(Note: Fear is a big topic and this two-part article is only addressing one aspect of it. More will come.)
Our Relationship with Fear
Having a good relationship with our fear is one of the most important things we can do because it is an elemental part of being human just like joy or sadness. We can receive useful information from our fear response (like “Watch out for that cliff edge!”), but then it so often gets if the way of what we want to do (for example, making us tense on the cliff edge so we are less agile). Often, the very places we need to go in our lives are the places where we are most afraid (doing something we have always wanted to do, for example, but are too afraid to try). In that way, fear can be a guide to point out where we need to go in our lives. Still, frequently it is the fear itself that is the biggest barrier we have to overcome in getting to where we want to go. Also, fear is uncomfortable, so we often try and avoid it or block the feeling of it (ever had a drink at a social gathering?).
Years ago, I was learning to take jumps while snowboarding. I never graduated to the giant jumps you see in snowboarding competitions, but I eventually moved up to jumps that were six or so feet high, plenty high enough to get pretty hurt if I messed up. I remember my first jump on a snow ramp this high where, as I picked up speed and was closing in on the ramp, I panicked and tried to abort the jump. I fell, but I still had enough speed so that I flew over the jump and landed on my back so hard I saw colors flash. It hurt.
So, like we all know we should do in these situations, I got back on the horse that threw me and went back to the top of mountain and lined up to try the jump again. As I was waiting, my friend said to me, “Don't choke this time.” “Choking,” in this context, means panicking and giving in to the fear, like I did on my first jump attempt. My friend was right. There is a certain point while headed towards a jump where you have to fully commit yourself if you are going to have any hope of landing the jump safely.
My turn came and I headed down the hill towards the jump. Close to the jump, the snow became very icy and fast, the exact spot and reason I had panicked before. I was scared because icy snow is harder to maintain control on and a faster speed means more potential to get hurt, but I had decided I was going to do it no matter what. So I kept my snowboard pointed straight, flew over the jump, landed hard but stayed up. I did it! I kept doing that same jump over and over that day until I felt confident and my fear was nothing more than a distant noise way off in the distance.
That is the way with fear. We can talk ourselves down from it, but often that only goes so far. At some point we are left with the decision of whether or not to take courage and “walk through the fire” and confront what we are afraid of head on. When it comes down to it, courage is a choice and confronting fear is uncomfortable. You can choose to wait until you feel more courageous and confident and it might come, but you might also wait a long time.
Repeated Exposure Decreases Fear
Here is something else to know about fear: the more you are exposed to something you are afraid of the smaller the fear becomes. The first time you jump out of a perfectly good airplane with a parachute tied to your back, you will probably be absolutely terrified (trust me, I know). Do it 100 times and it will mostly just be fun and do it 1,000 times and you might even feel bored. The opposite is true too: if you cower from fear then it will only get stronger. Resist your fear or try and hide from it and it will just get bigger and bigger, but stand up to it and it and you will conquer it.
Coming up: Don't Choke! - Dealing with Fear (Part 2), Tips for Conquering Your Fear.