26 Apr FEAR and how it stops us
I used to wonder if some people were born scared and others born confident? As a child I was shy and held myself back socially. I remember being less than confident and that I often had a sense of fear or danger. It seemed to me that most other children were happier and more confident than I was and naturally, I wondered why this was the case. I found myself the focus of other children’s meanness and as a teenager I was bullied about my emerging sexuality. Is it possible that a fearful self-belief can render us so scared of failure that we never achieve our potential? Why do some people stop short of their desires, dreams and aspirations? These are the things that interest and drive me as a coach.
As an adult I’ve achieved far more confidence and self-esteem from my life experiences. At the age of 32 I studied applied psychology at university; I was fascinated about the relationship between brain and behaviour, particularly, why we do the things we do. Reflecting on my own childhood fear and my beloved mother’s caution in all things; I asked myself a more important question: “are some people more prone to feeling scared and anxious about the everyday things that others seem to take in their stride?” In other words, is our tendency to experience fear and anxiety genetically or emotionally predetermined? Well, according to William R. Clark1 at U.C.L.A. it is. His study of fear in animals, such as mice has shown that fear can be selectively bred into succeeding generations, suggesting a strong genetic component.
Evolutionary studies show us that the fear of heights, water, insects or mice is a natural in-built safety mechanism inherited from our prehistoric ancestors, to keep us safe. Fear is a feeling or emotional response induced by a perceived danger or threat. When we are scared, a change in our bodily functions occurs and ultimately a corresponding change in behaviour, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from the perceived danger or threat. Psychological symptoms may include: fear of losing control, fear of fainting, and feelings of overwhelming dread or fear of death. Physical symptoms can include: rapid shallow breathing, increased blood pressure and pulse rate, trembling and even shaking, but then these can similarly be experienced when we are very excited too! Was I confusing excitement for fear, I wondered? Through my work with the Northern Lights Trust, I learned that fear and excitement are like two sides of the same coin and with practise and focus, I could flip the coin from fear to excitement in my approach to life’s challenges.
When these symptoms of fear emanate from a strongly held self-limiting belief such as ‘I’m not clever enough’, for example, they can become debilitating; making our everyday life experience difficult or miserable and keeping us from our personal and professional goals, dreams and desires. For some of us, the idea of speaking in public or leaving a job we hate or have long-outgrown in order to reach for a new goal instead, can cause immense stress and anxiety. Somehow, like a rabbit stunned in the headlights, we stop short of our aspirations for growth, change or happiness!
The development of human science has taught us that building our self-efficacy, esteem and confidence can help us overcome irrationally held fears and self-limiting beliefs. This is perhaps evident in the success and demand of talking therapies such as counselling, psychotherapy and hypnotherapy for example. These disciplines teach us that fear can also be a learned response; a child can learn how to fear a certain situation by just watching a terrified parent going through the same situation.
One of the tools I clung to on my life journey was the following acronym: Fantasised Experience Appearing Real, (there are some 60+ variants of this). Once I realised that my anticipation of the event or experience was bigger than the reality and was almost always irrational, I could engage with the possibility of what the reality of the event would really be. So if I was scared of heights to the point where I would not climb a small mountain when on holiday for example; then I would never get to experience the joy of the stunning views and the beauty of the photographs to be gained whilst at the summit!
I had learned (irrationally) in an all-boys school where I was bullied that male-dominated environments were dangerous and for a very long time this prevented me from going anywhere I thought lots of guys hung out. In my irrational belief, gyms were such a place and so it was that I avoided them like my life depended on it. Initially, this served me well, but ultimately to achieve my goal of getting physically fit and learning how to weight train safely and effectively, I had to face and deal with the gremlin that I had created. I enlisted professional help from a personal trainer and coach and ultimately the physical health and fitness I had long secretly craved.
I am learning to be grateful for fear. We can all learn to eagerly embrace it, understand its origin and use it as a signpost for what needs to be dealt with, a powerful tool to become mindful and the catalyst for a mental de-clutter. Just like when spring-cleaning the house or the office; having a mental de-clutter, means we can sort out what we want to keep and what no longer serves us well. We can feel renewed and re-energised for the therapeutic experience. People have changed their lives, literally, as a result of taking an honest or brave approach to their self-limiting beliefs or even reframing their self-belief system.
“…As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
According to Susan Jeffers PhD. author of ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’, we all have our own list of fears which feature throughout our lives. Jeffers phenomenal classic book shows us its readers how to become powerful in the face of our fears. Feel the fear by all means, she argues, but do it anyway. Similarly, spiritual activist and author Marianne Williamson spoke eloquently of fear and the power we feel as we free ourselves of it, in her famous quote, “…As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Good mental health, mindfulness and resilience are arguably requisite skills of the 21st century; teachers place emphasis on the acquisition of these skills when educating young people as do coaches and mentors when supporting tomorrow’s athletes and leaders. Knowing our relationship with fear and where we stop, can inspire us to re-examine and revise our professional goals and personal dreams in line with our REAL POTENTIAL.
1. William R. Clark; is professor emeritus in the department of molecular, cell and developmental biology at U.C.L.A.