Before we even get started, I want you to think of a time where you were afraid to do something. Maybe you were afraid of doing something that pushed your body physically. Maybe you were afraid of saying the wrong thing, and ended up regretting that you said nothing at all. Or what about this: you were afraid to do something you felt passionate about because of what other people might think.
The reality is, all of us have experienced fear in our lives in some way. When it comes to our physical safety, we can all attest to “fight-or-flight” kicking in as a way to try to protect ourselves. But what about the kind of fear that keeps us from asking for and doing what we want? Or even the fear of success?
The kind of fear that I’m talking about is an ego-based fear that feasts on our insecurities and judgments. It’s the fear that keeps us “hustling for approval” (as Brene Brown writes), and it keeps us should-ing on ourselves.
Since a Transformational Presence group call that I was a part of a couple weeks ago, fear has been on my mind a lot. Mostly, I’ve been asking a lot of questions about it, like:
As I mentioned before, there are basically two types of fear. Each type is born in a different part of our brain. There’s the “fight/flight/freeze” type of fear, which is activated in our “reptilian” brain. No, you’re not a lizard, but rather the “reptilian brain” is the most basic, simple part of our brain that is buried under years of evolution and progress. The long and short of it is that it’s responsible for making sure we don’t die when our physical safety might be threatened.
The other type of fear, the one that is linked to our ego, lives in our amygdala. Our amygdala is part of the limbic system - or, simply put - the part of our system where our emotional responses live. It’s also connected to learning and memory. When you put emotions, experiences, and memory together, you have the basic building blocks for our ego or sense of self.
So when we start to feel afraid of letting our voices be heard, of living our passions, of stepping out beyond fear, that’s the amygdala/ego partnership whispering “Bitch, please. Who do you think you are?” It’s the part of us that wonders if we’re “enough.” The part that is scared of success. The part that is scared of showing up and being authentic.
When we listen to that voice, we shrink. We hide our magic from the world and we compromise who we are.
And who wants to be about that kind of life? I know I sure don’t.
But here’s the thing: we can’t just tell fear to eff off.
I don’t know about you, but every time I’ve tried to shut down the voice of fear it hasn’t worked so well. It finds a way to get louder, more insidious.
It’s like this: fear is like a crying baby. When a baby cries, it’s letting us know that it needs something or that it’s uncomfortable. To a certain extent, we can hush it, rock it, or plug it up with a pacifier and it will pipe down for a little bit. But if we don’t give that babe what it needs, it’s just going to get more and more pissed off. It's going to go into full on meltdown mode and make our life a living hell. Fear is the exact same way.
When I started my coach training, my teacher Alan Seale from the Center for Transformational Presence offered me a perspective about fear that has changed my life. I call it “inviting your dragons to tea.” Basically, I imagine myself sitting down for a cup of tea with whatever it is that is scaring the shit out of me at the moment. And we have a conversation. We talk about what I want. Then I ask the fear about what it wants, and what it needs to feel better.
What we need to understand is that ego-based fear just wants to keep us safe. It wants to protect us from too much vulnerability, from failure, and the negative perceptions of others. When we understand that none of these things threaten our physical sense of safety, we can start on the process of soothing the ego and doing some discovery on reality versus ego’s perception.
Case in point: After I put in my notice at the non-profit I worked at so that I could focus on building my business, it felt like a 5 alarm fire suddenly started in my head. My ego was going bezerker. What was I thinking? I was going to be a miserable failure as an entrepreneur! And what about my health insurance and retirement benefits? I am never going to be secure again! Who is going to hire me? Who am I to help other people? What are people going to say?
You get the picture.
All of those messages that my ego was sending me, courtesy of my amygdala, were a result of unchecked emotions and irrational thoughts that highlighted any and every instance of failure and rejection I’d ever experienced.
But here’s the deal: While our emotions and perceptions are valid and part of our experience - IT DOES NOT MEAN THAT THEY ARE RATIONAL AND TRUE.
So this is the spot where I was cued to dive into inquiry mode:
What do I need to feel as secure as possible?
What were some important lessons that I learned when things didn’t work out as I planned?
What’s the cost of NOT following my dreams?
What does it matter what naysayers think?
These questions highlight some of the tricks and tools that folks who are well-versed in navigating and soothing fears.
Let’s spell these out in a little more detail and give you a few more tools for managing fear when you’re on the brink of something great and refuse to be held back:
1. Separate reality from perception
See the reality of the situation for what it is. Be rational and get clear on the facts. Do a little soul searching and journaling to explore your perception of the situation at hand. But remember: your perception is not reality.
2. Identify your triggers
Isolate the specific aspects of the situation that trigger your fearful thoughts. What’s the worst that could happen? Change the way you look at these triggers and you will immediately change the way you react.
3. Be observant
When you observe something, try to imagine yourself detached from the situation. Like a fly on the wall. When you develop the ability to observe your fears from an outside perspective, you give yourself permission to take the ego out of it.
4. Listen to yourself
Monitor your self-talk (i.e. the conversations in your head aka “the shitty committee”). When you hear negative self-talk, stop and change the script to positive talk. Keep repeating it. This is one of the few times I will tell anyone to fake it until they make it.
5. Form new associations
When you feel fear, conjure up a picture of something or someone you love. Keep repeating this and soon your brain will associate your fear trigger with something much more pleasurable.
6. Consider the BEST possibility
Imagine the BEST OUTCOME that could happen and come up with strategies that will contribute to your success. On the flip-side, what can you put in place to ensure that the worst-case scenario never happens?
7. Think positively
Perception is a very powerful thing and how you feel about your situation dictates how you respond. The practice of positive thinking is one way to add to the likelihood of your success.
8. Tune into your body
Be in tune with where your fear lives in your body. Use it as an indicator to tell you when something needs to be addressed. What you are aware of you can act on.
9. Remember to breathe
Because fear happens in the emotional part of the brain, it’s natural to act instinctively. So when fear rises, break the fear cycle by stopping, creating space and breathing. This will give you time to calm down and allow your rational brain time to catch up.
10. Focus on safety
When you feel safe, there is no need for fear. One of the best ways to overcome fear is to create the safest environment possible. That’s why it’s important to practice, practice and practice again.
11. Don't let it stop you
Finally, don’t let fear hold you back from living your life to its fullest potential. Failure happens. And, yes, sometimes it stings. But it’s a part of learning and we can’t win if we don’t ever try. As Truman Capote once said, “Failure is the condiment on the hot dog of life.”
Allow yourself to work WITH fear, rather than against it. When we can begin to see fear as nothing more than our ego being scared of not having its needs met, we can soothe that inner-doubt and become more courageous than we ever could have imagined.