Except when bears are involved
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”
- George Addair
For me, fear has been by far the most confusing and controlling of all emotions.
But, as far as emotions go, it seems simple: something puts your life in danger, you feel fear, and then you act to avoid it. No one wonders why they feel fear when a bear is charging at them in the woods.
The world, though, is no longer full of predators chasing us down. Instead, the world is mostly filled with non-life-threatening events that nevertheless cause us to feel fear. Consider, for instance, public speaking. For as long as I can remember I have been terrified of speaking in front of more than a couple people. But, why?
There is no bear and, in all likelihood, there is absolutely no risk to my physical well-being. So, what is it that I’m afraid of?
I’ve spent much of my life avoiding understanding my fears. I left them unexamined and took them at face value. If I feared something, I thought, then that’s the way life is for me and I should avoid it. Period.
If I was afraid to talk to people who weren’t my good friends, if I was afraid to speak up during lectures or business meetings, if I was afraid to tell my significant other that I thought our communication was shit, then I had faith that my fear was telling me to avoid those things. Besides, what could I possibly do about them?
If you’ve never seen the quote at the beginning of this post, I’m happy to be the person to introduce it to you. If you have seen it before, is it one of your favorites? Without any exaggeration, it’s helped me through some of the toughest moments of my life. Now, I remind myself of it almost daily.
To me, this quote describes the risk we all face: falling into the routine of cowardice when our dreams are begging for us to be brave.
Are you pursuing your dreams? It’s a question that many of us dismiss as naïve. But, is it? Or, do we dismiss it because we fear the answer and what we would have to do to attain it?
This quote changed my life because it reminded me of the meaning of bravery. For each of us bravery takes a different form. What you may think takes courage can be completely different from what I think takes courage. Courage, after all, is action in spite of fear, and we all fear different things.
For a long time, my biggest fear was speaking during business meetings. And yes, I literally mean saying anything. For years, I struggled to put together a coherent sentence at the very best of times.
I had a million excuses to never speak up: I told myself that people wouldn’t let me speak; I told myself that they wouldn’t listen to me even if I did speak; I told myself that I could share my ideas with colleagues one-on-one after the meeting. In retrospect, I’m not sure whether I was in denial of my fear or oblivious to it.
In any case, as time went on I began to want to participate in meetings because I cared about the outcomes. It became harder and harder to blame others for what was becoming clear to me was my own issue. But, wanting to participate didn’t make me participate because the fear of speaking up in these settings didn’t magically disappear.
My supervisor at the time asked me a simple question, How do you think you can make a bigger impact at meetings? At first, I was resistant to the question. It meant changing how I behaved, and change is hard. Not to mention I was attached to the idea of who I was and feeling pushed to change usually made me feel not good enough, and then defensive.
That’s when I remembered the quote above and I realized that I was indeed afraid. I was afraid of making a mistake. I was afraid of looking foolish. I was afraid of people losing respect for me. I was afraid of taking a risk that might seem so small to you, but felt so big to me.
I thought about what I might try for about a week before I made a decision: my goal would be to ask one question at my next meeting. Simple, right?
Days later, sweaty, terrified, and short of breath, there I was sitting in a meeting thinking that I had to say something. Time ticked on by. My tongue and lips felt like they were made of stone. I could barely follow the conversation. The anxiety was building up inside of me and I could feel my heart pounding out of my chest.
Then, for the first time in my life, I deliberately acted despite my biology. Undoubtedly, with a face as bright as the sun, I asked a simple question. Probably a stupid question. Probably something that was obvious. But, a question. And, it turns out, that’s all that mattered.
What I had feared so much didn’t come to pass. My relationships didn’t change. No one lost respect for me. In fact, nothing changed at all, except for my perspective.
Over the following weeks, I had the same goal at every meeting: ask a question. And each time I did, I felt a little better about it. Some days would be worse than others and sometimes I felt like I had gone back to square one. Other days, months down the line, I would speak almost as if I was actually comfortable doing it.
Truthfully, this was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I still have trouble speaking at meetings or in front of large groups of people, but every time I do I know that it gets easier for me. It becomes a little more routine.
And I see the beauty in it now. The beauty in the process; the beauty in the challenge. Life is not meant to be easy, and what we truly yearn for are things just outside of our reach, things that we do not yet know how to attain.
What I also discovered, to my amazement, is that this process can be replicated across all our fears. The tiniest steps, taken over time, are magnified into an unstoppable force: a habit of facing fears; a habit of being brave.
Our fears are not meant to stand in our way forever. They are simply obstacles that life puts in front of us. They exist to force us out of our comfort zone and earn what will cause our fulfillment.
So, the next time you come face to face with a fear that causes you to hesitate, remember what may be waiting for you on the other side.