In ways that most of us don’t fully understand, fear is like a magnet that attracts to us the things we fear the most. For instance, if we fear public speaking—and it is said this is the
most prevalent fear we have—and approach the podium quaking in our boots and deathly afraid we’ll forget our message, it is likely we will have a lapse of memory. If our mind is tuned to an internal channel that consistently repeats fearful litanies, fear will be our experience. But we can change the channel. One helpful technique to neutralize such magnetism is to avoid negative statements that begin with “I am,” such as:
I am fearful.
I am unlovable.
I am unemployable
I am old and worn out.
I am always sick.
I am ugly.
Such statements are self-fulfilling. If we wear negative name tags, we’ll attract negative company.
Instead of resorting to “I am” statements when talking about our fears, we can make a simple change to:
I have a fear of (rejection, etc.).
I sometimes feel unlovable.
At times I feel old and ugly.
I have a fear of (failure/success/whatever).
When I stand up in front of a group, I feel (nervous,
With such statements, you acknowledge that you have fears, but you don’t identify yourself as being a manifestation of them. The difference is subtle but important. You have fears, and you can heal them. You are not your fears.
As you learn to heal your fears, you’ll also learn to act without letting them limit you. These days, whenever I notice a fear crying out in my body, I say, “Thanks, Body, I hear you.” Then I check it out to see if the fear is currently valid or an old response. If it is a familiar, much-worked-on pattern, I say a variation of, “Okay, old friend, I’m going to act as if you aren’t here and do what I need to do now.”
Too often, an unrealistic expectation about fear prevents us from acting. We believe we should never feel fearful and so try waiting until we feel perfectly at ease before tackling the difficulty or challenge that lies before us. This strategy never works. Many of our accomplishments happen in spite of fear. In fact, in many instances, anxiety and fear can actually propel us into action.
Bill Russell, retired Boston Celtics player, was one of the all-time greats of pro basketball. Yet he would get so nervous before each game that he’d vomit. Nonetheless, he never let
his fear keep him from being a world-class player. He used his talent to the utmost despite his fears.
For the first few years after I began giving talks and leading seminars, each time I stood up in front of a group, I felt terrified. Perspiration soaked me down to the waistband and nausea threatened to really embarrass me and deeply inconvenience whoever was introducing me. Over time, I learned to reassure myself I had something worthwhile to say, do a little yoga/
breathing/affirmation exercise, and start talking. Now once I get into the swing of it, I have a great time. It’s almost as if the energy generated by my fear propels me into doing a better job.
Some of my before-talk fright came from experience. At a high-school “Lit Night” where all of the literary clubs competed in speeches, monologues, and poetry readings, I was to do a funny monologue about girdles (remember those?). The girl who recited before me forgot her lines, and my reaction was cold-sweat terror that I’d forget also. Sure enough, my brain
went numb. Though I knew my lines perfectly, I had tuned my mind to a panic channel and my fearful inner dialogue created what I feared. The memory of my embarrassed mother sliding farther and farther down in her seat as she mouthed the words to me was branded in my brain for years.
As the preceding story demonstrates, this statement from the Bible expresses a deep truth: “Lo, the thing I feared the most has come to pass.” If we fear illness, we are likely to become ill. If we fear abandonment and rejection, we will most likely experience them in our lives. Speaking for myself, when I fear rejection, I approach people guardedly, inevitably making them feel that I’m cool or unfriendly and my very fear causes the rejection I’m trying so hard to protect myself from.
One effective way to overcome fear is to take one tiny little step at a time in spite of it. Taking small steps despite fear is called “desensitization.” As we persevere and do, in spite of fear, fear begins to lose its grip on us.
Robin, a client of mine, was afraid to drive out of town. In the safety of my office, we began to desensitize her by having her close her eyes and imagine herself driving. If anxiety arose, we did relaxation techniques. When she could visualize herself on the street and driving away from home without anxiety, she took another small step. While sitting in the driveway in her car, she visualized herself driving around town. When she felt able to move on to another small step, she drove about a mile from home. With small, successful steps, she mastered her fear and now feels fine driving almost anywhere.