In today’s world, we often think of fear as the enemy. How many times have you heard the sayings: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” or “What would you do if you had no fear?” I know that I, for one, have spent a lot of time contemplating that last one. I have concluded that I would have:
Asked my dream date to prom
Started my company sooner
Splurged on products that I really wanted
Fell in love more often
But is it really true that, without fear, our lives would be so much better? It turns out that there is a way to answer this question. There is a disease called Urbach-Wiethe disease in which those afflicted cannot feel fear. Sounds crazy, right? Essentially what happens is that they experience a deterioration of the part of their brain (the amygdala) that registers fear. Now, given our current beliefs about fear, you would expect that these people would be living super lives, right? Taking on risks and challenges, free to design and create whatever they want. But the truth is that these people can be a bit worse for wear. For example, a patient I will call “Jane” has been held at both knife- and gun-point, nearly been killed in a domestic violence attack, and was accosted by a woman twice her size. It sure does seem that her inability to feel fear contributed to her being involved in more than her fair share of threatening situations. Fear, as Jane would tell us, can actually be our friend. It alerts us to danger with the intention of keeping us safe. It can be one of the most powerful and helpful forces in our lives… we just need to know how to RELATE to it in a way that is helpful, not harmful. Here are a few ways to make fear work FOR you: 1. Let fear to point the way to your dreams Have you ever noticed how we only get afraid about the things we really care about? My good friend Felicity gets tongue-tied around men she likes, petrified that she will look stupid, and yet has no problem chatting with random people all over town. If you want to understand what you are passionate about, pay attention to where you get the most afraid, and you will often find the answer. 2. Let fear teach you how to problem-solve Usually our fears are somewhat justified. You are afraid to have a difficult conversation with your neighbor because you fear that if it goes poorly, it will make your living situation uncomfortable. Fair enough. Let your fear show you the potential pitfalls so that you can figure them out: how to have the conversation with your neighbor with grace and care, or how to evaluate your alternatives. Thanks for the heads-up, fear. 3. Use fear to connect to your intuition Fear has evolved to tell us that there is something about a situation that feels “off.” This is valuable intuition, and shouldn’t be ignored. For example, a client of mine, Amy, felt afraid of her boss’s boss. When we delved into why, it turns out that this boss had done some untrustworthy actions in the past. Amy’s fear was a reminder that she should proceed with caution. This is not to say that she should freeze in her tracks and refuse to work with him at all. But that she should be mindful of who she is dealing with. 4. Build your personal strength by managing fear There are many times in life when fear gives us a warning signal, and we decide to proceed anyways by managing our mind. To say “no thank you,” gently, to the voice of fear, and move forward. The more we practice this, the stronger we become at making the right choice, no matter what. So consider that fear offers you a chance to work out at a "mental gym." 5. Learn how you need to grow by observing your fears Want to live a juicy life? Fear can show you the qualities you need to cultivate in yourself to get it. Let’s say, for example, that you want to ask for a promotion but are afraid that your boss will say no. Where does that fear come from? Is it because you are self-critical? Is it because you judge your boss for not valuing your work? Find the reason and then cultivate those very qualities you lack, like confidence and trust.
In the moment of fear, I know that it can be challenging to see the situation constructively instead of wanting to run and hide.
When I made the choice to move from science to life coaching, I was petrified and didn't sleep through the night for an entire month! If it weren't for my coach, who was by my side helping me to constructively deal with my fear day-by-day, I would have run away from coaching back to the comfortable world of science.
It is one of my greatest privileges today to stand side-by-side with my clients and help them through their scary transitions.
Where are you currently afraid in your life? Instead of wishing that you could be rid of fear like Urbach-Wiethe patients, how could you instead use fear as a friend? Write me a note and let’s discuss! Love,
Image courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives.