Not Being Afraid of Being Afraid

-by Bill Plake-

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  -Anaïs Nin

I’ve struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember. Things that raise a mild concern in most people can too often bring me into a state of deep worry, and sometimes, even panic. 

Even as a young child I realized that I was more averse to taking the same kinds of risks that my playmates seemed to so readily take. “Better safe than sorry!” was my typical rationalization for avoiding any kind of play outside my comfort zone.

Fear is the most fundamental limiting factor in personal growth. It tends to keep the brilliance lying latently inside all of us from emerging out into the world around us. It prevents us from cultivating and sharing our gifts with others. 

As a younger man I took comfort in a belief I had that turned out to be entirely untrue: I believed that the fear of living as fully and openly as I would like to, would subside as I grew older, particularly as I approached middle age and beyond. I thought I would grow ever more fearless with my advancing years. 

I would notice how calm and confident the older musicians with whom I performed seemed to be. There was kind of a “I don’t give a damn what other people think” swagger in they way they would approach work, and life in general. It wasn’t that they were aloof. It was simply that they’d “seen it all and been through worse”, and yet still seemed to keep on going with a surety that I envied. 

I thought of how wonderful it would be when I finally reach that golden age of confidence and peace. 

As a young man reading the wise words of much older people…in literature, interviews, etc., I was comforted by their “absolute fearlessness” about living life. 

But as I approached my late 40s, this most definitely was not the case for me. I was still living day by day with that familiar feeling of anxious reluctance I had as a younger man. 

Then at age 50 something very important shifted in my consciousness. 

I faced a deep psychological crisis in my life that shattered my ability to shelter myself emotionally the way I had been able to in the past. All of my old strategies for keeping me in a safe state of “avoidance” just wouldn’t work anymore. 

I ultimately became just as anxious avoiding risk as I was in taking it. “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”, as the saying goes. I became almost paralyzed with inaction.

But the silver lining inside all this was that I learned the most important lesson in my life about my experience with fear as it relates to taking action: 

I was more afraid of the feeling of fear than I was of the outcome of the potentially fearful action itself. Let me explain with a short story. 

An opportunity arose for me to give a presentation to a group of people who could significantly boost my teaching career. It was a great opportunity, not to be missed. 

It was also a trigger for some deep anxiety. Lots of negative self-talk, lots of dread of the unknown…lots of “what if” kinds of thoughts that were all too familiar to me. 

I was so overwhelmed with reluctance that I almost didn’t take the opportunity. But I knew I absolutely had to. But I couldn’t…but I had to…but I couldn’t. Back and forth, back and forth. I felt completely stuck. 

Then I did something that I’d never done before.

reasoned with myself about my reluctance. I decided I wanted to put a name and a face on my fear. I asked myself a question I’d never even thought of asking myself before: “What exactly are you afraid of?”

I suppose I never asked this question to myself before because I assumed the answer was so obvious. 

But it wasn’t.

As I continued to ask myself questions, I learned that my deepest fear wasn’t in the failure or shame of giving a poor presentation (though these were indeed intense concerns). 

No, my deepest aversion to accepting the speaking engagement was of the seemingly unbearable feelings I would have in the weeks and days leading up to it. 

That’s when I realized that what had been holding me back in life wasn’t fear itself, but was my inaction in the face of fear. It was my fear of feeling fearful.

I had mistakenly believed that to be courageous meant to be fearless. That’s simply not true. As famed outdoorsman, Bear Grylls said: 

“Being brave isn’t the absence of fear. Being brave is having that fear, but finding a way through it.”

I saw that it wasn’t about not “feeling afraid”. It was a matter of deciding to take action no matter how I felt. So that’s what I did. 

I decided to accept the invitation to make the presentation, no matter how I felt in the weeks or days leading up to it. I gave myself permission to accept these feelings, to make room for them, to even welcome them. 

But then something remarkable happened, something that ultimately prompted me to write this post: I actually didn’tfeel afraid every moment of each day leading up to the presentation. Instead, I felt loved (by myself!) and excited by the possibility of sharing my skills and knowledge to help other people. 

On the day of the presentation I was nervous, but positively energized and optimistic. I felt deeply grateful for being there. I also learned that “nervousness” isn’t necessarily the same things as fear. Sometimes it’s simply an aroused anticipation of something wonderful coming. (In this case it was!) It was all a matter of “reframing” my internal experiences, of reinterpreting them in a constructive way.

And so began my change in how I make decisions about opportunities that might evoke fear. 

I am no longer afraid of the discomfort of feeling fearful, especially if it’s for something I really want. That has made all the difference.

Because you and I don’t really keep ourselves “safe” when we don’t take action to pursue our desires. To quote Helen Keller:

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”

So if you struggle with fear and indecision, remember to ask yourself what you are most afraid of. If it is primarily the discomfort that often accompanies big decisions, trust that that feeling is entirely normal. Be kind to yourself. Realize that these feelings don’t define you, and that they will pass. And know that each time you decide to override fear and take action to improve your life, you’ve already achieved a significant victory, no matter what.

Love, Bill

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