Good Fear. Bad Fear.
Victor lost his job nine months ago. After a couple of weeks of denial, anger, fear, etc., he reached out to his network. There weren’t any offers of employment, but there were a few offers of contract work. Victor quickly realized that he has a skillset that many companies need but can’t afford full time. After six months of consulting, Victor sensed an opportunity and took a massive leap – he turned down a long-awaited job offer in favour of opening his own consulting business. The decision was terrifying. The knowledge the he and he alone is now responsible for generating the revenue that feeds his family and pays his mortgage scares him every day. Yet at the same time, he loves his work. He wakes each morning with energy and a sense of purpose. And after a while, his fear mellows to a feeling of general discomfort. He can live with that.
Product manager Carly lives in fear of losing her job. There are a million other product managers out there who would love to step into her shoes and she can’t shake the feeling that one simple mistake will send her out the door. So, she plays it safe. When her team gets excited about a new innovation that is expensive and risky, but could open up multiple new markets, she puts the kibosh on it. She finds herself spending more and more time gossiping, trying to find out who’s in and who’s out and if her job is safe. When faced with declining profitability, she cuts jobs rather than seeking new revenue streams. At the end of the day, she goes home and eats dinner on her sofa with the TV on for distraction. But sometimes, the voice of her true self breaks through and she hears the words “This isn’t who I am”. And it’s not. Carly is creative. She loves connecting with her team. She loves brainstorming and iterating. Yet, she’s doing none of those things.
If there’s one word that accurately defines the year 2020, I’d say it’s “fear”.
Fear that we’ll get sick. Fear that our loved ones will die. Fear that our businesses will fail. Fear that we’ll lose our jobs. Fear that we’ll lose our homes. Fear that the wrong side will win the election. Fear that the election will be stolen. Fear that there’s no end in sight.
Yup. There is fear.
But it’s up to you if you make it a good fear, or a bad fear.
What’s the difference you ask?
Good fear is about pushing and challenging ourselves. It’s about vision and courage and love. It’s about living our values. It’s about prioritizing truth over comfort. It’s about remembering who we are. It’s about expansiveness.
Bad fear is about defensiveness, reactivity and judgement. Bad fear causes us to prioritize our own personal comfort over the truth of what’s happening around us. Bad fear causes us to betray ourselves. It’s contractive. It makes us small.
How to choose good fear?
Fear comes from our need for certainty. Certainty is all about feeling safe, secure and comfortable. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, and it can keep us from making dumb-ass decisions. But, if we get over-attached to certainty, it can cause us to stay in a dead-end job or a relationship, and it can cause us to avoid even reasonable amounts of risk.
So you can see why it’s so important for us to get a grip on our need for certainty.
Curiosity is one of the hallmarks of a person in an expansive state. Ask yourself: Why am I afraid? Have there been similar situations that caused me to be afraid? What’s triggering me here? Soon, you’ll recognise a pattern.
Talk to people you trust (and only people you trust) about your fear. They might tell you, “You know what, that’s not really such a big deal” or they might say, “Yeah, that’s scary. You’re right to be scared.” Either might not be the answer you’re looking for, but at least you’ll know.
Make Friends with Your Fear
Pushing fear away only makes it more powerful. Rather than directing our energies to positive things that will improve our lives, we waste our energy resisting the truth. We become depleted and less able to tolerate the discomfort of fear, which only makes us more fearful.
Rather than thinking, “I’m afraid”, simply tell yourself, “There is fear”. This creates space between you and your emotions. You are not your fear. There is simply the presence of fear in your emotional experience at this moment. Now you can differentiate. Is there real danger? Or is it just a feeling?
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron is pretty good at befriending her fear. When she feels it, she simply says, “there you are again, my old friend”. By befriending her fear, she’s training her nervous system to not go into overdrive at every little hint of danger. Over time, we begin to see it for what it is – a tool. It’s merely a warning sign that can be headed or not.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Fear is the single most powerful driver of human behavior. It will not go away without a fight. And that’s why just as we may have a meditation practice or a professional practice or a spiritual practice, the practice of fear management puts us in a constant state of learning and improvement.
This is actually the deepest work I do with my clients. I help them put all of these things into practice with consistency.
And we need that consistency because of this one last thing. I’m sorry to tell you this, but your life will not go as planned. There will be bumps and bruises and global pandemics. There will always be setbacks, failures and outright disasters. And when those things happen, your job is to get back up and just keep going.
And the only way to do that is to embrace good fear. And then keep going.
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