In many ways we may try to get rid of our fears and phobias by taking medication (or alcohol and drugs), going to psychotherapy, reciting affirmations, listening to hypnosis tapes, or by simply avoiding environments where we feel too much anxiety and worry.
But the truth is that experiencing some fear and anxiety is unavoidable, and it’s actually a good sign of a healthy mind. Often times, by acknowledging our fears (not avoiding them or suppressing them) we gain insight into areas in our life that we may need to improve upon.
Fear as a compass
When your hand touches a hot stove, it feels pain, and that pain motivates you to move your hand away. In the same way, fear is an important signal and motivator that can help guide our behavior.
In Sean Cooper’s The Shyness and Social Anxiety System, he describes fear as a kind of compass:
“Fear is like a compass that points you towards the life you want. All of your deepest desires are fear-ridden, from approaching someone youʼre attracted to, to starting a new business, to conquering your social anxieties. Whenever you feel fear, you know that you are going after what you truly want and growing as a person.”
The truth is that whenever you try to make a significant change in your life, that change will usually be met with some kind of resistance or fear.This is because making changes requires that you start engaging in new and unfamiliar behaviors. And when engaging in these new behaviors, there will always be a degree of uncertainty – you’ve never acted in this way before, so you aren’t sure exactly what the rewards or consequences will be. This uncertainty can be a huge contributor to our fear, anxiety, and worry. But we have to learn how to embrace it anyway.
Confronting your fears face-to-face is the only way to truly overcome them. Avoiding fearful situations only exacerbates the problem. But when you begin to see fear as a sign of growth and boundary-pushing – when you are willing to step outside of your “comfort zone” – then you give yourself an opportunity to actually learn more about yourself and improve your life in the face of those fears.
You can’t get rid of these fears completely – you just have to find ways to embrace them in positive ways.
DIWA: Do It While Afraid
Fear doesn’t go away by learning about it. You need to actively seek new experiences and gain confidence in facing these physical and psychological obstacles. Only by exposing yourself to these new experiences do you begin to rewire your brain and habituate to these new environments and situations.
Sean Cooper has a mantra that helps him overcome fear: “acknowledge feelings and take appropriate action.”
There is no sense in suppressing or ignoring these feelings when they really exist. In fact, often the more we ignore or suppress our feelings, the bigger the feeling builds up inside of us. I like to sometimes think of our emotions as a baby throwing a temper tantrum. If you try to ignore the baby, it will only get louder and louder until it gets your attention. Our emotions work the same way – they are calling to us to get our attention.
Therefore, it’s crucial to acknowledge and accept our feelings. And while doing this, we can often become more aware of what causes our emotions, what they are trying to tell us, and how we should act in response to these feelings.
New actions can lead to new feelings
It’s important to remember that even though our fears and anxieties feel like they inhibit us from acting in ways we want to, our feelings don’t actually dictate the way we behave. In fact, by feeling fear and anxiety, but actings ways we want to despite these feelings, we can actually end up feeling better about ourselves in the end. By adopting new habits, we also adopt a new self-perception.
For example, some research has demonstrated that introverts who initiate social interactions (even when it makes them feel uncomfortable or awkward) later report feeling better about themselves. They often end up more proud of themselves, because they know they tested their limits and in return learned something new. This indicates that sometimes doing something outside of our normal code of behavior – while it can be a temporary source of pain – can also lead to long-term positive feelings like confidence and self-esteem.
The paradox is that we can’t experience this new sense of ourselves until we first face that fear or anxiety. In other words: it isn’t until we expose ourselves to these fearful activities that we truly find out they “weren’t as bad” as we first thought.
Facing fear in small daily doses
If you find yourself trying to face your fears and feeling utterly crippled by them, then you are probably starting off too big. For example, if you have social anxiety, then it’s probably not a good idea to start off by giving public speeches to hundreds of people or running for President.
You need to start with smaller activities, like maybe sparking a small conversation with a waiter or cashier. Or asking a really good-looking girl what time it is. Or maybe just making eye contact with everyone you walk passed on your way to work.
Where you start ultimately depends on what kind of fear and anxiety you have, and how strong it is. As a general principle: you should try to face your fears on a gradual basis. But you ultimately have to determine for yourself what are the appropriate steps to take – because everyone’s fears and anxieties are a bit different.
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