Recently I posted a quote on fear and was blown away by the response and the current podcast episode walks you through what happened. I’m not talking about the walking through the cemetery at midnight type of fear but the kind that softly speaks poison in your ear and causes you to procrastinate, avoid, or simply talk yourself out of things. If you’ve ever had a paper you needed to complete, a speech you were preparing to give, or had to do something that frightened you but could work wonders for your career, then you know what I mean.

Fears Logo

I’ve been on a campaign of facing my fears and found myself having all kinds of adventures, in addition to meeting some pretty dynamic people. And, what surprised me was how many others identified with the difficulty of facing fears. My efforts have worked out so well that I decided to share a few of the things I learned along the way.

Fear is an association you have rewarded:
In thinking about some things that cause those fearful messages you give yourself, I realized that I was creating an expectation of an idea in my head of what my efforts would look like and then thinking about how I would feel if I didn’t live up to that image. For some people this plays out in expecting perfection and that’s a pretty high hurdle to get over because it is next to impossible to cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s. For others it might be a fear of being overwhelmed or thinking that something will happen and you won’t be able to deal with it. Once this happens a few times, every time there’s a paper to due or a speech to give, the association with perfection or that sinking feeling takes hold. Very few of us run toward danger or things we don’t like so we procrastinate or avoid to the point that you actually help create the very thing you wanted to avoid: turning in a sub-par paper or an uninspiring speech.

So what do you do?

Begin to make new associations and create shortcuts
Think back to when you did a great paper and what you had to do to get there. This tells you that you are capable of doing great work and helps your confidence. Then break down the steps you used in creating it to figure out shortcuts to make the process you used faster. I mentioned the shortcuts as you don’t want to fall victim to perfection again because you probably put in a lot of work on that creation. You understand what it took to create good work and realize some of the steps you can eliminate to get to that same point.

See your mental image as a goal not an outcome
Fear feeds off of our expectations of a particular outcome, in other words we give ourselves only one option when there might be a multitude that are possible. Think of it this way: You’ve baked a cake and want to use pink frosting but you don’t have it and the stores are closed. You do have chocolate frosting and it would work just as well. You produced a beautiful cake. The pink cake was a goal, but a beautiful cake was still created.

Face the fear in stages
I realized that I was putting too much pressure on myself and probably so are you in trying to do too much at one time. A 2003 study from UCLA supports my thinking. The researchers taught mice how to unlearn a sense of fear by providing short encounters with the thing they had been taught to fear. So rather than trying to pull an all niter to complete that paper now that your back is against the wall, try doing it in stages or little bits at a time and reward yourself when you do. Now your small steps are linked to a pleasant experience. Also follow that up by doing your work in different locations so your brain knows that finishing that paper is not limited to you being in just one location like the library or your office. You have made the mental connection that doing parts of the work can be done anywhere so location is not the trigger to start working or a means to avoid. And there is a reward waiting for you at the end. The same goes for making that speech. Start by just talking to one person you don’t know. Step that up to maybe announcing to someone in the grocery line that you are taking a break from working on a speech and then respond if they ask you what it is about. It is a quick and easy way of dealing with the pressure of a small crowd because the other people in the line I guarantee you are listening. Again, it is the idea of allowing yourself to get small bursts of the fearful experience.

Become a scientist in your own life
Great scientist’s experiment and every attempt is a chance to see what happens, because it is an experiment. The same applies to your life and the things you fear. Let go of expectations and accept that every attempt creates the best result for you this time. What you’re going to find is that the more you work on your science project the more you will learn about your fears and yourself. This is what I’ve been doing to overcome my own fears. Try a few of these tips and let me know how they worked for you…