We’ve all had something stirring inside of us at one time or another. That thing you’ve been dreaming about doing but can’t quite muster up the courage for. Maybe it’s running your first 5K or finally starting that side hustle. Maybe it’s speaking up for a promotion or sitting quietly long enough to start studying for the LSAT or writing a book. Maybe it’s creating a healthier life by improving food choices, ending toxic relationships, or carving out time for self-care. What is fear holding you back from starting?
Some people argue that it’s laziness and lack of motivation that keep us from acting. I disagree, because we spend an inordinate amount of time planning for the thing, spending valuable time, money, and resources. This takes motivation. It’s easier to dream safe by never taking the next step to see what will actually happen if you start training for the run or networking with potential customers or opening a study guide or putting your thoughts on paper so you can share them with an audience. We are paralyzed by what we think is going to happen. We think we will fail. When I decided I wanted to create a blog for women who were ready to make changes but didn’t have access to the information to do it, I spent so much time researching. How does one start a successful blog? What makes a successful blog? Who are successful bloggers? What are they writing about? Should I write about that instead? It felt safer to plan and analyze and consider repeating what was already proven to be successful, even though it wasn’t my dream. This is called analysis paralysis, and it will kill our dreams if we let it. Conquering my own fears of vulnerability has reinforced what my education and training taught me. That is, there are skills we can build to overcome fears. However, using the skills in my own life provided the first-hand experience necessary to speak power and truth into them.
Start small to start now.
We dream big dreams that can become overwhelming if we don’t break them down. The result is that we never build the momentum necessary to reach our goal. If you’ve never run a 5K, start by taking a short, brisk walk. If it’s overwhelming to think about studying for an hour at a time, start with 10 minutes instead. James Clear encourages building atomic habits, practices so small they might appear meaningless at first but, over time, build upon each other to result in large-scale behavioral changes. The answer to overcoming analysis paralysis (i.e. Should I download an app that helps me train for the 5K or print out a running plan or create my own plan based on my schedule?) is to start something, anything, now. Then, assess the outcome and adjust accordingly. Starting small allows us to achieve goals incrementally. These successes build mastery, which is proven to decrease depression. Mastery is that sweet spot between something that is so easy it doesn’t take any effort and something so difficult that we are guaranteed to fail and beat ourselves up in the process. Feeling good about our achievements reduces fears about accomplishing the next goal.
Do it often.
Before trying something new, our brain often predicts the worst possible outcome. One of our brain’s jobs is to keep us safe, and, when venturing out into the unknown, it doesn’t have enough data to make a good prediction. In psychology, exposure is the practice of facing the feared stimulus over and over again, until it loses its anxiety-provoking power. In exposure therapy, we start out small and incrementally build up towards the feared stimulus. For example, I sent my first blog to my most trusted confidante, and then to five close friends, and then to a friend-of-a-friend, all before making it live on my website. The idea is that, as exposure occurs, the data we receive back (whether that was receiving positive feedback on my writing, no feedback at all, or critical feedback) doesn’t have the catastrophic outcomes our brains predict. Consider what worst-case-scenario your brain is telling you will occur if you start working towards your dream. “I will fail.” “I will be the last finisher at the run.” “No one will like my writing and I will be rejected.” Engaging in the activity that you fear over and over and over again challenges these catastrophic thoughts our brains create.
Connect it to your values.
What’s your why? Being able to come back to this helps when we’re feeling unmotivated or don’t see the progress fast enough. Focusing on values rather than change keeps us steadfast when we aren’t seeing the growth we want fast enough. Values are our north stars, the beliefs that guide us. We never fully reach our values, but we set intentions that keep us moving towards them. These intentional actions are the small steps that, over time, will help us reach our goals. When fear comes knocking and we are able to face it by stating confidently, “I’m going to do this, even though I’m scared, because it moves me in the direction of the person I want to be,” you begin to conquer your fears. Additionally, reminding yourself of your why (“I’m exercising every day so I can play with my grandkids the next time they visit” or “I’m writing a book because I want to help others”) will eliminate some of the worries we have about what other people will think. Values overshadow embarrassment and doubt if we stay focused on them. Not sure what your values are? Here’s an assessment tool that can help.
Much like exposure, the more often we talk about our dreams with others, the less fear dominates us with each conversation. “I’m really nervous about taking the LSAT after being out of school for so long” or “I’m really scared that when I ask my boss for a raise, she’s going to say no” will likely lead to a validating response, like “I’ve been there” (unless you’re talking to a robot). We’re reminded that that fear is something everyone experiences when we talk about it. Our brain collects this data, and over time we are more likely to remind ourselves that everyone is experiencing the same fear we are. You are more likely to do it scared when you have shared your goals with someone. In fact, one study showed that 70% of participants were able to achieve their goals with accountability from a friend. You might be thinking, but what if I’m one of the 30% who still fails. I often encourage my clients to create a cope ahead plan, involving a friend or family member. For example, you might ask your sister to be available by phone or text immediately after you meet with your boss and ask her for a raise, in case she says no and you need to talk through your disappointment or embarrassment. You could find a running buddy and ask if they’d be willing to slow down their pace if you find you’re unable to keep up with them (this is a cope ahead plan that I’ve personally used). By carefully selecting friends and family members with a track record of supporting you in the past, you can reduce fears of shame, guilt, and rejection. If you haven’t felt supported before, they may not be the person you share your dreams with or involve in your cope ahead plan. Many people seek out support in the form of community or online groups with similar interests or they connect with a professional therapist for counseling or coaching. Lacking support from family and friends is a barrier that can be overcome with a little creativity.
So, you’ve done the thing. You’ve ran a 5K, written the first 100 pages of your book, secured your first client, scheduled a date to take the LSAT. Congratulations! Reviewing how it went gives you an opportunity to check the facts. I’m more interested in the emotional experience, at least at first. Was it as bad as you thought it would be? Did fear debilitate you? What about guilt, shame, or sadness? Did you experience any joy in the process? Are you excited about the next steps? When we are crippled by fear, it’s hard to feel any other emotions. But, each emotion serves a purpose when it’s justified. If I’m feeling happy and excited, I’m more motivated to continue towards my goal. Therefore, it’s helpful to pay attention to our whole emotional experience. On the other hand, rating the actual outcome against the outcome we predicted before we engaged in the activity often gives us information about exaggerated emotions that our brain hangs on to. The next time we think about trying something scary, we are reminded, “I experienced fear and still did it” or “I overcame a challenge before, and I can do it again.” In the chance that the outcome was not one you hoped for, you can use the information to revise your plan and prepare for unforeseen issues. If fear did keep you from your goal, don’t beat yourself up. After all, anxiety is the most common mental health problem for adult Americans. You are not alone. Problem solving might include enlisting the help of a Psychologist or other mental health professional.
Conquering our fears allows us to achieve more, but more importantly, it allows us to engage in a values-driven life versus an anxiety-driven one. Research shows that individuals who have a life driven by their personal values are more content and connected. They are happier and healthier. They contribute to their families and communities in meaningful ways. So, why not start working to conquer your fears today?