Do you sometimes feel as if you’re just cruising through life on autopilot? You get up, go to work, make small talk with your colleagues, come home, eat dinner, sit on the couch and try to switch yourself off as you switch on the TV. Weekends are for sleeping in and catching up with friends but they never seem long enough. A part of you knows there’s more to life, but it’s easier to dream about it than to feel vulnerable facing it in real life right?
Are you afraid that people might not accept the ‘real’ you? Do you put on a mask to go about your day, staying quiet and keeping your opinions to yourself? Have you ever felt like people just don’t get you and so it’s easier to pretend to fit in than to do your own thing? How much of your life so far has felt like you’re ticking items off a checklist? Go to school, get a job, buy a house, have a relationship and then keep working until you can retire. Sound familiar?
Being scared and having fear can get in the way of your day to day enjoyment of life, which adds up over time. How many weeks, months and years have you already spent not doing what you truly want, not experiencing what you truly want in life?
I used to be scared all the time
It didn’t look like I was scared, because I was really good at putting on a ‘brave face’ and hiding how scared I really felt. Most of the time it worked. It wasn’t just things like roller coasters or bungee jumping that scared me though, fear also showed up every day in the little things.
I was scared of striking up conversations with people at work, and having to actually keep talking to them. What if I ran out of things to say? What if I forgot their name? What if it became awkward and I’d still have to see them every day? Dating was a whole new level of scary for me, so I would never give myself the chance to really get to know the other person. Even contacting my friends and asking them to hang out was something I would overthink. So I didn’t call anyone even if I wanted to connect, not even my family when I moved interstate.
Then there was the fear of getting things wrong, saying the wrong thing, or offending someone. I remember feeling so afraid that I wasn’t good enough. What if I’d never be good enough? I didn’t express myself, and I was scared of being happy and really enjoying myself. If I ever did feel happy or enjoy myself, I didn’t think I deserved to feel that way and I was so worried that it would end.
It seemed as if I was always comparing myself to people who did things better than me. My brother seemed to connect so much more easily with people than I did. I thought they just liked him more. It was as if all I could see was other people being more confident, more fit, more motivated than me, even if that wasn’t accurate.
Back then, distancing myself and listening was easier than speaking up. So I would watch people and not share my opinion unless I was certain it wouldn’t have negative consequences. Only then would I speak up and it was very rare. At work I was very compliant. I’d do what I was told to and I got along with everyone in a superficial way. I did enough to get by and to blend in without risking doing the “wrong thing” or feeling too uncomfortable. I followed what other people did because it didn’t feel like I was putting anything on the line. I just did what they did so that I could fit in and get through another day. I wouldn’t ask for a promotion or a pay rise.
Back then I didn’t really go after what I wanted. I had these fantasies about the kind of relationship I’d like to have, the kids I’d like to have and the travel I’d like to do. I dreamed about a life that I would like to live but I never really took action. I didn’t really go after it. Most of the time I didn’t really know what I wanted.
I was cruising through life
So where does fear come from? Fear is our bodies response to situations in life that it thinks are dangerous. It’s like our own personal warning system that tells us to protect ourselves. This can be helpful when there are actual dangers present that we can protect ourselves from, such as venomous snakes, spiders or predators in the wild. Other times it might be a feeling of wanting to take precautions when doing activities that could be dangerous like wearing safety glasses in your trade, or swimming between the flags at the beach to avoid rips. Then there’s the kind of fear that’s not helpful. The kind that holds us back and stops us from experiencing life the way we want to.
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The fear I’m talking about is being scared of talking to somebody or of wearing clothes that may mean that you don’t exactly ‘fit in’. The fear that tells you to be scared of going to the gym because you don’t want other people to see how you don’t know how to use the machines. The fear that stops you from asking for a raise because you don’t want to be rejected. The fear of letting your guard down in a relationship because you’re scared of getting hurt. Those are not legitimately dangerous situations, right? These fear are created by our thinking, and the pictures we create about them.
What if some fear is just an idea? A feeling of fear that we created to protect us from feeling uncomfortable. Maybe to protect us from being different from everyone else, to give us certainty, to stop us from being hurt, from being sad, from missing out. The thing is, that instead of saving our lives, this kind of fear holds us back and stops us from growing. So what’s the opposite of fear? Perhaps safety? What if feeling scared really meant that we want to feel safe.
Safety, like fear, is an internal feeling, and yet so often we look to things outside of ourselves. I used to wear clothes so that I’d fit in with everyone else and feel safe. I’d eat the same food as everyone else. At the dinner table if food was served to me I felt like I had to finish it. As a child, I remember having dinner at a friend’s house. I had been taught to finish whatever was put in front of me for dinner, especially if I wanted desert, which I always did! I wanted to respect the family I was staying with and appreciate the meal and so I ate all the food in front of me even though I wasn’t that hungry. I didn’t face the scary thing of saying ‘I’m full’ or ‘I’m not that hungry’. I was scared they might think I was being wasteful or ungrateful.
The difference that makes the difference.
But that was just one moment, right?
That moment led to the next time when the same thing happened and then the next and the next. I began a pattern of looking to food to make me feel safe. I knew it was always there and had made me feel safe in the past. I could rely on it. So whenever I felt scared of starting an assignment for university or trying out a new activity that I was uncertain about, I knew I could be certain that the chocolate in my bag would taste the same as it did last time. It would make me feel the same as last time. Over time, one bite at a time, this contributed to my health not being what I wanted, and I ended up not exercising at all and not being satisfied in my life, no matter how much food I ate.
Those moments add up and fear increases overtime as well. Think about your life now. What are all those things you didn’t do so you could feel more certain, more comfortable? If you are shy and you don’t know how to speak up for yourself, you might not yet know how to say “I’m not happy in this situation” or “I don’t want to eat all this food” or “I don’t want to be the same as everyone else” or “I don’t understand the question.” I know for me, that if I was in a work situation, or when I went to the gym for the first time and even at home with my family, speaking up was scary. It might make sense to avoid voicing your thoughts once or twice, but if you keep holding back and suppressing yourself over and over again, then it becomes a pattern of avoidance.
That’s when the habit of avoiding scary or uncomfortable things can stop you from living the life you truly want. Some people turn around many years later and look at their life wondering “ow did I get here? So I ticked all the checkboxes. I did everything I felt was expected of me. I did what I thought I needed to do to fit in. But I wasn’t satisfied. What got you here, won’t get you to where you want to be. So how do you change it? One thing that helped me was to start speaking up for myself. This can be really small and simple or it can be big and bold. Either way, each moment you speak up, will build up over time until you’re noticing a new pattern. You’re building the habit of courage.
One thing is all it takes.
I started focussing on the little fears, the little things that I was scared of. You might have heard of the phrase ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’? I used to think, “yeah that’s great but how do you actually do that?”. How do you do that when all you see are expectations, whether from others or yourself? Expectation like “I expect myself to be perfect” or “I know they expect me to win. I can’t fail”. If you’re like me, then you’ve probably felt like you’ve failed at something before. It can be hard to accept that it didn’t work or that you failed, and then to get up and do it all again. The question is, when you’re scared or you have fear, where is your focus?
Are you focusing on the best case scenario or are you focusing on the worst case? Usually, you are focusing on the worst case scenario. Sometimes you might think that you’re focusing on the best case, when really you’re doing that avoiding pattern where you don’t want to face your worst case. I’ve been so scared before that I didn’t even want to admit that the worst case existed. The thing is, fear is just an emotion. So is “scared”. We get so used to feeling them again and again and again that we try to detach from it so we don’t have to feel it anymore. The problem with that, is that some people become so good at numbing from these emotions, that they stop feeling all the positive emotions in life too. Sometimes they start to believe that’s all that life is.
At some point I realised that I needed to move beyond thinking and that hiding away wasn’t working. It took more than a few steps for me to overcome fear or feeling scared and to start feeling more positive emotions than less than positive emotions. It took action. I had to decide in each moment and it wasn’t always easy. It started with small steps and small successes that I built up over time.
I didn’t just think, I had to actually do something, and keep doing it. I had to choose in each moment, which way I wanted to go. Did I want to build a habit of courage, or a habit of fear and avoidance? While four steps didn’t solve everything at once, it got me started. Once I got started, I started looking for other ways to build momentum. I started to pay more attention to my habits, and how I felt in each moment.
The first thing I noticed was that when I breathed in deeply, it really helped me to step back from my emotion and give me the space to choose. After breathing a few deep breaths I would shake it off. Literally! I would shake my body out and do jumping jacks or stretches. Every time that I did this, I noticed how it helped me to change the way I was standing and holding myself. It made a massive difference to how I was feeling. It kind of interrupted the scared emotion so for just a moment, there was no fear. Now I make it a point to take three controlled deep breaths, in and out, in and out, in and out. Then I shake my body out. The next step I do is really important. I focus on one thing. Just one little thing that I know with all certainty that I can do towards what I want.
I used to be so scared of social situations of meeting people. At one point I had put myself into a situation where I was an ambassador for a local region which meant going to lots of parties and events with new people I’d never met. I learned really quickly that if I focused on what was scary it did not help me. Instead, before each situation, whether it was before the event or immediately before talking to someone, I would find a space.
In that space I would take a deep breath and shake my body out. Then I would go and do the very first tiny step, which for me was often the simple act of saying hello to someone. I wasn’t thinking about steps 2,3,4,5, or 6. I definitely didn’t think about the whole conversation and what I would say, or what would happen if they said this or did that, what could happen or what couldn’t happen. I just took a deep breath, walked up and said “hi” before my brain could even start thinking or overthinking.
When I started going to the gym, I’d stand outside the gym for a few moments. I’d take a breath, walk in and find a piece of equipment. Then I would get busy using it straight away and sometimes I didn’t get it right. I probably looked a bit silly but I just took a breath, changed the way I was holding myself, my physiology. Then I did one thing. I focused on one thing that I could do to start, like getting on the machine and turning it on.
Act as if you’ve done it before.
The next step I did almost at the same time. I acted as if I’ve done it before. If you think about brushing your teeth for the first time, it seems as if it’s the easiest thing ever right? But if you think about learning how to do it for the very first time, it might have seemed overwhelming. I mean, you had to think about how to hold your toothbrush, put just the right amount of paste on it, and then there was the taste of something you had never tasted before. You might have seen your parents or siblings brushing their teeth as if they were born knowing how so you expect yourself to do the same. The thing is, they have probably done it hundreds, if not thousands of times more than you had at the time.
Imagine what could happen if you acted as if you’ve done it a thousand times already and you’re just building on the experience. When you look at it from this perspective, you are just doing it again as you keep learning and getting better at it. When I really got this, I started thinking to myself “OK. I’m going to act as if I’ve done this a thousand times before.” I would walk up to people with the picture in my head that I had done it before.
I thought about all the times I had actually walked up and talked to somebody. It might not have been this particular person or this particular place, but I knew that I had definitely walked up and talked to people before. Just by acting as if I’d already done it, it became a little less scary I started to feel really good about having done it and each time added to my picture for next time.
I stopped comparing myself to those people who had mastered something or done it a million times. I hadn’t talked to as many people as somebody else who might have been more confident and outgoing. Comparing myself to them wasn’t going to make me feel good, and might even block me from really appreciating how far I’d come. Instead, I thought “What if I compared myself against myself ten minutes ago or myself a year ago or myself five years ago?” It’s a lot easier to feel good about the things you’re doing, the progress you’re making.
You’re already successful. Build on that.
It’s a lot easier to feel the fear and do it anyway when you’ve got specific things to do and when you feel good at the end. When you actually face up and have that tough conversation with a colleague or you go to the gym for the first time or tell someone how you truly feel, it can be challenging, but the feeling that comes afterwards is amazing if you notice it. No matter the emotion that you feel before doing what you truly want, you can act as if you’ve done it a thousand times before, which helps you build on your successes. Then celebrate the end and feel good about it, even if it’s just for a moment.
Next time you notice a little bit of fear or if you feel scared, all I did was I did those four things over and over and over again. Every time I did them, I was building on all those times before, reinforcing the habit of courage. I did it with everything, especially the little things that came up everyday. The more I did each step, the more I noticed that I was feeling less and less scared. I knew that I was doing something towards what I wanted, and that made all the difference.You can stop fear all the time in little ways, until one day you look back and you’re not asking what got you here, you’re feeling grateful for the journey.
One of the best things I realised is that it’s not about being 100% happy all the time. It’s about having more positive emotions than less than positive emotions. Feeling less scared, and more confident or more courageous more of the time. The thing is, all that fearful and scary emotion has been taking up space in your life, so if you are going to feel less scared, then what will you replace that space with?
After you’ve done each step, then what’s left to fill the gap? You’ve done the breathing, standing tall, focusing on one thing and even built on your success by doing your one thing and acting as if you’ve done it a thousand times before. The very last step I do is possibly the most important. It’s the step that makes your brain remember your success so you can use it next time. It’s the step that helps you be happy and have fun and enjoy the success of the challenge you just got yourself through.
Celebrating is key!
The key to why celebrating is so important is because it replaces the fear and it gives you the positive emotions to feel instead of feeling scared. Celebrating helps to fill the space of those old emotions like fear, with new ones that will help you keep moving forward. The more you celebrate, the more confidence you’ll begin to feel, the more self-assured and certain you will feel that no matter what, you’ve got this. Celebrate in any way that works for you. All that counts is that you have fun and find the emotion to replace fear with.
Here’s what I focus on now:
• How am I breathing? Take in 3 slow, deep breaths.
• How am I standing? Shake it out!
• What’s one tiny thing I can do now? Focus on doing that.
• What would it look like if I’d done this a thousand times before? Act as if you have.
To this day, I still follow those steps, and now I do them without even thinking. It’s almost as if they’ve become a part of me, or a habit of courage that gets me moving. Because I kept doing this consistently over time, I’ve managed to break my old unhealthy eating habits, and dropped half my weight without dieting or exercising any more. I now talk on a stage in front of hundreds of people and I actually really love meeting new people.
So many things that used to scare me, are now just part of what makes my life so much fun. These days, whenever I do come across something where I start to feel scared or fearful, I just follow the steps and focus on that because I know that eventually, I’ll get to look back and feel proud of how far I’ve come, knowing how much fun I’ve had along the way.