“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
On a daily basis, I work with my clients on the concept of not just tolerating, but truly and fully embracing fear. For many, radical welcoming and leaning into the emotion of fear is the key needed to unlock the door to freedom. Still, I hear many objections:
“Why would I want to feel more fear? It’s awful!”
“Um, can’t I just find a workaround? I mean, why would I want to dive face-first into fear if I can find an easier route?”
Great questions! Even after these questions are answered, and my clients and I have strategized ways they can welcome more fear into their lives to meet their goals, they often report doing better when they are feeling LESS fear! They tell me, with no sense of irony, that doing better means feeling less fear, not more.
What the what?!
By the way, my clients are AWESOME. These are brave people who work with me to face difficulties and get more of what they want in life. They are individuals who want to make the most out of the time they’ve got, and are courageous enough to invite me into their lives to help. They sign up for walking through emotional pain to get to the other side.
So, this idea that “decreased fear = success” is not them being resistant or obstinate. It is an indicator that this concept is tough to learn.
As humans, we are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Well folks, fear = pain. Fear can feel literally mind-numbing (our frontal lobes shut down and stop firing when emotion is high). Fear can make us sweat, cry, scream, and want to jump out of our skin. In short, feeling fear is no joke.
It doesn’t help that the urge associated with the emotion of fear is to avoid. This means that when you are afraid, your brain gets busy finding other ways to occupy itself – all so you do not have to face what you fear. You are biologically and evolutionarily wired to avoid feeling fear. The chips are stacked against you.
That’s okay because FEAR is POWER, and power does not come to us by doing easy stuff. We’ve got this.
Our strategy for gaining more confidence, mastery, a sense of competence, and empowerment?
FEEL MORE FEAR!
The reasoning for this can be thought of in three parts:
1 – We need new experiences to teach us that what we are afraid of will not always harm us.
If you have been bitten by a dog, and you run away every time you see one, you will never have the experience of being in close proximity to a dog and not being bitten. You won’t learn that most experiences with dogs are non-threatening. If you’ve had your heart shattered in a relationship, and then avoid intimacy and closeness, you will never have the opportunity to experience true, deep, soul-feeding love with another.
We learn through experience. When we experience trauma, it gets encoded in our memory in a particular way (define “trauma” however you like: a bad breakup, a car accident, abuse, moving far away – whatever happened that causes you prolonged pain and suffering).
We remember the possibility of threat, and fear gets activated anytime we are in a situation that reminds us of some aspect of past trauma – even if there is no current danger present. It is the brain’s way of trying to protect us, gone awry.
If we halt having new experiences after a trauma, we will never learn anything new about that type of experience. Have you ever heard that it is important to get behind the wheel of a car as soon as possible after having been in a car accident? This is because you need as many new driving experiences as possible – without encountering a life-threatening event for your nervous system – to learn that driving is not a threat. You must create many new memories to help override the emotionally traumatic memory of the accident.
2 – Running away from what we fear serves to reinforce the emotion and makes it worse.
Let’s go back to the dog example. If you were just bitten by a dog, you will likely experience fear the next time you encounter a dog. Now, let’s say fear gets in the driver’s seat of your mind, and you allow it to steer you away, running as fast as you can to escape that dog. In that moment, fear decreases. Let’s recap: you see dog > fear happens > you get away from dog > fear goes away.
What have you learned in that moment? You have learned that dogs are to be feared.
How does this happen? Despite your best intentions, your brain pairs fear with dogs and relief with no dogs. Each time you run away and experience relief, your brain learns that the dog (or relationship, or driving a car, or whatever it is you ran away from) is to be legitimately feared.
The brain stores this new experience, and slowly, over time, the fear you have of that particular stimulus grows. Now, the next time you see a dog, you are likely to be a little bit more afraid than you were the last time, and this fear continues to grow until eventually, you panic at the thought of a dog being anywhere nearby, until you feel “safe” again.
3 – There is immeasurable power and quality of life in repeatedly learning we can do hard things.
Part of learning that experiences won’t harm you is knowing you can cope if something painful happens. Now, this learning is not for the faint of heart. In order to learn that you can handle the experience of fear and do what scares you anyway, you must not only accept the experience of fear, you must ask for it!
It is a bit paradoxical because to get a handle on fear, you must convince yourself to want more of it: more fear, more anxiety, more sweaty palms and heart racing – until you are looking fear in the eye and yelling, “Bring it on!”
This is the kind of fierce attitude required to turn an experience of fear into POWER.
Think of it this way: fear means growth and opportunity. Nobody ever got scared sitting at home staring at the television because that action is not challenging. No growth is happening, and there is no opportunity there.
When you experience fear, it is like your environment giving you the gift of growth. If you run away, well, the result is no growth and probably more fear. If, however, you choose to stand your ground and radically invite fear to wash over you, putting one foot in front of the other and moving closer and closer to the fear… Asking for more of it… Telling fear to, “Bring it on!” and “I’ve got this!” now that is hard stuff.
We don’t build a sense of confidence and competency by doing easy stuff. We develop our sense of mastery by doing what is hard – through our blood, sweat, and tears. You learn that you are a force to be reckoned with, and when this happens, a side effect is that fear often regulates. Fear may not necessarily go away, but you start to have a different experience. Instead of, “Oh no, please don’t let me feel afraid,” you begin to think, “Fear? Oh yeah, you’re here? Whatever. I’ve got this. Come on in and hang out.”
That is powerful.
If you want to transform fear into POWER, start looking whatever makes you afraid in the eye. Move towards it shaking and crying – it doesn’t matter. Let the fearful sensations wash over you and run into the fear. Watch yourself become free!
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