“It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
Younger me, much like everyone else, was afraid of the dark. This made for an exciting bedtime, one much more akin to a big family reunion. We all wanted to sleep in bed with mom since (we thought) she could protect us from scary monsters lurking in the closet and under the bed.
My brother and sister slept on her left and right, while I slept across the bottom (proof that the middle child usually gets the shaft, or maybe I’m just bitter).
Truth be told — we were all a bunch of chickens who did what we could to avoid sleeping alone in the dark.
As I grew older, due to beds maxing out at the size of kings, I graduated to sleeping alone with a nightlight. Eventually, I learned how to overcome fear completely and slept by myself in total darkness.
Which brings me to my point — I think people hold the wrong opinion of what “overcoming your fears” actually means. Myself included.
We think this means that we’re no longer afraid. But what it actually means is that we are still afraid, we’ve just become comfortable living with it to the point where it doesn’t bother us.
I was reminded by this fact the other day after dashing in darkness up the basement stairs, feeling as though an evil spirit might grab and pull me down…as a 29-year-old man.
I realized my fear still exists and reveals itself when I’m caught off-guard.
What is fear, really?
Fear, according to Merriam-Webster, is an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.
This emotion lives inside us and all other living creatures, but part of what makes us human is our creative and rather unfortunate adaptation of it.
Fear's main purpose is to keep us alive and/or safe in the face of immediate danger, yet we’ve managed to develop fear for non-immediate danger — danger that exists only in our minds that might never happen at all.
While fear for immediate danger is useful and necessary, our fabricated fear of the future is often silly and unfounded. More than anything, this fear holds us back from realizing our hopes and dreams, and from achieving success in our lives.
So what is fear, really?
It’s the fear of failure, of success, of death, abandonment; the fear of not being good enough, or of being rejected.
All these fears — for humans — are natural. You’ve probably never witnessed a squirrel run away from a nut because he was afraid he might not get it and,
“Oh God, what would my squirrel friends think of me as a failure?”
The point is, we all live with it. But letting it prevent you from living out your dreams is a crime against humanity. It robs the world of you and your gifts. Yet sadly, this happens all the time.
So, what enables some people to push past their fear while others sit idle, living their “comfortable” lives unable to break the barrier?
How to overcome fear
It’s a tough question, but I’ve done by best to answer it below. What I’ve laid out here is a step-by-step solution to help you beat your fears.
Unfortunately, fear is highly individualized, which makes it tough to prescribe one method to help everyone. Regardless, here’s what has worked for me and some others I’ve talked to.
Maybe you can adapt it to work for you, too.
1. Introduce yourself to fear
Jason, meet fear. Fear, meet Jason.
Whenever you try to do something worthwhile or meaningful, fear perks up. Your mind starts asking questions like:
“What if this thing doesn’t turn out how I’d hoped?”
“What if I’m let down?”
“What if I let others down?”
“What if I fail?”
“What if I’m not good enough?”
Whether you realize it or not, these questions are being asked beneath the surface, which is why far too often, fear like this goes unnoticed.
You skip going to an audition because “you’re too tired,” or, at least that’s the excuse you tell yourself. In reality, you’re terrified of competing and potentially not earning the part…you’re afraid of being rejected.
Suppressing these fears isn’t healthy. And it’s for damn sure not doing yourself any favors. If not acknowledged, these fears will sit underneath the surface and continuously thwart your attempts at making progress — at creating or doing something worthwhile in your life.
So instead of letting the fear hide, acknowledge its existence. Waltz on up to it and say:
“Hey, I see you there, Fear. I’m [insert name here]. Nice to meet you.”
2. Don’t run from it
All the hard stuff comes after introducing yourself to fear.
As with anything scary, your gut reaction is to try to run from it because it makes you feel weak and insecure…but that doesn’t do much good for anyone. In fact, running can sometimes be worse than refusing to acknowledge your fear in the first place.
After saying hello to your fear, don’t immediately dismiss it. Instead, welcome the feeling. Stand your ground and proceed with curiosity.
“Listen Fear, I’m not going to run, but I know you’re not going anywhere, so let’s get to know each other a little better, OK?”
3. Feel your fear
“ Freedom is on the other side of the wall of fear. So when we feel fear, it’s actually a signal that we should go toward the fear.” — Leo Babauta
If you’ve never practiced any sort of mindfulness, now would be a good time to start. In order to feel your fear, you’ve got to sit with it for some time, observe it, and experience all the feelings of fear — the nervousness, the sweaty palms, the anxiety.
This doesn’t have to be as complicated as it sounds. Whenever you recognize fear surfacing, pause for a few moments and explore the feeling. You’ll realize that regardless of the physical response your body elicits, it’s only a feeling, and you have nothing to be afraid of.
In time, you may even get used to the feeling so that it doesn’t bother you anymore.
4. Become friends with it
They say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Fortunately for you, fear is always very close-by. And since it’s going to be around for a while — forever, actually — then you better start learning how to form a healthy relationship with it.
It’s funny how people think that they should be able to have a monogamous relationship with their hopes and dreams, as if they can chase them and it should be totally easy with no roadblocks.
However, when it comes to people and their hopes and dreams, it’s actually more akin to a devil’s three-way.
There’s you, the other person (your goals), and then there’s the OTHER person — the one you don’t really want but you have to accept their presence since it’s the only way your goals will sleep with you.
You, your lover, and your adversary must learn to get along, otherwise you won’t ever achieve your dreams. Don’t try to kick fear out or dismiss it because it will come roaring back and make sure you never get off the couch or make any progress again.
Instead, accept that it’s coming along for the ride (metaphorically, of course) and learn to live in harmonious discord.
You’re in it for the long haul together so you better get used to it.
5. Muster twenty seconds of insane courage
Now that you, your lover, and fear are all best friends. You have to learn how to deal with the resistance fear is going to provide. This is by far the hardest step.
In the movie We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon, while talking to his son about girls, tells him:
“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally, 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”
I’ve always loved that quote, and it’s exactly how you beat fear.
When you want to start writing your novel, or begin writing down lyrics to a song, or auditioning for a part, or whatever it is you want, you’ll notice that fear stands up to stop you.
He wants to see if you’re serious about your goals and whether or not you think they’re worth fighting for.
So when fear makes his move, all you have to do is stand your ground and show twenty seconds of enormous courage — maybe not even twenty, but more like five — to simply start and then let momentum carry you from there.
As I write this, I’ve been writing for over 3 years, yet I still felt the resistance to get started. Ultimately, since fear and I are well-acquainted, all I had to do was recognize the feeling of fear, muster up my courage, then say:
“No, sir. Not today. Time to get to work.”
And then I opened up my laptop and started writing. I intended to put a somewhat detailed outline of this article together and stop there, but 1,400 words later and the “detailed outline” turned into a “detailed first draft”.
It’s crazy what a few seconds of insane courage can lead to.
6. Practice makes perfect
Fear is always going to be by your side.
I wish I could say that fear’s push-back gets lighter or that mustering up your courage gets easier, but it doesn’t. With practice, however, you can build the mental resilience to keep saying “Screw it, let’s just do it,” and then begin your work.
Basically though, it never gets easier — you just get tougher.
When I was younger, and even up until a few years ago, I felt terrified to jump in the ocean. Living in the northeast US, the water is always cold even in the hottest months of the summer. It took me forever to wade into the water and feel comfortable enough to submerse my whole body.
Today, it still really sucks, and the water certainly hasn’t gotten any warmer, but I’ve started diving right in. Trust me, I still feel terrified every time I do it, and every fiber in my body screams “don’t do it, you maniac!”
But since I’ve spent time building up the “screw it, let’s go” mentality, I’ve gained experience with this type of fear, and with each successive time I feel it, I get a little more comfortable with it.
“Hmm, last time I jumped in, it sucked, but I was proud of myself, and nothing bad happened. Plus, it made me feel alive.”
You’re always going to feel fear before doing anything scary or important to you. The more you do it, and the more you practice your twenty seconds of courage moment, the more comfortable you feel in spite of your fear.
Practice is what makes the difference.
7. Start small
Rome wasn’t conquered in a day.
If you’re new to this thing, and you’re inexperienced at standing face-to-face with your fear spirit, don’t feel like you need to jump into the freezing ocean head first or write an entire chapter on your first go.
Just get used to bringing your fear to the surface, saying hello, then inching forward with progress in fear’s presence.
Write a few hundred words. Even just a few words if you have to. Your goal in the beginning is to practice starting your activity, which means facing your fear and proceeding onward in spite of it.
When you start small, especially with something like writing, by the time you actually get to the writing part, the hardest part is done. You’ve already overcame the initial fear of taking action towards your hopes and dreams.
Each time you overcome that, you gain a little more confidence to do it again the next time.
8. Never stop
One valuable lesson I’ve learned in the later part of my 20’s is that persistence is the key to success in almost anything.
With persistence, I’ve been able to turn one article — a few hundred words — into hundreds of articles, thousands upon thousands of words, and an audience of zero, into more than 10,000 each month.
One or two bouts with fear doesn’t reward you with that kind of progress. It’s not enough for you to beat fear once, twice, or even a handful of times — you’ve got to continuously do it on a daily basis.
Push yourself to keep going.
With fear as your partner, hop in the front seat of your life’s roller-coaster and hang on tight, because once you learn how to live harmoniously with your fear — and to thwart his resistance — you’re in for a hell of a ride.