Ralph Waldo Emerson said that "fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world."
Some fears, of course, are healthy; they keep us alive. Others are toxic. They tell us, "you can't, you shouldn't, it's too risky, don't even try." Toxic fear holds us back from pursuing our dreams and becoming the best versions of ourselves.
Many of us make the mistake of trying to get rid of fear. However, this doesn't work and only fuels anxiety. We start worrying about worrying. Meanwhile, we remain stuck.
Instead, our goal should be to free ourselves from the control of fear. This takes courage, which is simply moving forward despite the presence of fear.
Living courageously involves shifting our focus away from trying to remove fear to pursuing a full and meaningful life alongside of fear.
Here is how you do it:
Define Your Core Values. The first step in living courageously is defining your core values -- the fundamental life principles you hold most dearly that give meaning and direction to your life. Values might include love, belongingness, achievement, adventure, competition, etc.
Knowing and living by your core values gives you the confidence to say no to fear and yes to life -- you know who you are, what is important to you, and where you are going.
For instance, if one of your values is honesty, you will share your deepest feelings and concerns with your mate even though you worry it might lead to conflict.
Living true to your values is really about living true to yourself.
Do you know your core values? If not, here's a list of 400 value words to get you started.
Live in the Present. Fear is powerful because it lives in our imagination. It causes us to picture a future that doesn't exist. This is what keeps us stuck. We are sure that "if we do x, y will happen," and by definition, y is always bad. "If I ask for a raise, my boss will just say no and I will look like a fool," we tell ourselves. So we keep quiet.
To break the grip of fear, focus on what is now -- the present moment. It's important to experience the now and it actually prepares us for the future. This is the essence of mindfulness, which in the words of John Kabat-Zinn is "paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally."
When we live mindfully something extraordinary happens. Anxiety finds little room to set up residence and you become aware of possibilities that would otherwise be missed if you were worrying about the future.
Living fully present is a simple yet challenging practice. It is counter to our wake up in the morning to check email, see how many things I can get done today culture and so requires intentional, daily cultivation. Here is an exercise to get you started.
First, sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed. Then, breathe in for four seconds through your nose and exhale for four seconds also through your nose. Pay attention to the sound of your breath and the rising and falling of your stomach. As a thought enters your mind, notice it and release it by bringing your focus back to your breath.
The goal of this exercise is not to empty your mind but rather to bring your awareness back to your breath as thoughts and feelings arise.
Practice this for 15 minutes a day and notice how your attention towards your breath increases over the weeks. What else do you notice?
Be compassionate to yourself. Fear makes us feel scared. When this happens, be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that it is human nature to feel fear.
Don't judge your feelings as either "good" or "bad." Using your mindfulness training, recognize your fear thought, release it, and refocus your attention on what matters most to you. Then repeat because you'll notice fear is a lifelong companion.
Likewise, when fear makes a decision for you, acknowledge that this too is normal. Failing doesn't mean you are a failure. Let failure refine rather than define you. See it as an opportunity to learn and become better at what you do.
As a rock climber of over 30 years, I've had to learn this lesson. On difficult climbs, it's common to fall many times before reaching the top successfully without falling.
When I started out climbing, I would get discouraged each time I fell and tell myself, "I shouldn't even be doing this."
Over the years, I've learned to use each fall as an opportunity to refine my technique so I can achieve my goal -- the summit! Sometimes I make it; sometimes I don't. And I can still feel discouraged; however, this approach keeps me motivated and moving rather than giving up.
Draw Upon Past Success. When you face a situation that triggers anxiety, yet in the past you have pushed through it, pause and remind yourself you have been here before and have succeeded.
Recite this simple mantra and watch your confidence grow: "I've been here, I've done this, and I can do it now."
I use this technique with executives who, despite having delivered hundreds of speeches, remain terrified of public speaking. I remind them, "You've been here, you've done this, and you can do it now."
Combining this recitation with visualizing the specific steps needed to succeed is incredibly effective at reducing acute anxiety and increasing performance.
Surround Yourself With Compassionate People. When worry washes over you, invite caring people into your life. My friend and yogi, Laurie McKinnon, says it best, "When you are in a bind, open your heart."
It may feel risky, but it's necessary. A compassionate family member, friend, coach or therapist provides the support and perspective you need to persevere during difficult times. Sometimes, just having someone listen to you helps immeasurably.
Make an effort to spend time with these people. A relationship with a positive, caring person is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety. Just be sure to avoid energy vampires -- the people in our lives that prey upon our anxieties and tell us no.
Stick with those who build you up, not tear you down.
Some fears we outgrow or learn to overcome. Others stay with us for life. By using the tips above start cultivating the courage you need to live a full and meaningful life alongside your fear.
I'd love to hear how you or people you know live courageously. Please leave your comments below or email me at email@example.com.
Dr. Frank Niles is a behavioral scientist, adventure athlete, executive coach, and speaker. He helps people discover what they love to do and then become really good at it. Learn more at frankniles.com and scholarexecutive.com or email Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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