It was well into my adulthood before I realized I not only needed to get comfortable with fear, but I should probably be seeking it out. I am not talking about the fear that arises in response to true peril, like the jolt we experience when walking into oncoming traffic.
The type of fear I am addressing is more subtle and can manifest itself in a variety of different forms. It can be felt as a slight fluttering of butterflies in your stomach. It can take root in a more unsettling manner as a churn in your guts causing you to have doubts about something you are considering.
Fear can rear its ugly head in the form of procrastination, or resistance as author Steven Pressfield terms it in The War Of Art. It is a resistance that can keep you from taking on something in life that could ultimately bring about fulfillment. It can even arise through self-sabotage.
Fear has been a recurring deterrent for much of my life. It made a significant imprint on me when I was in elementary school around the time of 5th grade. I had joined our township’s pee wee football league. It was my very first time playing organized football.
I felt so alienated and nervous amongst all the other kids who seemed to have been playing prior for years. They all knew each other and knew just what to do at practice. I was clueless. I was scared.
I hated that feeling of persistent butterflies rumbling in my stomach. That felt to me like something was wrong. I told my parents I wanted to quit. Immediately upon quitting that nervousness went away.
With that decision, I had solidified a harmful response mechanism: If I just quit things then the fear will go away. As a kid, I did not understand that the potential for fun, growth, and development also went away too.
My recoil and retreat response to fear occurred again just a short time later. This time involving my participation in karate. I had been practicing for about two years. I enjoyed it and performed at an above average level.
We were fast approaching a belt ceremony and the demands of my belt level had been picking up significantly. I was getting frenzied and felt unprepared.
I recall the specific moment I had my Mom drive me to the karate gym for some extra work. When we arrived the gym was closed for some unexpected reason. Panicked, I decided to quit standing right outside the gym at that very moment. Once again, some immediate pressure and pain went away, but future fun and development were now gone too.
Those two pivotal moments tangling with fear through youth sports made a detrimental impression on my psyche. The run from fear response took root in the core of my being. It affected me throughout much of my young adult life.
Fear can either paralyze or propel us. If recognized and harnessed it can be a source of fuel to drive us through challenges in life. If unchecked or at worst given it to, it can deter us from achieving life empowering growth.
For years, well into my early 30’s, I took any hint of fear as a clear indication I needed to avoid, run, and hide. I was not aware that beyond fear can be a great opportunity for growth and fulfillment.
Somehow, when we are stuck in a rut and need change the most, the universe has a way of showing up and imposing growth. The universe rattled me through a major corporate layoff and continued to pummel me a bit through some trying career challenges and correlating financial burdens.
In 2008 I was working within banking when our entire office and staff was laid off. This was just prior to the bottom falling out of the entire global economy. I had no context or awareness of the pending economic crisis. I naively thought I would be able to jump right into my next job whenever I wanted to. Before that, though, I was going to take a nice relaxing month to chill out while receiving my severance pay.
Meanwhile, my entire industry began to burn down around me. Jobs evaporated overnight. My severance ran out and I was now embroiled in a panicked job search in a climate of companies shedding expenses. No one was hiring anywhere.
I finally took a position that was commission only selling collections services to small and medium-sized businesses. I had a pit in my stomach during the entire interview process. There was nothing about this position that interested me.
The concept of earning only when a sale occurred had me afraid as well. Any other time I would have taken the unease raging in my stomach as a clear indication to run like hell from this situation, but I had no choice. The only thing I could do was stay, fight through it, and give this job a shot. I had no other options.
I wish I could tell you that I went on to enjoy the position and earned a wealth of commissions, but that is far from the case. I did, however, attack the job as best as I could and was forced to grow and stretch as a professional.
A major component of this gig was walking cold into medical offices to try and pitch for a meeting with the decision maker. It was unnerving and at times humiliating. People could be downright brutal with me, but it forced me to endure all elements of humanity.
I stayed with this company for about a year and a half and I had a moderate amount of success in building a book of clients. I even earned an eastern regional award for most sales in a week.
More importantly than the few sales I was able to make, was the professional and emotional growth that the job forced upon me. Dealing with constant rejection all day long was humbling. It put into perspective for me what truly matters in life.
This company also placed a major emphasis on self-education and self-development. I became a rabid consumer of educational and inspirational content because of it. It is a habit I carry forth to this day.
When I knew I wanted to leave that sales job I encountered more fears surrounding the prospects of another job search. I had been kicked around the corporate world and had grown leery of finding happiness there. I was in my early 30s and felt for the first time in my life I was ready to try and chase down passion over comfort and security. I wanted to try and find work within the music industry.
When I committed to seeking out a major career change involving the music industry I knew I had to ask my brother for some help. My brother had been firmly entrenched in the industry working as a manager, label executive, and tour organizer. He was well respected within the community and worked hard to reach some pretty impressive heights in his career.
The only challenge I faced in approaching my brother was my fear. My brother had always been available and open to helping me with anything, but I was still nervous and had feelings of unworthiness. I was embarrassed to state out loud to my brother that I wanted to work in the same industry as him. Feeling embarrassed is a form of fear.
Part of that embarrassment was due to being the little brother of someone already so successful in the music industry. Another part of the fear was felt from getting such a late start in that industry. Most people who work in the music industry start in their late teens or early 20’s at the latest. I was in my mid-30’s. I was allowing my age to be a source of fear.
When I did finally ask to speak to my brother I simply asked for some direction on good people to network with. That was my only expectation. I was not looking for a handout and did not want to ask for anything that I had not earned or deserved. I was blown away when my brother came back to me and offered me a job working at a new entertainment firm he was co-founding.
I quickly accepted and went on to attack that position with a passion and enthusiasm like nothing else I had ever done in my career to that point. It was the start of a highly fulfilling five-year run in that industry. I worked for three different companies including a stint working up in Manhattan. It was a blast and the experience in that industry gave me a whole other set of skills for my career.
In the past, I may have mistaken my nervousness of approaching my brother as some sort of signal that it was a bad idea. In the past, I may have succumbed to the butterflies in my stomach and avoided the situation altogether. I am so incredibly thankful I acted despite my fears. It gave me five of the most rewarding years of my career to date.
In The War Of Art author Steven Pressfield proposes that the bigger the fear about something the bigger the reward and potential payoff for your soul. He feels the biggest and most fulfilling things in life often come at the expense of the most anxiety and resistance to taking them on. It was a fascinating and empowering theory to discover.
What can you do when you feel fear? How can you overcome fear and not allow it to become a subversive agent in your life? The first step is to simply acknowledge it and observe any of the emotions or sensations that arise from it.
In the past, I would try to somehow stash away the fear. I just wanted to stop feeling those feelings of unease. Now I try to own the fear and grow comfortable with feeling discomfort.
The next thing you can do in the face of fear is to take some sort of action step. Writing down some quick thoughts like a pros and cons list can be a helpful and calming process in the face of fear. Going another step further and writing down the absolute worst case scenario of a situation can be an empowering practice too.
Tim Ferriss is a big proponent of mentally preparing for the worst case outcome when deliberating situations in life. When you are prepared for the worst case scenario, you can gain some healthy perspective. Perhaps the worst case is not really that big of a deal after all. Or, maybe it is significant, but you can now take a more focused step towards your goal knowing what the absolute downside could be.
Meditation can be another powerful tool in either reducing or just becoming comfortable with fear. Back in my 20’s, I was too identified with my thoughts. I never allowed myself any space or stillness for true solutions and intentions to arise. I have found meditation to be nothing short of magical. It has allowed my true desires in life to become clearer and has prevented them from being trapped by fear.
Meditation has also made a direct impact on the ultimate fear in life, the fear of death. My fears about death have been slowly subsiding and fading to the background as a result of my meditation practice.
As parents, we have to be able to balance protecting our kids with also letting them experience discomfort. Discomfort is often where growth arises. It is such a challenge as a parent, though. All of our parental instincts compel us to shelter our kids from the slightest bit of emotional disturbance.
In relating to my two specific stories from youth sports, we also have to let our kids opt out of certain activities if they truly do not find joy in them. The ultimate challenge as a parent is to be able to discern butterflies and nervousness versus true objection to the activity. Butterflies and nervousness need to be overcome. True objection by our kids needs to be recognized and honored.
I read a great tip from Angela Duckworth in her book Grit. She has an agreement with her kids that they can quit any activity they want but it has to occur after the commitment to that time period has passed. Meaning, for a sport they can quit after the season wraps. Her kids do not have to partake in that activity any longer but their initial commitment has to be met. I thought that was a brilliant approach to placing structure and firmness around kids and seeing through a commitment.
Fear is real and recurs throughout our lives. It can either paralyze us or propel us onward to great periods of growth and development. It took me well into my adult life and suffering through a career crisis until I began facing fear. People should not have to wait that long or endure hardships before coming to terms with fear.
I am hoping as peers we can all become more open and vocal about the fears we face in life. By discussing fears out loud we can neutralize the negating power that fear often holds over our heads. By openly sharing our fears we can give comfort and solace to others who may feel alone and isolated in their struggles.
Acknowledge your fears and take an action step right through them. Growth and fulfillment are awaiting you on the other side.
Has fear ever prevented you from a golden opportunity? What fears are you facing right this moment? If you are comfortable in doing so, please leave a comment and share your story.