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12 Oct, 2010

Why You Should Never Fight Your Fears by Brian Cormack Carr

Posted by: The Coaching Academy In: Coaching Articles|Life Coaching Articles|Personal Success

I love fear. Not because I’m a masochist, but because I recognise it for what it is: an important messenger. Fear is good, but you wouldn’t think it, to read the sort of statements that frequent the self-help literature and lifestyle magazines:

  • “Feel the fear and do it anyway!” (Oh really? Even the fear that tells you not to drive too fast round a hairpin bend?)
  • “The only thing to be afraid of is fear itself!” (Tell that to someone who’s being chased by an angry lion.)
  • “Stand up and fight your fears!” (What, even the ones that send you into such a panic that you can barely catch your breath?)

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the headlines trumpet their opinions confidently: fear is to be got rid of, got round, ignored. In short, fear is a bad thing and is to be avoided. That is, if you want to have any hope having a halfway decent life and finding a good job.

Give me a break! No one goes through life achieving anything of significance without experiencing fear – and that’s exactly as it should be, because fear is one of our greatest allies. So I say: “let’s hear it for fear!”

Here’s why.

Fear is one of the key feelings which make up your emotional compass. Happiness, anger, pain, and sadness (which is emotional pain) are the others. Virtually every other emotion you can conceive of (such as guilt, joy, and embarrassment) either represent varying degrees of those key feelings, or are a combination of two or more of them. For example, joy is an extreme form of happiness, and pain (in the form of emotional discomfort) and happiness (in the form of emotional pleasure) can combine to create embarrassment.

With the exception of times when you’re suffering from great extremes of emotion – and even then, only with great care and professional guidance if necessary – you should never fight, shut down, ignore, or disrespect your feelings. They are what guide you through life; to the things you like, and away from the things you don’t. Your emotional compass is an essential part of your “find your dream” arsenal, and for it to work for you, you need to be in touch with the full range of your feelings, including fear.

One reason it’s important to trust your feelings is because sometimes they’re all you’ve got to guide you, especially when you know where you want to go and you’re struggling against society’s received wisdom, peer pressure, or criticism. Fear can propel you away from circumstances that aren’t right for you, even when they seem idyllic to others, and it’s often the experience of a specific fear – such as getting stuck in a job or relationship that’s diminishing you – that brings you to the point of following your dreams. But fear can help you in more subtle ways, too.

To find out what those ways are, it’s important to realise that fear comes in two forms: rational fear, and irrational fear. Let’s take a quick look at each.

Rational fear:
A man jumps out at you in a dark alleyway, brandishing a big knife. “Give me all your money, or I’ll kill you!” he snarls. In a moment like this, you’ll experience an intense form of rational fear. Your heart rate will increase, adrenalin will flood through your bloodstream, your muscles will tense in preparation, and you’ll be ready either to fight your attacker, defend yourself, or run away. In short, you’ll be experiencing the same fight-or-flight response that’s programmed into our DNA and which kept our ancestors safe from sabre-toothed tigers (the fact that you’re sitting here now, reading this, proves that your ancestors were adept at avoiding danger at least long enough to reproduce). The fear you experience is entirely rational; you are in a dangerous situation, and could get hurt, or even be killed. You don’t need to think about it. Your body, wonderful survival apparatus that it is, instantly responds by creating the sensation of intense fear in order to move you away from danger.

Irrational fear:
Your boss has asked you to make a presentation to the board of directors. The very thought fills you with dread. On the day, you stand up in front of the assembled board members, your hands damp with sweat, your mouth painfully dry, your mind a blank. It takes all your effort of will to keep your hands from shaking as you hold your papers in front of you, and begin, voice quavering. You’re experiencing irrational fear. Nothing really bad is going to happen to you – there’s no threat to your life – but all the same, you are frightened. It’s important to note that irrational fear is not unreal fear. It’s real all right; just ask anyone who’s ever suffered from a panic attack.

Why does it happen this way? Simply because, the part of your brain that controls fear is very powerful, but it’s also very primitive; it can’t tell the difference between the sort of physical danger that would genuinely threaten your safety, and emotional pain. Whether it’s trying to keep you safe from a knife-wielding maniac, or perceiving that you’re doing something unknown, and potentially dangerous, it responds with the same fight-or-flight reaction.

Your job then, isn’t to get rid of fear, but to understand it, because it has a message for you, and it’s always trying to keep you safe.

In the case of rational fear, it can be carrying a very simple message: “you’re in big trouble, get the hell out of here!” But in the case of irrational fear, you probably have to go digging underneath it, because the chances are the fear is masking another feeling. In the example I gave above, you’re unlikely to come to any lasting harm, but – if the presentation goes badly – you could very well feel like a fool, and that you’ve let your boss down. Your fear is trying to keep you safe from an uncomfortable emotion that it perceives as being dangerous to your sense of yourself. It’s no accident that we often hear people talking of “dying of embarrassment”. Whether it’s your physical body that’s in danger, or your emotional coherence, fear rises up like a lion to warn you away from risk.

Fear of this type can also be a mask for feelings other than embarrassment. You might be frightened of succeeding because it’ll make you feel guilty about spending time away from the people you love; you might be scared to receive praise because it’ll make you feel sad about other people in your life who aren’t happy with their lot; you might even be experiencing a fear of happiness – usually because you’re suffering from the erroneous belief that if you get too happy, fate will strike you a blow just to take you down a peg or two.

There’s a very good chance that you won’t consciously realise that any of these things are happening, because the fear masks the other feelings. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to any feelings of anxiety you’re having, so you can find out what they’re trying to tell you.

And here’s the funny thing. Once you identify the feeling that your fear is trying to keep you away from, and deal with it, the fear starts to melt, like an icicle in the sun. That doesn’t mean it’ll go away entirely – although sometimes it will – but it should at least diminish to a level that allows you to think more clearly about what you should do next.

How do you “deal with” your feelings? That depends on you, the circumstances, and the level of intensity of the feelings. Sometimes you just need to let yourself feel them; sometimes you need to question the assumptions that lie beneath them; and sometimes you need to express them, so they can move through you and disperse. If they’re particularly powerful and scary, you might need support from a counsellor or therapist as you work your way through them.

It’s a journey worth taking. Once you’ve done it, you’re left with a choice: to keep going in the direction you were going; or to decide the fear was genuinely warning you away from something that was wrong for you, and to take the opportunity of charting a new course.

Either way, you’ve done something far more empowering than blindly fighting your fears. By really listening to them – whether rational and a real signal of danger, or irrational and a mask for something else – you’ve taken a powerful emotional compass reading that’ll enable you to set your sails in a way that moves you forward along the only path that ever matters in life: your own.

© Brian Cormack Carr, 2010

5 Responses to "Why You Should Never Fight Your Fears by Brian Cormack Carr"

1 | Patricia

October 12th, 2010 at 8:10 pm

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My biggest fear all my life was to find myself ‘alone’. This happened to me 10 years ago (loss of marriage/home/best friend/children/job…all that created my ‘scaffolding’ was gone).

It took me 3 years to turn this loss around and face my biggest fear……..and the fear melted away so quickly!

i have been ‘alone’ (in society’s opinion…i.e. single…) and am SO happy!

i faced my fears and walked head on straight through them and discovered a new and different me on the other side – no longer afraid!

2 | Tweets that mention Why You Should Never Fight Your Fears by Brian Cormack Carr - Coaching Blog -- Topsy.com

October 13th, 2010 at 1:45 pm

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[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John@TCM, Sue Courtney. Sue Courtney said: Why You Should Never Fight Your Fears by Brian Cormack Carr: I love fear. Not because I’m a masochist, but because… http://bit.ly/a19vVP [...]

3 | Brian Cormack Carr

October 14th, 2010 at 12:51 am

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Patricia, thanks for sharing your story. It’s a brilliant illustration that fear can melt when we let ourselves face it (or are even brave enought to step a bit further into it so that we can figure out what it is we’re actually experiencing….). Inspiring!

You’ve reminded me of a quote from Byron Katie, where she’s speaking about being in “solitary confinement” and how what seems like the same experience on the outside (e.g. being alone in a cell) would be very different for a prisoner engulfed in thoughts of terror, and a Buddhist monk appreciating the solitude and ability to meditate without interruption: “If you’re on your own and you love everything you think, where’s the problem?”

4 | Mhairi Gordon

October 15th, 2010 at 10:49 am

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The first word of “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” is Feel. Therefore, definitely no exhortation to ignore fear.

Susan Jeffer’s excellent book talks about the difference between stupid risks (eg driving fast round a hairpin bend) and sensible risks (eg public speaking).

The book can be really helpful for coaching clients – and anyone else. What a shame to see it being dismissed on this otherwise excellent blog.

5 | Brian Cormack Carr

October 16th, 2010 at 10:05 am

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Hi Mhairi,

Thanks for commenting. I certainly don’t intend to dismiss Susan Jeffers’ book in particular. My reference was more to the fact that its title has unfortunately been picked up by the media (and in some coaching quarters) as an exhortation to just bulldoze through fear, almost as thought it is something that can/should be ignored, or fought against.

I agree that Susan Jeffers’ book has some useful pointers to give, but the part I take issue with is “do it anyway”. What if, after feeling the fear, you *shouldn’t* do it anyway? Maybe you should walk away….

I think a more honest and useful approach is “feel the fear – figure out what it’s trying to tell you – then do what’s appropriate based on what you’ve learned”.

I guess that doesn’t make for such a snappy title, though!

Incidentally, a fascinating and somewhat similar debate went on recently between Seth Godin and Barbara Sher.

Seth’s post (which touches on how to deal with “resistance”) is here: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/02/genius-is-misunderstood-as-a-bolt-of-lighting.html

And Barbara’s (much more helpful, in my opinion) assessment is here:
http://lifeofawriterspeaker.blogspot.com/2010/02/i-disagree-with-seth-godin-about-lizard.html

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