And channel fear’s powerful energy.
I’m 55. And I’ve just got braces.
Turns out, I need them. Without braces, there’s a healthy risk that my teeth will become unanchored. As in, they’ll get looser (yes, they already are a touch). As in, they’ll fall out.
It’s not my fault. I inherited my mum’s mega-deep bite and my dad’s super thin gums. As one of my specialists implied, this rich genetic heritage was an accident waiting to happen.
This makes me laugh, and think of my dear mum. She had a very dry sense of humour, and disliked discord. One of her favourite sayings to diffuse tense situations was: “I blame the parents. Every time.” It always made people laugh, coming, as it did, somewhat out of the blue and from an aged parent.
Besides the genetic misfortune going on in my mouth, there’s something else. I spent my teen years in the UK, a place renowned at the time for orthodontic neglect. Strike two to my parents…
But I digress. Fast forward to today, and the braces. Plus the associated dental and periodontal treatment required alongside these metal delights. One thing about all this dental excitement triggered fear in me. Not the braces themselves, despite the fact that they hurt. And get in the way of some of life’s more pleasurable pursuits.
It’s the cost.
I’m self-employed, and have no dental insurance. So it’s all on me. I have to earn about twice the cost in extra income to cover it. I know this is doable, but it still scares me. A lot. Yet, despite being scared, I moved forward with the treatment. I didn’t have to. I could have pretended my problem didn’t exist, or hoped that what three dentists have said isn’t true. I’m still scared about it all as I write.
Fear. It can make or break you.
Why fear can be a problem
Fear has a tendency to stop people dead in their tracks. And hold them there.
The stopping part isn’t an issue. It’s healthy to take a moment to feel the fear, and whatever emotions are arising with it. But the holding part is. This is where you get — and stay — stuck.
It’s not your fault you get stuck. I blame your parents. Every time. OK, so they share the blame with all your forebears. The truth is, your human brain is hot-wired to minimize threats in your vicinity. This causes you to spend your time scanning the world around you for threats. You do this unconsciously and non-stop.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Your brain doesn’t distinguish between real, tangible threats, and imagined ones. Tangible, as in sabre-toothed tigers. Imagined, as in the ‘what ifs’ associated with change (“What if x happens?”, “What if a does b?”). Your brain interprets them in the same way, because, for you, the same thing is at risk each time.
Your safety and security is.
Your risk alarm is set off by the prospect of your becoming a sabre-toothed tiger’s Dish of the Day. And by the prospect of your having to make life changes. So you’ve adopted a no-risk policy in most of your decisions.
It’s this no-risk policy that keeps you stuck.
Fear itself isn’t the problem. Your response to it is.
Changing your response to fear
If you want to change your response to fear, you have to start by changing your understanding of risk. Then, by changing your understanding of change itself.
There’s a reason why your brain views change like it views a sabre-toothed tiger. Change represents the unfamiliar. And the unfamiliar doesn’t feel safe and secure, so it’s a threat.
Change doesn’t start off life as a threat. It starts as one of the choices present when you’re trying to reach a certain outcome. The different choices facing you are different ways of achieving this outcome. Each choice comes with its own level of risk. Some of the risk is real. Some is perceived.
Let me use a trip to the restaurant to illustrate this point. You’re going out to eat because you’re hungry. The outcome you desire is a full belly. The choices facing you are the items on the menu. Many people believe there’s a risk associated with ordering. “What if I don’t like it?”, they wail. But unless you have an unenviable list of food allergies, any risk is perceived. Actual risk only exists for people with food allergies.
Actual risk must come into the equation when you make a decision. Perceived risk has no place in decision-making.
Yet, here’s the kicker. Perceived risk is what’s behind most of your decisions. I say this, because much of the time you decide to do nothing rather than make changes. You choose doing nothing, because it feels better – safer – than the alternative. The alternative being the picture you’ve dreamed up from all the change-related ‘What ifs’ flying around your head. You choose to favour the imaginary over the real. The real being the actual risk you face from not making changes you know you need to make. In my braces example, the real risk is having my teeth fall out. The imaginary one is finding myself broke, unable to pay my bills.
Which brings me to the first thing you have to change. This tendency to favour perceived risk over actual risk.
Now, let’s get back to change itself. Specifically, to your very human view of change as a threat to your safety and security.
Change brings with it the unfamiliar, which you see as disruptive. More than the anticipated disruption, what you’re really reacting to is this. That change takes you outside your comfort zone. And you don’t like how that feels.
But, here’s the truth. Change isn’t a real threat. It’s an imaginary one, conjured up in your mind, because you don’t like being outside your comfort zone. This imaginary threat stops you in your tracks, which, as I said earlier, is OK. It’s what you do next that’s the important part.
Do you stay stuck in threat mode, and follow the path of least resistance?
Or do you overcome your resistance to being outside your comfort zone, and advance into the unknown?
If you choose to stay stuck — and this is a choice — one thing is guaranteed. You will not grow as a person.
If you choose to move forward into the unknown, you will open yourself up to personal growth. The further outside your comfort zone you go, the greater the growth.
“One can choose to go back towards safety or forward toward growth.” ~ Abraham Maslow
How to use fear to move forward
I learned about the duality of fear when I was very young. That fear could stop you in your tracks. And propel you forward.
Fear was a pretty common feature in my life. It stopped me in my tracks plenty of times, but I also found I was able to use it to propel me forward. It felt natural to me to do so. It was almost as though my survival instinct had come with personal growth factored in. As in “Get me the hell out of here, fast, and help me learn from the experience.”
Putting my physical self at risk was never part of my game plans. I always had a healthy respect for actual danger. But putting my emotional and mental self at risk? Game on!
Change became my vice. Changing where I lived, changing jobs, even changing my handwriting. If it wasn’t nailed down, I changed it. Over the years, I’ve changed things up in my life with such regularity that my loved ones live on high alert on my behalf. My actions seem to press their fear buttons more than they press mine. My loved ones have also gone through more address books than they’d like.
People around me say that it’s easy for me to change things, because I’m fearless. I’m not fearless. I get scared every time I move outside my comfort zone. Yet, I keep doing it.
Why do I keep moving outside my comfort zone?
Because I’ve done it enough times to know that outside my comfort zone is where the growth is. To know that any discomfort I feel is temporary. This, too, shall pass. Everything does, in the end.
How do I keep managing to move forward?
Whenever I feel the fear rising within me, I sit with it. I allow myself to feel it fully. Doing this is essential for two reasons. First, it lets me know that I’m doing the right thing. That I’m pursuing the path of greatest resistance, and greatest growth. Second, fear makes me feel very alive. And I channel this energy into action.
You see, when I’m scared, yet energized, I start planning. This is when I have my greatest focus. When I can see all that needs to happen to deliver the outcome I want. And it’s this planning that leads to successful action. Without planning, action becomes difficult, and outcomes fail to materialize.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Over the course of my life, my success at achieving the outcomes I want has resulted from one thing. Never shying away from making whatever changes were needed. Going forward boldly into the unknown is my modus operandi. And will remain so for the rest of my days.
Will it become your MO, too?
Postscript to my mum
When I look at my dental bills and stress out, you know what I’ll be thinking…