The Fear Factor

The online dictionary definition of fear is, “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Fear is in everyday life, and at times can be protective - like a personal body guard. However, when fear becomes overzealous in its duties to protect us, limitations may arise and prevent us from reaching our maximum potential, do things we want, or make changes in our lives.

So, where does fear come from? Fear comes from our thoughts, we’re either thinking about a past experience or imagining something happening in the future that triggers fearful emotion and/or anxiety. But, if you tug on the heart string of fear, at the end of it you’d find vulnerability. For instance, think of one thing you’re fearful of, then think about why you fear it - is it because you’re afraid you’ll die, look ridiculous, fail, be disliked, be abandoned, be laughed at, be rejected, look incompetent, etc. Are your fears based in reality and logically sound or simply manifestations of a deeper vulnerability? Are you afraid to go back to school, start dating, or make lifestyle changes because you fear failure, rejection, or how you might ‘look’ or what ‘people’ might think? If you said, yes, then consider this - those fears exist because of the situations you’re imagining in your mind. You see, the thoughts within our mind trigger our emotional response. They do not arise from external situations or people. Now, it might feel like that friend, spouse, child or colleague makes you mad, but the truth is, it’s the thoughts you’re having about the situation or person that trigger the emotional response (fear or other). Put more succinct, our emotions come from our thoughts. For example, more than 10 years ago now, when my husband, Mike wanted to get married, and I was less than enthusiastic. Don’t get me wrong he’s wonderful, but as an Air Force pilot he was gone a lot and would move every 2 years or so. As an Air Force Veteran myself I knew what this would mean and it amped up the fear factor. I feared the impact to my independence which I cherished and how the demands of his career might affect mine. Ultimately, his career did impact mine and my independence was somewhat diminished as it naturally does in a partnership where collaboration is needed and so from fear resentment and anger were born. I became fixated on the fact my fears were realized and on what I lost, which made me angry at myself and resentful of my husband. It wasn’t until I realized that in looking only at what I lost did I miss seeing all the things I’d gained in exchange, which shifted my feelings of anger and resentment into joy and gratitude and I felt a peace emerge within my heart.

Awareness of our thoughts can help us become empowered and frankly more resilient because we have the power to shift them. Despite what it might seem like at times no one causes you to feel a certain way. Whereas, feelings are not being injected from an external source or event, they are coming from our own thoughts about an external source and/or event. So, the next time you start feeling anxious, frustrated, fearful, worried, aggravated, angry, sad, joyful, grateful, calm, motivated tap into what you’re thinking about. Ask yourself, what thoughts are triggering these feelings? Then work to shift the thought (if needed), and the feeling will shift too.

This is where mindfulness can really assist. If you’re simply focused on the activity at hand, enjoying coffee with a friend, checking off items on your grocery list, biking with your kid, working on project, etc. thoughts of other things aren’t as likely to arise. If you notice your mind drifting towards other things, gently bring it back to the present moment. This is not to say, you shouldn’t think about the future or plan for things, but when you do be mindful/aware of the thoughts you have, and the feelings tied to those thoughts as it can be very insightful. I should mention that this awareness/mindfulness should be done without judgement. In other words, if you’re thinking is causing you to feel fearful of a situation don’t berate yourself about it just observe the thought and feeling. Once you’re in the role of an observer you’ll be able to see things in a more objective manner and act accordingly. Being able to observe your thoughts and connect your feelings to them can help you gain insight, build resilience, and be transformative.

Some strategies for dealing with fearful/worrying thoughts are:

  1. Identify the fear and what vulnerability is associated with it

  2. Consider the probability of the worst-case scenario and how you might deal with it should it actually happen

  3. Consider mistakes/failures as learning opportunities, providing critical feedback for future success

  4. Cultivate mindfulness into your everyday life/activities

  5. Write fear a letter or have a dialogue with fear

  6. Think positive, envision best case scenarios and how your life/feelings might be different it came true

  7. Develop a mantra that works for you when fear starts to arise, my husband has one that I’ll share, “Ain’t no-thing but a chicken wing”

I personally like to think of fear as a consultant, I might listen to what it has to say, but that doesn’t mean I have to take its advice. In fact, I might just thank it for its consultation and let it know, as CEO of my life that I’ve decided to assume the risk, or I might take steps to mitigate risk before taking planned action based on fear’s feedback.

Coaching Corner

  • If you weren’t afraid to fail, what would you do?

  • What thoughts are triggering feelings of fear?

  • What small step could you take towards your goal that feels safe to you?