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How to Overcome Fear

When was the last time you were afraid?

Fear is a slippery thing. In its most straightforward form, fear manifests as outright terror—panic at the possibility of a perceived outcome. In more subtle forms, fear can also present as complacency, apathy, indecision, and indifference.

We can let fear paralyze us or use it to break us from our preconditioned reality.

When the future feels uncertain, you’re simultaneously stuck in the present moment and desperately trying to escape it - scrambling to adapt to new realities and sitting on the sidelines observing momentous change. You are forced to be in the present moment because you have no idea what the future holds.

This combination activates both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” response, the part of us that reacts quickly to perceived threats. The parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” system, the part of us that thinks critically, weighs options, and sees possibilities. 

Take 2020, for example.

The pressures of the myriad global crises created an inescapable crucible where we were forced to think about our day-to-day reality differently. This shock pushed us past the more subtle forms of fear. Simultaneously, lockdowns, layoffs, and stimulus checks gave many of us space to think about what we wanted our lives and world to look like moving forward.

The “fight or flight” impulse caused us to reconsider our assumptions in the face of a crisis. The prolonged isolation and pause in the frenetic pace of life allowed us to “rest and digest.” 

The unique combination of pressure and space opened up possibilities people had never considered because we were shocked out of complacency and could now see the places where the more subtle forms of fear were holding us back.  

The subtle forms of fear are much harder to overcome than overt ones. It is much easier to do the safe thing, the coping mechanism, the known than it is to take the risk, look the imposter syndrome in the eye, or let go of a safety blanket.

The hardest part about subtle fear is that it feels normal, like the air we breathe; we’re so conditioned to playing safe, to our mediocre reality, that we accept it as the only possibility. We can’t see another way until we have a shock to our system.  

That shock is critical because everything we want is on the other side of fear.

And if we don’t even understand that we’re living in fear, we can’t move through it.

How do we deliberately engineer pressure and space to momentarily part the curtain of the monotony and see past fear to new possibilities?  

Here are a few ideas.

Pressure: Get rid of your safety blanket

So many people want something different from what they have—a job, a relationship, or a living situation—but they never leave what they’re complaining about because it is easier to stick with the status quo, even if it is borderline miserable—getting rid of our safety blanket forces us to try something new because we have no other choice.

An example for my freelancers in the audience. Say you have a client you hate working for, but they pay well and are a significant part of your income. If you stick with that, you have no incentive to find new clients. If you had to find new clients, you could, so what’s holding you back? Your safety blanket. Fire that client and force yourself to find new ones.

Space: Take a longer view

When we’re struggling, we can only see right in front of us; we can only do the next right thing. We can’t see the forest for the trees.

If we can take a moment to see farther out than the day-to-day, we’ll often find it can open new doors or close doors on things we need to leave behind.

For example, maybe you can survive your soul-sucking job tomorrow, but what does it look like when you think about looking back in ten years and realizing that you spent a third of your life (the amount of time a 9-5 employee spends at work) doing something you hate?

An example on the positive side…You don’t get to take that weekend trip you wanted, but that $1500 you would have spent will be enough to pay for your graphic design certification to go out on your own. 

Pressure: Think twice and then DO

I always prefer action when choosing between sitting still and moving forward. On the one hand, this impulsiveness can lead to bold ideas that falter in their first stages and sometimes fail. On the other hand, I’m exposed to various opportunities and options that I may never have found if I overthought my ideas instead of acting on them.

Whereas my natural inclination is to act (which sometimes gets me in trouble), many people never act because they are too comfortable with the status quo.

Thinking twice is essential, and I have learned to pause before doing something impulsively. This has served me well in minor instances, such as stepping away and re-reading an email before sending it, and in significant ways, such as doing more research before investing in something new.

If your natural inclination is to think twice (or think forever and never do anything), consider prioritizing action over contemplation. Give yourself the permission to think twice, or even thrice, and then DO.  

Space: Remove yourself, even temporarily, from the struggle 

We are all products of our environment and slaves to our habits. We often build up survival patterns when dealing with stressful situations. When those situations are your day-to-day reality, those patterns become your standard, and you can’t escape them without disruption, a shock to your system.

Whether it’s never having more than a few hours a week to yourself, sleeping only a few hours a night, or never being able to pay off your credit card bills. When you get accustomed to stress regularly, it becomes normalized, and then you accept that it can’t change; it just is what it is.

If you can remove yourself from the pressure for a moment, you’ll see that what you’ve thought was normal isn’t—the struggle isn’t the only option.

Some examples here might be taking an extended vacation, taking a break from a toxic relationship (with a person, substance, or social media account), or pausing your financial struggle temporarily (e.g., consolidating debt or living with your parents for a year).  

Spoiler alert. Besides everything you want, what’s also on the other side of fear? More fear. But once you learn to view fear as a force for change instead of a crippling coping mechanism, you can continue to push through it.


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