easy” or ”I don’t think this is going to work”? These are all understandable objections, but we never get different results if we behave in the same old ways. What if you decided to test this new perspective for yourself? To see if it works after you’ve put it into practice?

Or are you thinking ”Oh, easy for you to say, I don’t think you’ve ever faced the kinds of fears that I have”. Well, I certainly would not want to go into a competition of who has crapped their pants more out of fear (metaphorically, of course), but I can tell you this: I had my fair share of terrifying moments and panic attacks, of being consumed and paralyzed by fear and this is precisely why I decided I want to learn how to transform my relationship to fear.

The truth is when we run away from facing ourselves and our emotions, that is when we complicate our lives when, in fact, the route back to well being is many times as simple as the 5 steps routine before.

A profound realization that I recently had is that my power and strength lies not in living a fearless life, but in growing my ability to feel fear. What would be possible for you if you accepted fear as a normal part of your life?



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