Getting Good at Overcoming Fear

Fear. A terrible feeling. Something to avoid.

Right?

Not so fast.

Fear can actually be turned into a powerful asset and opportunity, if understood and addressed properly.

First, what is it? Fear is a feeling of distress or dread caused by a sense of impending danger or pain. It’s a powerful, primitive emotion. A warning that we need to pay attention.

We need fear to survive, and it has served us well through the ages. But it can also be one of the biggest obstacles in our lives.

We can go through our whole lives trying to avoid the things we’re afraid of, dramatically altering our experience of life.

In that sense, fear is like a force field keeping us in our comfort zone.

How strong is its hold over us?

What lies beyond our fears?

How do we find out?

 

What Are We Afraid Of?

First, let’s understand what we’re afraid of.

Of course, some people have a phobia (an extreme or irrational fear or aversion of something), such as fear of the dark, heights, flying, spiders, and snakes.

But here, we’re focused on the everyday fears in our lives, work, and social settings that hold us back. It turns out, we have many such fears, including a fear of:

  • abandonment or loneliness
  • change
  • commitment
  • conflict
  • losing control
  • death
  • embarrassment (including fear of looking bad, and of public speaking)
  • failing
  • getting hurt
  • inadequacy, or being judged as not being good enough, or being blamed
  • missing out (FOMO)
  • making mistakes
  • pain
  • regret
  • rejection
  • losing status
  • trusting others (and being taken advantage of)
  • uncertainty and unknowns

Entrepreneur and author Ruth Soukup notes that our fears often come not only with negative traits but also positive ones. For example, if we’re afraid of making mistakes, it can lead to procrastination and perfectionism but also high-quality work that’s well organized and error-free. If we fear being judged, it can lead to people-pleasing and failing to set boundaries but also to being a team player who’s thoughtful and fun to be around.

The story is complex. Fear has a ghastly reputation, but it turns out that it isn’t all bad. Far from it. To accept that key insight, first we need to understand what it is, how it works, and why it exists.

 

Fear Is a Physiological Phenomenon

Fear isn’t something only for cowards. It’s part of being human. Fear is universal. We all experience it.

Fear is hardwired into our neurobiology, starting in the part of our brain called the amygdala. The feeling of fear is a state of high arousal designed to protect us from harm. It’s a survival response that has evolved over the ages.

When we’re afraid, we become hyper-alert. Our nervous system sets a cascading fear response into motion: our breathing accelerates, and our heart rate and blood pressure rise. Also, our body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline—sometimes in a flood. Our pupils dilate. Blood flows into our limbs so that we can respond aggressively to a threat by fighting or fleeing.

With all these physical and chemical reactions, we experience impairment of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that handles reasoning, judgment, sensation, perception, memory, creative association, and voluntary physical movement. As a result, we don’t think as clearly, and it’s harder to make good decisions. We become preoccupied with the threat.

If left unchecked, fear can become debilitating. It can prevent us from functioning at our best—or even at all.

 

Reframing Fear

Clearly, it’s important for us to learn how to manage fear to avoid situations where it debilitates us. This leads us to two key insights:

1. Fear is often a paper tiger. The fear of what may happen is often worse than the reality of what actually happens, or what may. It’s a bit like a movie playing in our head—coming from a man in the projection room at the back of a theater.

A fierce tiger appears on our mental screen. The animal seems powerful, with menacing fangs and a terrible roar. Our skin crawls. The hair on our arms stands up. But the tiger, in most cases, is only a scared cat with its own fears.

We experience a raging physiological thunderstorm of fear as if it’s the truth and based in reality. In fact, it’s only an anticipatory reaction to a perceived threat designed to get us ready for combat or avoidance. In the swirl of the storm, we have a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what’s only possible. Fear is the step in between.

Often the alarm system is overly vigilant and too quick to escalate the alert levels. It gets carried away. We become accustomed to fleeing at the first alert. The synapses in our brain lay an escape path of backward movement: Retreat. Withdrawal. Over time, this becomes habitual and unconscious. We just do it. We avoid. Or we run. So we never move forward in the areas holding us back.

2. Fear signals an opportunity for breakthroughs when we’re able to see it clearly. It’s a protective layer serving as a boundary between stasis and transcendence. Most people approach the layer and then turn and run.

But learning how to sit with it is the master maneuver. We must learn to recognize that the tiger is a paper one. Because then we can go forward instead of turning back. And that’s where the good stuff is: the challenge, the learning, the development.

 

How to Manage Our Fears

So how to do this? How to proceed anyway despite this onslaught of biochemical alerts? Here are 12 steps to help you get good at overcoming fear:

  1. Spend time with your fears. Study them. Write about them. Get comfortable with them.
  2. Get gradual exposures to your fears. (That’s what Navy SEALs and NASA astronauts do.)
  3. Prepare for high-pressure events that tend to trigger your fear alert system. By doing so, you will lower the chance of running into problems and feeling out of control. Practice and role-play in challenging situations. Place yourself in settings that challenge you and see how you can survive, learn, and grow. It helps to have a growth mindset.
  4. Visualize success. Paint a mental picture of overcoming obstacles and achieving your objectives.
  5. Gather information to reduce the fear of the unknown. Fear often shrinks or disappears in the face of facts and scrutiny.
  6. Name the fear and analyze it rationally, including whether there’s a deeper fear behind the immediate fear. (For example, a fear of making a mistake in a presentation can be amplified by an underlying fear of being rejected by the group, or not being valued by others.) Understand it. Embrace it. Use it as fuel for determined action.
  7. Recall that the fear is usually much worse than the things we’re actually afraid of. Get in the habit of comparing actual outcomes to the worst-case scenarios your amygdala is freaking out about. Note that your amygdala only comprises about 0.3% of your brain’s volume. Don’t let the 0.3% wag the 99.7%.
  8. Try not to panic. The goal is not to be fearless, as that’s virtually impossible biologically, but rather to learn how to manage your fear and still function effectively. Deep breathing can help calm your mind and body.
  9. Have a deeper why—a purpose worth wrestling your fear for. (For example, you may face a great challenge at work with a project or initiative that will test your self-worth and resilience but you wisely attach it to your role as a provider in your family and how you can be a role model for your children.)
  10. Gain perspective and look at the fear in the larger context. (For example, although it may hurt your pride and sense of social standing if you fail on a project, you know that you’ve built up a lot of credibility over the years through your competence and diligence—and that there will likely be many more opportunities to try again in the future.)
  11. Face the fear and move through it (not away from it). Give yourself experience with confronting and overcoming your fears. This will help build your fear resilience muscles. You’ll start to become a brave person—through your decisions, habits, intellect, and force of will.
  12. Ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone. We all need help sometimes! (By the way, showing vulnerability by asking for help builds connection.)

In the end, recall that fear is part of being human. It has served us well over the ages, but it also holds us back. If we can learn to “punch fear in the face,” as Jon Acuff put it, we can do so much more of what’s important in life. Be bolder. And get good at overcoming your fears. Your future self will thank you for it.

Reflection Questions

  • Which fears are holding you back?
  • How long have they kept you fenced in?
  • What opportunities lie on the other side of those fears?
  • What will you do about it?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, fear, courage, self-doubt, vulnerability

Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire

Settling for “good enough” instead of what you really want? Getting comfortable with the ordinary? Letting others treat you poorly? Suffering through a poor work situation? Tired of working with people who don’t want to excel or don’t share your values? Playing small, even though you know there’s something bigger possible for you?

Time out. This is your life. Your one and only life, with an uncertain duration and no guarantees. Time to take it back.

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa

Why Do We Settle?

If you’re settling, you’re not alone. It’s a common trap. There are many reasons we settle:

1. Fear: We’re afraid of looking bad, of not living up to expectations, of failing. We fear what other people will think or say. So we let these fears box our choices, keeping us squarely in the safe and conventional spaces even though we long for something more. The kicker is that we’re often misreading people and conjuring scenarios of their disappointment and rejection when in fact they’re not even thinking of us, or they have a wildly different take. Too often, we’re just listening to phantom voices in our head whispering about unlikely worst cases.

“So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” Jim Carrey, actor, comedian, writer, producer

2. Self-Deception: We’re brilliant at hiding the truth from ourselves. We rationalize: It’s only for a while. What choice do I have? In these excuses, we hide from the distressing realization that we’re settling for something less than desirable.

“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.”Plato, classical Greek philosopher

3. Conformity: We yield to parental expectations, social norms, and conventional paths instead of blazing our own path. We worry about the harsh judgment we think may come if we stand up or stand out, so we shrink back into the facelessness of the crowd. Sure, there’s safety in the crowd. But also boredom—and regret.

4. Inertia: Change is hard. We get stuck in the quicksand of questions: What to do instead? How to decide? How to make it work? Can I really give up the safety of what I have now? The “switching costs” (of changing jobs, careers, degrees, locations, etc.) can be high—especially in the short term, with no way to know the long-term payoff. So we stick with a lesser path because it’s easier to stay the course. But at what cost in terms of lost opportunities and sense of pride and satisfaction for testing our mettle and venturing forth into the terrifying beauty of possibility?

“Never be passive about your life…  ever, ever.”Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author

5. Not tending to the fire: We’re all born with a zest for life (see how babies and children experience the world) and a capacity for dreaming big (go back and visit your childhood dreams). These aspirations require energy, but too often we’ve let that energy fizzle out over time by burying ourselves in busywork, escaping into mindless distractions, numbing ourselves, and making excuses.

There are indeed big obstacles. Not all are fortunate enough to have choices, or a savings cushion, or the ability to escape poverty, financial insecurity, or other debilitating hardship. But these questions are relevant to all, regardless of circumstances, because even in the hardest circumstances we have agency and possibilities for change, whether by hard work, grit, adjusting our approach, or upgrading our skills and outlook.

Often the real issue is lack of clarity about what we want and how we can move forward in the face of uncertainty. Trepidation about being who we really are. Setting the bar low so we won’t be disappointed if we fail to reach it. We lack a clear and compelling why. We have no audacious aspiration to rekindle the fire.

That’s not all. More things contribute to settling:

The Flip Side: Dangers of Not Settling?

We should pause here and note that there’s a danger of taking this line of thinking about not settling too far. We can get so focused on striving for something better that we lose our capacity to be grateful for what we have now. We can get caught up in obsessively chasing success due to an unhealthy need for validation and recognition for achievements.

There’s a danger to some of swapping a life of settling for a life of anxiety and workaholism, detached from family, friends, health, and the simple pleasures: nature, hobbies, quiet time. We can risk losing our capacity for quiet reflection, mindfulness, and pausing for renewal. We should be wary of getting too caught up in “climbing mode.”

Ceaseless and obsessive striving can prevent us from living a full life with a healthy array of meaningful aspects, like marriage, family, career, health, friendships, community, and more. In his book, On Settling, social philosopher Robert E. Goodin notes that if we settle on some things, we’re better positioned to concentrate on others that are more important. Otherwise, our efforts may be too diffuse and never gain traction.

We can have bold aspirations for a better future but still be grateful for what we have and not too attached to a future outcome that’s unlikely to solve everything in our life and bring us unending joy. Life doesn’t work that way. Writer Chris Guillebeau creatively flips the script from the “pursuit of happiness” to what he calls the “happiness of pursuit.”

So yes, we mustn’t turn our striving into a compulsive crusade. But for many, the bigger danger is settling.

 

The Icarus Deception

The myth of Icarus is relevant here. You may recall the warning Daedalus gave to his son, Icarus, after constructing wings from feathers and wax to escape Crete: “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

The big danger is hubris, right? Of having the sun melt your wings of wax if you get too full of yourself and fly too high.

But author Seth Godin points out that Daedalus warned Icarus first of the danger of complacency—the danger of flying too low such that the damp sea affects his wings and causes him to crash into the water. The first danger is about flying too low. We must guard against that too.

So what to do?

 

How to Stop Settling

There are several things we can do to stop settling and reignite the flame in our life and work:

1. Take full responsibility. Be a “LIFE Entrepreneur,” taking ownership of your life, and recognizing your agency. Take your life back. Stop making excuses. No one’s coming to the rescue.

“Some people don’t just live: they lead a life. They don’t sit around waiting for a lucky break. They create opportunities. They go after their dreams and bring them to life…. They develop a vision of the good life, devise a plan for how to attain it, go for it, and check their progress along the way. As with any great effort, their work is never done but ever-evolving and, often, inspiring to those around them. Welcome to the territory of life entrepreneurs.” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

2. Summon the courage to try. Act in spite of your fears. That of course sounds easier than it is in practice. How to punch through the fear? It helps to realize that most fears are phantoms, unlikely to play out in real life like the nightmare in our head. Also, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying. It also helps if you do what’s next on the list below, to give you a sense of drive and direction:

3. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that you’re clear about where you want to go in your life and work, and how and why:

  • Purpose: why you’re here, and what gives you a sense of meaning and significance—including by serving others
  • Values: what’s most important? What are your core beliefs and principles that guide your decisions and behavior?
  • Vision: what you aspire to achieve in the future, and what success looks like for you

4. Start. Get momentum by trying things. Learn what works (and what doesn’t) and notch small wins. Use this to build toward taking massive action.

5. Build vitality. Develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, wellness, energy, and strength. Be intentional about nourishing habits, rituals, and routines, with visual cues to remind you about what to do and where and when. Choose intentionally what you do, with whom, and what you consume. Eventually you become the kind of person who doesn’t settle without having to think about it so much.

6. Let go of limiting beliefs. Change your mindset. Upgrade your mental operating system. How? Spend time with people you admire. Read books that challenge and inspire you. Take courses that help you develop new skills and abilities. Listen to uplifting podcasts. Work with a mentor, coach, or therapist to shed vestiges of the past that no longer serve you.

7. Set and maintain high standards for yourself. As with our children, we tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. Set deadlines. Focus on results. Hold yourself accountable. Be systematic about learning, development, and continuous improvement. Be clear about the kind of life you seek and commit to it. Choose the life you want, and then get to work crafting it with a hopeful and determined heart.

Temperature Check

How’s your fire? Is it burning hot, lukewarm, or flaming out? If you’re settling, resolve to do what you can with what you have to start turning up the heat.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you settling in any important aspects of your life (family, health, career, etc.)?
  • If so, what will you do about it? When and how?
  • Who can you ask for help?
  • What works for you when it comes to reigniting the flame?
  • What are you waiting for?

For a related trap and how to overcome it, see “Are You Drifting through Life?”

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Postscript: Quotes on Settling

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” -Les Brown
  • “If you decide to live in the arena, you will get your ass kicked. You can choose comfort, or you can choose courage, but you can’t have both.” -Brene Brown, researcher and author
  • “The secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian novelist and philosopher
  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, American writer
  • “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for… many facets of our own oppression.” -Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist
  • “We ask ourselves, ‘How am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson

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Gregg Vanourek is writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He’s co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk.