We live in an age of fear. Terrorist attacks, identity theft and threats of nuclear war rule the headlines. In an age of rapid and discontinuous change, where the only certainty available is that the future is impossible to predict and we are either headed for a glorious utopia of human achievement or nothing short of the apocalypse. Even our personal lives are controlled by fear. With public speaking often being cited as a more prevalent fear than death, and thousands of self-help programs offering to create instant confidence, fear plays an incredibly important role in our lives.
Fear doesn’t operate rationally. Although you are far more likely to die from a falling coconut than a shark, few people are afraid of pina colada. Similarly, terrorist attacks work because they create fear. You are more likely to die from swimming than from a terrorist attack. Few people logically believe that public speaking is actually dangerous.
Not all fear is bad, however. Fear keeps you from doing things that are obviously dangerous, and fear allows you to immediately react to a situation. A fear of poisonous snakes probably kept our ancestors alive. Similarly, fear of getting shot keeps you from grabbing the gun out of a muggers hand.
Some fears help us, some devastate our lives. Some fears are the remnants of an ancestry that needed to be afraid of snakes, tigers and that fellow swinging the bigger club. Other fears have been incorrectly created by our environments that tell us that public speaking is bad, trying new activities isn’t fun and to care way too much what others think of us.
In this article I’d like to discuss how you can build up your courage and tackle those fears which have no logical basis. Being able to overcome minor fears enables you to take intelligent risks where the expected payoff is greater than possible loss. Overcoming fears also builds your internal self-confidence as you express more conscious control over your behavior.
The first step to overcome any fear is to examine the beliefs associated with that fear. Beliefs are the rules we use when evaluated our world. These beliefs tell us how the world works, what we should do in certain situations in order to gain certain results. Beliefs tell us what is good and what is bad. If life is a game, then your beliefs are the rules and your strategy.
It is important to examine beliefs, because many times you aren’t even aware of the beliefs you have that create fear. If you believe that it is rude to start talking to a stranger, but you don’t realize it consciously, a fear of talking to strangers will result. If you believe that trying new activities will be embarrassing, you will fear doing it.
There are a number of ways to uncover the beliefs that are supporting your fears. The important thing is to think of as many beliefs you hold that could possibly be creating the fear. Some ways to uncover these beliefs are:
Journaling - Taking out a piece of paper and writing about your fear, why you fear it and what beliefs you have associated with it is a great way to start. It isn’t the only way, but writing is an excellent method to solve problems.
Behavior - Look at your behavior in this situation. Think of other times you have acted in similar ways and you may find some universal beliefs that connect in all situations. If you get fear when speaking in public you might realize that you get the same feelings and act the same way talking to strangers. This may stem from a belief that people who don’t know you won’t respect your ideas or dislike you.
Meditation - Reflecting inward to think about the issue can often bring up the answers you need. Meditation doesn’t have to be sitting on a hard mat with your legs crossed. I often find taking a solitary walk is an excellent form of meditation. I use the term to describe any period of time where you can carefully reflect without distraction.
Test Beliefs Against Reality
Once you have uncovered the beliefs that are supporting your fear, you need to test them against reality to see if they are actually valid. You wouldn’t have beliefs if you didn’t believe them, so it is important to actually break these beliefs down with new references. If you try to just deceive yourself into thinking you don’t have those old beliefs, you won’t see results. Actually get some experiences where you get the opposite effects your belief predicts.
Usually your fears will keep you from doing major testing of your beliefs. If you are terrified of public speaking, you will probably have a lot of trouble getting in front of an auditorium to see if your fears are justified. Testing simply means giving the fear a small push and see if it wobbles.
If you are afraid of asking someone out on a date, and it is based on a belief that members of the opposite sex aren’t attracted to you, it might be incredibly difficult to actually test by asking someone. A better strategy might be to try and smile or flirt with several people to get some references that don’t meet your expectations set forth by your disempowering belief.
Occasionally you will get experiences that confirm your limiting belief. In these cases you have two options. The first option is simply to get more references. If you speak to a group of five and they quickly dismiss your comments, this reaffirms your belief that public speaking is negative. By doing this several times you may realize that rejection is outweighed by support and your belief will start to fall apart.
The second possibility is that your belief is, in fact, justified. You may try speaking in public several times and get dismissed each time. In this case, you need to move back a step and build up your public speaking skills. Once you have built up your skills in an area you can start to break down the fear. If you are awkward with members of the opposite sex, you may need to improve your social skills before you can break down limiting beliefs. Usually the actual fear is only partially justified and you can work on breaking down the fear and building your skills simultaneously.
If you want to build up your strength you don’t grab the biggest weight in the gym and try to lift it. Not only are you likely to pull a muscle, but the experience generally isn’t going to give you a workout. Fear works in a very similar way. Trying to conquer your biggest fear without breaking it down usually will just leave you stressed and frustrated.
To break down your fears you need to first take a major fear and split it into different gradients of the same fear. If your fear is public speaking, you may list talking to a stranger as being the lightest fear, whereas speaking in front of a crowd of a thousand people could register as your heaviest fear. Your goal is to lift as much of your fears as you can. So if you can’t speak in front of thirty people, try twenty or fifteen.
Progressive training takes time and it is a lot of work, so it is very easy to get disheartened and give up. The key is to just keep pushing and make small increments. Create a schedule to tackle your fears so you continue to push it even when you don’t want to. When you encounter discouraging situations, you need to focus on recovering from them quickly so you can keep going. I wrote about how to overcome discouragement, here.
There are several things you can do to boost your amount of courage and speed up your progressive training:
Get a Mentor or Coach - Find someone who has had the same fears as you and has overcome them. Having a mentor who can push you and give you support is invaluable. Just remember to make the relationship mutually beneficial, and to offer valuable help to the person you want to mentor you.
Get a Group - If you can’t find a mentor or coach, you might want to tackle some of your fears in a group. This way you can use each other for support. It is easier to act confident when you have a group of supporters on your side. Groups like Toastmasters work great for this purpose.
Living the best life possible is fundamentally about asserting conscious control over your life. Without control, you are at the mercy of your environment. Fear is a huge limitation to living consciously. Being able to overcome your fears, so you can have improved confidence, courage and character, is one of the best experiences in the world. Take control of your life and start breaking down your fears.