How to overcome fear (without being a hero)

Fear is like having poor eyesight

Have you ever started to sweat or get tunnel vision before speaking in public?

Fear is innate. As humans we are all familiar with it, aren’t we? Some of us learn to transform it into useful energy and others more often fall victim to it.

For example, when I was in high school I discovered I was short sighted and needed glasses. I had been surviving school by copying the notes from the person sitting next to me in the classroom. I was completely in the dark about my problem until I was asked to visit the school nurse. When I did the test I could hardly read the first letter on the chart…

Then the nurse gave me the news.

You need glasses!

I was appalled. This did not fit with my self image at all!

But I went along to the optometrist with my mum and was tested and sure enough I was quite severely short sighted. When I first put on my new glasses I remember I was standing in a pharmacy and was overcome by the sensory detail. So many sharp edges.

This was incredible. What was even more amazing was when I wore my new glasses outside and looked at trees. I could actually see the leaves on trees! How could I have survived without this level of detail before.

Used under Creative Commons from David R. Tribble

There was just one very large problem.

I did not want to be seen in public with my new glasses.

So I continued to copy the notes of my friend and struggle without being able to see the board. I was afraid. Afraid of rejection. Of standing out and getting the attention of others.

My teacher found out about my resistance to wearing my new glasses and started calling me out in class.  She would say things like:

“Everyone get out your calculators, pens and glasses, and whatever else you need to answer the questions on the board”

There were no other kids in the class who wore glasses and she said this staring directly at me. Yet I resisted. I think I must have hated her at that moment. How dare she force me to expose myself! But she didn’t take it further, thankfully. It would have been ugly had she tried I am sure.

So what is a teenager to do? That’s when I discovered contact lenses. They were the perfect solution to my fear of standing out as a teenager.

Despite being uncomfortable to wear, always drying out and adding lots of new complications to my day I was determined to make contact lenses work. And they did. Contact lenses solved my problem of feeling exposed and vulnerable to criticism, of being the only kid in the class wearing glasses, during my high school years. This was, however, a missed opportunity to face my fear. Since that time I learned that:

Feeling fear is a sign that you’re on the right track and that what you’re doing matters.Emilie Wapnick,

In other words. Fear shows us the direction in which we can move toward to learn the most. But fear can be an inhibitor of action…

Fear is the voice inside our heads that turn us into tomorrow’s benchwarmers. Fear changes our perception of reality.

Assuming we don’t want to sit on the bench throughout life do we really need to go on the hero’s journey to overcome them? Do we have to split ourselves in two and go out into the wilderness, face our biggest obstacles and then return to face our nemesis in battle? Well perhaps, it always makes for a good story, but is there really any need to get so dramatic in real day-to-day life?

Fear comes in many forms and we can’t hope to uncover all of these in a single article. But we can talk about just three. Understanding our fears is critically important. How we can overcome our fears if we don’t know what they are. We need to become more curious.

One of the interesting things about fear is that the causes are predictable and common. We all experience fear from similar sources but what’s most important is how we transform this fear into something else so that we can move forward. In this article we’re going to focus on just three primary causes of fear. Plus we’ll cover some practical tactics you can use to transform these fears into something that keeps you moving forward.

Fear is often caused by a combination of change, overload and uncertainty.

My fear and resistance to wearing glasses in public as a thirteen year old, for example, involved a little of each of these three underlying causes. Starting to wear glasses was going to change my sense of identity at a vulnerable time in everyone’s life. I was also feeling a bit overloaded by the additional information my eyes were now able to receive when wearing glasses. Not wearing glasses was actually less information for my brain to process and I was used to that. I was also uncertain about how people would react to my new look and what that might mean. So let’s now start breaking fear down into its component parts, starting with change.

You’ve probably experienced the feeling you get when things seem to be moving too fast. We start to feel pressure. We start to object and fight against the change before we even realise it is happening.

Change or any other new information in our world can feel threatening. It disrupts our normal routines and we don’t generally like that.

Let’s take for example what happens arriving in a foreign country. This can be very intimidating at first and often leads to the phenomenon of “culture shock”. All the new information you’re trying to process can feel daunting and it may take a few days to a week to really start to enjoy yourself.

But how can we better deal with change? The first step is to identify that change is actually happening. Anything that is new is a potential source of fear and intimidation. So we can ask a question like: “Have I seen this before?” Then if the answer is clearly “no” then we can start to feel more comfortable because…

Just being aware of the source of newness helps reveal our next step.

Once we have identified what is new we can then start to break it down into smaller parts that we can handle. Imagine arriving at Heathrow airport on your first world backpacking tour as a 21-year-old, with no previous experience of global travel. You are alone. Just getting through customs is an onslaught of new stimuli for your senses.

You’ve have already made the decision and taken the flight so there is no turning back, you are committed (I talked about the power of decisions in my last post). So with no escape hatches available you deal with the fear of this newness by making a list.

Consider what is in front of you and start by breaking it down into the things you will have to do ahead of time.

You might even have a simple to-do-checklist. For example, part of it may look like this:

Example Customs To-Do-List

  1. Complete our customs declaration prior to landing.
  2. Collect all your carry-on luggage.
  3. Put all your passport and visa paperwork somewhere that’s secure and easy to reach.
  4. Disembark from the plane.
  5. Find the baggage claim area for your flight.
  6. Find a trolley and collect all your bags.
  7. Make your way to the immigration line (this line will probably say “Aliens” or something intimidating like that).
  8. Wait in line and take everything in.
  9. Remember to smile and breathe when the customs official asks how you will support yourself for the next 2 years.
  10. Pull out your open return ticket, an address where you will be contactable while in the UK and a copy of your bank balance to prove that you are organised and have a plan.
  11. Then (hopefully) your passport has the required stamps applied and you walk through to the United Kingdom.

Next on your list of new and intimidating challenges might be navigating the London Underground to find your accommodation for the night.


London Underground

Too much new information can cause a fear response.

To overcome the fear that can arise with newness, isolate your next steps and move forward.

So when we are dealing with change first we ask if this is really a threat to your actual safety or just part of the process of adapting to something that is new? We identify the source of the newness and then distill the thing down into smaller parts that we can handle one at a time.

But change is only part of the story. Overload often comes along for the ride when we experience big change. And overload generally comes in the form of a lot of new information.

But how can we break down this feeling of overload? Consider our checklist for getting through customs from above. Notice that it wasn’t a checklist for everything we have to do for our world trip. It is focused on just the very next thing we are doing. Not even a day away. And rather than overload our brains we use isolation again. It’s like the donkey and the cart in the picture below. The answer to overload is straightforward but not always apparent.

You avoid overload by breaking down your tasks into manageable loads.

Overloaded Donkey

Reduce your batch sizes to prevent overloading your brain.

Think of the things you must do as a consignment of goods to deliver. If you attempt to deliver all of these goods in one trip there is a real chance of overload and this is not a good feeling. It will also impede your progress and delay your progress. Instead of taking on too much by delivering the packages in our brains all at once we need to break it down into manageable batches.

Back to our backpacking example, once we have our plan for customs mapped out we can then move onto create our checklists for finding accommodation and how we will get there. Even if we have handled the sources of change and overload that are causing the feeling of fear there is still one more thing that can creep up on us. And this is ambiguity.

But what do I mean by ambiguity? It’s that feeling you get when you don’t have all the information but you need to make a choice. Or when you have too much information and struggle to make out which option you like most. What if you don’t see all the steps you may need to take? How can you create your checklist with ambiguity?

Our lives are filled with more and more ambiguity every day. For example, let’s say your teenage daughter is going out to a party in the city on the weekend. You have read the invitation but …

…your mind is full of uncertainty.

What is the party for? Why is your daughter invited? Who is it for? Where will it be held? Who else is going? When does it start? When does it end? How will she get there? What if she wants to come home early?

And many of these questions will have answers. Until you’ve answered them, however, your mind is going to be on alert. So how can we combat ambiguity?

To overcome uncertainty we need to become better at posing questions. There are a few critical thinking questions you can ask about any problem that will immediately help you begin to move forward. In the example above with the teenage daughter you will see it in action.

You’ve possibly heard of the 5 whys technique that was popularised by the Toyota Motor Company. There is no great secret in this, is there? Even most 5-year-olds use the power of asking why over and over again and this can drive you crazy can’t it?

The 5-why technique is useful for a identifying problems in a well defined process but…

…the 5-whys is not so useful in ambiguous situations.

Take for example, finding somewhere to live during your first week in London. Asking why over and over again might be useful once you have a plan. But it doesn’t help at all if you don’t have a plan in the first place, does it?

We tend to struggle to ask the questions that start the entire process off in the first place.

To help you here I have prepared a quick recipe for asking good questions that you can use straight away. It’s a simple recipe for action with just 3 steps. Answering these questions will help get you started down the road to overcoming the ambiguity in your situation and taking action.

The Obstacle is the Way

How to overcome the obstacle of fear?

The 3-Step Recipe to deal with Ambiguity.

Step 1: What is it?
Step 2: Why is it important to me right now?
Step 3: Choose 3 topics to explore in depth.

Let’s say you have an obstacle right in front of you. Where do you start? First you’ll need a liberal helping of step one.

Just like the 5 whys you can simply whatever you are looking at into smaller and smaller concepts by repeatedly asking the “what is it?” question. Step 1 is a process of deconstruction. You are summarising everything you know or need to know about a problem.

Step 2 helps clarify if what you are looking at is important to solve right now. It might be important for someone else but not for you. It might be important to you but not just yet. Once you have explored this question you might be tempted to start asking the 5-whys, where, who, when and even more whats and hows. But this would be a mistake. This would be like diving down the rabbit hole like Alice in C.S. Lewis’s in Alice in Wonderland.

Before we go into problem solving mode we must choose just three options to explore in great depth. Why three? Because if we choose more than three we risk overloading ourselves and as we learnt earlier this can cause fear and inaction.

So pick three. It doesn’t necessarily matter which three. If you want you can rank and prioritise the elements and then decide. But if you are hesitating just roll a dice. You must pick three and then get deeply curious about those. Expand upon three topics related to the thing you are uncertain about. Ask more questions. Look for examples, case studies and stories to help you remember and understand more deeply.

So we have talked about three root causes of fear and tactics to overcome them. The uncertainty of real life can appear as simply as the arrival of an invitation to a party. We learnt about how using the 3-step recipe for action. How asking questions about the source of uncertainty can reduce the chances of becoming frozen by fear and inaction. We learnt how we can avoid the fate of the hapless overloaded donkey by reducing our batchsize and choosing no more than three topics to focus on at a time.

Eyesight test chart

Living with fear alters your perception of reality.

And when things feel a bit overwhelming or uncertain we can be be on the lookout for change and newness that can blur our vision. It may be lurking nearby. By isolating what feels new to us we take the first step toward understanding and defining a source of our fears and taking action on them.

Learning about our fears is like correcting our vision, suddenly we can see with clarity our greatest opportunities for growth.

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