“I want to approach new people and talk to them, but I just can’t muster the courage.” “I want to say ‘no’, but what if people stop liking me after that?” “I am scared my family won’t take it well if I share my opinion.” “I want to have a difficult conversation with my partner about something that bothers me, but I feel terrified of my partner’s reactions. What if they break up with me?” “I want to learn and understand things well, but I’m afraid of asking questions in the class/session.” I come to hear such thoughts during or after my sessions, often followed by a common request, “Please help me overcome my fear.”
We hear quotes or one-liners about how our fear holds us back, and we need to work on overcoming them or becoming ‘fearless’. We might think we would be better off only if we didn’t feel scared, but we’re missing some crucial information here. Like all other emotions, fear serves an important function. It signals that we’re trying to protect ourselves from a potential threat or danger.
Let’s put this into perspective. When we hold ourselves back from approaching new people, we might be trying to protect ourselves from judgment or the unpredictability of how that conversation might evolve. When we can’t say no, we try to protect ourselves from being disliked. When we want to express a difference of opinion in the family but can’t seem to do so, we’re perhaps trying to protect the peace at home. When we can’t bring up a difficult conversation with our partner, we might be trying to protect ourselves from being misunderstood, ‘the bad person’, vulnerable, and, in the worst cases, alone (if it disrupts the relationship). When we can’t summon the courage to ask questions in class, we might be trying to protect ourselves from being perceived as naive.
Regardless of what we feel scared of, it’s not the fear that’s the problem, but the patterns we get preoccupied with due to the fear. When we feel fearful, we start thinking about the potential downsides of every situation that work up our nerves. We exaggerate the chances of failing to such a great extent that we don’t consider succeeding a real possibility. We even bring up every possible excuse to hesitate instead of acting on the situation and doing something about it. So, what is it that we can learn from fear? Is it inaction? If our fear asks us to protect ourselves from danger, should we do nothing about it? Is that a potential solution? The answer is no.
Fear calls for caution, not inaction. It asks us to take responsibility for what matters to us, despite the fear. So, the first step, in this sense, becomes acknowledging that we’re afraid, scared, or even petrified of or to do something. For example, say I feel apprehensive (low intensity of fear) to face a crowd I’m supposed to facilitate a session for (which I sometimes do). So, I acknowledge the apprehension without trying to suppress it. Since fear serves the function of protection from danger, I might be trying to protect myself from participants’ skepticism or being irrelevant (as a facilitator).
It then helps to understand that if we fear, it means we care. It’s no cliche or an antidote against fear, but a lens that helps us gauge the fear better and work toward it. That apprehension is a helpful message. I feel apprehensive because I care to do well and positively impact the people who choose to spend their time and energy with me in that learning space over other things they could be doing. So, if I care, what should I be doing? And this is the hard part, which we shy away from—taking responsibility to work on the fear (or work our way through it).
In my case, say if I feel fearful as a facilitator, the solution is not to quit taking sessions. That would be far from being helpful. On the other hand, it would not even help to fake that I’m not apprehensive. It doesn’t mean I need to announce my deeper feelings to everyone, but running away from fear often can make things worse. Instead of helping me prepare to deal with it, I will be more prone to finding excuses not to change if I don’t acknowledge that my fear exists.
After acknowledging the fear, we need to find out small ways or actions that would be helpful. For example, if I feel apprehensive before facilitating a session for a crowd because I fear being irrelevant or facing skepticism, I might want to put effort into preparing well. It might involve going through relevant reading materials, preparing slides in a way that interests the audience, anticipating questions that participants might ask, listening to some peppy music before the session, reading older feedback notes from the participants, and even joking about the last time I felt apprehensive (but the session went pretty well).
There’s always a risk associated with taking action, things might not work out like we want. The catch is that we won’t know what works unless we act. My working principle when facing my fears is, “You fear because you care, and you can work your way through if you dare.”
The author is the linchpin at My Emotions Matter, an education initiative that helps individuals and teams learn the mindset and skills of Emotional Intelligence. You can learn more at myemotionsmatter.com