By Linda Adams, President of GTI
Everyone experiences fear, gets scared, is afraid. Still, we would probably be surprised if we stopped to think just how much of our daily behavior is motivated by a need to lessen our fears.
But since fear is often seen as a weakness, it’s not acceptable to talk about it. Not only do we not discuss our fears, we usually don’t even admit that we have them. We repress them so we become unaware that they exist. We get so used to living with our fears that sometimes we aren’t conscious of them anymore.
As a result, many people don’t face their fears and instead allow them to control their lives.
You may be thinking, “But isn’t fear a good thing?” It signals to us that something is threatening us or someone we love. For instance, say your child runs into the street in front of a car or you hear a burglar in your home or you get severe chest pains or you feel an earthquake.
In cases like these, fear is valuable because it motivates you to act–to rescue or get medical help or run or defend yourself in some way.
We want to listen to and respond to these fears. They can keep us alive and safe.
But there is another kind of fear which is the one I want to focus on here.
These are the fears that get in the way of our living our lives–fears that block us, that stand in the way of our meeting our important needs. They prevent us from fully functioning whether we’re at work or at home or elsewhere. They can disrupt our lives. They are at the root of many of our problems.
Unresolved fears that can cause us to restrict or limit our lives might be such things as:
- Fear of making a mistake or of making a big decision
- Fear of losing a job or of leaving an unfulfilling job
- Fear of beginning or ending a relationship
- Fear of speaking in public
- Fear of getting angry or having others angry at you
- Fear of being alone or of doing things alone
and many others…
The fears we develop depend on our individual experiences. Some of them are relatively minor while others can overwhelm our lives.
What Happens When Fears Aren’t Faced
What we often do when one of these fears pops up is catastrophize it. We allow the fear to control our thoughts, our words and our actions. We imagine all the horrible things that might happen if we were to act and as a result we let our fear immobilize us.
Because the fear is often of the unknown–of change–we choose to be cautious and safe and stay with what we know. We stop ourselves from taking on certain challenges, actions and relationships. We adjust to unpleasant or bad or unhealthy situations because that’s more comfortable than facing the unknown.
If we want to generalize, we could call this “fear of living”. Psychologist, Dr. Rochelle Myers said: “Most people tiptoe through life trying to reach death safely.”
The problem is when we choose continually to avoid or escape or adjust to situations that make us anxious rather than resolving them, our world shrinks. When we choose to avoid dealing with fearful situations instead of moving through them, we confine and restrict our lives.
Take a minute and think about your own life. Are there situations which you don’t like but choose not to change because it seems easier to live with what you know rather than risk change–something unknown–which could improve or enhance your life?
What Can We Do About These Fears?
Fear is just like any other problem we have–it can only be dealt with and resolved when we allow ourselves to be fully conscious of it, choose to confront it, move through it and ultimately, overcome it.
There’s no question that parents have a powerful influence on how we look at and deal with fear. Just as children learn many of their attitudes and values from their parents, they also learn their fears. Just as important, they learn how to handle fear by observing how their parents deal with it. If parents act helpless in the face of fear, children learn to avoid fearful situations feeling they can’t cope with them. If parents show courage when faced with a fearful situation, children learn that they too can cope with fear.
The good news here is that what you have learned, you can unlearn. Fears can be unlearned. And there’s a great deal of research that proves this to be the case. Many fears, even intense ones, can be reduced or eliminated.
Even though it may not always seem like it, we have a choice every time we face a situation that causes us fear. We can allow it to limit, narrow and constrain our lives or we can choose to confront it and move through it. As we all know, choosing to avoid and not to deal with fear is not a good solution because fear that isn’t acknowledged and dealt with doesn’t go away. And not only does it remain, it often becomes worse over time.
When we can take responsibility for our own fears, we are then in a position to deal with them and move through them. Courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear and anxiety–it means having the capacity to move ahead even though we’re afraid. It means perseverance despite fear.
Getting the Courage to “Do It Anyway”
This starts with the awareness that there are some fears that are standing in your way; they are interfering with your being able to fully function as effectively as you want to. That leads to a motivation to increase your courage so that you can function more effectively.
Next comes a willingness to move out of your comfort zone–a comfort zone being all the routine things that we do and say everyday that feel comfortable and safe. We need this comfort zone, no question about it, and we need to be in it much of the time. We need to feel safe and comfortable. But we also need challenges and change in order to learn and grow and develop and it’s necessary to move out of our comfort zone in order to accomplish this.
It’s helpful to make a list of your fears–things that you’re afraid to do or say. Think about fears that disrupt your life; things that keep you from fully functioning. These fears might include such things as:
- Making a presentation to a prospective new client.
- Going someplace you’ve never been before on your own.
- Initiating conversations with new people in business or social situations.
- Having a talk with someone with whom you’re having a conflict or problem.
- Looking for a new job when you’re burnt out on the one you have.
- Learning to do something you’ve always wanted to do, i.e. ski, sing, fly a plane, write, ride a horse.
The more specifically you can define the fear, the greater the likelihood of your being able to work to overcome it. Once you’ve clearly defined some of your fears, here are three steps you can use to move through them.
- Use others as a model–that is, observe people you respect or admire successfully do the behavior that you’re afraid to do. Find people who are fearless about something that scares you and watch them. Observe as many people as you can and as many times as possible. Also, bring to mind any past successes either of others or your own.
- Practice or rehearse–this is a way of trying out new behaviors in your mind before doing them in real life. Imagine or visualize yourself successfully doing or saying what it is you fear. It’s important to see yourself going through the motions. If it’s possible, actually practice without pressure; say in front of a mirror or with a friend. During this step, it’s very important to consciously relax to reduce your tension (by deep breathing).
- Do it! Go ahead and try out the thing you’ve been afraid to do or say.
The presence of fear can signal an opportunity or a challenge instead of an uncomfortable problem to be avoided. When fears can be named and accepted as such, they become possible to handle. It’s even possible that you might welcome their existence as opportunities to become more of the person you want to be.