(Estimated reading time 3 minutes)
Someone recently asked me for my advice on how to get over fear.
Feel what you’re feeling
We often try to get rid of uncomfortable feelings. We try to escape them. Rationalize them. Numb them. We do whatever we can to minimize our discomfort. This is true of fear and a whole host of other emotions too. I’m reminded of the researcher and storyteller, Brene Brown’s thoughts about our inability to numb selectively. If we numb the bad, we also end up numbing the good. If we numb a lot, we can end up feeling like our lives are flatlining.
“You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”― Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connections and Courage
Often, we are not even conscious of the things we are using to avoid our feelings. They become habitual, unconscious patterns. Perhaps when you’re feeling sad, you eat stuff you wish you hadn’t. Maybe you spend too much time binge-watching Netflix when you’re worried. What are your patterns? Actually, it’s not only negative emotions we can be uncomfortable with. Have you ever tried to deflect a compliment? Achieved something significant and rushed on to the next thing on your to-do list without stopping to take it all in?
Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Take some time to recognize, name, and explore the feelings. My friend and colleague, Rachel Gabbard, recently wrote a helpful blog describing the RAIN technique, which can be used to deal with tough emotions. RAIN stands for recognize, allow, investigate and nurture with self-compassion. Feeling the uncomfortable emotion will help increase your tolerance for it. It may even help you feel like you “got over it” by allowing yourself to experience it. The opposite of Brene Brown’s statement, “you can’t selectively numb,” is also true. If you allow the feeling you are trying to avoid, you also open the way to the emotions you want more of like joy, love, and gratitude.
Back to my friend who wants to know how to get over fear. Imagine she has given the fear permission to be there; she has named it, explored it with curiosity (not judgement), noticed fear’s impact on her body, thoughts, and on her ability to be present in her own life. She has explored what is possible for herself when she is afraid. Perhaps she is starting to feel somewhat better about it, the fear has subsided but it isn’t gone. What now?
Focus on actions, not outcome
I’d encourage my friend to ask herself these questions:
- What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
- What would courage look like for you in this area?
I’d encourage her to make a list of the things she would do if she wasn’t afraid and the things that would feel courageous to her. I’d get her to pick something from her list and do it. Soon. And then she’d pick something else and do it too. I’d do this because I know that practicing courage in one area has ripple effects on other areas. Exercising courage expands your life. I’d have her focus her attention on the action of building courage rather than the outcome of having overcome fear. And as she practiced courage, I would have her notice what she is learning about fear.
My experience tells me that overcoming fear is less about getting rid of it and more about learning to integrate it and act in spite of it.
“Courage is not the absence of fear but fear walking.”― Susan David, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life
Sue Das, Courage Coach, CPCC, ACC