Using Fear as a Strategy to Lose the Willful Child and Become a Willing Adult
Let's talk about FEAR?
Carrie Fisher said “Stay afraid, but – do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it, and eventually the confidence will follow.” These are really powerful words.
Fear can be paralyzing. This is why Carrie’s words “Do it anyway” resonate with me so much. I really believe in the perspective of turning our experience of fear into a tool for growth, in order to avoid drowning in it. But, in order to do that, we need to understand what our fear represents.
When I think about fear, the first place my thoughts go to are the “What if’s.” These are all the “What if” questions we can tend to ask ourselves, and all it represents is a discomfort with the unknown. We try to plan for and predict all possible outcomes of situations, because if we know what’s coming, it’s a little more tolerable and we feel a little more in control. But, unless you’ve got a Magic 8 Ball that actually works, it’s gonna be impossible to plan for or predict absolutely everything.
Next come thoughts about lack of options. When we go to a place of fear, it’s almost like going into a long, dark tunnel with no real end in sight. Vision is limited, and we tend to see only what’s directly in front of us. With this view, it’s impossible to see a way out. As we feel there are less options available to us, next up is a limitation to problem resolution. Again – tunnel vision. If we feel there’s less options available to us, we’re automatically going to feel limited for how we can work on getting the hell out of that damn tunnel. And then we’re into emotional paralysis. Fear takes over, hit the brakes on our action train, and we’re totally stuck in that dark tunnel, spinning our little train wheels.
Sucks, right? Because here’s the thing – when fear takes over, it starts this craptastic spiral of comparison, assumption, conflict, and sticking with the familiar (or, from a different perspective, avoiding the fear of the unknown). We compare ourselves to others – using their definition of success instead of our own; we make negative assumptions about our abilities to be successful with anything – again based on the metrics someone else defined; conflict erupts in our lives because now we’re just miserable, stuck little trains; and yet we stay with what we’ve always known, what we’re familiar with – even though we’re wretched because of it. Seriously… fear is a real bastard, isn’t it?
The fear is only a bastard if we let it control us. Or… We can control fear instead. We can turn it into a tool by changing the purpose that fear serves. Even when we control our fear, it doesn’t mean that fear will automatically stop. One of the joys of being human is that we get to have all the great, super-duper emotions, but there’s a balance to everything. Fear is part of that balance, so whether we want it or not, we get to have it. We just get to choose what we’re gonna do with it.
The way that I like to approach my experience of fear is through perspective. I’m generally not afraid to try new things – but – I admittedly have a type A personality, come from a high achieving family, and the idea of failure absolutely PETRIFIES me. I go straight to that pattern of “Holy crap what if….,” then quickly follow it up with creative brain freeze, feel like there’s no way out of the tunnel I just got myself into, and end up comparing myself to other people I think I should be as successful as. This is a terrifying spiral that traps me.
This actually just happened to me today. I got scared about something I’ve been overthinking, fed into my experience of fear for a couple hours, and felt like shit because of it. So I did some deep breathing. Rationally, I knew exactly what I was doing, that I was making a choice to feed my fear, instead of using it for a healthy purpose. I got to the end of my work day, went home, and the first thing I did was take a hot shower. I ate a healthy dinner. Simple things – but here’s the deal. Fear creates an experience of pain or hardship in our lives. We don’t always have an immediate way to resolve that, so sometimes we have to work on coping with it. I always preach that coping skills should be easy, and (mostly) readily accessible. Deep breathing, a hot shower, and nutritious food are all really good coping skills and can help us to re-center so that we can figure out how to get out of our little tunnels to nowhere. So start by coping. Re-center. Re-balance. Do something simple, that’s healthy and feels good.
The next step I go to, and went to today, was to figure out my percentage of willingness versus willfulness. We all have this little kid that lives inside us, who throws an all-out, obnoxious, three-year-old temper tantrum sometimes, filled to the brim with “I don’t wanna’s” and “You can’t make me’s.” That little kid is SUPER annoying because it keeps us stuck in our tunnel, and is our willfulness embodied. Willingness, on the other hand, is the acknowledgement of what we feel, and the active choice to act in spite of it. This is the “Do it anyway” part our dear Princess Leia talked about. Today, I was willful for a bit. And then I coped. I dealt with it – and became willing.
In her book “Big Magic,” Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an entire section about fear in regards to creativity. She talks about actually conversing with her fear, and inviting it to go on an adventure with her and creativity. And she says:
“I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
This is the perfect representation of willingness. There is no forcing the emotion of fear away; rather, a simple acknowledgement and acceptance of its existence, and immediately on to do it anyway.
Once I got myself to a place of willingness today, my final step of managing fear revolved around strategy. I am generally a really action-oriented person, and usually find a lot of relief from difficult emotions when I’m working on moving forward. Here’s the cool part about strategy, though. It can literally be anything. This is where fear becomes a tool for me, because I focus on using it to motivate my strategy, instead of keeping me stuck. I have a fear of failure – it used to stop me in my tracks, but now I will use fear to motivate so that I can accomplish my goals. After all. I don’t want to make my fears come true.
The last thing I’ll leave you with is a little strategy plan that’s based on willingness. First, define a goal that you really want, but is scary as hell. Next, define the values that your goal is based on. And then I want you to write down four specific steps that you will take to achieve that goal. This could include coping strategies, self-care, setting up important appointments, or taking a class that will help you learn more about what you’re working on. As you’re doing these three writing exercises, be aware that memories, thoughts, feelings, urges, or even physical sensations could start to happen – be aware of them, but don’t try to force them away. These different things all happen to remind us of why our goal is so important. Just take time to acknowledge them. If you feel that you need to break your strategy plan down into more steps than just the four we talked about a moment ago, go ahead and do that. And finally, choose the smallest, easiest step to begin with, and give yourself a deadline to have it started by. Own that commitment, and be accountable to it.
In closing, fear is a normal, natural part of our existence, and we will all experience it hundreds of thousands of times in our incredible lifetimes. You can let it control you, or you can control it. Remember with your fear, you can Fuck Everything And Run, or you can Face Everything And Recover. I choose to face it. Do you?