This week we take a little detour from our three-part series on toxic habits to conquer one of them. Last week we covered avoidance, the elaborate workarounds we undertake to steer clear of our fears. Whatever we avoid, the emotional gymnastics are exhausting and, in the long run, don’t even work.
What to do? Today, we’ll cover 4 tips to face fear head on.
Fear-buster #1: Keep the Movie Playing
Each of us has an imaginary, heart-stopping moment we dread. If you’re camera-shy, for example, you might worry about making a fool of yourself on video. And then finding it on the web. With hundreds of comments confirming your ridiculousness. Or if you fear conflict, you may picture yourself lamely trying to assert yourself – and then bursting into tears.
Whatever your fear, don’t hit ‘pause’ on your imagined horror story at the worst possible moment. Instead, keep the movie rolling until you’re safe. Maybe your mortifying web video fades into internet oblivion – or even better, you star in others that overshadow it. Or maybe your tearful argument starts a real conversation.
Bottom line, whenever you picture as your fear, push past the worst-case scenario to a safe conclusion. You’ll feel better prepared to handle the worst (which, by the way, will likely never happen.)
Fear-buster #2: Bring it On
Eventually, we get tired of being scared. So when you’re sick of holding yourself back, do a 180 with your willingness.
Be willing to stand behind that podium, get on the plane, ask for a raise, or do whatever it is you fear. Your willingness is mutually exclusive from your fear – you can be scared witless and still be willing to say to your fear, “Hit me with your best shot!’ You’ll be ready and, well, willing.
Fear-buster #3: Get it On Paper, Then Argue Back
If you keep a journal, this tip’s for you. First, write down what you’re afraid of. Well, okay – maybe first jab hundreds of pockmarks in your diary with a pencil lead, and then write down what you’re afraid of.
“I’ve wasted my life.” “No one loves me.” “Everyone thinks I’m a big loser.” Whatever your brain is screaming at you, get it out of your head and on to paper.
After a few days, go back and look over what you wrote. In the light of day, some of your fears might seem downright melodramatic. Or maybe you’ll realize they’re someone else’s twisted opinion of you, like an abusive partner, cold-as-ice parent, or middle school mean girl. It’s their thought, but maybe you’ve internalized it over the years.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: You don’t have to jump in with both feet. On the contrary, facing fears means starting small.
Next, write a rebuttal to your fear. (Note: the first time you try this, you probably won’t be able to think of anything – but keep trying.) Write what your biggest fan would say. Let your inner defense attorney build an argument. Jot down all the evidence that undermines your fear, even if you think it shouldn’t count. Then rinse and repeat. Create a stockpile of counter-thoughts you can turn to the next time your fear button gets pushed.
However, if you can’t bear to face your “I suck” fears, or you can’t think of any evidence to the contrary, take your pock-marked notebook to a therapist you like and trust. He or she will help you shine a bright light on those fears – and I guarantee you’ll discover they’re not as strong as you think.
Fear-buster #4: Face Your Fear in Snack-Sized Bites.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: You don’t have to jump in with both feet. Our party-hating friend Brian from last week’s episode is not going to burst through the door of his next party with a big grin and jazz hands.
On the contrary, facing fears means starting small. Before Brian’s next party, he might plan a tiny, snack-sized social goal that doesn’t make him cringe. He might plan to ask a specific co-worker about her recent vacation, ask the new guy how he’s adjusting, or smile and say hi to three people.
For your own version, if you just know deep down you’re not going to accomplish your snack-sized goal, you haven’t gone small enough. Shrink it to two people, or one. When that knot in your stomach magically releases, you know you’ve gone small enough.
Then, after you’ve accomplished your teeny goal, pat yourself on the back and go a little bigger. Brian is slowly re-wiring the part of his brain that screams at him “Don’t even bother trying, you awkward tool!” He’ll never dance on the bar, but that’s okay. The goal of facing your fear is not to change your personality, it’s to help you be more flexible and more comfortable being yourself. With practice and time, you’ll re-wire your brain’s equivalent thought, too.
Big asterisk: facing your fears, especially at first, will feel wrong. This is not a comfortable ride. But bit by bit, you’ll trade your fear for confidence.
And here’s the thing: in the moment, you won’t realize that change is happening. Instead, you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come. You’ll find yourself doing whatever it is you were afraid of without thinking. And that’s when you’ll know all those butterflies in your stomach have flown away.
Next week, we’ll have the podcast’s first ever guest: Dr. Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist, professor at Columbia University, and spirituality researcher. She’s the author of the new book “The Spiritual Child,” and I got to sit down with her and learn what exactly spirituality is, why it’s important to teach it to our kids, and how to do so.
After next week, I promise we’ll finally get around to finishing our 3-part series, so be sure to tune in when we reveal toxic habit #3. In the meantime, share your comments and questions below!
Photo of busted fear courtesy of Shutterstock.