Imagine standing on the edge of the roof of a 50-storey building.
You’re up on the ledge with your toes are a few inches over. The wind is howling and you can feel the gusts like huge hands pushing you. You waver, trying to keep your balance, not wanting to look straight down.
You look down. It is 50 flights straight down! Holy crap! You feel like you are going to fall and you step back from the edge.
Now imagine that you are wearing a parachute. You’re on the same ledge, but you’ve never jumped from that height, nor have you ever parachuted. Feel any safer? Any less afraid? If someone whispered in your ear, “Feel the fear and do it anyway” would that help you take the leap?
This is one of many possible extreme examples that I could have picked to make my point.
Can you really feel the fear and do it anyway? Would feeling the fear help you succeed at,
- Taking the leap to start your own business;
- Asking your crush out on a date, or;
- Confronting your fear of public speaking?
Sure, maybe in some cases where the fear isn’t paralyzing. But in the above examples, how well would you succeed if you were always experiencing some amount of fear?
What’s the problem?
Not understanding the fear itself is the problem.
Just doing it (another meaningless expression), in spite of being afraid, doesn’t solve the problem of why you are afraid.
How do we solve the problem?
First, you take notice and label the fear. It could be relatively simple, or it might be more complex. Your biggest fear might not be such a big deal for someone else. All that matters is how you define and understand the nature of your fear.
From a neuroscience perspective, your amygdala or mammalian brains are protecting you from your fears. And with good reason. Your ancient brain doesn’t want you to get hurt or to die.
If you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, your amygdala is most likely screaming at you to step back. Think about it for a moment.
Have you ever looked over the edge of a cliff, or over the edge of a tall building? Notice what happens to your breathing. It starts to quicken and become shallow. It moves up high into your chest, and your heart pounds at a very quick pace.
Close your eyes and imagine that situation. Can you feel yourself respond to this stressful vision?
This is an important point of awareness. We can experience a fight or flight response to a scene in a movie, or to something we dream up in our imagination!
Have you ever experienced rejection, loss, heartache, or similar? How did you respond? How did you comfort yourself during this difficult situation.
Some people use food as a means to feel better when they experience difficult emotions. They may secretly over eat, and not healthy food either. This is an example of your mammalian brain taking control. It knows what makes you feel safe and secure in the moment. Food placates and drowns out your emotions, at least temporarily.
Take a moment to consider how you respond to emotional stress. How do you react? What do you do that you know you’ll later regret and wish you could stop yourself from doing?
How do you change these unconscious responses?
How do you face the fear and work around it, to diminish it’s power over you?
The first step is to notice what the fear is. Take the time to understand it, to get clear about what triggers your fear response. What actions or behaviours do you find yourself doing in response to the fear? With this knowledge you can take steps to diminish the fear.
Change might not happen immediately, and you might not succeed the next time. But you can come up with a plan. To prepare for the next fear response you might need to change a routine, or plan ahead. You might need to prepare a pattern interrupt to distract you from the fear by focusing on something else.
I have never gone skydiving. That scares the crap out of me, but I imagine I could diminish the fear (somewhat) with the following plan.
First, I’d take lessons from a qualified instructor. I would practice at an indoor facility where the height is less scary. Knowing that when I jump I will land in a net below me makes me feel safe. I will practice enough times until I start to become comfortable with the jumps. If I practice enough, it might become a fun challenge that I’m looking forward to experiencing. I may still have a fear response to jumping out of a plane, but I will no longer be paralyzed by fear itself.
To deal with a fear, first understand the true nature of your fear. Next, find solutions to reduce it’s power over you. This power is the automatic, unconscious response of your more ancient brains to keep you safe.
These solutions may involve actions, routines, practices, and/or habits. All this preparation will help you manage your fear with your conscious brain (the pre-frontal cortex).
When you feel the fear and do it anyway, you risk increasing the resistance to dealing with the fear. You risk your ancient brains taking over and making it more difficult to overcome the fear.
Let’s rewrite the old expression once and for all:
You can overcome fear by understanding it’s nature and changing your actions and behaviours in response to it.
PS. not all fears are created equal. There is a time and a place for therapy, depending on individual circumstances. By no means do I mean to diminish the seriousness or certain fears or life situations. This article is only meant to debunk the cliched expression, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
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