Feel the Fear. . .and Do it Anyway
Fear can stop you cold. It is maddening—because the fears that stop you will not draw blood or put you in the emergency room. Asking for a raise, giving a presentation, telling your spouse how you feel, returning a broken product, telling a direct report that their work products are inadequate—why should fears like these stop you?
Unlike the fear of walking along a cliff-edge or of a man pulling a knife, these fears don’t seem to serve any productive function. They are like sand in your gears—limiting your life, keeping you playing small, and leaving you frustrated.
You could say that fear of speaking up, for example, at a meeting does serve a function—it may protect you from saying something foolish. Maybe so, but keeping your mouth shut because you are afraid of looking foolish has a far greater consequence to your enjoyment of life than looking foolish does. You won’t find much joy in spending your days bottled up and repressed.
Fear, in a word, sucks.
Coaching a client to act in the face of fear is one of my great challenges as a coach. If a client can’t move through their fear, nothing changes in their life. So, reading Susan Jeffers’ book was important to me. Like many of the books I read, a client recommended it; a client who strove for great heights in her life and who—daily—had to deal with her fear.
Why do you feel fear?
Let me say upfront that I think this is an excellent book—both in its analysis and in its prescriptions. It corroborated many of the practices that I have developed working with scores of clients, and it offered me new insights and new ways of approaching fear both in my own life and in my coaching.
That said, Jeffers makes two assertions that I stumbled over. The first is that she claims that we are afraid when we don’t think we can “handle” (her word) what the world throws at us.
I tend to put “not being able to handle things” in the confidence/no confidence bucket—not in the fear bucket.
Fear, as I see it, is our psyche’s attempt to avoid uncomfortable and painful feelings. That is, fear is designed to stop us from doing things that might get painfully uncomfortable. What produces these painful feelings? Just a handful of experiences: humiliation/embarrassment, ostracism/rejection, being wrong/losing, and failing.
How many times have you not said something because you were afraid that you would be wrong, or sound foolish, or anger someone? What you were avoiding are the feelings that you would feel if any of those circumstances occurred. Humiliation hurts; rejection hurts, failing hurts. Fear protects you from those hurts.
Perhaps Jeffers would say that avoiding feelings that hurt is an example of not being able to handle something (i. e. your painful feelings). I think, however, that my distinction gives us a sharper and more usable understanding of the cause of your fear. I can put a client at choice: Is it more important to you to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of rejection or inviting that hot woman/man out for a drink? Simple choice.
You will always feel fear
Here’s the bad news—your fear is never going away. You will always have it unless you decide to be a couch potato for the rest of your life. As long as you are growing, taking on new challenges, reaching for higher bars, you will have your fear.
Any time you step out of your normal or out of your comfort zone, you risk failure, looking bad, rejection, and the rest. Your fear will kick in to keep you safe, comfortable, and right where you are.
So, you have two choices: you can cower before your fear, or you can step into it. Each of these choices has consequences. If you let your fear stop you, you won’t do what you want to do in life; you are likely to feel miserable about yourself, to chew yourself up, and, ultimately, to become resigned and cynical about life.
In which case, get used to your couch, a bowl of chips, and a lifetime of streaming Netflix.
Feel your fear and do it anyway
If, however, you gird your loins and muscle through your fear, even if you fail, you will feel better about yourself—and you will be building your “fear doesn’t stop me” muscle. You will be moving into a life of challenge and excitement.
Doing it anyway is Jeffers’ most important point. It’s the only way to deal with your fear. You can not make it go away—except by doing whatever it is that you fear. When you do it often enough, what once had you scared now becomes your new normal. That is, you will lose your fear at that level of effort. But, since you are committed to your growth and development and to enjoying life more fully, you’ll raise the stakes, challenge yourself to reach higher—and, consequently, bring fear back into your life.
Talking yourself out of your fear
Jeffers suggests that you tightly monitor the conversations you have with yourself. If your default self-talk is “I can’t do this; it’s too scary,” swap it out for “I am powerful, and I can make this happen.”
Using such affirmations is a key tactic in her strategy to move you through your fear. This is my second stumble with her thinking: that we can talk ourselves into a different frame of reference or mindset.
I semi-agree with her here. Fundamentally, we create our realities through language—change our language and our perception of the world changes. However, language works at many levels, and affirmations only address the topmost and least powerful level.
We interpret the world at a deeper and often unconscious level than the level that affirmations touch. If, for instance, you assume that the world is dangerous and that people are out to get you, then making an affirmation like “I am trusting” is not going to work because it contradicts your understanding of reality.
Coaches call these unconscious assumptions about the world (and ourselves) “contexts.” If a person makes affirmations that contradict their underlying context—they won’t believe them; the affirmations will feel fake and inauthentic.
The good news is that our contexts are just as much a construct of language as is our surface-level self-talk, so we can change them. Once changed, then the appropriate affirmation can help consolidate a more powerful understanding of your reality.
Living well helps you manage your fear
Jeffers spends the second half of the book talking less about fears and more about how to live life powerfully. Take responsibility—don’t blame others or your circumstances for the results you get in the world; create (note she didn’t say “find”) meaning and value in your life; avoid people who diminish your experience of life, find new friends who embrace it; learn to give non-transactionally, that is, don’t give to get back—give from love and service; purposely fill the whole of you—engage all those different aspects of your humanity, such as friends, family, spirituality, hobbies, work, fun—make certain they are tuned and in balance; and, importantly, create love and trust.
All good words and within these healthy life-affirming contexts, your fears—won’t disappear—but you will be much more courageous in managing them.
Jeffers published her book in 1987 and it’s encouraging to see how much of what she suggested 30-odd years ago has now become part of our understanding of what we must do to live life well. She was a path-setter.
If you are growing, if you are living big and playing to win, you will experience fear. The lesson is to go out and be, not fearless, but courageous in not letting your fear stop you. Make big things happen.