“Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed.” ~Michael Pritchard
For too much of my life, fear held me back.
Fear of abandonment.
Fear of looking bad.
Fear of taking risks.
Fear that I might get hurt.
Fear that things would turn out badly.
Fear that people would see (and dislike) the “real” me.
Most of the time my fear was an invisible fence that zapped me when I got too close to the edge of my comfort zone. But there were times when fear was an ever-present, palpable blanket that shrouded me with worry and anxiety.
My fallback position during fearful times was to “think my way” out of fear. I figured if I worried about the thing I feared enough, I could control it. If I kept my mind focused on it, and if I created a good enough plan for self-preservation, I could keep all bad outcomes at bay.
That was a really bad strategy.
It was a bad strategy for a variety of reasons.
First, the more I focused on my fears and worked on creating tactics to protect myself, the bigger the fears grew. As I allowed my brain to soak in the poison of my fears, my fear-based thinking became a habit. I had “taught” my brain to loop through my fears and possible bad outcomes constantly, like a gerbil on a wheel. It was exhausting.
Also, believing I could “out-think” my fears and control outcomes was an exercise in futility. So many of my fears centered on unpredictable, uncontrollable variables (trying to make people like me, keeping bad things from happening, etc.), that it was impossible to cover all of my bases and keep all unpleasantness contained. It was like trying to manage a flea circus.
And further, I was operating under the misguided assumption that the outcomes I feared would be really terrible, traumatic, life-altering things. I let my mind wander to the worst possible scenarios and envisioned dire consequences. When in reality, there was very little (and sometimes no) chance of the bad thing happening at all. Or if it did happen, the fallout and my ability to cope with it, was far less difficult than I imagined. Most of the time, everything turned out OK, in spite of my fear and worry.
I was operating under the misguided assumption that the outcomes I feared would be really terrible, traumatic, life-altering things.
Does any of this sound vaguely familiar to you?
In my own defense (lest I sound like a wacked-out nut case), I did have some early life events (as most of us do) that added to my propensity for fear-based thinking. And on the scale of emotional sensitivity, I’m probably more hyper-vigilant and sensitive than the average person.
If you had known me during my years of fear-based thinking, you might not have suspected it of me, as I became very skilled at designing my life to feel and look safe and comfortable.
But to be honest, I didn’t have nearly as much fun, joy, lightness, and peace as I could have had — should have had — if I’d learned earlier what I know now.
I try not to dwell in the past, but sometimes I can’t help but look back on my younger adult years and think, “Dang, it could have been so much more fun.”
So what changed for me? I wish I could say I read a great blog post that enlightened me to my fearful ways and offered me the insights and techniques for overcoming my fears and living passionately.
But what really happened was a mid-life crash and burn.
I turned 50 and was slammed with the truth that my life was more than half over, and I no longer could live it as a compromised person. My children grew older, started leaving home, and no longer needed me as a full-time caregiver. My 20-year marriage unraveled. My career in public relations was no longer fulfilling or in any way enjoyable. I lost a close friendship. My last close parent-figure (an aunt) died.
Every part of my life that seemed safe and real to me was suddenly turned upside down. The “bad thing” that I feared and tried to protect myself from had finally happened.
Now I’m not going to tell you that all of this wasn’t excruciatingly painful. It was. It hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. And there were certainly days I wanted to crawl back to the safety of my old life.
But . . . going through this was like lancing a boil (yucky analogy but spot on). Once the pain lessened, I was free. I was free of fear. I was free to be myself.
- I could see as clear as the nose on my face that all of my fearful thinking was a huge waste of time and energy.
- I could see that good and bad things are going to happen in life regardless of my efforts to control them.
- I could see that the only thing I can control is how I choose to think and what I choose to believe about any situation or person.
- I could see that the vast majority of things we fear are illusions.
- I could see that the only important thing to focus on in life is this moment, right now.
I’m not completely free of fear. It’s a work in progress. I fear getting older. I fear illness and death. I fear some of the existential questions that float around in my psyche. But now I have the tools and knowledge to cope with those fears when they arise.
I had to go through a bit of a shit storm to garner those tools and learn ways to overcome my fears. I sure hope you don’t have to go through a shit storm too. Maybe you already have. Maybe you are facing one now. Hang on. Something good awaits you on the other side.
Here’s my little 3-step guide to overcoming fear.
1. Get off the gerbil wheel.
The more you think about something, the more habitual the thinking becomes. I’m not just making this up. Read about the science of neuroplasticity. Your brain creates new neural pathways to reinforce repetitive thoughts and actions. If you are trapped in worry or fear-based thinking, you absolutely must get off of that gerbil wheel.
There are a variety of techniques for interrupting the fear and worry-thinking cycle. You can read about them in this post about breaking the chronic worry cycle and this one on 3 techniques for releasing worry and anxiety.
Just having the awareness that you are over-thinking your fears is enough to interrupt the cycle. Thinking about your fears does NOT give you more control over them. It only further entrenches you in fear.
2. Accept that you have no control.
You can worry and fear all the live-long day, but you have no control over most situations in life. Sure, you can make wise choices, practice healthy living, wear a seat-belt, and avoid dangerous parts of town. Using common sense and sound judgment does help keep some life problems from tracking you down. But beyond that, life unfolds as it will unfold. You can’t control what people think of you. You can’t prevent accidents from happening. You can’t anticipate every possible outcome and prepare for it.
So the best you can do is manage what is reasonable to manage and let go. Just fall back and trust that the universe will catch you. Enjoy the relief of not worrying about possible consequences and instead focus on the joy of right now. Actively seek the beauty of the present moment and express gratitude for all of the good things in your life.
3. Realize your fears are faulty
If you think about bad outcomes or situations you feared in the past, I bet the vast majority of them never came to pass. Or if they did happen, they weren’t nearly as bad as you feared they would be. Or if you have experienced something really difficult or traumatic, your ability to cope with it and survive was far stronger and more manageable than you feared.
Short of downright tragedies and horrendous events (which happen rarely), we aren’t handed too much in life that we can’t deal with. And when bad things do happen, we can cope with them far better with a practiced positive outlook than with entrenched fear-based thinking. When you train your brain to think positively and expect good outcomes, you have more energy and resiliency to handle difficulties.
Are you or have you been entrenched in fear? How have you overcome your fears or how are you coping with fear now? Please share your experiences in the comments below.