Fear is an ever-present part of our lives. Since the days when humans stalked — and were stalked — on the plains, fear has been an integral part of our human experience. Based on this history, fear should not be seen as a bad thing. Rather, fear should be seen as a wise emotion, one that keeps us aware and alive and points out when we should launch into fight or flight. Unfortunately, for many of us in the modern world, fear is used as an excuse for hiding away and avoiding fearful situations when we should be facing them. In too many cases, fear moves us to inaction at exactly the moment when we should be spurred into action.
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Deer in the headlights
Take the cliche “deer in the headlights” moment. Just when the deer should be bounding out of the way of the passing vehicle they stand transfixed, unable to move. I know that in my past I have felt this same fearful paralysis, but I have also learned that it is better to do almost anything rather than simply stand there and take the impact.
I see this fear paralysis happen nearly every day with friends, family and acquaintances. They are faced with major life or career challenges, but they remain frozen in place. They can’t decide to move one way or the other and, just like the deer, they are run down by the event, giving circumstance all the power and only reacting to what has happened. As you might imagine, this is a horrible place to find yourself — feeling that life is crashing in upon you. There is an option, though. There is a way of taking control of fearful situations and using them to your best advantage.
Using fear to guide you
First, you need to learn what fear means. In today’s relatively safe world, we don’t fear life or death situations. Rather, we fear change. We fear new experiences, new jobs, new people. We fear anything that stretches us, our body or our thinking. Knowing this, we should recognize that fear is a harbinger of great things. Fear shows us exactly what we should be doing. To feel fear means that something is so important to us that we are willing to risk failure. In many cases, to be fearful of something is the strongest possible indication that you need to do it.
Next, you need to learn to take your fear and let it spur you to action, not inaction. When you are fearful of something, take some small action towards that new project, job, decision, whatever. For myself, I have always found a power and excitement in action. I have never felt so powerful — and so relieved — as when I have quit a job I did not like. Suddenly all the weight that you had been carrying on your shoulders is lifted and you feel light with possibility again. The fact is, we fear the unknown more than we fear the known, daily, disappointments of our lives. Why else would we stay in bad situations — bad jobs, bad marriages, bad locations — for so long. Don’t let fear trap you. Let it free you instead.
An action plan
The next time you feel fear creeping up on you, I want you to remember a few simple questions to ask yourself. These can help you to tame fear and use it for your own purposes.
Are you fearing what might happen or simply fearing the change itself?
Too often our fear has nothing to do with the actual event, but rather it is simply the fear of change in our lives and work
What small action can you take to move towards your fear?
Like Dorothy looking behind the Wizard’s curtain in the Wizard of Oz, confronting your fear will often reveal it to be small and unimportant
What is the fear trying to tell you?
Are you fearful of failing or do you fear success more? Sometimes the fear of success — fear of the changes success might bring — scares us more than the fear of failure. One change often begets more change and the thought of all that change can send us into a fear spiral. That said, the more change we face, the more we are able to face. Learning how to deal with fear and change is a cumulative skill. The more we do it, the better we get at it.
Too often fear can spur us to inaction at exactly the moment it should be spurring us to action. Don’t be like the deer in the headlights. Make a move. Leap out of the way of the oncoming car. Use your fear to motivate you, not trap you in a place you would rather not be. Fear is a powerful emotion. Don’t ignore it. Don’t hide from it. See it for what it is. Embrace it and let it show you the way to a better life and career.