We ended last week talking about fear.
While we were specifically focused on our natural fear of change, we studied the idea of fear as a whole.
Fear makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective, but can be overbearing in the modern context.
There are still times when being afraid helps. Our fight or flight instinct helps us get out of the way of an oncoming train or lift a car off our child.
But there are times when our fear is harmful. Our natural instincts can prevent us from introducing ourselves to someone out of fear of embarrassing ourselves. This in turn can prevent us from forming a relationship that leads to lifelong friendships, career boosts, or other improvements in our lives.
To make sure fear doesn’t prevent us from living our best life, we need to get better at examining and overcoming it.
We need to set goals that scare us.
When is Fear Useful?
The first step in overcoming fear is thinking about the things that scare you.
We need to be able to distinguish between situations where our fear is a useful guide and where it is holding us back.
If my chest gets tight and my breath gets short when I take a corner going 90 in my car, it’s probably a fair indicator that I should stop doing that.
If my fear wells up when my boss asks for volunteers to give a presentation to upper management, then it is something that I need to overcome for the sake of my career.
Both fears are equally real, but the former is still useful and the latter is an ancient fear in a modern world.
When Fear Points the Way
When we find that we have a fear that is no longer useful, we should examine it even further.
Sometimes the fear is simply what it appears to be: an outdated instinct. If I’m afraid to give a toast at an event, it is probably because I’m afraid to speak in front of crowds regardless of the context.
Sometimes, however, we can learn something more. Sometimes the fear is an indicator that something is more important to us than we may have realized.
Have you ever seen a job listing and thought, “This job is the perfect fit for me!” and then never actually applied? Maybe you kept it on your to do list, but you just felt a creeping fear when you thought about it, so you put it off until you realized you missed the deadline.
This is an example of the fear that can point you in the right direction if you take the time to recognize it.
There is no underlying, generic fear that obviously causes it. You aren’t afraid of writing cover letters. You’ve sent hundreds of job applications for other jobs. There’s no reason for this one to be any different.
But it is. Because your subconscious knows that this one is more important to you. And it is afraid of screwing it up.
Life Lessons From How I Met Your Mother
I always brushed off the idea of the fear of failure. It feels too abstract. Too academic. Probably some made up, new age bull.
But when I think back on my life, I see it everywhere.
I don’t know how common it is to get life lessons from sitcoms, but a scene in How I Met Your Mother hit me pretty hard when I first saw it.
At the beginning of the episode Ted triumphantly announces that he is starting his own architecture firm. He then spends the rest of the episode procrastinating reaching out to any potential clients.
At the end of the episode, after being confronted about it, he says, “The longer I put off starting my own firm, the longer it can remain a dream and not something I screwed up at.”
I always knew that I was a bad procrastinator, but I had never really thought about why. I tried all the tips and hacks that the Internet could offer, but never actually examined the underlying fear.
Looking back, I think I might have been Ted Mosby without the self-awareness.
How Never To Fail
I’ve come to realize over the last few years that part of my procrastination stems from giving myself an excuse for failure. If I didn’t do well on a paper in school it wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough, it was because I didn’t start until the night before it was due.
If I succeed without putting effort in, then I’m naturally talented! If I fail without putting effort in, then it doesn’t reflect back on my abilities. If I never put my full effort behind anything, then any failure is never because I’m not good enough.
My fear led me to protect my ego from the harsh realities of failure. I never had to have that reckoning with myself.
It also set me up for a future filled with regret at never fulfilling my potential.
Pushing Past Fear
Pushing past that fear doesn’t guarantee success. It doesn’t mean that your fear was unfounded. You may actually fail.
What overcoming your fear means is that you will do something rather than nothing.
Maybe that something isn’t much. Maybe it leads nowhere.
But maybe it does lead somewhere. Maybe it is the exact step you need to take next to live the life you want.
The only way to find out is to get over your fear and try.
Build the Muscle
The only way to get better at fighting fear is to fight fear.
You can’t make fear disappear, as much as inspirational quotes on Instagram may you have believe otherwise. A person without fear isn’t brave. He’s a sociopath.
The key is to train yourself to feel the fear and push forward anyway. This is a skill that you can enhance. A muscle that you can grow.
In the same way that doing exercises that stress your body is the way to build muscle, overcoming fear in small ways is the best way to build your ability to overcome larger fears.
How to Overcome Fear
So how do we build that muscle? Here are three useful tools to apply.
We discussed fear setting in detail last week and I recommend giving that a read. However, the short version is that we are imagining our worst case scenarios.
What’s the worst that could happen if everything goes wrong?
How would I avoid that situation?
If it happens, how would I fix it?
Thinking through these questions can help us recognize that our fears are overblown.
One exercise that I like, from Nerd Fitness, is to think about what you would rather have done 10 years from now.
In a decade all of the fear that we feel right now will be long past. Any embarrassment that could arise will seem small in the rear view mirror. Think about the things you were afraid of trying ten years ago. Don’t they seem kind of silly now?
Time gives us perspective. A more clear vision.
Asking what we would rather have done 10 years from now allows us to step back from the fear and try to escape the obscuring cloud that it creates in our judgment.
This is an oldie but a goodie:
Tell others what you plan to do.
You can make this as simple or as complex as you want. You can start a blog to document your journey. You can ask a friend to check in on your progress every few weeks. You can join an accountability group online somewhere. Just find someone else that you have to talk to.
This will make it harder to back out when the fear hits.
Sure, you’ll still have the fear. It will still feel as real and as hard as ever. But now you have a countervailing force. If you quit, you’ll have to explain it to others. You’ll have to publicly admit to quitting.
It’s not magic, but it could be just enough to keep you moving forward.
Join the Conversation!
What about you? Do you have any goals that scare you? Any other tips for conquering fear? Join the conversation below!
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