Fear is a driving force for much of human behavior. Studies show that most people will do more to avoid pain than they will to gain pleasure. Pain is a significant component of decision-making. Learning to overcome fear has numerous advantages and makes life more fulfilling. Imagine making a decision based on achieving what you desire rather than avoiding what you fear.
Consider some of the common fears that drive us:
- Fear of failure
- Fear of embarrassment
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of physical harm
- Fear of death
- Fear of public speaking
- Fear of financial challenges
- Fear of losing a job
- Fear of losing a loved one
- Fear of being alone
- Fear of letting others down
Our fears control our behavior. If there’s something you want to do, but don’t, fear is likely the cause. Mediocrity is one of the primary symptoms of a life directed by fear. How much does fear drive your decisions? If you’re being honest with yourself, fear is a significant part of your life.
Fear leads to less than optimal decisions and outcomes. When choices are made that accommodate fears, the best solution isn’t utilized.
When we avoid fear, our self-esteem takes a hit, too. We know what we should do, but we’re not quite “brave” enough to make it happen.
Fortunately, dealing with fear is a skill. Sure, some people are naturally more fear resistant than others, just as some people can naturally jump higher than others. But you can learn to feel less fear and learn to act despite fear.
Fear and the response to fear become habits over time. You can create new habits to bypass the fear response. New habits can also be developed to grow your courage.
“Don’t let fear or insecurity stop you from trying new things. Believe in yourself. Do what you love. And most importantly, be kind to others, even if you don’t like them.” – Stacy London
What Are Fears?
For our purposes, let’s define fear as an uncomfortable feeling that inhibits your desire to do something.
Like all emotions, fear only exists within your body. It’s a self-generated discomfort. That physical discomfort encourages you to avoid the person, thing, or situation that triggers that uncomfortable feeling.
How do you experience fear?
Some common fear symptoms include:
- Queasy feeling in stomach
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sweaty palms
- Shaky hands
- Hot flashes or chills
- Tightness in chest
These are all responses designed to keep you safe from a perceived danger. Unfortunately, most fear responses are misguided. There isn’t a whole lot to fear in modern society compared to 10,000 years ago.
We have access to food, shelter, clothing, and few threats of violence. Nearly anyone with a job can be quite self-sufficient in any first-world country.
This hasn’t always been the case.
“Remember your dreams and fight for them. You must know what you want from life. There is just one thing that makes your dream become impossible: the fear of failure.” – Paulo Coelho
How Are Fears Formed?
Some fears are natural. It’s been suggested that there are only two fears that are instilled at birth: the fear of losing your balance and the fear of loud noises.
A few fears may be a part of our evolution.
For example, it’s believed that the fear that most men feel when approaching a potential mate is an evolved fear. If you approached the wrong female thousands of years ago, you might take a rock to the head from another tribe.
Men that were naturally fearful of approaching women survived, while those that threw caution to the wind were eventually removed from existence!
The fear of rejection may have also evolved. While we can take care of ourselves in most situations today, the same wasn’t true long ago. If you weren’t part of a tribe, you were doomed. Rejection by the group meant almost certain death. Now it just means you might have to spend the night watching Netflix by yourself.
While a baby might be startled from a loud noise, he isn’t the least bit alarmed by a tiger, heights, snakes, spiders, or crowds. These fears are learned. Babies don’t fear rejection or humiliation. These are learned, too.
Fears are developed through negative experiences. Perhaps you tried playing softball as a child and blew an easy out to first. Your teammates yelled at you, and now the thought of playing softball again makes you feel a little queasy.
These experiences are often imagined. For example, you might be afraid of heights because you’ve imagined yourself slipping and falling off the edge of a building. Or maybe you’re afraid of reaching out to others because you repeatedly imagine rejection and the resulting emotional pain.
Your negative experiences create your fears. It doesn’t matter whether those experiences actually happened, or whether you created them in your mind.
Fear Creates Challenges
Aristotle believed that courage was the greatest of all human virtues. Courage makes all the other virtues possible. Fears make life more challenging because you avoid doing those things that can make your life better.
Fear can impact your life in a variety of ways:
- Prevent you from pursuing a promotion
- Prevent you from meeting the partner of your dreams
- Stop you from getting on a plane and visiting new places
- Make you avoid social situations
- Keep you from trying certain careers
Fears can be the origin of financial, social, and general life challenges. When you’re not doing the things you want to do, or the things you need to do, you’re going to suffer at some point.
Fear can lead to drug use, overeating, compulsive shopping, and other disadvantageous behaviors.
“When we tackle obstacles, we find hidden reserves of courage and resilience we did not know we had. And it is only when we are faced with failure do we realize that these resources were always there within us. We only need to find them and move on with our lives.” – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam
Overcome Fears With Habits
Fears become ingrained very quickly, because avoiding the thing that causes the fear makes the fear stronger.
Imagine that you’re considering asking your boss for a raise. You quickly feel a twinge of fear. If you avoid asking for that raise, you instantly feel better. Your brain just got a quick lesson on how to make you feel better: feel afraid, then the behavior is avoided, feel better.
Avoidance is a drug of sorts. It’s a quick way to instantly relieve yourself of fear. The best way to ensure you’ll avoid a behavior is to generate the physical sensations of fear. It’s a challenging cycle to break.
Creating new habits is one way to gradually eliminate fears. Habits can be formed to create new ways of responding to fear in general. They can also be created to address specific fears.
“I don’t fear death so much as I fear its prologues: loneliness, decrepitude, pain, debilitation, depression, senility. After a few years of those, I imagine death presents like a holiday at the beach.” – Mary Roach
Develop the Habit of Courage
Those with courage aren’t without fear. If you weren’t afraid, you wouldn’t need courage in the first place! Courage is acting in the presence of fear. Courage is ultimately a habit that must be cultivated daily until it becomes automatic.
Try these strategies to develop your courage:
- Confront your fear. Our natural instincts are to run the other way. Try holding your ground for a change. Feel the fear in your body. Avoid distracting yourself or avoiding the situation. Just sit with those uncomfortable feelings and give them your full attention. Notice how those feelings dissipate within a few minutes.
- Expect success. Things generally seem to work out for the best in the end. Expect a positive outcome and fear is difficult to maintain.
- Stay with reality. How many failures have you had in life that created long-term challenges for you? Very few. It’s easy to create disastrous scenarios in your mind, but that’s the only place they exist. Realistically, you have little to risk in most situations. The most fearful situations have the biggest rewards.
- Evaluate the risk/reward ratio for your situation. Try to make a logical decision and ignore what your body is telling you. Your body is lying to you.
- Challenge yourself. Fears go away when you keep pushing forward. When fear fails to stop you from acting, your brain will realize it’s a strategy that simply doesn’t work anymore.
It’s worth the effort to learn how to act more courageously on a consistent basis. It’s one habit that carries over to every part of your life. When fear is no longer steering your decisions, life becomes much easier.
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Develop the Habit of Dealing With Discomfort
You wouldn’t let a stubbed toe or sore shoulder stop you from getting things done. So, there’s no reason why a few butterflies in your stomach should be an obstacle. Keep in mind that fear is just a physical sensation. It doesn’t have to direct your actions.
Make discomfort your friend:
- Be excited. When you’re experiencing discomfort, it means you’re doing something that can make a real difference in your life. When you spend an entire day feeling a little bit of discomfort, you can bet that good things are happening.
- Relax your shoulders and all the other muscles in your body. That tenseness that occurs when you’re afraid sets off a chain reaction that creates even more discomfort.
- You can relieve a lot of your discomfort by simply relaxing your muscles.
- Shallow, uneven breathing creates physiological changes that create more physical discomfort. Your breathing is one thing that you can control. Take deeper, slower breaths and watch what happens.
- Be curious. Instead of putting yourself into a state of mental distress when the uncomfortable body feelings begin, ask yourself a few questions.
- “That’s an interesting feeling. I wonder why I’m feeling this way?”
- “What is the worst that can happen? How could I handle that?”
- “How great will I feel if I don’t give up this time?”
- By directing your attention, you can stop the fear from growing out of control.
- Stay present. Fear grows when you allow your thoughts to drift to unpleasant places. Keep your mind focused on the present moment. Avoid imagining the worst.
Discomfort can be your friend.
It’s a signal that you’re taking an action that has the potential to change your life for the better. Rather than running from fear, consider running toward it.
The most successful people often report that they’re afraid all the time. They have learned how to accept it and continue forward.
“We don’t develop courage by being happy every day. We develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” – Barbara De Angelis
Develop Habits to Deal With Specific Fears
Few things are more illustrative than concrete examples. Use these examples to develop habits to deal with your own fears.
Public speaking is one of the most common fears. Overcoming Public Speaking fear can be challenging, but incredibly rewarding. By getting at the underlying root of the problem, mainly the fear of humiliation and rejection, you’ll get a good start on eliminating many other social-based fears.
Developing these habits will help you overcome your fear of public speaking:
- Introduce yourself. Whenever you’re at a party, standing in line at the store, or in the presence of anyone you don’t know, introduce yourself immediately. Avoid giving yourself any time to change your mind.
- You’ll quickly realize that no one will reject you. People aren’t something that you need to avoid. After 50 positive experiences, you’ll worry much less about rejection.
- Speak up at meetings. Start with smaller meetings and eventually move up to larger, town hall-type gatherings. Ask a simple question or make a relevant comment. After several experiences without any negative outcomes, you’ll begin to feel more comfortable and confident.
- Begin and end each day with visualization. Spend five minutes each morning and evening imagining yourself giving a presentation. Vary the group size and the topic of the speech. Picture your audience captivated by your words. Feel their support and enthusiasm. Allow yourself to feel poised and confident.
- This process can require a few weeks to make a significant difference, but you’ll grow accustomed to speaking to groups and expecting success. When you expect the best to happen, there’s no room for fear to survive.
- Repeat affirmations throughout the day. Constantly tell yourself that you’re a great public speaker and you’re brimming with confidence. Here are a few ideas:
- “Others love to listen to me speak.”
- “I feel most confident when sharing my thoughts and ideas publicly.”
- “I enjoy the attention I receive while giving a presentation.”
- “I love people and they love me.”
- Make a list of affirmations and repeat them to yourself regularly. Remember, you talk to yourself all day long! Try to avoid going more than five minutes without reciting an affirmation in your self-talk.
- Speak to groups regularly. Join Toastmasters International and make speeches on a regular basis. You’ll get feedback from experts and give presentations in a comfortable environment. One of the best ways to get over a fear of something is to do it regularly.
Overcoming a fear of public speaking can be huge enhancement to your life. You’ll be more comfortable in social situations, and your career will receive a great boost!
Now let’s consider another common fear – the fear of heights, or acrophobia.
“Love is the master key that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gate of fear.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
The Fear of Heights
You can create a set of habits that will have you peering over the edge of a skyscraper in no time.
Give these tips a try:
- Spend some time each day looking at pictures and videos that create fear in you. YouTube has countless videos of crazy teenagers jumping from rooftop to rooftop. You can also find videos of people climbing radio antennas, skydiving, or doing handstands on the edges of tall buildings.
- Force yourself to watch videos and view pictures that make you “weak in the knees” each day. Keep watching until your fear response dissipates.
- Put yourself in real situations. Whether it’s a rotating restaurant on the 70th floor or a grain silo, expose yourself to heights on a regular basis. You might start by looking out the second floor of a building and add a floor every few days.
- Tell yourself that heights are exciting to you. There’s a fine line between excitement and fear. The physical sensations are remarkably similar; it’s the expectation that differs.
- Visualize yourself in situations that involve heights. Remind yourself that you’re safe, but make the imagery as vivid as possible. See yourself handling the situation bravely and comfortably.
- In time, you’ll behave the same way when faced with real situations. Practice daily and you’ll be rewarded handsomely.
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” ― Jane Austen
Fear is a part of life. Unfortunately, fear does more to limit our lives than it does to enhance it. There just aren’t that many things in modern society that are worthy of fear.
Fear is a limitation on your personal freedom. When fears are defeated, new choices and accomplishments are possible.
Many of the challenges in life are the result of failing to make beneficial decisions during times of fear. The world doesn’t typically reward us for playing it safe.
Life favors the bold.
Fears can be systematically defeated and habits can be a critical component of that process. Use the suggestions above to help desensitize you to your fear. Repeat these actions over and over again, until they become habits, then rejoice as you see your fear dissipate!