Monday, October 15, 2012

the gift of fear

I recently spent the weekend with a dear friend who is going through a series of life transitions all at the same time and she is, quite understandably, terrified.  And while I don't envy her situation, I am able to see a silver lining in it -- if she weren't afraid, she wouldn't have the opportunity to be courageous.

Think about it:  courage is not about being fearless, it's about being afraid and acting anyway.  Without fear, there is no courage.

I make my living as a corporate trainer -- I speak in public regularly.  For some people, my job would be their waking nightmare, day after day, speaking in front of others.  For them, it would take massive amounts of courage.  But for me, because I'm not afraid of it, it's a no-brainer.  Conversely, moms around the world will hold their children's hair while they barf.  (Hell, college freshman do it, too.)  For me, that would require inner depths of strength that I don't know if I have.  Fear and courage are both relative, and just because you're afraid doesn't mean you're weak.  It's how you choose to act while you're afraid that helps to define and forge your character.

So what can you do to become more courageous, and to tune down the voices in your head that say you're going to die?  Here are a couple of things that have worked for me in the past:

1. Focus on the learning.
When I'm doing something hard (/scary/terrifying) I often look down the road and ask myself what the long-term benefit will be.  Will I be growing into someone I want to be?  Will I be proud of my actions in this current moment once it has passed?  What am I striving for from my life, and will taking this terrifying action give me more of that?  If so, I act.  I seize the opportunity to grow.

2. Lean into it
Sometimes the best thing you can do is stop fighting the shoulds -- "I shouldn't be afraid of this" or "I should know how to do this already" or "I should be able to handle this."  Instead of worrying and shoulding all over yourself, think of the challenging situation as an opportunity to think about who you could become.  Find a way to be ok with the uncomfortable feelings -- maybe by regularly repeating something like, "this, too, shall pass" or breathing deeply every time anxiety shows up.  Just leaning into the change in a gentle, what-is-possible-here kind of way.

3. Use beginner's mind
The apocryphal Zen story helps to define (mystically) the concept of beginner's mind:  A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."

When we treat ourselves as experts, there is no room to fail and grow.  And this makes uncertain times even more stressful because we feel like we have to know what to do.  We don't give ourselves credit for never having been in this exact moment before.  Maybe it was a similar situation, but it wasn't this one.  And maybe this one requires a new mindset.

4.  Get support
Going through change alone can be isolating, alienating, and all together lonely-making.  The most important thing I've learned in going through change is how important it is to have support.  Whether that comes from a loving coach, a skilled therapist, a dear friend, or a supportive community, finding others who can give you perspective, advice, and help you navigate your way through a change is invaluable.  I would never be where I am today without my coach, my therapist, my friends, and my family.  And I'm not the least bit ashamed to ask them for help.  Because I would want them to come to me if they felt the same way.

So to my friend, and to anyone else out there who is going through change and is afraid, remember that you're not alone, and that no matter how scary it gets, the key is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.  And to reward yourself for just making it through.

1 comment:

  1. An infection closed my throat last November, leading to an emergency tracheotomy. For about fifteen minutes, between realizing what was happening and the arrival of the ambulance I didn't know if my throat would keep closing or stay where it was, which was like breathing through a cocktail straw. Oddly enough, it was only TRULY terrifying until I understood help was on the way, when my housemate called 911. At that point I remember thinking, "Just keep breathing. If you are breathing you are alive." I was still scared, but I knew what I had to do. I'm a big fan of ## 2 and 3, above, which jive with my thoughts on yoga, too. I wish I remembered ## 1 and 4 more often, though 4 has saved me more than once. My $0.02 US. :-)