Photo by Paul Buceta
Fear. It’s a dark passenger that accompanies us in life. It’s in our excuses, indecision, insecurities, and worry. It rides along as we ruminate on past failures. Arguably, fear is the thing that holds us back from doing the hard things and realizing our fullest potential.
“Fear haunts all of us, especially women,” says San Francisco Bay Area blogger and influencer Julie Lignon. “For some, it is fear of the unknown, fear of what’s next. For others, it is fear of not being good enough, strong enough, smart enough. … Sometimes we fear our light will shine too bright, or that if another woman shines, there won’t be enough light for us.”
Whether it feels like your fears are as big as an elephant sitting on your chest, disabling you from making your move, or as incessantly irritating as a determined bee buzzing in your ear, you’ll discover that while there’s no way to irradicate your fears completely, with a little practice, you can actually befriend what scares you and learn to use it to your advantage.And on that note, be cautioned that your fears are unlikely to evaporate overnight. In most cases, your brain has spent decades developing these thoughts and feelings, and it’s important to give yourself time and grace in this unraveling process that can be difficult, even painful. “Like any skill worth having, it takes time to build our courage muscles, and we’re more likely to succeed by building and climbing our personal courage ladder one rung at a time from the bottom,” says Jim Detert, author of the forthcoming book, Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work and professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
A BIOLOGICAL BEAST
So what is fear, exactly? Turns out, your brain’s not an expert at distinguishing between different threat levels. “[Fear] is our biological response to danger or perceived danger—perceived being the keyword,” says Libby Gill, a Los Angeles-based executive coach and award-winning author of You Unstuck. “We are hardwired to avoid danger, and the amygdala, our brain’s fear center, makes no distinction between actual physical danger like getting eaten by a tiger and perceived danger, like raising our hand to speak in a meeting of senior managers.”
In addition, our brains store past fears in a phenomenon that scientists call “fear memory consolidation.” As part of our natural defense system, fear memories have such strong and lasting influence that they can impact behavior for years. For example, if you felt that you made a fool of yourself giving a speech in high school, a fear of public speaking can follow you into your professional life and prevent you from becoming an effective communicator. These biological responses to frightening or humiliating situations can mean that your fears are deep rooted, painfully personal, and sometimes even irrational.
BEFRIEND YOUR FEARS
The first step in understanding your fears is to know them, and journaling is a healthy way to start that process. “Journaling is one of the most powerful tools to use when figuring out what’s holding you back,” says Ellen Torreyson, a certified professional coach with a BA in psychology from the University of Texas in Austin. Torreyson suggests writing down what’s eating you, whether it’s ending a toxic relationship, writing your first novel, or applying for a job promotion. Wait a few minutes, then write down even more—keep wringing out your brain until you get all your thoughts on paper.
Then, she said, go down the list and ask yourself why three to five times to dig deeper. For example:
“I want to quit my job and start a new business, but I’m afraid I won’t have enough money.”
“I think I need to have $____ in the bank before I can quit.”
“I want to maintain the same quality of life that I have now.”
“I don’t want anyone to judge me or talk about me or think less of me.”
By distilling your thoughts down to figure out your true fears, you can begin to replace the negative thought patterns that don’t serve you with ones that do. You may need to do this over and over again or even enlist the help of an accountability partner or professional coach, but eventually, those fears will subside or at least become manageable, Torreyson said.
Want to learn more about your deepest fears?
Take the test! Ruth Soukup, author of Do It Scared: Finding the Courage to Face Your Fears, Overcome Obstacles, and Create a Life You Love, developed seven fear archetypes that can give you insight into your unique personality, and detail the positive and negative traits of how you handle fear.
Go to DoItScared.com/dis-assessment to learn more.
DON’T LIVE UP tO EXPECTATIONS
When you’re ready to begin dismantling what’s holding you back, be prepared to mentally transport back to your early days. As children, we often are given labels that we wear into our adult lives and these labels can translate into fears and limitations. You may have been told you were “not an athlete,” you were “mean,” or you were “lazy.” These labels then give us license to make excuses for why we can’t do something.
“Sometimes we unintentionally hang on to labels of the past, those emotional remnants that may or may not have been true in the first place,” Gill says. “Maybe your parents or a former boss labeled you as ‘cold’ or ‘mean,’ so you’ve avoided having the tough conversations that are often necessary in business, in case you come off as mean. If you reframe that label to ‘direct’ or ‘straight-forward,’ it can empower you to give feedback without feeling cold or heartless.”
FOCUS ON tHE GOOD
We have approximately 60,000 thoughts going on in our minds throughout the day, and what we put our energy to is what gets solidified in the subconscious mind, says Aureen M. Monteiro, author of RISE HIGHER: 9 Steps for a Woman to Overcome Any Challenge, Become the Leader She Deserves To Be & Do What She Loves. However, she warns, the subconscious mind cannot differentiate between what is real and what is merely a thought. So when you’re having a serious case of imposter syndrome in your new job, whether or not you can actually handle the job doesn’t resonate in your subconscious—just the fact that you think you can’t does. That’s why it’s so important to focus on what you want, rather than what you don’t want.
“Even if you are in a difficult situation, the fact that you are still alive and thinking means you are strong and facing the adversity head-on; pat yourself on your back,” Monteiro says. “Being grateful for all you have gives you the strength.”
THE GREAT MOTIVATOR
Fear is not always negative and, in fact, it can be a powerful motivator, according to Amy Jo Palmquest, 36, of Olympia, Washington, who used her fear to open up her own training studio. “I had been a trainer and a nutritionist for years, but I knew I wanted to impact more people,” Palmquest explains. “Honestly, I was scared to death. A new lease, multiple people counting on me, juggling being a mom, a business owner, and wife. I was petrified.”
But Palmquest forged on. The fear never fully went away, but she learned how to use it. “I would say the petrifying fear has subsided over the years, but I always have what I call a ‘healthy fear’ in the back of my mind,” Palmquest says. “This fear continues to challenge me to do more, to reach more people, to never be complacent or satisfied with where I’m at. My healthy fear keeps me driving forward for even greater things to come.” Now, five years later, Palmquest is celebrating a thriving business that helps transform people’s lives for the better.
SINK oR SWIM, JUST DIVE IN
If you’re a perfectionist at heart, we’ll bet that you have a hard time just getting the thing done. If you’re waiting until your novel or business plan is “perfect” before you share it with the world, then, spoiler alert, it will never be released, says James Patrick, a business coach, podcast host, and internationally published photographer from Phoenix, Arizona.
“The only true thing that can get you closer to perfection is releasing your ideas to market and paying attention to the feedback you get from your audience or your clients on how to better your offerings,” Patrick says. “An imperfect idea that’s launched will become infinitely more successful than the perfect idea that never sees the light of day.” In other words, it almost doesn’t matter if you fail or if you succeed—the lessons you learn from taking action will be the very fuel you need to succeed later.
While the path to reframing and overcoming your fears is a guaranteed uphill battle, the rewards that are waiting for you are undoubtedly worth the fight. “At the end of the day, it’s up to you and you alone to do what it takes to get to your dream destination or live your dream life,” said Monteiro. “What will you do to start living courageously?”
IS DEFINITELY AN OPTION
“If failure is not an option, then neither is success,” said James Patrick, a business coach, podcast host, and internationally published photographer from Phoenix, Arizona. “I’ve failed plenty of times in my journey, but that’s part of the reason I’ve generated the success that I have in my career.”
So, how can we tap into the magical power that failure possesses? “One of the best ways you can use a failure is to allow it to give you the clarity of exactly what you do not want,” said Scott St. John, co-founder of Strong Confident Living, a unique wellness movement that offers mindset classes and fitness coaching. For instance, a divorce can tell you the qualities you’d rather steer clear from in your next relationship. “Failure sometimes helps us find the certainty we were lacking by giving us a clear picture of where we need to draw the line in the sand.”
Another failure perk? It can also give your resiliency muscles a workout. “Experiencing failure is important because it allows us to develop, adapt, and improve,” said Kris Coleman, author of Raise Your Resiliency: You, Your Family, and Your Business Can Achieve Resiliency in an Uncertain World. Each time we fail can be a new opportunity to grow, learn, and practice reframing our mindset.
ONWARD, WITH BRAVERY
Coleman suggests that resilience and staring down your fears go hand-in-hand. Here are his tips to support yourself as you venture down your courageous path.
1. Make connections. Whether it’s a conversation with a colleague or getting to know your neighbors, these shared experiences are key to understanding your environment when faced with fear, while building a support system.
2. Foster a sense of awareness. Start by paying closer attention to your fears, in what situations they appear, and what triggers them.
3. Avoid doomsday thinking. Although crises are difficult and often unexpected, it’s best to avoid seeing situations as insurmountable. Instead, they may be an opportunity to grow.
4. Take decisive action. When faced with a fearful situation, it is critical to zero in on the matter at hand, get enough information, analyze, and then make the decision and move forward. No ruminating for you!
5. Accept that change is a part of life. While this step seems simple, understanding this reality is key to progressing, evolving, and adapting to variables over which we have no control.
If you’re struggling to manage your fears, consider seeking help from a professional, be it a career coach, a therapist, or otherwise. The important thing is to get past your fears and stop allowing them to hold you back.