What is your fear telling you?


Fear gripped my heart as I sat in the passenger seat of my husband's car. It was a beautiful fall day, but it went unappreciated as I stared at my nemesis: a perfectly innocent-looking gearshift.

I’d offered to drive part of the way back from a family reunion, but I couldn’t remember a thing about driving a stick shift. Even though I’d watched my husband do it a million times, my mind was completely blank. Instead of driving out of the busy gas station, I opted to have a low-grade panic attack.

As we got back on the freeway (my husband at the wheel) and I let the shame and adrenaline wash through me, I took stock.

Did I really want to learn how to drive a stick? Frankly, no. I knew that if I left it alone, my husband probably wouldn’t bring it up again.

But when it came down to it, we were most of the way through a road-trip that he’d done all the driving on. I found that I wanted to help more than I wanted a pass.

Sometimes your fear is saying "Be careful" and sometimes it's "Better not."

I’m not really a fan of “feel the fear and do it anyway” or “just push through it” philosophies. I think we feel things for a reason and it’s important to slow down and find out what they’re trying to tell us instead of just bulldozing through.

At the same time, basically nothing good about my life would exist if I hadn’t done something terrifying at some point. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to drive at all if I’d let my fear make all my choices for me.

In the car with my husband, I felt no relief at being given an out. Instead, I felt intense shame and disappointment.

As my emotions moved through me, they gradually shifted into determination. I was going to do this, somehow. I started looking for a solution that was slightly less traumatizing than a busy parking lot.

When we got to a rest stop, I said, “Here. Pull over here.” He drove through the rest stop and parked facing the on-ramp.

We switched places again. I went through the steps in my head: ignition, emergency brake, brake, clutch in, gas, shift, clutch out.

And then... I just did it. It was jerky and I had trouble getting into fifth, but we were on the highway and moving homewards.

I was shaking a little bit, but I felt so, so proud.

What is your fear saying?

“Be Careful” fear is about risk management. Sure, some of its worries are pretty out-there, but on the whole it exists to make sure that my chances of succeeding at the thing are as good as possible. It varies in strength depending on the favorability of the surrounding circumstances (e.g. a deserted rest stop versus a busy parking lot).

“Better Not” fear tells me to give this one a pass. This tells me that I don’t really want to do it, it doesn’t provide a future benefit, and it might have negative consequences.

When I contemplate trying something new that scares me, I ask myself these three questions:

  • If I went through the rest of my life without doing this, would I feel disappointed or relieved?
  • If I attempted this and succeeded, would I feel proud or just glad it's over?
  • If someone in authority told me not to do this, would I feel rebellious or grateful?

If it's the first, I should try to push through the fear and give the thing a try. If it's the second, it's fine to give it a pass.

I realize that people vary, but I’ve tested this against some of my own past scary experiences and I have to say it checks out pretty well.

Learning to ride a bike, introducing myself to a group of new people, or quitting a job and starting my own business? Be careful.

Cutting through a park alone at night or cliff-jumping with my friends? Better not (although I've done both).

My clients and I face our anxieties every day, but it gets a lot easier when we know when to proceed with caution and when to shut things down.

When we practice healthy discernment, we can honor our fear’s valuable messages without living the rest of our lives in a (literal or figurative) concrete bunker.

What about you? What ventures are you contemplating, and what is your fear saying about them?

If one of the scary things you're contemplating is a career transition, you might be interested in getting some individual support. I'll help you figure out what you want from a job and what you need to get there.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Anna Hunter

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