zenhabits : breathe

Five Great Ways to Conquer Your Fears

Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Doug Heacock of Underpants Office.

It is a rare person who lives without fear of one kind or another.  You may fear heights, or spiders, or new situations, or rejection–whatever your fears may be, you can either let those fears form boundaries beyond which you can’t move or grow, or you can face them head-on and allow them to become opportunities to move into new places in your life.  The choice is truly yours.

Fear can be paralyzing, literally, for some people.  As a camp counselor many years ago, I helped teach rappelling to high-school students, and there were some who were eager to step off the edge of the cliff and experience the thrill of zipping down on a rope.  But there were some who were so afraid of heights (or more specifically, of falling), that no matter how much I tried to assure them that the rope would not break, and that they could completely control their rate of descent, they simply froze up and could not take that first step over the edge.

Fear is not always a bad thing.  There are obviously some things about which we should be afraid and in which we should exercise appropriate caution.  But if our fears control us, or prevent us from taking certain risks, we allow those fears to define us, to limit us only to courses of action that we deem sufficiently safe, and as a result, many of us never achieve our potential–or we cheat ourselves out of the richness that life could otherwise hold for us.

1.  Realize that everyone is afraid of something.
I am the only person in my household who is not deathly afraid of spiders.  If a spider of any size or species turns up anywhere in my house and my wife or one of my children sees it, I have to drop whatever I am doing to deal with it.  Once, while I was out of town on a business trip, I got a phone call from my wife, who was in a state of panic because there was a spider in the kitchen.  (I had to make arrangements for a neighbor to come over and kill it.)  Spiders don’t bother me, but if a wasp gets anywhere near me, I simply have to leave.  On one occasion, I jumped from the top of a twenty-foot ladder while painting a house, fearing a wasp that was hovering nearby far more than the risk of injuring myself seriously by jumping off the ladder.

Others may not fear the same things you fear, but everyone fears something, and understanding this can help you not to feel isolated in your fear.  You’re not alone, and the fact that you are fearful in some area doesn’t make you a weak person.

Try this:  find someone to talk to about your fears–you may find that someone else has faced the same fears as you, and has found a way through them that can help you.

2.  You don’t have to overcome your fear all at once.
When my daughters were very young–still toddlers–we enrolled them in swimming lessons with a friend who taught children as young as six months old to swim.  She didn’t do this by just tossing the kids into the water on the first day.  She gradually introduced them to the water, holding them and allowing them to get used to it, teaching them how to float on their backs and so on, until eventually, they were able to jump in and swim on their own.

If you are fearful of public speaking, for example, you may not want to begin addressing this fear by booking a speaking gig in front of a thousand people.  As a high-school student, I was abnormally shy, so as you might imagine, my sophomore speech class was a serious challenge for me.  My first speech assignment was to introduce myself to the class with a five-minute talk about myself, and after about two minutes of stuttering through my notes in abject terror, my field of vision literally began to narrow, and I thought I might actually black out on the spot, so I just stopped and went back to my seat without finishing.  I got an “F” for that assignment, and my teacher, knowing that I was really struggling with stage fright, asked me come see her after school.  She was understanding and encouraging, and let me give her my speech one-on-one, and the next time I had to give a speech, I did much better.  I went on to study broadcast journalism in college, which involved reporting and occasionally anchoring our college television newscast, and one of my first jobs after college involved weekly talks to groups of teenagers.  These days I face a crowd of several hundred people every week, and although I still get a few butterflies now and then, I’m far more at ease than I was that day in high school.  But it didn’t happen all at once.  Remember:  baby steps are okay.

Try this:  write down something you are afraid of, some fear you want to overcome, and make a list of three small steps you think you CAN make to begin facing up to your fear.  Choose one and do it tomorrow.

3. Approach your fears as opportunities for growth.
You don’t really want to be afraid, do you?  If you think about what your life might be like if you weren’t afraid of that thing, whatever it is, you know that things would be better.  If you look beyond the fear to the benefits of overcoming the fear, you may see a world that might just be worth taking some risk to live in.

Take a few minutes and make a list of the pros and cons of dealing with the thing that you’re afraid of:

If you can objectively appraise the advantages to moving past your fear, you may come to see your fear as an opportunity to grow.  The adage, “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and all of its various permutations (e.g., “no guts, no glory”) are based on the time-tested principle that we can’t grow if we don’t allow ourselves to be stretched.  You know this is true in the physical realm–a muscle that isn’t regularly used eventually atrophies and becomes useless–and it is no less true in other areas of our lives.

Try this:  write a paragraph or two about how your life will be different when you overcome that fear that has dogged you for so long, and why the potential benefits are worth some risk.

4. Be careful how you talk to yourself about what you fear.
Sometimes we are fearful of what we imagine might happen if we step outside of our comfort zone.  It’s all too easy to convince yourself that your reasons for being afraid are all valid.   I once heard a wise man say, “More important than what happens to us is how we talk to ourselves about what happens to us.”  This is so true–we can imagine all sorts of negative things when we contemplate something we’re afraid of, but this doesn’t make those things real.

It is entirely natural to be fearful of the unknown.  You don’t know what might happen if you make that phone call to the person who intimidates you, or you’re not sure how the boss might react if you really speak your mind.  Why not go ahead and make a list of the possible outcomes?  What do you really have to lose if you take the risk?  Seeing that list on paper may help you see how irrational some of your fears really are.  Don’t forget to include in your list the possibility that things might turn out for the better.

Try this:  instead of convincing yourself to believe the worst about something you fear, try imagining the best.

5. Failure isn’t necessarily the end of the world.
If there is one fear that is common to nearly all of us, it is the fear of failure.  While there are some scenarios in which failure is potentially devastating, or perhaps even life-threatening, most of the time it isn’t.  Yet the fear of failure short-circuits ideas, stymies careers and deprives us of experiences and opportunities that could enrich our lives.

If you have an idea and don’t try it for fear of failure, you’ve just given someone else the chance to try it instead–and someone else will, if you don’t.  Thomas Edison is often credited with the invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1878, but the truth is that the light bulb was actually invented decades earlier.  In 1802, Sir Humphrey Davy discovered that electricity could make a thin strip of platinum glow and give off light, but because platinum was so expensive, he didn’t develop the idea much further.  In 1840, James Bowman Lindsay put a platinum filament into a glass bulb and removed most of the air so that the filament wouldn’t oxidize, and thus the first working light bulb was created.  But again, the expense of platinum prevented him from producing the bulb commercially.  Edison came along more than 30 years later, bought the previous patents, and experimented with thousands of different materials for filaments that could be commercially produced, eventually developing a filament from carbonized bamboo that would last for 1200 hours.  He didn’t stop there–Edison went on to design an electric power distribution system that would make the use of light bulbs practical and profitable.

One could argue that all but one of Edison’s attempts to perfect the electric light bulb was a failure.  Edison considered each failed filament to be an important lesson–he had learned yet another material that would not work.  But perhaps more importantly, he didn’t let the road blocks that others had met deter him.

Our failures can be dead-ends or learning experiences that can lead us to try other routes to success, depending on how we treat them.  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  That’s a very old saying, but it’s great advice.

Try this:  if you’re afraid to fail at something, make yourself a list of the things you can try if you do fail at first.  It never hurts to plan ahead.  (They put redundant systems on the Space Shuttle for this very reason.)

So what are you afraid of?

Doug Heacock writes about how to be more successful working at home at Underpants Office.



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