Harnessing Fear: Lessons From a 3 Year Old

Our own thoughts (and fears) are often the biggest obstacle to taking action and pursuing our dreams. How do we fight the enemy with outposts in our heads?

I’m four,” came first (she’s barely three). Then, “I’m a big girl.

My nieces live in Australia so I don’t see them often enough, but even with the lapse of a year, there was no forgetting this personality. “I can barely contain her,” my sister declares. She’s always spiriting off, running around as if she owns the place, talking to strangers as if they were old chums.

It’s not just being three and the fearlessness that comes with not knowing any better. Her older sister Anna at that age was much more cautious and deliberate. But Mila is “the bold one.”

We spent the afternoon at the Griffith Park Observatory, lost in the world of stars, planets, comets and galaxies, tracing the earth’s elliptical path around the sun, watching the phases of the moon overhead, and playing on loop the sun’s fiery atomic reactions. A perfect afternoon as defined by an aunt who wants to imbibe her nieces with an early as possible interest in the sciences and to encourage the questioning of the hows and whys of the universe’s underpinnings.

The pony rides, the final event of the park excursion, was the most anticipated part of the day. We just barely made it to the stables before closing time. Anna promptly hopped on her pony and was whisked off along with several other kids. But Mila, on closer approach, stopped short. All excitement dissipated, and I felt a sudden grasp of my hand.

 

When I asked her if she wanted to go on the pony, her reply was a soft, “Can I just wait here a little bit?” So we waited. After a lap of watching the other kids, I asked her again. The reply was the same, “Can I just wait here a little bit?” the fierce grip on my hand intact.

Frustrated, my thoughts ran, she’s going to regret it, what can I possibly say to convince her, the place is closing, I don’t have much time here…but the little hand in mind stayed firm. It seemed as if today the fear of the pony was much bigger than the desire to ride the pony.

horseshoe

So what it is that makes some of us stop cold and freeze when we encounter fear — no matter how strong our original yearnings — and others to move past their fear, sometimes even be energized by it?

Fear is a natural reaction, healthy even, a triggered response to an immediate stimulus. The autonomic nervous system prepares the body to stop and flee, if necessary, from clear and present danger [Insert any lion/bear/tiger in the woods reference here].

But that same autonomic “fight or flight” feedback is triggered even when the fear is irrational, when the only danger is what’s in our heads and the emotional state we’ve created. No tiger is going to attack us at the office when we ask for a raise or that coveted job that is about to open up. Yet, the threatening thoughts of fear, amplified by its accompanying emotions of worry, doubt, shame, and failure, paralyze us from taking action.

The more we continue to give in to these outposts in our head that whisper “Stop. Danger,” sometimes, albeit, oh so rationally –

there’s no budget right now; they just hired a new guy; I don’t know enough about ‘x’ yet; I don’t have an MBA; I’m just not a public speaker

– the more these beliefs settle in as absolute truths.

The avoidance and negative self-talk serve to further intensify the debilitating fear.  So we undermine ourselves, engage in self-sabotage or dull the desire of that which we once wanted.

We know the fear isn’t magically going to go away by wistful thinking. Are we then doomed to always respond this way to “scary” situations?

How do we redraw our mind’s dominant reaction blueprint?

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.

~ Eleanor Roosevelt

And if that natural tendency towards avoidance isn’t the answer, is the trick to overcoming fear direct confrontation? [Cue vision: prototypical ‘courageous’ knight charging forward.] If so, then why is it that sometimes confronting fear seems to strengthen it, and it fights back, like facing a bully who’s three times bigger?

Because courage isn’t about being fearless. As the saying goes “a person who lives without any fear, is destined for a short life.” Rather, the first step of courage is to recognize and feel the fear and then move through it.

For the most part, fear isn’t a hard fact, it’s a feeling.  Sometime in the past as a learned response, we created our fears. They, thus, offer something valuable to teach us about ourselves, as we work through our limiting beliefs and source where those fears came from; lessons we just might miss if we try to violently hack at them with sharpened swords.

We realize that the fear isn’t some outside bugaboo, but instead, is an intimate small part of us, frightened that if we take Action A, something or someone might possibly hurt us (again) at some indeterminate time in the future. And we won’t be able to cope. Or we are going to suffer. So we’ve built these fears as protective coping mechanisms to feel safe. Only now they aren’t shielding or helping us but blocking our path to pursuing new dreams.

“The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility…once you have met it and lived through it, you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before.”

~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Rather than avoiding fear (goodbye, procrastination!) or attacking it headlong, we can choose to invite fear in, like an old acquaintance. We acknowledge its presence, interact with it, and let it sit on our shoulder for a little while until it finds its bearings.

Paradoxically, the antidote to fear is taking action, calculated action, and learning to navigate the tension between the two. Moving into the feelings the fear is provoking as we take action and using them to create a “safer” space by becoming more grounded, focused and prepared actually rebuilds the neurons in our brains. This act of purposeful movement reprograms, over time, the learned behaviors and responses our minds have become used to.

So when you next encounter that giant specter of fear mounting its head, step back and stop for a moment.


Acknowledge the fear, and let yourself imagine all the possible scenarios.

What am I afraid of? What’s the worst that can happen? How real are those possibilities?

Filter out the most plausible risky outcomes and work to mitigate them.

 

The secret behind most successful leaders and entrepreneurs is neither fearful risk aversion nor excessive fearless risk taking but risk management, taking strategic risks, after a thorough as possible assessment of the landscape.

So crunch those numbers, tinker with the algorithms, gather market intelligence, create a rough business model, sketch out your UVP, give yourself room & willingness to pivot; do whatever you need to do to manage the real risk involved in starting that business, asking for that raise or pitching yourself.

We may not always conquer the object of our fear but in moving towards deliberate action, we don’t allow fear to conquer us.

horseshoe

After a third, “Can I just wait here a little bit?” I sighed silently. From behind the fence where we observers were cordoned off, she watched her sister ride the second lap. Her head perked up as a toddler (“a baby“) got on the next pony and slowly ambled by. No ponies were bucking, the world was calm.

One of the attendants asked Mila if she wanted to come around the fence and pet the pony. The final coup de grâce, she let go of my hand. The next thing I knew, she was riding, her face a triumphant mixture of joy and accomplishment; my own, no doubt, a mirror reflection.

 

All images copyrighted  © 2017 – All rights reserved.

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