I have been having regular conversations with someone who has been struggling for the past year with a very difficult work situation that shows no signs of improvement. While I deeply respect the loyalty and sense of responsibility she feels toward her organization and its mission, we have frequently discussed the impact this job is having on her health and well-being. During our discussion she became frustrated by her own inability to act. Why she couldn’t leave, but how could she stay?
I asked her what she was afraid of.
She insisted that she wasn’t afraid at all. She was just really committed to the work. But I’m not so sure. No matter how bad things get, or how many opportunities pass us by, we can find all sorts of rationalizations that keep us deep in the status quo. But if you dig deep enough into an inability to make a change, you will usually find fear at the heart of the issue.
Why fear? Fear is defined as a negative emotion related to perceived threats, danger, or pain. Fear is ultimately a protective device. Change is risky; better to stick with the “devil you know”. But unless we confront and understand our fears, we severely hamper our ability to grow in our careers and in our lives.
Some fears are clearly our friends. They help us make good decisions, keeps us safe, and even keep us alive. It’s smart to be afraid of fire, dark alleys, and strangers. It allows us to put up our guard and make choices about how to manage those situations.
But there are other fears. Fears we keep hidden away, often from ourselves. These are the fears that make us feel negatively about ourselves, feel not good enough, feel that we will fail. But we don’t like these fears, so we deny them, don’t admit we have them, even to ourselves. Other times, we allow them to take control of us, giving up our autonomy to fear’s grip.
Although individuals may share particular fears, the collection of fears and how they manifest are unique to each person, as a result of their life experiences, learning, and culture. If we all have fears, and our fears exists to protect us, why do we wish we didn’t have them?
Imagine a person who had no fear. Was your first reaction envy, or sympathy? If you reacted with envy, remember that someone with no fear has no protector. They are able to take very foolhardy and dangerous action with little though and less precaution. They likely wouldn’t live long. We would be better served to feel sympathy toward such a person, and not wish that fate on anyone.
Courage is not the opposite of fear, but the ability to act in spite of fear.
So how do we achieve courage? By learning to walk with your fear. Make friends with it. Give it a place in your life, without letting it control your life. Do you feel stuck or anxious? Acknowledge the fear. Are you afraid to be wrong? To make the wrong decision? Identify the fear. Recognize that your brain is working overtime to keep you safe and secure. But also remember what it is that you really want, and that with reward comes risk. Do the best you can to reduce the risk, but know that you will go forward despite the fear.
When you become comfortable around your fear, it cannot take you by surprise. You are ready for it. You know that you can take action. The fear is still there, but so is your ability to move forward.
Unexamined fear can hold tremendous power over you. It can paralyze you, take away your ability to act. “If only I wasn’t so afraid of everything, I would be so much more successful.” Thinking like this can make us feel inadequate and hopeless. Somehow we don’t have what it takes to be successful. We can’t possible live how we really want to live. But understanding and owning your fear disarms it.
It is not our fear that holds us back. It is our relationship with fear. If you wait until you have overcome all your fear before you take action, you may never act at all. By learning to live with our fear, to accept it as a part of us, we can confidently take action in spite of your fears. It’s OK to be afraid. It just makes you stronger.