Fear is powerful. The fact that fear is not real in most cases, makes it no less powerful.
Fear can grip you around the heart, paralyse you, run you into the ground and make all action impossible.
Most of the things you fear are inside your head, and produce similar physical sensations as if you were facing a raging bear.
I know what it is to feel this emotion. Fear has gripped me many times. I have known its paralyses and seductions.
Doing More Harm Than Good
Feel the fear – and do it anyway is the title of very popular personal development book by Susan Jeffers (who died recently). And this is what many do to conquer their fears. Whilst I have experienced the thrill of overcoming deep inhibitions by taking actions that are out of my comfort zone, there have been times when forcing myself to break through my fear barrier has been extremely unwise. And I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.
“Feeling the fear and doing it anyway” can actually do more harm than good. I can still remember vividly how I felt twenty-five or more so years ago when I was an actress and made a series of calls to casting directors (because I was told that was what you needed to do to get work). I made the calls feeling the fear intensely, not knowing really what to say other than the lame thing everyone said and received a curt, impatient response from the string of irritated casting directors who all were clearly regarded such calls as a nuisance.
I put down the phone my self-esteem down in my boots and feeling deeply humiliated and it took me weeks to get over it. Now I see there was absolutely no value to me in breaking through my fear barrier in this area.
Introverts Hate Cold Calling
And I put this down largely to being an introvert. An introvert is one who’s response to stress is to go within, take stock, whilst an extravert goes out – needs to communicate with others in order to regroup.
When I look back on my own experience with the casting director, I realise that I did not “want” to make the calls. I felt I “ought” to make them because at the time I was doing a lot of workshops which focused on breaking through fear barriers. My intuition knew that that was not the way forward for me as a still relatively shy young woman, I was bound to fall flat on my face. And I did.
Cold calling is pretty tough for most introverts. We hate doing it – and in most cases, the fear and distaste for it means we’ll do anything to avoid it. This can have a great cost to us socially and professionally.
This has all to do with the alpha brain waves in the frontal lobe of the brain. Introverts have considerably less alpha brain waves than extraverts – so it’s a physiological thing. Because of this too introverts also dislike situations where there is a lot of stimulation, whereas extraverts thrive on it. It is what makes them hum.
This is why to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway” works brilliantly for extraverts – it puts them in touch with their greatest ally – their ability to think on their feet and talk their way in or out of any situation. In general extraverts have a much easier relationship with fear, except those who have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives – in which case their response is very similar to introverts.
Fear is a very primitive response to danger and is produced by your endocrine system. It is the flight-fight response, so that if you choose to fight your aggressor, you have maximum strength and often superhuman energy to overcome your enemy or if the enemy proves too dangerous, to flee, and to survive that way.
However in our modern world – most people don’t fight their battles physically, nor is true flight often an option – it looks too much like cowardice. Instead this massive energy churns away inside you – and produces PSYCHOLOGICAL fear – fear that is inside the mind (as opposed to fear of a real danger).
In many cases you don’t even know that you’re frightened – you just know you must be. A man wrote to me once:
“There’s massive fear, fear I can’t even feel, it’s buried so deep. It’s not a case of “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” because I don’t feel the fear.”
This is because that when fear has nowhere to go, after a while your system cannot tolerate it – and so it goes underground. This leads to paralysis. When the fear is suppressed it is no less active – but that activity is happening at a deep level within you so you don’t experience it at a conscious level.
But on the unconscious level, it is felt acutely. And it takes a huge amount of energy to keep all this activity in check. So no wonder many people feel so exhausted.
I call this kind the paralysis “The Medusa Effect” – a state which is experienced by many shy, reserved or inhibited people. Medusa was the gorgon in Greek myth who turned those who saw her into stone.
People who experience shyness have also often experienced high levels of shame, mockery, ridicule or bullying and rather than face that again they have literally turned themselves into stone – so they won’t attract that kind of attention again. The would rather exist in this frozen state because at least then they are safe from an unpredictable, outside world.
This is a valid and successful survival strategy in nature – playing possum. Some animals have developed the ability to “play dead” – as a way of evading capture. This is the way shy people attempt to stay safe by not appearing to pose any kind of threat to others.
However when it comes to reversing this process, it is not easy, particularly if you have been under the influence of the Medusa Effect for any length of time. Being frozen becomes a habit. It can be achieved but it will take skill, patience, understanding and time for the paralysis to slowly release. (I recommend usually a combination of my groups, individual sessions, followed up by my more advanced workshops to keep you on track and prevent the old patterns from reasserting themselves.)
Fear is Good
However in his book, The War of Art, another author – Steven Pressfield tells us that FEAR IS GOOD.
“Like self doubt fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to have to do. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”
And this is the same for introverts and extroverts alike. When I experience fear I know it is a good thing – even if the fear feels totally unmanageable. My inner self may be panicking – but deep down I know the fear is unlocking deep levels of paralysis and self-imposed limitations.
When I experience this kind of fear, I have to remember – this is a part of me that wants to grow – this is a part of me that is ready to expand, therefore it is safe to come out of my hidey-hole. I have something in me that is bursting to get out – how can I find the best way of helping it get out?
And so I am in a sense a midwife to myself – to the potential self that want to emerge. And so long as I do this gently, as a midwife would in helping a real baby come into the world, then the birthing of my new self will happen with ease.
Being in a Solid Place
For me also it is important that I am sitting on a solid platform within myself when I cross the fear threshold. By that I mean that I am coming from a good place within myself – that I feel good, slightly excited and ready for anything. Then I will move into the new area with awareness and confidence, a bit like the hunter approaching his target with intrepidation, caution but also total focus. There is an element of risk but this is balanced with groundedness.
So in the case of my experience with calling the casting directors, when I look back on it now, instead blithely calling people who didn’t know me from Adam, and are unlikely to think of me for castings, I might want to think of other ways I can achieve my objective – and to use the skills and talents I do have. Can I put my great brain to a strategy of advancing my career prospects in ways that no one yet has done?
I suggest this exercise:
STEP 1 If you feel you should be doing a certain action to achieve an objective – because that’s what everyone else (usually extraverts) do…. then pause. Brainstorm all the other ways you could achieve your objective – even the crazy ideas. Brilliant ideas can come to you in the shower/bath or just as you’re going to sleep.
STEP 2 Then choose the one that you can see yourself doing. Visualise yourself doing this and achieving your aim with ease. Have fun with this. (What can help also is recalling all the positive qualities you have – if you’re not sure what your positive qualities are ask your friends. Keep recalling your positive qualities and your greatest achievements until you feel really good about yourself. Whenever you find yourself doing negative self-talk, recall as many of your positive qualities as you can – and see how you feel. Notice the impact you are making on other people – without needing to tell them how wonderful you are. They will naturally start viewing you in a positive light.)
STEP 3 Seek out opportunities to put this into practice in a small way. You may want to try your idea out on low impact areas. Let go of any ideas of being successful – THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. Notice what works. Build on your success – this will build confidence and belief in yourself. The start moving towards your real goals and objectives.
STEP 4 If you fail – give yourself a BIG REWARD for failing. It takes a lot of courage to fail. And get back in the saddle as soon as you can. (Failing btw did not stop Abraham Lincoln from becoming one of the greatest presidents of the USA.) If you succeed, reward yourself too and then find other ways of stretching and putting your new skills into practice.
False Expectations Appearing Real
In most cases the fear that we feel is not relevant to the current situation. It is a habitual response to a past event – but even though the situation is never quite the same – we believe that that terrible experience is going to happen again – and we will do anything to protect ourselves from it.
So it is important to remember that the fear response however strong it may be, may not be as real as we imagine. in most cases it the the acronym of F E A R – false expectations appearing real. It is an old script which is quite frankly out of date.
Moving Towards Fear
So the way to go with fear is towards it. Going towards fear is at first terrifying, but as everyone who knows who has bungee jumped or sky dived, going through your fear threshold can be enormously exhilarating. And traveling through that barrier for something that calls to you at the deepest level, is hugely fulfilling and facilitates the emergence of a totally new self. The old skin falls away effortlessly, along with the limitations that went with it. Life can never be quite the same again.
So there is an aspect of fear that is purely pleasurable – as so many people discover when they come to my workshops and groups. In doing something you never thought you could, like performing in front of other people, overcoming your fear of exposure and looking foolish and instead you actually find you are enjoying yourself!
In fact you’re not even worrying what your doing or how it looks to other people – because something else has taken over inside you so it is hard to know afterwards what you have done. You just feel the exhilaration of liberating yourself, with almost no memory of quite what has happened – you just know you feel very good. Over time this sends very positive messages to the fear response. And gradually that fear response will simply dissolve – to be replaced with an eagerness to repeat the experience again – in the same way as children queue up to ride the roller-coaster!
If you want to read more about how this works in practice – see an article written by Catherine who courageously faced her fears when she joined one of my courses – and what she achieved as a result – fulfilling a life ambition to make a film. Seeing people transforming their creative yearnings into reality is immensely rewarding for me – far more rewarding than my abortive acting career!
© Claire Schrader 2012
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