This week on Beyond Happy, we’re talking about the emotion that may have THE greatest impact on what we don’t do in our lives – fear. How is fear keeping you from living the life you want to live? We’ll talk about why we have fear, how it causes us unnecessary suffering, and 5 ways we can manage our fearful thoughts and feelings. If there’s something you’ve been wanting to change in your life, but fear is holding you back, this episode is for you.
Hey! What’s up? How are you? Welcome to Beyond Happy. How’s your day going so far? It’s icy and cold here on this February morning, and I’ve just decided it’s going to be an amazing day. Productive and fun and I’m just going to knock some things off my list. I just spent a long weekend near Nashville, which was fun, and now I’m back and catching up and getting back into the swing of things. How about you? What are you up to? And what are you grateful for today? Let’s pause for a minute, right here… right now… and just think.. What are 3 things I’m grateful for right now, in this moment?
Personally, I’m feeling thankful for my Yeti cup full of hot coffee, working in my pajamas and that I had quiet time at 5:30 a.m. this morning for prayer and my devotional reading and just having some quiet, uninterrupted time to begin my day.
Today, we’re going to talk about fear. Doesn’t that sound FUN? This is definitely going to be so useful, and my goal for this episode is to first of all, get you more aware of how fear may be showing up in your life, and also to teach you the things I’ve been learning about fear in my own personal life, as well as in my coaching work. I want to equip you with some tools that you can use to start showing up in life like you want to. Specifically, we’re going to talk about fear of failure, and how it may be keeping you from living the life you feel called to, or drawn to, or created to live. Because that frankly scares you. It scares US, as humans. We’re going to talk about what fear is, what failure is, why we’re afraid of it, how and why we experience it, and how it can actually SERVE YOU if you choose to let it.
Now, sidenote – in thinking about the approach to discussing this topic of fear, there were a few directions I could go. Spiritually, there is a lot we could discuss about fear. There are worldviews on fear, there is Biblical scripture that speaks to fear, and while spiritual beliefs and fear could easily be its own episode, today I’m going to be talking about fear an an emotion, and the role it plays in our lives when we allow it. This is about the psychology of fear and the cognitive behaviors related to that. I just wanted to clarify my intent here before getting started.
So, as a life coach focused on the concept of the awareness of our thoughts and the power they have in our lives, fear and failure are two words I hear clients talk about a LOT. Do you happen to know someone who says failure is their BIGGEST fear? Maybe it’s even you. This mindset is really common. The thought of failing comes up a lot when we’re seeking to make change happen in our lives, and most of the time, making change is what my clients come to me seeking help with. Confidence, feeling better, losing weight, self-care, healthier relationships, doing hard things like growing and evolving and BECOMING the next version of yourself – these all involve change. Big change. Exciting and yet scary change. Over and over and over I hear you telling me that you’re afraid of failing, and it’s that fear that keeps you right where you’re at.
Let’s dive in and talk about this. Let’s talk about fear and failure because I think that even if we’re not talking about it openly out in the world a whole lot, we’re all thinking about it.
So, what is fear?
Very simply put, fear is an emotion. It’s a feeling. Fear is a protective structure that we were created with for means of our survival. It’s important and it’s necessary. If you think back thousands of years to the primitive days of humanity, there was a real need for fear to keep us alive on a daily basis. Physical survival depended on it. Now the feeling of fear – how does that feel to you? For me, it feels pretty bad. Not something I’m striving for. And I know that may not be the case for thrill seekers and horror movie fanatics who do enjoy the feeling of fear. I just can’t relate to that. To me, and to many of you, fear does not feel good. And if you think about it, if the job of fear is to keep us alive, it probably should feel pretty intense, right? It needs to be intense and unpleasant enough for you to take action, or not take action, to protect yourself. This is why it’s such a strong emotion.
It’s important that we understand the psychology of fear because we all experience it, but some people understand it better than others. And it seems to be those who have a better grasp – a better understanding of fear – are less likely to use it as a reason for not fully becoming who they are. Because we do this all the time, right? It’s considered completely acceptable to just say, “I’m too afraid to do that.” And this is considered a completely valid reason for not doing something. But these aren’t life or death situations we’re talking about. We’re talking about fear of changing ourselves, fear of stepping into the unknown, fear of being uncomfortable, fear of taking a chance, putting ourselves out there and quote “failing”. These are NOT threats to our lives and safety, and yet we still let ourselves experience fear as if they were true threats to our well-being. We let our brains equate discomfort with a true threat to our lives.
Isn’t that fascinating? Our primitive brain so badly wants to keep us comfortable, because comfortable feels safe, that it releases chemicals within us that cause physiological changes, the rapid heartbeat, the anxious thoughts, the nausea, maybe trembling and other physical symptoms, a.k.a. Fear, that will make us feel SO scared, SO badly, SO horrible, we won’t want to do anything BUT avoid those feelings and stay comfortable.
The reason we can DO something about fear is because in addition to that primitive brain, we also have an evolved part of our brain that can override it. This part of our brain helps us with discernment. It can let us choose when fear is valid and serving us well, and when it really isn’t.
Let’s talk about fear of failure.
When we’re afraid to do something, we often say we’re afraid of failure. We don’t want to try to lose weight because we’re afraid it’s not going to work, again. We’re afraid to quit our job and go after the thing we REALLY want to be doing because, “What if it doesn’t work out?” We’re afraid to change because we don’t know what that life on the other side of change looks like. We’re afraid of having a big important conversation with our spouse or child because we’re afraid – we aren’t guaranteed it’s going to go well, and we like the safety in knowing that.
See, in each one of these scenarios, we THINK we’re afraid of an unknown circumstance that lies ahead. But that’s not what we’re really afraid of. The fear of failure is often caused by the fear of experiencing an unwanted emotion. Remember, when we think a thought, that thought causes an emotion, a feeling, to occur. The fear that we feel is always coming from a thought. Always. Most of our fearful thoughts are irrational. Think about your deepest fears. Then see if you can identify the thoughts that are causing that feeling. They’re there, I’m sure.
The fear of not being able to lose weight most likely isn’t a true fear of the number on the scale going down. It’s what you’re making that MEAN. About you. And what that feels like. And NOT wanting to feel that. So if you don’t even try to lose the weight, you can protect yourself from the possibility of even having to feel that feeling. Do you see how that works?
The fear of quitting your job is likely not about the leaving of the job. It may not even be about working in a new job or a new field or starting a business. It’s the idea of what you’re making it mean. Not IF things don’t go as you hope, but when they don’t. Right? Because there is no certainty. Life IS unexpected and always changing. It’s the wondering what other people will think or what you make it mean about YOU if it goes this way or that that is causing you fear? And if you’re making that mean things about yourself that don’t feel good, you’re going to avoid feeling that. Even if it means letting go of a dream, or staying miserable in your current job, or whatever that might look like for you. Simply because you’re fearing feeling something. Isn’t that fascinating? We’ll go go SUCH lengths to keep feeling comfortable. Even if it means settling for a life that isn’t stretching us and growing us and helping us to become the fullest versions of ourselves.
This same thing goes for the majority of invalid, non life-threatening fears we experience, but the common denominator is the same. We aren’t afraid of failure – we’re afraid of feeling an unwanted emotion when we think of what that failure might mean about us.
There is an exception to fearful thoughts being irrational, and this happens when our fight-or-flight response gets engaged. In these cases, our more primitive brain gets a head start over the more sensible, discerning part of our brain, called the prefrontal cortex. A great example of this is when you’re up early in the darkness of the morning, when you walk across the living room to look at the snow out the front door and as you walk past the staircase you see a figure in the darkness that jolts you into a scream and some kind of kung fu looking stance. Yes, it does turn out that it was just your seven-year-old up early in the dark, but in those first few startling seconds, your brain just thinks, “DANGER! Protect yourself!” It’s something we’ve evolved to do. And it’s good that we can react and protect ourselves if needed so we could get ourselves to safety. Back in the day, that boy on the stairs could’ve been a real predator. These fight-or-flight type situations in life instinctive and involuntary, but they are also in the minority of fearful moments in our lives.
Let’s talk about the secret about fear.
We just talked about the minority of fearful situations in life being true fight-or-flight, adrenaline-inducing situations where our brain is projecting us. But the MAJORITY of fear we experience in life? Here’s the secret. We’re creating it. We are creating most of our fear with our thoughts. And MOST of the time? There’s nothing to really be afraid of.
In most cases, we’re afraid of feeling something. That’s all. And in some of those, we are actually afraid of feeling fear. Yep. We fear, fear. When we do that, the intensity is compounded, and you can see how you then allow yourself to be more debilitated by these feelings.
Here’s the thing. Fear isn’t going anywhere. It is innately a part of us and rightly so to ensure our survival. BUT, we can experience fear in a new way. We have to learn to live with it to some extent because it is part of our human experience, BUT our very evolved prefrontal cortex has the ability to learn that it doesn’t have to rule our lives. Our brain can learn that our invalid fears are truly not big deal, that we are going to be okay, and that we can move through fearful thoughts and feelings to get where we want to be in life, rather than letting fear stop us from making the next move. And THAT is powerful. That is what changes everything.
Let’s talk about when fear isn’t serving us well.
One of the great things about fear is that when we’re threatened, it gets us moving quickly. We get a shot of adrenaline and our muscles tense up. We’re alert, our senses are heightened and we’re stimulated so we can get the heck out of danger. And in dangerous situations, this is a blessing. But when we’re sitting at home thinking about what a family member is going to say to us at an upcoming party, or we’re thinking about a work situation and what our boss is going to say, and we have that same physical reaction over and over again? That’s fear we’re creating with our minds, through our thoughts, and it does NOT serve us.
When we think about being afraid of failure, I want to say it’s completely fine to be afraid to fail. On the flip side, there are some of us who are afraid to succeed. Either way is fine, but you can’t let it stop you anymore. You’re going to need to do it anyway. The people who are doing the things you wish you were doing? It’s not that they weren’t scared. They were. They just did it anyway. And you can too.
One of the most powerful parts of understanding your brain and your thoughts is that it really gives you an entirely new perspective about who you are. Fear doesn’t mean that you’re broken or that something has gone wrong. It does mean that you’re a human being and you have been wired for survival. We may not be running away from things that could eat us anymore, but fear is still serving us. It keeps us from driving wrecklessly; it keeps us from walking off the edge of a cliff; it keeps us from touching a hot stove or a fire.
Those are scenarios where fear is serving you and I very well.
But how about this example. I’m introverted. It’s not that I don’t like people, because I totally do, but being around large groups of new people, especially in unfamiliar environments, can be scary to me. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. And very uncomfortable. In the past, I’ve definitely let that fear hold me back in my life. Not wanting to be the center of attention, not knowing what to say. And it’s a completely irrational fear, right? I mean, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Someone saying, “I don’t want to talk to you?” Or “You’re boring”? Why is that even scary? People can do or say what they want. But why is this even scary? It’s because of what I’m making it mean. It’s because of what I’m making it mean about me. And for a long time, I made being an introvert mean that I must not like people, and that thought led to some feelings that just did not serve me well. Maybe it’s with age or maturity, but I embrace it now. My thoughts about being introverted now are that being introverted doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me or that I dislike people, it just means that I am refueled by alone time. That’s it. But when I have those fearful thoughts about large groups or meeting new people or being the center of attention, how can I work on that fear? Let’s talk about that next.
How We Can Manage Our Fears
1. Accept that fear is going to be a part of life. We aren’t going to eliminate fear, but we can understand it enough to find it’s cause and change the thought patterns that are creating it. Remember, this can take time. Some fearful thoughts have been years and years in the making, and because of this, they may not change immediately. But they will.
2. Challenge yourself to feel it. Let yourself know what fear feels like. For many of us, the idea of fear is so uncomfortable we’ll do just about anything to avoid or resist it. Many of us eat instead of feeling the fear. Some of us drink alcohol instead of feeling it. Or work instead of feeling it. But when you feel it coming, let it be. Like we discussed back in Episode 4: Feelings, just sit with it. Notice that you’ll want to resist. You totally will. But breathe and feel the physical aspects of it, maybe the faster heart rate, maybe sweaty palms, the tense muscles. Let yourself feel it and know that it’s not harmful. It’s just a feeling. In fact, are the feelings of fear, the physical feelings, that different than what you experience when you voluntarily go work out at the gym? Think about that. Is that what we’re so afraid of? When you really let yourself feel it, you can let yourself embrace it. You can see that the feeling you’re fearing might not be worthy of fear after all.
3. Take action anyway. Let yourself feel the fear, and do the thing you want to do anyway. When you move forward and take action, you show yourself that all the things you’re afraid of get proven wrong. You see that taking action and doing the thing is not life threatening. That you are capable and you’re going to be fine. When I think of a fear many of us have – public speaking – I think of what’s the worst that could happen. What are we afraid of, truly? Is it making a mistake? Is it everyone laughing at us? You might think so, but no. We’re afraid of in that situation is humiliation. A feeling. A feeling that WE create by what we’d make it mean if we were speaking and everyone was laughing at us. But we don’t often think this through to see how irrational it is. We just stop at the fear.
4. Think about the worst-case scenario and whether your fear is valid. That’s right, when we start to feel fear, most of us do one of two things – we stop, or we run. Catch yourself in the moment before you do either or those two, and just think of the worst-case scenario. Think about whether your fear is valid in that situation. When you see that likely there is not any real danger threatening you, you may choose to go forward and feel the fear along the way.
5. The last thing that can be helpful in managing fear is to write your fears down. All of them. I use writing as a tool in SO many parts of my life, and find that there can be such power in just putting pen to paper and writing. First of all, it can be a therapeutic thought download just to get the fears out of your brain and onto a list. Next, look at your list, one by one. You’ll get a powerful visual that reveals your mind to you. Consider each fear you wrote down and examine if each one is valid. Are these logical? What are you really afraid of? Do you have fears that are truly holding you back from living the life you want to live? This is where you can look at those fears, get to the thoughts that are causing them, and determine if those are thoughts you want to continue to believe. If you don’t, you get to choose new thoughts that you do want to believe, and move forward from there.
Some final thoughts about fear here. This is such a deep and pervasive topic, I really feel that we just chipped off a very small part of the iceberg. But I want to leave you knowing that most fear doesn’t have to be a big deal in your life. Yes, we’re both going to experience it, but we don’t have to let it STOP us, like we so often do. I think of a story that happened around the time I was really studying this topic of fear pretty deeply. My daughter was about to have a music recital, and although she’d performed a handful of piano recitals in her life with zero nerves or anxiety, THIS particular recital was different. Because she was also going to be singing in front of an audience for the first time. And she was scared. So scared that she wanted to back out and tell her teacher she was only going to perform her piano music at the recital, and not sing. And as her mom, I was honestly first just shocked that she was even nervous. It just wasn’t part of her personality I’d seen before. And although as a mom it was difficult to see her in tears about this, I also knew how much she loves to sing and perform. So we talked about the fear. We talked about what it feels like and we talked about what the worst case scenario would be like. As in, we literally role-played it out, went through the motions of that so that she could navigate the decision with a better lens. Once we walked through what that worst-case scenario looked and felt like, we talked about her why. Why she wanted to sing in the first place. And I watched the tears fade into a slight smile, and the slight smile grew into a great big one, as she walked through that fear and decided to DO THE HARD THING ANYWAY. And I thought of each of us, and what growth and JOY we may be keeping ourselves from when we let ourselves stop at the fear.
So this is a reminder as much to me as it is to you today. You can do it anyway. You can do the thing you want to do. You don’t have to stop. You get to choose. Do it scared. Remember your WHY. It will always help you get there. And getting there? Getting to ALL THE THINGS that live on the other side of fear? That’s where the good stuff is.
I pray this episode has been so helpful. If you’re learning from this podcast, would you take a minute and leave a rating and review for Beyond Happy from wherever you’re listening in? I’d be so grateful. My hope is that these tools and messages would make an impact, and this is one way we can make that happen. Sharing episodes and spreading the word. Thank you in advance. I’m so thankful you’re here and that you’re here in this community with us, wanting to go beyond where you’ve been. Until next week, friends. Talk soon.