zenhabits : breathe

Conquer the Fears Lurking in the Dark Corners of Your Mind

“Fear grows in darkness; if you think there’s a bogeyman around, turn on the light.” - Dorothy Thompson

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

I was reading Confessions of a Shopaholic recently and ran across a passage that struck a chord with me … the main character is avoiding thinking about increasingly urgent letters from banks and creditors, trying to push these worries out of her mind:

“I’m well aware that at the back of my mind, thumping quietly like a drumbeat, are the twin horrors of Guilt and Panic.

“Guilt Guilt Guilt Guilt.

“Panic Panic Panic Panic.

“If I let them, they’d swoop in and take over. I’d feel completely paralyzed with misery and fear. So the trick I’ve learned is simply not to listen. My mind is very well trained like that.”

This passage struck a chord because I’ve been there. I’ve had those horrors of guilt and panic at the back of my mind, many times.

I’ve done it with debt — I let the letters from creditors pile up, trying to ignore them, not wanting to face them.

I’ve done it with my health, knowing I was growing overweight, not wanting to think about the things I was eating.

I’ve done it with smoking, knowing it was bad for me, but trying not to think about it, puffing away.

I’ve done it with projects that I knew I should be working on, but didn’t want to think about them … because I was afraid, for some reason, to face them.

Does any of this sound familiar? Do you have fears lurking in the deepest, darkest corners of your mind? Fears you don’t want to face and try to push back, closing your eyes so you don’t have to see how horrible they are?

If so, I highly recommend you face them now. Be bold and brave. Bring them out into the light of day.

It’s an amazing relief when you actually do face these fears. They actually turn out to be not so bad, not so overwhelming or intimidating. It’s a huge load off your shoulders — you’re liberated from your fear!

What Are Your Fears?
I don’t mean fears like the fear of height or spiders or public speaking … although you should face these fears too … I’m talking about fears that you know you should face but just push back anyway, not wanting to deal with them.

Think about it right now — it will only take a few seconds. What are your fears? What has been lurking at the back of your mind?

Is it debt? Some other financial problem? Not wanting to face retirement planning, or creating a will, or getting insurance?

Is it health? Overeating? Junk food? Sweets? Smoking? Lack of exercise?

Is it relationships? A bad relationship? Guilt over something you’ve done to someone else? Not spending time with a loved one? Not dealing with a festering relationship problem?

Is it work? A project you’ve been procrastinating on? Something you’ve been hiding from everyone else? Something you might have lied about?

Is it clutter? Do you have piles of papers and stuff all over your house? Are there things in your home you’ve been leaving undone?

It could be anything — something you know you should deal with but don’t want to think about.

Identify it now — that’s the first step, and it’s an important one.

Bring the Fear Into the Light
Fears have power over us not because they’re so horrible — even if some of them might be kinda bad — but because we allow them to hide in the darkness and intimidate us. We are paralyzed by these fears. As a great man once said, we have nothing to fear … but fear itself.

The solution: shine some light on the fear.

The answer to the problem of darkness has always been light. Bring the fear into the daylight, and it won’t be so powerful.

Sure, the problem will still exist, and it may be a difficult problem. You’ll still have that debt to deal with — but it will simply be a matter of cutting back on some expenses so you can make bi-weekly payments on your debts, until they’re eliminated. That’s not so terrible when you think of it that way — a series of actions that needs to be taken. More on this in the next section.

So you have to start by shining some light on your fear — and do this by sitting down and thinking about the problem. Write it out. Make a list. If it’s debt, write down all your debts and get the amounts owed. If it’s health, write down exactly what your health problems are, in detail. It may seem silly to write down problems, but this is how you shine the light on them: by taking a look at them.

If you have problems even taking a look at the problem, ask yourself this question: what’s the worst thing that could happen?

Often it’s not that bad. If it’s debt, the worst is that you’d have a large debt to pay off, and it would take a long time. Or maybe that you’d have to file for bankruptcy — which isn’t as bad as you might think. I’ve had relatives that filed for bankruptcy, and — gasp — they are living normal lives right now.

If the worst-case scenario really is bad, seek help. Talk to someone about it — a friend or family member, or someone online even. This is another good way to shine some light on the problem — share it with someone else.

Make a Plan of Action
Once you’ve taken a look at the fear, make a plan to take action. This is how you overcome the fear — with action. When you take action on a problem, it’s not so bad — it’s just a series of steps you need to take to solve the problem. You aren’t paralyzed anymore when you start to take action.

Make a simple plan, on a small sheet of paper, to solve the problem. What actions are needed? Make the steps actually actionable — instead of “cut back on spending”, write “make a list of expenses that can be eliminated” or something like that. Instead of “start paying off debts” write something like “set up automatic payment for Visa card”.

The plan will kill the fear. It is taking something that is scary and unknown, and turning it into something concrete, solvable, doable.

Then, take action. Take the first step on your action plan, and do it. Today if possible. This action will be the final nail in the coffin of your fear. Once you’re taking action on the problem, the fear stands no chance, because it’s no longer something lurking in the dark that you can’t conquer — it’s just a few items on your to-do list that you can knock off in less than an hour each.

“You must do the things you think you cannot do.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

Don’t Let Fears Fester
It’s good to learn to recognize these fears, to become aware of them. They really have power over us when we allow them to fester in the dark, when we do our best not to think about them.

When you notice that you have one of these fears, shine some light on it by writing it down, talking to someone about it, writing out a plan, and taking action. It’s not impossible — it’s doable.

And when you’ve done that, you’ll feel light, relieved, happy.

What are your lurking fears? Share in the comments!

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