“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” – Henry Ford
Being human means being afraid. Sometimes these fears are minor and we learn to live with them, but sometimes they overcome our lives. What are your biggest fears? Do they rule your life?
How do we define fear?
Fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm” (Lexico, powered by Oxford). Interestingly, there are also 3 related sub-definitions that can help us think about this concept.
- (Fear for) “A feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety of someone.”
- “The likelihood of something unwelcome happening.”
- (Archaic) “A mixed feeling of dread and reverence.”
Fear can be tangible, and everyone experiences it differently. Your set of fears are largely based on your experiences in life, and no one has the exact same set of experiences!
Sometimes we fear small things, like spiders, but sometimes larger things are at stake. We feel anxious because we’re not moving toward our dreams. Or we feel that, even if we are moving toward a specific goal, the dream is too big. We question whether we will fail, whether the dream is even possible, and sometimes, we fear that if we get there, we won’t know what to do next.
“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”- Andre Gide
What are we afraid of?
Small things There are a lucky few who claim not to be afraid of anything. While I doubt this deeply, the rest of us have small fears that are an annoyance in our daily lives. Sometimes it’s things like roller coasters. We wait all year until the summer months to take a fun family weekend trip to the nearest theme park only to be daunted by a crippling fear of flying up and down those metal hills that everyone else seems to love so much.
Change Change is a universal fear. As humans, we really struggle with changes in our lives because we get stuck in our comfort zones. Change breeds fear of the unknown, and for many of us, that might be the biggest fear in our lives. What if the unknown is worse than our comfort zone? Or, what if the unknown is better and we’re too afraid to reach for it?
Failure Fear of failure can be immobilizing. We all reach a point in our lives at least once where we must make the decision to risk what we have to get where we want to be. Some people take the leap of faith and soar, while some people let their fear of failure keep them on the edge of wanting, and later regret.
When we reach a “turning point” like this, we always fight the “what-ifs.”
What if it doesn’t work out? What if I’m not good at this new job after all? What if this new relationship turns out just like the last?
Taking Action Even if we’ve decided to take a leap of faith, taking action is also a major fear! When we’ve decided to take action, it means that we have decided to make a change and are willing to risk what we have to make our situation better, or make our dream come true. We must figure out what steps to take to prevent failure, but that also allow us to grow and make the changes we’ve decided to make. That’s a lot of pressure!
“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.” – Japanese Proverb
Why are we afraid?
Past Experience When we are young, we learn how to grow and adapt. For many of us, growth comes with pain. Many of us have had painful experiences that turned our previous excitement for something new into fear.
Perhaps you were in love with your high school sweetheart and got married young, only to realize during college that the relationship didn’t bring the joy it used to. You both drifted away, and ultimately made the decision to divorce. As a result of this pain, you now find yourself afraid to open yourself up to a new relationship.
Concept of Failure Throughout our lives, there is a lot of pressure to succeed, but is most evident when we are still in school. For some, the ultimate fear is of being a failure as a person. Not doing as well as expected might signal to them that they are failing as a whole. The problem is that fear isn’t a personality trait. Fear is a situation. It’s not a permanent state, but a facilitator of change in our lives.
I struggled with this for years! I used to tell myself things like:
This is a crazy dream. I’m going to fall flat on my face and my whole career will be gone. I’ll be a failure in front of everyone and there will be nothing I can do about it.
Attitudes & Preconceived Notions Have you heard the adage “Assuming makes an ass out of you and me”? Even if you haven’t, we’ve all see the truth of this, right? Fear is no different. Many of us see fear as a personality trait or something that is wrong with us. On occasion, I’ve heard friends say things like “What is wrong with me? Why am I afraid of this?”
Fear is a natural emotion. While we shouldn’t let it stop us from doing things we love, it’s there for a reason. We have these ideas of fear that tell us one story of what “being afraid” looks like.
We also have a related story of what “failure” looks like. You know the one: Confident, smart, and capable individual puts everything they have on the line and does their best only to have it fail spectacularly. The previously strong individual is now lonely and miserable for the rest of their life because of this one massive failure they can’t get past.
Not only is this not true in most cases, the idea is very harmful and creates fear where excitement should be.
Success is Scary Who here has been scared of their dream? We all have. If you haven’t, I encourage you to expand your dream and make it bigger! Doing the things that we love and having them succeed can be scary! We dream them up, and then keep our noses down while we work our butts off to get to that goal.
When we finally reach it and look around us, it might look a lot different than we imagined – in a good way – or it might be even better than expected. Either way, once you get to this point, fear can creep in with ideas like:
What do I do now?
If this is the best it’s going to be, what’s next?
This is so great! What happens if I lose everything and all of this goes away?
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie
How do these fears present themselves in our lives?
Hesitation When we are afraid, we hesitate. We wait to make decisions, even if we know what we need to do. We worry we are rushing things even if we have been through our normal decision-making processes.
Anxiety When we are afraid, we worry about a lot of things. Not just whether we are rushing, but also things we never would have worried about before. We worry about things we can’t change, and what our reactions will be to hypothetical “worst-case” scenarios.
Indecisiveness When we are afraid, we take a long time to think about all the options, even if we’ve already looked at them. We add steps to the decision-making process to prolong actually making the decision and taking action. We go back and forth about options, even if one stands out as the best.
Excuses When we are afraid, we make excuses for ourselves and others. We put off decisions because things are not happening at the “right time” or there might be a better time to take action. We might say we are waiting on someone who is flaky (and who we know will not commit) to buy us more time to make a decision.
“Fear makes us feel our humanity.” — Benjamin Disraeli
Despite its reputation, fear is actually a good thing. Here’s why:
Natural Fear is a natural emotion! Back in the days before we had so much technology, people relied on their instincts and fear much more to keep themselves safe from danger and pain. Just because we have phones and alarms and all the other modern devices doesn’t mean we don’t need fear to help us be aware of things that could harm us.
Motivator Has anyone ever told you that you couldn’t do something? Which immediately triggered your desire to prove them wrong? Fear acts in a similar way. Fear tells us that we can’t do something, that we might fail, and therefore shouldn’t try. But, this can be an excellent motivator! In the same way we want to prove someone else wrong, we can work to prove our fear wrong by taking small steps to get where we want to go.
Encourages us to take action When we are using our fear to motivate ourselves, we are emboldened to take actions, even if they are small. This might mean we outline a plan to get to our dream with actual, achievable goals. This might even mean that we allow ourselves to think freely about what we want – maybe for the first time – and figure out how to get there.
Challenges assumptions We have our dreams, and we have our fears, but do we naturally think of them as allies? Fear might be the nagging worry that you will fail. It might be the showstopper that keeps you at a job you hate for many years. But, when we really stop to figure out and think about what those fears are, the results can be surprising.
We might assume we are afraid of leaving our job because we really like the people, when in reality, the fear is that we won’t make new friends or have a boss we trust at a new job that’s better for us in the long run. We might not have figured out what we are really afraid of if we weren’t aware and critical of our fear. Our assumptions often block us from the truth.
Forces us to thoughtfully consider our lives Have you ever had one of those days where you question everything? What you’re doing with your life, your decisions, maybe even what you had for lunch? Fear may be a nuisance most of the time, or so we think, but it also helps us think about our reality.
So you’re afraid to apply for the promotion at your company? Why? What would be the worst that could happen? Fear allows us a unique way to think about what we want and what would be best for us. We might be scared to apply because the job is a lot harder, but it might also be a great opportunity to grow into a career and better support ourselves and our families.
“Fears are educated into us, and can, if we wish, be educated out.” – Karl Augustus Menninger
What do we do when it seems like fear has paralyzed us?
Reflect on it. It’s awfully hard to face your fears when you can’t tell what they are. When something in your life seems so scary that it feels like you can’t do anything about it, you need to allow yourself time to reflect and find the real fear. It’s probably not what you assumed. Many times we think our fears are easy and tangible to identify, only to reflect and find that we’re actually scared of the idea behind something rather than the thing itself.
Get assistance. Sometimes we just need help, just like sometimes we are our own worst critic. If your fear is so paralyzing that you can’t even seem to identify what the real fear is, it might be time to get some counseling or coaching assistance. These are people who have been trained to listen and help you! They want to see you succeed, even when that nasty little fear voice in your head says you can’t.
Talk it out with a trusted confidant or in your journal. In order to have positivity and success in your life, you need to clear out some of the worry and fear that’s getting in the way. I strongly recommend writing in a journal, but if this isn’t a possibility for you, talk to a trusted confidant. I don’t necessarily mean only your parent(s) or spouse, but someone who you know will not judge or laugh at you. Someone who will actively listen and offer their opinion and assistance about things you are struggling with.
Make a plan Once you have figured out what you are afraid of, and what you really want to work toward, make a plan of how to get there! Set a few long-term goals (5 years), a few middle-term goals (about 1 year), and several short-term goals (less than 1 year). By having different lengths of goals, we allow ourselves to have time to face our fears and step into our new life rather than leaping in head-first and getting discouraged.
Take small steps You might be so afraid you don’t even know where to start. You might not have a 5 year plan, because you can’t picture 5 years from now. What you need to focus on at the beginning of facing your fears is to take baby steps out of your comfort zone. By all means, if you have the courage and means to take a big leap, do so! For most of us, though, that may not be feasible. We need to take tiny steps to gain the confidence to take those big leaps later on.
Accept change As hard as it is, we must accept that change is going to happen whether we want it to or not, and whether it’s for the good or bad. We don’t get a choice in the matter, so why waste so much of our time and energy trying to stop it? When you see a big change looming in the distance, reflect on your fear and lean into the change. You can’t stop change any more than you can stop a thunderstorm, but that doesn’t mean the thunderstorm doesn’t bring much needed rain and beautiful skies.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” – Jack Canfield
What happens when you accept fear and let it motivate you?
Achieve your dream & positive life changes When you accept that fear is part of life and become open to the idea that it’s not always bad, you will notice that there are positive changes in your life. Maybe you worry less, or start being able to think about your dreams in a different light. You will probably even notice that your dream doesn’t seem quite so unachievable!
Feel more confident When you can look your fear in the face and say, “I see you, but you can’t control me,” you will have a whole new level of confidence in all aspects of your life. You will find that you are empowered to make decisions, walk a little taller, and maybe even introduce yourself differently in social situations.
Take positive risks you would have forgone before The best part about facing your fear is that you will be emboldened to take new risks. This doesn’t mean that you won’t still be afraid, or that all of the risks you take will work in your favor; but, at least you will be willing to take them. Perhaps you will be willing to invest a little money into your idea because you have a plan to make it grow. Or maybe you reach out to one of your role models on social media to connect and ask some questions about their work that inspires you so much.
I hope you find the courage to face your fears and work toward your big dreams!
If you would like to read further on how to make and accept change in your life, consider purchasing my book, Follow Your Heart to Discover Your Life Purpose. I would love to sign a copy for you! Click here for more details on how I can help you.
If you need assistance or guidance on how to begin your journey, I also offer one-on-one coaching services at Embrace Your Life coaching. If I can be of any help to you, I would love to schedule a complimentary session to discuss your goals.