“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert, Dune
I recently came across this passage, and it got me thinking: Fear is a very real feeling, but fear is not the problem. Fear is natural and normal. Everyone has fear. In fact, fear will probably always be with you. You can chip away it, but it’s never going to go anywhere. Still, the question remains of how to overcome your fear.
Ultimately, it’s what we do about it that matters. And it matters a lot, because fear is the biggest roadblock to our success in life. There’s nothing “brave” about not being afraid. Bravery is, in fact, meeting and conquering your fear one moment at a time.
Like most of us, you’ve got a running list of aspirations in your head. I’m talking about the big things. Travel the world. Retire at 40. Start your own business. To call them “goals” almost diminishes their weight. If you don’t realize these dreams, you’ll regret it on your deathbed.
So let’s get real: Your list of reasons why you “can’t” accomplish your dreams is a lot longer. You’re not traveling the world because you don’t have the money. You’re not starting your own business because you’re spending too much time at work. You’ve got all the reasons in the world your dreams aren’t going to happen. In many ways, you’ve already defeated yourself before you’ve even started. You’re not thinking of your dreams as something you can actually accomplish. And it’s probably killing you inside.
I’m not saying beliefs alone make dreams come true. I’m saying that when you don’t seriously believe your dreams can come true, you either need to start believing or find new dreams.
I know because I’ve been there. I’m not a guru, looking down on you from on top of a mountain. I’m a man who has had dreams he never thought were going to come true. So I never started working toward them — always a path to sure failure. Why did I wait so long?
Because I was afraid of getting what I wanted out of life. All my obstacles boiled down to one thing: fear of being happy.
Not long after we relocated to Los Angeles the entire company shared a two-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. This was the time of my greatest anxiety. I was afraid of failure. And not because I thought I’d be holding a sign and begging for change. My fears were a lot more personal, a lot more internal: What would my father say if my business went under? How could I return to school with tales of shattered dreams? Most importantly, how could I look in the mirror after failing myself?
A year later, we were growing. But the crazy thing is, I felt more afraid than ever.
The Comfort in Misery
In short, because I was afraid of success. Part of me felt like I didn’t deserve it. That part of me waited for the other shoe to drop, for the universe to “punish” me for doing well. Another part of me became so comfortable with misery that happiness scared me ghost white. This is when I realized that “fear of happiness” and success and fulfillment and being loved are all very real.
Because the truth is, misery is easy. When things start looking up, you can become frightened by the newness of a more positive outlook. Misery, on the other hand, is comfortable. You’re use to it. It’s broken in like an old pair of jeans. Happiness is new and stiff and difficult to get used to.
But comfort alone wouldn’t keep you in misery’s rut. If happiness is so desirable, why wouldn’t that pull you out of the misery? What is it that kept me there for so long, scared and anxious, terrified to enjoy my life?
Misery might be comfortable, but no one fears losing it. A prospective loss of happiness, however, can be terrifying. And happiness has a way of perpetuating itself, of building on itself, of inviting more happiness. Success is multiplicative. And a little taste of success can be scarier than none at all. Do you dare venture further into happiness? Do you dare continue being happy? If you do, there’s all the more to lose.
If that sounds silly, it’s because it kind of is. But this is a natural human failing. Men much greater than I have struggled to toss out the comfort of misery for the anxiety of happiness. How can you destroy this demon?
The Easy Part: Name the Demon
If you’re wondering how to overcome your fear, you should know that defeating it is a constant struggle. It might always be there. You might never completely defeat it. What you can do is slowly chip away at it.
Start by acknowledging it. Know that you do this. Know how you do this. Call yourself out every time you find yourself doing it — “Oh, there I am again, being afraid of my own success.” Just a little bit of mindfulness can go a long way. Over time, with consistent practice, you will find yourself slaying that demon when he rears his ugly head.
And sometimes you won’t. Sometimes just realizing what’s going on won’t be enough right then and there. What you will see is structural changes in the long term. If you’re a journaler, keep track of your anxieties in a journal. Write about when they popped up, what caused them, how strong they were. Every few weeks, go back and read your journal.
It might not even make you stop doing it in the moment. But just taking stock, realizing what you’re doing and noticing it can be very powerful. Again, journalers can keep track of your anxieties in your journal. Talk about when they popped up, in relation to what and how strong they are. Talk about what you did to deal with them. Then look back at that after a few weeks. Notice the change on a timetable of weeks and months, not days.
That will be enormously helpful, but it’s probably not going to be enough. You’re going to need some serious medicine.
The Hard Part: Smash Your Comfort Zone Into a Thousand Pieces
If comfort is part of the problem, the simple solution is to start getting out of your comfort zone. But simply “stepping outside of your comfort zone” probably won’t mean much. Instead, I think you need to commit to actively making yourself uncomfortable.
Discomfort comes in all shapes and sizes. I recommend all of them. I want you to terrify yourself.
Because our life goals are not always huge, macro, epic life goal level events — because many of them are actually average, everyday things — simply make a list and start knocking them out. Make a habit out of doing something small that scares you every day. Seriously — give it a try. See what happens when you ask a stranger for directions or reach out to your favorite author by email or even say hi to someone in an elevator. Your fears don’t have to be “big” to be important. Conquering the small ones is remarkably empowering.
Now look at medium-sized terrors. Are you stuck in a long-term relationship that’s not fulfilling? Time to look at getting out. Need to have a “scary” conversation with your boss about your future at the company? Go ahead and schedule that meeting. That place you’ve always wanted to travel to that scares the hell out of you? Time to book a ticket. After you face these “terrors” you’ll probably find they’re not as scary as you thought they were. Realizing that our fears aren’t as scary as we once thought makes us more daring and more brave in the face of new or bigger fears.
Don’t do things that are patently self-destructive or foolish. Just find areas where you can smash your comfort zone good and hard.
Another point for journalers: Keep a journal that’s just for your “bad” thoughts. I mean the really dark stuff you’re afraid to tell anyone. You don’t have to write in this every day. It’s just there for when you need it. Think of it as a toxic waste dump for your psyche. You’re expunging the parts of yourself you fear most. You’re also confronting them, head on. Rather than trying to shove them aside, you’re naming them. As I stated above, simply giving a demon a name can strip it of a lot of its power.
Again, none of this is going to happen over night. It takes constant, repetitive effort to remove these obstacles. Be prepared for a long, hard struggle. But know that struggle is worth it. Look back at your life in 90 days, 6 months and a year. See how much progress you’ve made. But for now, follow this simple guide to chipping away at your fear, one day at a time.
The Day-By-Day Part: One Week to Facing Your Fear
Fear is a constant struggle, but you can start your journey to better coping this week. Every day, try one of these and see how it impacts your overall fear and anxiety. If you’re a journaling guy, document the effect.
- Monday: Name your fear. Turn off the computer and your phone. Sit down with your journal, or just a few pieces of paper. Write down your worst fears in life. Really take them to their logical (or illogically extreme) conclusions. What are you really afraid of? When you’re done, sit with your fear for a few minutes. Don’t try and chase it away. Just notice what it feels like, in your mind and in your body.
- Tuesday: Do something that makes you uncomfortable. This can be anything from wearing an outfit you think makes you look stupid to calling an old friend you’re on bad terms with. What you want to do here is, again, sit with your fear and anxiety. You’re both learning that fear isn’t that bad and increasing your body and mind’s tolerance for both.
- Wednesday: Pay attention to your fear throughout the day. What makes you anxious on a daily basis? Carry a notebook around with you. Make a note of what you were anxious or fearful of, when and what triggered the fear. Once you’ve done that, give the fear a number from one to 10. Notice when your overall fear or anxiety level drops — or increases.
- Thursday: Imagine a life without fear. What would you do? How would you spend the energy you’re currently spending on fear? Again, shut off your phone, turn off the Internet and spend some time fantasizing about it. Write down what you come up with. Don’t be afraid to dream big here. Let reality tell you what’s “realistic,” not your own fears.
- Friday: Come up with a plan to implement for next week. Come up with three small, actionable ways you can start moving toward your “life without fear” goals. At the same time, reflect back on this week. What did you get out of it? What do you wish you had gotten out of it?
Repeating these week after week might work for you. At the least, they’ll teach you a great deal about what’s at stake. As I’ve said: Fear isn’t a final boss you achieve final victory over. Instead, it’s something you fight on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis.
Along the way, don’t forget to give yourself a big pat on the back. You’re conquering one of the biggest plagues holding mankind — holding you — back.
For more information on how to overcome your fear, be sure and explore the wealth of resources available on our blog.