Let’s face it– fear isn’t going anywhere; it’s hardwired into our brains. And since it’s here to stay, we might as well learn to work with it. Assuming you have already identified your fears, there are a few powerful things you can do to make fear work for you rather than against you:
- Learn to consider fear an ally
- Fear Caveats: Let fear factor into your decisions
- Increase your tolerance for discomfort and failure
- Take action with your fear
Read ahead for guidance as to why each step is useful and exercises for implementing it in your life!
Consider Fear Your Ally
“Bring your fears and neuroses and doubts; do not leave that excellent fodder behind.” –Stephen Cope, The Great Work of Your Life
It’s not a bad thing that fear isn’t going anywhere- fear can help us consider which risks are worth taking, serves to protect us, and can even show us what is most important to us. Fear serves as a signal for us to learn more about ourselves and our behaviors, thus becoming an ally in our personal development.
Coach, entrepreneur, and author Marie Forleo talks about following what she calls “directive fear” in the following 6 minute video. She identifies directive fear as fear that comes up when we have an idea about changing something in our lives or going after a dream. She quotes Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art who suggests that the more afraid we are of a directive fear, the more important it is to us. She shares her personal story of following her fear to go to her first professional dance class and cites it as a moment that taught her to continue to follow her fear. Forleo admits that she still experiences fear on a regular basis despite her success and considers it a guide to her soul.
Like many life coaches, Marie Forleo is enthusiastic and optimistic when she encourages folks to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and go for their dreams. Most life coaches’ garden-variety attitude towards dream-related challenges can neglect the complexities present in our fears and within the contexts of our lives.
Some barriers are genuinely barriers to our dreams and not just discomfort to push through. There can be dire consequences for taking risks in our lives that are worthy of pause. Read on to Fear Caveats for expansion on this.
Fear Caveats: Let Fear Factor into your Decisions
Some fears can paralyze us from considering doing the things we feel most drawn to:
- An entrepreneur could lose their home if they plan poorly financially and their business goes under
- A patient can die on a doctor’s operating table if the simplest mistake is made
- A soldier can die in battle
- Anyone in a marginalized group may make themselves vulnerable to emotional trauma by contending with systemic discrimination
When you’re dealing with concerns like the above, famous quotes like the following can feel way off the mark and even trite:
“To overcome fear, here is all you have to do: realize the fear is there, and do the action you fear anyway.” –Peter McWilliams
“Find out what you’re afraid of and go live there.” –Chuck Palahniuk
“Do the thing you fear every day and keep on doing it… that is the quickest and surest way yet discovered to conquer your fear.” -Dale Carnegie
“Too many people are thinking of security instead of opportunity. They seem to be more afraid of life than of death.” –James F. Byrnes
Fear often gets framed as a nuisance to conquer or an enemy to thwart. But some fears represent significant, serious obstacles that you can’t exactly “conquer” or “work with.” The risks involved in confronting such fears could have monumental consequences for your life that you may not see as worth it. And the risks are real- things DO go wrong sometimes. Not every story has a fairy tale ending.
- People get financially ruined
- People neglect their families while pursuing other ambitions and families can disintegrate
- People damage their reputations for making certain decisions, advocating for something, or aligning with particular groups or people
- People can end up alone or not able to garner support for their missions
You could anticipate applying a healthy optimism around failure to some of these situations (“If I fail, I’ll learn and it’ll contribute to my eventual success!”)- but when we’re talking about devastating circumstances you can’t fully understand until you live through them, that mindset doesn’t exactly put your life back together.
Van Gogh gave his entire life to art and only sold one painting in his lifetime, living a life of severe depression. Similarly, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka’s fame developed posthumously (and at least for Kafka, after a fairly miserable existence). Abraham Lincoln faced political failure after political failure in his lifetime, additionally going bankrupt at one point.
But how do you know if what you’re afraid of has this level of consequence? How do you know that it really isn’t more a matter of mindset and courage, like the life coaches suggest? It’s ultimately up to your discernment, and the below points may help you out:
- The risk you’d be taking (the condition you’re afraid of experiencing) has a high probability of coming true, based on the fact that:
- Statistically, the majority of people in a similar situation to you fail at this
- You do not currently have the skills, experience, or education to successfully execute/understand everything involved in the task you are taking on, or the outcome you are concerned about
- You are unwilling to accept the risk involved
The tricky thing is, we can’t always know the risk that we’re truly dealing with. To contemplate how this applies to your situation a bit deeper, consider the following questions.
Try This: Get Specific About Risk
- What is the real probability of what you’re afraid of coming true? If you don’t know, do a bit of research. For example, 60% of restaurants fail in the first year. Only 20% end up making it over the course of five years. What is your vision? How often do people with your current skills, education, capital, or time end up in the situation you’re most afraid of?
- If you cannot figure out how much risk you’re contending with, you are working under conditions of uncertainty. Considering your uncertainty, how willing would you say you are to risk what you’re afraid of happening?
- Are you willing to do the work involved in lowering your risk (even if you don’t know how much risk there actually is)? What education, skills, experience, or finances would you need to lower your risk? Be specific.
- If you allow your fear to inform your current choices, what would you need to do to prepare for the worst possible outcome?
- All the above considered, you may decide that you’re willing to allow your fear to direct you away from your current ambition, as the level of uncertainty involved clouds out a confident choice. This is fine! It may be the wisest approach, depending on your situation. What are your thoughts on this option? How does it feel?
Regardless of the real probability of what you fear coming to pass, it may be that your fear is informed by trauma and no amount of statistics or preparation is sufficient for tending to the concern. In these circumstances therapy is often the most loving offering you can give yourself.
Working with Unconquerable Fear
When dealing with fears that you can’t simply “push through,” you have a few options.
- Allow the fear to sober your considerations and factor into your decisions. Plan for the thing you fear. Use Hope theory practices to address challenges.
- Accept the limitation and change course towards something with less risk.
- If dealing with trauma, get therapy.
Ultimately, it is wise to take your serious fears seriously. Fear is variable and often deserves deeper consideration than “It’s just a matter of perspective! You can do it! Go straight into the lion’s den!” Allowing your fear to factor into your decisions acknowledges that it is an ally in your life. It may involve realistically assessing yourself, contending with external factors in your life, or choosing a different approach to what you want.
“Let fear be a counselor, not a jailor.” –Tony Robbins
Try This: See Fear As Your Ally
Find a nice quiet spot and grab a sheet of paper and a pen. Take a moment to acknowledge that there are no right answers and this exercise is designed to get you thinking and opening your perspective.
- Identify 3 fears.
And no, we’re not talking about heights or swimming in open bodies of water (although those are still allies in many ways!). We’re talking about the fear of failure, or the fear of being alone, or the fear of being useless, unloved, rejected, incompetent, etc. etc. You can use the Identify Your Fears activities above to help if you aren’t sure where to start.
- Flip your fears.
What does each fear tell you that you care deeply about? It could be a wide variety of things. (Examples below are only possibilities of each fear- yours could be totally different)
I.e., “Being alone”→ Feeling loved and accepted. “Not getting promoted” → Being seen as important/valuable and contributing meaningfully.
- What events or circumstances trigger each fear?
- What does that tell you about the potential gain of engaging with the circumstance/event you’re afraid of?
- Think of a time in the past when you felt each of the three fears (they can be three different ones or they can overlap). They can be things you stuck with or things you left (maybe partly because of the fear). Using Marie Forleo’s logic about “Following your fear,” write out what you stood to gain if you had confronted your fear in each situation.
- What would you like to do next time each of these fears are triggered?
- What is something you can do to support yourself when you experience this fear? What has helped you feel brave or safe in the past? (I.e., phone a trusted friend, eulogy exercise, mindfulness/meditation, etc.)
Increase Your Tolerance for Discomfort and Failure
“The key to long-term success is a willingness to disrupt your own comfort for the sake of continued growth.” –Todd Henry, Die Empty
The following post by a Quora user illustrates how we can build tolerance for fear by engaging with it:
Puoy anticipated their fear and chose to engage with it consciously and with a plan on what to do when it arose. Through engaging their fear and passing through it, Puoy could build tolerance through both the act of exposure and through having evidence that it could be overcome.
You can apply the same principle laterally to the discomfort you feel when you’re afraid. It doesn’t even have to be the precise fear that you want to overcome- you can start with something smaller that feels more manageable. The key is to help yourself build tolerance for the feeling of discomfort by learning to recognize it and then to be with it.
You can start small with things like the Backward Elevator Test.
The Backward Elevator Test (Ways to build discomfort tolerance)
(Via Priya Parker)
- Get on the elevator with several other people and face the back instead of turning around to face the door. You will probably notice the discomfort of others, which will probably cause you to want to turn around- but don’t! Stay with the discomfort. It is harmless!
- Go out to dinner alone without a book/phone/activity/apologizing to the waiter for being stood up and sit with any discomfort that arises. Quietly and deliberately have dinner with yourself.
- Sing in public– for a whole song! You could try this while you’re waiting for something in a waiting room or in a line. Notice people listening but keep going despite the discomfort. Make sure you sing loud enough for people to hear you (but don’t worry, you don’t have to belt it!)
Try This: Normalize Failure
Try the following things to help yourself get more comfortable with failure and empower yourself to access its benefits for learning:
- Inform: Read some failure stories:  
- Relate: Ask someone (ideally three people!) you look up to to tell you about a time they failed and what they learned.
- Reflect: Take a moment to think about some times that you have failed. What did those experiences teach you? Can you think of anything important that happened as a result of that failure that may not have happened otherwise?
- Reflect: How has your fear of failure limited you in the past few years? What have you not tried because you didn’t want to fail? What have you not enjoyed because you didn’t want to fail?
- Act: Pick something [probably something that doesn’t feel too risky] that you can give yourself permission to experiment with and fail at. It could be something like a new recipe or asking a stranger for a favor. Taking a class in something you’ve never tried before is an excellent way to practice failure: sign up for something and go into it expecting to fail, while allowing that to be okay. Pay attention to the feelings that arise as you go through the experience and gently remind yourself that it is ok to fail at this. Click here for a mega list of cool things you could try!
“Exposure is hands down the most successful way to deal with phobias, anxiety disorders, and everyday fears of any sort. Simply repeatedly exposing ourselves to the thing we’re afraid of — ideally in a positive way — gradually brings down the physiologic fear response until it’s gone, or at least manageable.” -Neuroscientist Philippe Goldin
Take Action With Your Fear
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.” –Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement address
Mahatma Gandhi was debilitated by his fear of public speaking as a young man but eventually became not only confident in the art of speaking, but one of the most impactful orators of his time.
How is such a thing possible? How was it that Gandhi went from struggling with severe stress around public speaking to one day finding pleasure in it? One interpretation is that his mission was so important to him that it outweighed his fear. He chose to act despite the fear because it was interfering with his ability to affect change in something he deeply cared about. Moving forward was far more important than avoiding his fear.
It can be easy to get lost focusing on our thoughts (the concern of what might happen) or the feeling in our bodies (anxiety, perhaps) rather than the thing we ultimately want. When we focus on the fear it can be more challenging to take action.
Taking action despite one’s fear is not offered to encourage anyone to repress their emotional experience or disregard their concerns. On the contrary, it is helpful to consciously acknowledge the fear or discomfort— and then you could possibly choose to act anyway.
How do we choose to act in the face of fear that has traditionally kept us stuck or convinced us to avoid something for so much of our lives? Well, there are a variety of strategies available. In fact, there is a section of Purpose totally dedicated to taking action!
A few key approaches are collected for you below. They include getting perspective by getting in touch with what you value (and your purpose!) and making action automatic.
Try This: Shift Perspective and Take Action
- Clarify your values (and your purpose!)
For Gandhi, the call of his life mission to non-violently liberate his people was far louder than the call of his fear to shy away from public speaking. You can likewise implement this strategy to help you shift perspective and power through your fears.
You can use the Clarify page to do a deep dive into clarifying your values.
Another angle is contemplating death and accounting for what really matters to you. To do this, grab a sheet of paper and a pen and find a quiet spot. Imagine that you will pass away in six months. What will you spend your time doing during that time? Looking back on your life, what causes do you feel proud to have dedicated time to, and which ones do you wish you’d given more?
The point is, at the end of the day, what is worth living for? What is more important than your fear (that your fear is keeping you from?)
- Countdown (Stop thinking about it)
A nice short cut is to count down to taking the action you’re afraid of. Afraid to walk out on stage? 5-4-3-2-1-GO! Afraid to jump off the high dive? 5-4-3-2-1-GO! Afraid to walk into the new classroom or buy the flight or ask them out? 5-4-3-2-1-GO!
Counting down can override your rumination and give you a signal to follow through on. You have to really commit though (and stop thinking!).
- Baby Steps
You can build up tolerance to your fear by doing something very small every day towards the thing you’re afraid of (see Kaizen). For example, let’s say you’re afraid of being alone and also afraid of trying to make new friends. You can make a list of actions that range in how nervous they make you feel. Then start with the simplest one. You could even repeat one a few days in a row until it becomes more comfortable. I.e.:
- Smile at 2 strangers in public (3 days in a row)
- Say “hello” to 2 strangers in public (2 days in a row)
- Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know very well (3 days in a row)
- Sign up for a class you’re interested in that would have a lot of interaction between people
- Ask someone you don’t know very well to go for a walk or grab coffee sometime (1/week)
**Caveat: Some fears stem from trauma and may not be healthy to ‘override’ by taking action. For fears of this nature it is likely the best course of action to seek help from a professional therapist.