"Life begins at the end of your comfort zone."
~ Neale Donald Walsch
To be responsible is to be afraid. To be alive is to be insecure. To be a leader is to worry that you're not enough. And yet we almost never accept that this is true.
Fears are a natural part of life. The problem isn't with our fears - it's about what we think they mean about us.
In my work with entrepreneurs and executives, I've found that the more responsibilities leaders have, the more fears they experience - and the more difficulty they have in accepting those fears and sharing them with others. People of all walks of life assume that if they're feeling afraid, it must mean that there's something wrong with them. They figure that if they really knew what they were doing, they wouldn't feel so insecure.
Yet this is the opposite of the truth.
Fear is an automatic byproduct of growth and change. If you're not growing you're dying. And if you not feeling insecure sometimes - well, you're not really living.
Fear is a hard wired response that comes from our animal brain. To an animal, any change can signify danger. A bright light, a sharp noise, a movement in the brush - anything unexpected is a cause for alarm.
Similarly, to the voice of fear, all change is scary. It doesn't matter if it's a good change or a bad change: different is dangerous. It's uncomfortable. It's everywhere you don't want to be.
Your comfort zone consists of all the things in life that you've already experienced and become okay living with on a daily basis. The skills you've mastered? Comfortable. The success you've achieved? Comfortable. The friends you've connected with? Comfortable.
Anything new you want? Uncomfortable.
Just because something feels comfortable doesn't mean that it's healthy or good. Have you ever put off a relationship break-up even though you knew it was time to end it? Or held on to a job that you hated just because you needed the paycheck? Over time human beings can get used to just about anything, to the point where it can actually feel safer to stay in an abusive relationship than to leave it for something new.
When it comes to the things you most want, like good health, wealth, love, and happiness, your comfort zone sets the limit: both on how bad you'll let your life get before you make a change, and on how good you'll allow it to be.
This is why sudden wealth can create such misery. It's why so many famous people get addicted to drugs. And it's why the last five years of my marriage have been so difficult for me.
Not because the relationship has been so bad, but because it's been so good.
My mother died when I was three, in what was easily the most painful experience of my life. By all accounts, she was a remarkable woman - beautiful, loving, charming, and kind. And then I lost her. One day she was my everything; the next day she was gone. Her death left me with a deep wound and a profound fear of abandonment. At an almost cellular level, I learned that love is everything - and that love is loss. So as I became an adult, finding someone to love became both my greatest desire and my greatest fear. Like Jenny, I wanted more than anything else to be married and have a family. Yet deep down I didn't believe it was possible. I didn't believe I deserved it. And I feared that if I did manage to find love, it would be taken from me again.
Mind you, for most of my life I didn't know what was really going on inside me. I didn't realize why I had such deep feelings of unworthiness, why I was so obsessed with finding The One, or why I was so incapable of staying in a relationship for more than a few months.
When my mother died, her loss was so intense, and I had so few tools to deal with it, that I completely repressed the experience. My father remarried six months later to an amazing woman named Zina. I bonded to her and buried the wound away. I grew up in a remarkably loving and happy family, with a mother who fully treated my sister and I as if we were her own. So as a young adult, if someone asked me who was in the picture on my desk, I'd share "That's my birth mother Renée. She died when I was too young to remember her." And that was my honest truth. I didn't have a single emotional or mental memory of her.
Except it was a lie. What I didn't realize yet was the wound wasn't gone. It was waiting. It was sitting below the surface, in anticipation of the day when I'd finally be able to open it up and heal it.
What I didn't realize yet was that it would take a major emotional crisis, a spiritual awakening, and six years of full time inner work for me to heal this wound to the point where I could actually be in relationship.
And what I didn't realize yet was that I would have to go through three experiences of sabotaging and almost destroying my relationship with Nicole, before I could open my heart enough to actually feel her love for me and my love for her.
With all the challenges we faced, it was truly a cause for celebration when we gathered our families on a Santa Barbara beach that beautiful August day, and the two of us finally said "I do."
Marrying Nicole and creating a family with her is the greatest achievement of my life. Not just because it's one of the best things I've done, but also because it's required the most work.
I couldn't have done it without the power of this simple, powerful little tool. Each twist and turn in my path was marked by a clear and unmistakable Yes Yes Hell No! Even when I didn't fully realize it, it was this tool that became my most trusted compass. It was the guidance that steered me through each storm.
And I continue to need its guidance. The amount of love I have in my life scares me. A lot. It's definitely not comfortable. Every day, Nicole and our girls stretch the boundaries of what I can receive. They push me to open my heart. They challenge me to take a risk. And each day my fears tell me to close back up, to sabotage the relationship. To try and find a way to make things feel safe.
Some days I listen to my fears, but most days I don't. Again, not because there's something special about me, but because there's something special about the way I've learned to make decisions. My life keeps getting better and better because somewhere along the way I discovered a deep truth.
In the absence of a real and present danger, the voice of fear is an almost perfect indicator of which direction to go - as long as you head the other way.
Whenever you hear the voice of fear, it's telling you one of two things. Either it's warning you about a real and present danger, or it's alerting you to an opportunity for growth and change. It's letting you know that something just registered on an inner sensor and your life is at risk of getting either better or worse.
The problem is the voice of fear can't tell which is which.
And in today's day and age, the opportunities for growth tend to vastly outweigh the real dangers.
A thousand years ago, each day was a gamble. Human survival depended on listening to our fears. While there were surely opportunities for growth and courage, in most cases discretion truly was the better part of valor. It was all anyone could do just to feed their families and keep them safe.
Today, if you have a stable job in a first-world country, your children are more likely to suffer from obesity than starvation. You're more likely to die from heart disease than violence. And given the exponential pace of change today, if you're not scared of growth, well, you're just not paying attention.
If you're walking through a bad part of town and someone comes at you with a knife - run. However, if you're worried about making the wrong choice or failing to achieve your dreams - pause. Don't take your fears at face value. They still have something important to tell you, but listen carefully: it's probably not what you think.