Winning the Fight Against Fear

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It’s not particularly hard to find good advice. It’s not hard to find supportive people and good role models. It can be a little difficult to discover your passions, but we usually know when we find something important and impactful.

So why is it such a struggle to achieve our dreams? When you know what you want, what makes it so difficult to go out and get it? There are plenty of little excuses, like time, money and know-how. Still, none of those barriers is impenetrable. We can gain knowledge, we can make money, and, if it’s really important, we can find the time.

All of these smaller hurdles are symptomatic of a bigger problem: fear. When we’re afraid of something, we find all sorts of reasons to avoid it. Think about when you were little and friends were pressuring you to do something silly like eat a bug or ride your bike down a hill. Instead of admitting you were afraid, you’d come up with all sorts of excuses - “my mom will get mad” or “I have to go home, otherwise I totally would.”

In reality, you were just scared, and you had every right to be. Unfortunately, fear isn’t something we like to talk about; we don’t treat it like a legitimate excuse, even when it is. We assign blame to everything else, and our fears continue their influence without being checked.

Every time I’ve challenged the thing that scared me, I’ve come out on top. This isn’t because I’m some kind of superhero, as much as I’d like to believe that were the case. My success came from trying, acknowledging that fear was my biggest opposition, and giving my best effort. My story is no different from that of other people who have chosen not to let apprehension overrule aspiration.

Once you identify the challenge and pinpoint what it is you’re afraid of, you can work on abating that fear and motivating yourself to take action. Fears manifest in different ways, but there’s always a root that can be found and extracted.

As you read through the following examples, try to be honest with yourself about what’s really holding you back. When you can diagnose the cause of your angst, you can start the process of moving past it.

1. Fear of Failure

Who isn’t afraid of failing? Many people carry an air of apathy and pretend to be unphased, but I would argue those people fear failure the most. Instead of trying and falling short, they just skip the effort altogether and act like they didn’t want care about succeeding to begin with.

To put in effort and not be rewarded feels like a referendum on our entire being. If you put your all into starting a business or writing a book and it doesn’t pan out, the immediate reaction is often to doubt everything about yourself. “If I was good enough this would have worked, but it didn’t so I’m not.” This isn’t at all how life works, but it’s a very human reaction.

Fear of failure also stems from what we project on ourselves. Throughout my life, there have been various things I’ve avoided or delayed because I worried I might let someone down if it didn’t work out. Maybe it’s your parents, maybe it’s your spouse, maybe it’s even your kids. Instead of thinking about ways to make your dreams come true, you toil away with what your friends and family might say if you struggle.

When your big dreams involve a relatively new passion or hobby, it’s especially easy to focus on failing because you have yet to taste success. How do you know you’re good enough when you haven’t received any feedback? Before your work has been validated, it’s much easier to imagine being bad at something than it is being triumphant.

Recovering

Let’s look at some famous quotes from successful people:

● “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” - Winston Churchill

● “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” - Albert Einstein

● “I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” - Thomas Edison

● “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” - C.S. Lewis

There are thousands of quotes just like these from people who, from the comfort of success, were able to look back on the times they failed with a newfound perspective. If you have yet to start chasing your dream, it’s going to be hard to feel this good about your own mishaps. Nevertheless, you need to understand that when you experience failure you’re in pretty good company.

In general, we have a misconception of coming up short. We equate it with doing something wrong, as opposed to part of an important process. Think of success and failure in terms of strength training. Say your goal is to run 10 miles. The first couple outings, you run out of gas around mile three or four. As far as hitting your goal is concerned, you’ve failed. Fortunately, you understand this is part of the process as you get in better shape.

If you want to do something big, you’ll come up short a few times along the way. While you might view those efforts as failures, it’s more accurate to see them as practice rounds. While you don’t want to have too many practice rounds when time and money are involved, you still have to see those failed attempts for what they are and the education they provide.

You shouldn’t get excited about failing, but you can’t feel defeated when things don’t work out right away. If you don’t want to take my word for it, feel free to look up more quotes from famous people who have not succeeded at first but then tried, tried, tried again.

2. Fear of the Unknown

Your dream job could very well be something you’re not at all prepared for. You could be well into your 40s when you decide to switch from accounting to painting, and that kind of career change will come with a whole bunch of question marks.

I’ve worked with plenty of people trying to break into new careers, many of whom have amassed decent wealth in their previous professions before deciding they want to take things in a new direction. Rich or poor, people exploring new pursuits have the same nagging fear: what’s going to happen?

It’s why lots of us don’t try new hobbies or order something off the menu we’ve never had before; when you don’t know what the outcome is going to be, it’s a little nerve-wracking. The experiences we know and understand are easy and safe, even if they might not lead to greatness.

This is especially true when it comes to finance and business. If you have a steady job, you’re paying your mortgage and putting your kids through school, it’s all but impossible to entertain a new career, even if you don’t love the one you’ve got. If your money has been tied up in mutual funds for 15 years, it might be tough for you to move that capital into a different account, even if the evidence suggests you should.

Comfort is great. We all strive to feel comfortable, but at a certain point we start to mistake complacency for security. We stop challenging ourselves because the alternative - going through the motions without much resistance - is much easier.

Every once in a while, the unknown turns out to be as bad as you thought it might. A new job, a bad investment, moving to a different part of town; something turns out to be the wrong choice and it feels like a setback. After a few of these bad experiences, you might stop taking chances and trying new things. At that point, fear has won.

Learning

You have to remember that all of your achievements and successes started as relative unknowns. Going back to your first day at a new school, your first day in a class you ended up loving, your first entry-level job, and any number of other firsts. As comfortable as you might be in your life, don’t trick yourself into believing things were always that way.

If you only deal in things you know, you essentially give up on learning. It will always be easier to stick to the matters you understand best, but if you’re in the market for a change, you have to take a leap of faith at some point and trust the knowledge is out there to be gained.

Most of all, you need to at least give yourself the chance to grow. You might learn that you don’t want to be a painter, that you really enjoy the structure and execution of an accounting job. But don’t you owe it to yourself to know that for certain? If you don’t step into the unknown, you run the risk of living the rest of your days wondering what could have been.

On the other side of your fear is the answer to the question “what if?” What if you were a famous artist? What if you went back to school and got your law degree? What if you packed up your family and moved to another country?

A big change might not be the solution, but there’s only one way to find out. Even if it’s the wrong choice, you’ll learn invaluable truths about yourself if you go through the process of trying something new.

If it’s something you really want, you’ll be able to feel that after you step into the abyss. There will be plenty of uncertainty and fear at first, but after a while, you’ll do what you’ve always done - you’ll learn, adapt, get better and eventually start to enjoy. It might take time before you see big life changes and improvements, but you’ll gain knowledge and new abilities throughout the process.    

3. Fear of Rejection

Starting with our first school dance, and likely before, the fear of being told “no” is paralyzing and persistent. Being rejected brings your greatest fears to a head: you’re not good enough, people don’t like your work, you’ve been wasting your time. It’s one thing to think those thoughts - it’s entirely different to have someone validate them.

After you get passed up for an opportunity, you often have to face the person or people who enjoyed the very success that you were denied. Not only do you have to cope with being turned away, but you’re stuck living with a living example of what you’re not. This is never a fair comparison, but it’s inevitably what our brains focus on.

Doing anything, in your professional or personal life, takes effort. When you put your time and willpower into something, it’s pretty painful to have another person tell you that effort wasn’t good enough. This alone keeps so many of us from attempting things in the first place; you can’t get rejected if you don’t try at all.

The worst part of this fear is how it grows and spreads throughout your life. It may start with you shying away from public speaking or other activities where the rejection feels monumental. Slowly but surely, you become averse to any situation where you might get rebuffed. Before you know it, you’re living life passively in hopes of sidestepping every circumstance that isn’t ideal.

People get shot down constantly, and it never feels particularly good. Unfortunately, when you work hard to avoid rejection, you drastically reduce your prospects for success.

Adapting

Just as you learn from facing the unknown, every rejection provides invaluable feedback. Putting your efforts on display makes you vulnerable to criticism, and that’s often the best education a person can get.

If you don’t know what’s wrong, how are you supposed to fix it? So many people will invest countless hours into a passion project, but the fear of hearing other people’s opinions keeps them from sharing their work. That fear is understandable, but think about the possible outcomes of presentation: people will either tell your work is fantastic, or they’ll give suggestions for how to make it better. The alternative is to keep your talents hidden, and what’s the fun in that?

Rejection is failure with a side of constructive criticism. It’s not always the case, but lots of denials come with an explanation. If you’re motivated to forge ahead, you can use this critique to improve your next effort. No matter what it is you’re pursuing, you should expect to be rejected by someone at some point. An early rebuke might be the best thing for you, so you can learn to adapt in the early going and prove to yourself you have what it takes to keep going.

All those famous quotes about failing? I’m sure each of those figures has countless stories about the people who turned them away and how that helped on their paths to success. Every time you come up short, you learn more about yourself and your abilities. You can’t expect to get everything right on the first try, so a taste of rejection, as painful as it may be, should help you figure out what you can improve.

Recover, Learn, Adapt

The logical part of your brain accepts failure. The emotional half does everything it can to protect you from feeling hurt, embarrassed, rejected and unworthy. Both parts of your brain want the best for you, and you need to find a balance where they can both have a say.

Once you experience failure, you have to ignore the voice in your head that encourages you to quit so you can avoid a repeat. That’s how you start your recovery, and that’s what immediately moves you one step closer to success. When you’re back on the horse, you’ll feel like you’ve recovered, and your right brain (the emoitional half) will be OK with moving on.

After that, it’s all about using what you’ve learned and adapting. Whatever you were scared of will be in the rearview mirror as you push forward and continue to improve. The harder you try, the less significant your fears will seem and the less authority you’ll give to the things that scare you.

You should be afraid of rabid animals. And driving without a seatbelt. And maybe juggling chainsaws, unless you’re trained. Those are real fears that lead to real harm. When it come to failing, getting rejected, or stepping into the unknown, those fears are superficial. Those exist in your mind, holding you back from the greatness you deserve.

Fear never goes away, but it can be conquered. Once you believe that, it becomes a whole lot easier to chase your dreams and do amazing things.

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