Fear

What is your fear telling you?

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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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4 Fear-Busters for Tough Times

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The primary emotion I felt when I thought about quitting my job was fear.

I was afraid that...

  • I would never find out what I was "meant" to be doing.
  • I would pick the wrong thing, invest a lot of time/energy/money in it, and then get bored and feel trapped.
  • I would disappoint the people in my life.
  • I was wasting precious time because I couldn't make a decision.
  • I wouldn't be able to find something that was satisfying and financially sustainable.
  • If I did quit and take some time off, I'd run out of money before I figured things out.
  • At heart, I was a flaky, lazy and irresponsible person.
  • My skills were so specialized, I'd never be able to do anything else.
  • I'd never have a better situation than the job I had right now.

It felt like things were falling apart and I didn't know what to do.

I was in the middle of what Martha Beck calls a "Square One Meltdown." My sense of identity and my plans for the future were dissolving before my eyes, and I didn't know how to react other than with panic. At the time, I didn't have the context for what was happening to me, so it felt even scarier.

Now, three years later, I still get scared. Unfortunately, doing what you love does not inoculate you against fear. Coaching fills me with clarity and purpose, but there are plenty of days that I want to spend hiding under the covers.

The big difference is that I spend less time believing my fears, and I've learned to recognize the signs so I'm better at stopping a panic spiral before it gets out of control.

Here are the four things I do to bring myself back.

1. Get out of fight-flight-freeze mode.

When the nervous system gets overloaded by emotion, we disconnect from our bodies. For me, that looks like running around trying to get everything done, sitting frozen with thoughts racing through my head, or tuning out with a numbing distraction. My first step is always to realize that I've dissociated from my body and do what I can to get grounded.

I teach lots of ways to do this in Finding Your Fit, but here's one place to start:

  • Put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
  • Inhale and focus on pushing out the hand on your belly.
  • Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  • Slowly release your breath, making the exhale longer than the inhale.
  • Try a count of in 4, hold 4, out 8.
  • Repeat at least four times.

What do you notice when you try this? I often feel like the air I inhale is attaching to all the tension in my body. When I exhale, I feel a softening, melting sensation in my neck and shoulders. The inside of my head gets quieter. I feel heavier and more grounded.

For more things to try, check out my article on getting out of fight or flight mode. It's important to get in touch with your body before you move on, because otherwise it's hard to slow down and focus enough to do the next steps.

2. Narrow your focus.

If you look at my list of fears up above, you'll notice that they are mostly abstract and based in the future. None of them are concerned with my immediate safety or survival. As my teachers like to say, "What part of this problem is in the room with you?"

Once you've returned to your body, take a moment to notice your actual real, present situation. Are you in danger? Are you being provided for at this moment? What needs to be dealt with immediately?

This isn't meant to be a "why aren't you happy with what you have?" type of questioning. It's a process of finding out how much of what's scaring you is in your head. When you take the time to notice that you are safe and secure, you can approach the next step with clear eyes.

3. Question your fears.

During my transition/soul-searching period, I was really good at journaling about my thoughts. Write down all your fears and insecurities? No sweat, I've got this covered.

While keeping track of these thoughts was a valuable first step, I just didn't go far enough. Once I wrote them all down, I accepted them as true. Instead of seeing my fears as a collection of words that were holding me hostage, I let them terrorize me into paralysis and called it "self-awareness."

Now, one of the biggest things I do with myself and my clients is identify and question the thoughts that cause us stress. We look for exceptions, assumptions, judgments, and projections. We see where we're voluntarily keeping ourselves small because being big is so much scarier. We let those fears be our teachers and direct us to those parts that need love and healing.

If you want some help getting started with this, check out the Work of Byron Katie. It's what I use with my clients and a powerful tool for seeing through your stressful thoughts.

4. Get help.

This isn't step 4 just because I'm launching a program - for me, it was the missing link between absorbing information and actually feeling some relief. I read a million self-help books on my journey, but nothing really sunk in until I sat down with someone whose job was to keep me focused, help me make connections, and point out my assumptions and blind spots. This process can be as uncomfortable as it is healing, and having someone go in there with you makes all the difference.

I hope that if you're freaking out right now, this has helped you calm down a little bit. And if you're ready to make a change and interested in finding some support of your own, check out how to work with me and see what kinds of things you're capable of when you approach your future from a place of clarity and confidence.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Ryan Dunaiski

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When not knowing what to do makes you crazy.

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There’s a specific mental loop that I get stuck in at times and it goes like this:

I don’t know what to do → I should know what to do → I need to do something now → but I don’t know what it is!

Sound familiar?

I ran around this loop constantly when I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life, and then again after I'd started my business and was blanking on my next steps.

If I’m not careful, I find myself going in circles, getting wound up tighter and tighter, until I get to the point where even if there is a good decision to be made, there’s no way I’m going to know what it is.

Today I want to break down this loop into its components and explore some of its implicit assumptions, which will hopefully make it a little easier to deal with (and eventually get out of!).

There are three parts: the initial thought, the judging thought, and the urgent thought. 

Part 1: I don't know what to do.

This thought is actually pretty neutral when taken by itself. It's a statement of fact. I'm pretty sure there are times when you didn't know what to do and it was no big deal.

Therefore, it's not the thought itself that makes us anxious, it's the judgments and assumptions we have about the thought. This leads us to the next part.

Part 2: I should know what to do.

This is what takes the first part and turns it into something to get stressed about.

These anxious feelings tell me that it's a really good thought to question, like so:

  • Is it true? Should I know what to do?
  • Who says? 
  • How is this thought trying to serve me? (And isn't that an interesting question!)

The reason I'm having the thought in the first place is that it’s trying to protect me, albeit in its own not-very-enlightened way.

Its purpose is to motivate me to look for new solutions and to supposedly keep me from giving up. If I don't know what to do, the reasoning goes, I need to keep working until I do.

Unfortunately, it doesn't really work that way. I usually end up just getting paralyzed and feeling ashamed, frustrated, and anxious.

Part 3: I need to do something right now.

What we want to question here is that sense of urgency. It feels like the clock is ticking, like you're wasting time. If you're a millennial like me, maybe you grew up hearing about your potential and then at some point became terrified of wasting it.

There's an implication that there's a right way to be spending your time and if you're spending it in the wrong way, you're letting it slip away. Time is a precious thing in this loop and it feels very scarce.

Again, the “helpful” reason that thought is there is to keep me moving forward and keep me from giving up or settling.

Instead, I go straight into sympathetic shock, which is a fancy way of talking about the fight-or-flight response. I start running around, doing lots of different things but not really making much progress on any of them. Nothing really gets done, and if it does, I'm more apt to make mistakes and things tend to take longer.

What you want to do when you're stuck in this part of the loop is to ask questions like these:

  • How urgent is this, really? 
  • Will someone die if I don’t act immediately?
  • Do I have to figure out the whole thing now, or just the next little piece of it?

Getting Out of the Loop

So, to recap, what we've done so far is 1) notice we're in the loop and 2) start questioning the judgments and assumptions. Now, we're going to do something about it.

1. Come up with some alternative thoughts.

What "better-feeling" thoughts can you offer your anxious, worried, harried brain?

  • I don’t know what to do yet, but I'll figure it out.
  • I have plenty of time.
  • All I have to figure out is the next step.
  • I’d like to figure this out soon, but it’s not imperative that it happens right now.
  • I don’t know what to do this minute, and that’s okay.
  • I have lots of different options, even if I can’t see them right now.
  • Relaxing helps me to see my options.
  • I’m exploring my options.
  • I’m learning about my options.

2. Give yourself a 10-minute "worry break" and reconnect with your body.

When you're in that fight-or-flight feeling, you're completely dissociated from your body and your pre-frontal cortex (the part that makes decisions and regulates emotions) goes completely offline.

Meditate, do some stretches, or take a walk. Even just feeling your feet on the ground, paying attention to your breathing, and putting your hand on your heart or your abdomen can help.

I've written a whole blog post about some other things you can try. Just give yourself a brief vacation from having to deal with your stressful situation.

3. Next, feel into your body and let this question bubble up into your brain:

"What needs to happen next?"

Like literally, the very next thing you're going to do. It might be to go get a glass of water or answer an e-mail.

But whatever it is, let it come into your consciousness without forcing. Just take that one next step, and then see what happens. Do you go back into your anxious loop, or does something else come up?

When you come from that quiet, calm place and ask what needs to happen next, you might be surprised at the answer.

If it's too anxiety-provoking to trust yourself that way, treat it like an experiment. See if you can do that for an hour. Just see what happens when you let yourself trust the part of you that knows how to answer that question.

I know this isn't easy.

The fact that you're here and reading this means that you're interested in changing your patterns. It happens a little bit at a time, so don't get discouraged if this doesn't come naturally at first.

I can tell you that if you stick with it, it becomes easier and easier to gently detach yourself from the doom spiral and trust that the answers will come.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to my newsletter and get notified about new articles. If you need a next thing to do, you'll also get my free workbook Anatomy of a Dream Job: Bring Clarity and Focus to Your Career Search.

Image credit: freeimages.com/William Ray

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