Fear is a tricky thing. For some, it can be the enemy — a paralyzing experience, difficult to handle. For others, it may be a driving force. Our relationship to fear is usually complicated and nuanced, and it impacts our lives in many different and highly personal ways. Nevertheless, when it comes to fear there is one thing we all have in common: We have all experienced it.
It’s a theme that comes up all the time when I’m talking to my clients. They are afraid of risk, afraid of failure, afraid of vulnerability, or stepping outside of their comfort zones. As I always tell them, those feelings are 100% natural.
After all, what is fear?
Some people think of it as the opposite of bravery; a weakness, or failure of character. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s a highly evolved behavioral response, designed and honed over the millennia to keep us safe.
Fear is just our body trying to protect us from danger.
In the modern world, of course, things aren’t always so simple. We often find ourselves afraid even when we know in our rational minds that there is no real threat. Maybe we fear confrontation with that aggressive co-worker or asking for a raise. Perhaps we feel afraid that our work will be viewed as inadequate, or that we have made a mistake. Or maybe we are simply afraid to give that big presentation to a room full of people.
Whatever the source, it can feel as though our fear is standing in our way, holding us back, a hindrance and an inconvenience, not a help.
When we confront fear head-on, it can seem daunting and impossible to overcome. Still, what if we were to look at fear from another point of view?
Engage with Fear
Here’s the truth about fear: It is never there for no reason. Even when it doesn’t feel rational, when it’s more of a frustrating inconvenience than anything else, it is still coming from somewhere inside of you, as a reaction to something that, on some level, you are perceiving as a threat.
That’s good news, though. If being afraid was like being cold, just a product of your external environment, there’d be nothing you could do about it.
It’s pretty hard to engage productively with a weather system, right?
But fear isn’t like the weather. It’s a physiological response that originates within your body, and it always happens for a reason.
A quick caveat: When I discuss fear in this context, I’m not necessarily talking about anxiety disorders. If you have serious anxiety or panic attacks, and you find this article helpful in dealing with your symptoms, great! However, without treatment, these disorders do tend to remain. If you think you might need treatment but aren’t sure where to begin, here are some resources for immediate help.
Having said that, fear is a result of stimuli, whether internal or external. So, rather than trying to ignore or suppress your fear, what if you asked yourself what it is trying to tell you? Rather than trying to battle the physical symptoms of fear, what if you could instead engage directly with the trigger of those symptoms?
What challenge is being presented, and what is actually at stake? If you can start interrogating your fear in this way, you will find it much easier to…
Stay in Control
Once we identify the fear, we tend to notice that it is not as big vertically as it is horizontally. By that I mean the feeling of fear itself can be overwhelming and can block our view. Yet, when we identify the source of the fear, we often discover it is not proportional to the feeling. We may even be able to easily climb right over it.
If you’ve ever had a dog, you know that they tend to bark loudly at noises they hear outside. Often, they do this to alert you to potential threats. Of course, as a human, you know that the mailman or that squirrel isn’t exactly “Code Red” material. But the dog doesn’t know that, and by letting you know they heard something, they are trying to be helpful to you.
Fear is similar. And just as you don’t call the police every time your dog barks, you can also make the final decision on how to react when your fear raises the alarm.
Once you’ve engaged with your fear, and identified the source or trigger, it’s important to call your own shots when it comes to your response.
Personally, I always feel grateful for my fear. I think of it as a form of my natural intuition trying to draw my attention to something —maybe something important.
So I acknowledge my fear and thank it. Ultimately, though, it’s up to me to…
Turn Fear into Action
Fear only gets more powerful when we try to ignore or control it. Once tamed, however, it can work to your advantage. Developing a healthy relationship with fear can allow you to harness it and use it to inform your actions.
Former extreme skier and thought leader Kristen Ulmer describes developing intimacy with fear: “You become stronger together versus apart.”
Fear is a piece of information asking for your attention. What’s more, it’s something your subconscious thinks is so important that it over-rides your consciousness and floods you with emotion.
Wouldn’t you rather make the most informed decision possible, both in the workplace and in life?
To do so, you need to open yourself up to what fear has to say.
Harnessing the power of fear, like any new skill, takes some practice. We are conditioned to push our fear down instead of trying to learn from it and changing our habits can take time. Yet, if you stay with it, you may find that fear can be a very valuable tool.
If you find that you need some extra help, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. You don’t have to face fear alone.