By Marta Czajkowska & Renée Tillotson
We gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which we really stop to look fear squarely in the eye. Then we can say, ‘If I could live through this, I can take the next thing that comes along.’ When we do the thing we think we cannot do, we broaden our perspective of what’s possible. In overcoming adversity and fear, we become more resilient.
In When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön, a young warrior asks Fear itself how it can be defeated. Fear answers: “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.”
So it’s OK to experience fear, we just don’t have to let it bully us! We don’t have to be stopped by it.
An inherent challenge lies in this concept of overriding fear: when to allow fear to change my path, and when to ignore it.
When faced with this quandary, we can ask ourselves, ‘What’s in my best long-term interest?” So instead of following a blanket statement, we consciously pick our battles. Do we need to overcome our fear of getting dengue fever by exposing ourselves to it? Obviously not.
A couple tools to help us deal with fear:
Imagine the worst-case scenario
Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Think through the outcome that makes you most afraid, so that you can then consider how you would deal with it were it to happen. If you can think through the worst that can happen, and live with that, there’s no need to refrain from going forward. Fear doesn’t ever really go away, nor should it. If you cannot successfully imagine your way through the worst-case scenario, that’s probably not a course of action you should take.
Psychologist Amy Bucher writes: “Just as there seems to be an optimal level of stress for growth and learning, a certain amount of fear can lead to high performance. Fear signals there’s something of consequence on the line, a reason to exert effort.”
2. Make one tiny step, regularly – maybe daily!
Systematically exposing ourselves to the things that scare us propels us forward. If we approach threatening situations with assurance that we can exercise control over ourselves within that context, they seem less scary. We self-empower.
“Exposure is hands down the most successful way to deal with phobias, anxiety disorders, and everyday fears of any sort. Repeatedly exposing ourselves to the thing we’re afraid of, ideally in a positive way, gradually brings down the physiological fear response until it’s gone, or at least manageable,” says neuroscientist Philippe Goldin.