I felt the cold brick on my back as I stood paralyzed against the wall clutching my notebook. The amphitheater classroom below swarmed with students climbing over chairs, and even each other, to vie for the few remaining seats. Refusing to enter the fray, I was absorbed into the overflow along the periphery. My eyes darted back to the door. A growing mass of sardine-packed bodies blocked my escape.
Tha-thump, tha-thump rang in my ears as my heart prepared to run. I so wanted to run. “Please don’t pass out,” I whispered between slow, measured breaths. A booming voice echoed from the floor below, and the room went quiet. “I am Professor [tha-thump], welcome to [tha-thump] 101. Over the next several months we will [tha-thump, tha-thump] and then we will explore [tha-thump] and of course [tha-thump].”
The next thing I remember was being carried along by the flood of bodies pouring out the door at the end of class. Once released, my still pounding heart raced my legs across campus headed toward home.
“I can’t do this,” I said with conviction into the telephone. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m going to drop the class and take a lower-level course for the requirement.”
“Why?” asked my friend. He knew my fears, flaws, and weaknesses better than anyone. He also saw my strengths when I refused to even look for them.
“Because I will FAIL!” I cried. “That class is filled with 300 people who are all MAJORING in this stuff. What possible chance do I have!”
I Won’t. So, I Can’t.
Have you ever been convinced there was something you couldn’t do even though you had never even tried to do it? Maybe someone told you that you weren’t capable, or a person you respected had failed to accomplish this goal. So, you thought, “Well, then I’m clearly doomed to fail.” Alternatively, someone you deeply admired may have succeeded brilliantly at this very thing. Therefore, you concluded that achieving this feat required god-like talent you did not possess. Our brain can find all kinds of ways to twist and distort our perceptions to conform our reality into what we already believe to be true: “I can’t do this.” So, we avoid trying whatever it is because we’re afraid we’ll not only prove ourselves right, but also publicly expose our incompetence in the process.
I had successfully (and quite skillfully, I might add) circumvented this particular fear for years. Years! I was a master deflector. When anyone would ask, “Why aren’t you doing this?” I would shrug my shoulders and sigh, “I just don’t have time,” “I’m just not that interested,” or “It’s just not that important to me.” On the surface, these excuses sounded reasonable. They had to sound reasonable if people were going to believe them, if *I* was going to believe them. But really, these rationalizations were a carefully constructed wall built with bricks of solid logic to prevent exposing the imposter within. (That would be “me.”)
Then, my friend said something I will never forget: “If you quit now, you’ll always believe you couldn’t do it.” Something clicked, like a tiny camera shutter inside my brain, exposing a new truth. I could see he was right, but more than that, something had shifted in me. I could no longer see the situation the same way I had just a fraction of a second before, though only my perception had changed. The fear was still strong, but, I reluctantly had to admit, the path forward was clear.
What Will You Confront?
What is the fear(s) you’re not confronting? We all have something. Some of you know immediately what it is. You can rattle that fear right off the top of your head. Others may be less sure. You may need to give it some thought. Then there will undoubtedly be some people who read this and say, “Nope! Not me. I confront every last one of my fears head-on every day.” If you’re in that group, then this post is probably not for you. That could be for a couple of reasons:
1. First, the wall used to contain your fear may be so thick and so high you’re not ready to acknowledge its existence. You probably run into the wall every once in a while, but like my Roomba® you quickly turn around and just keep on going. Maybe you’re not ready to take down the wall, or even chip away at it. That is your choice. Motivation is key to us making real change in our lives. Change is hard work, and sometimes it’s really scary. We tend to resist what is scary. So, if we aren’t motivated to do the work to change, then reading some post by a stranger will be useless at taking down that wall.
2. The second reason you may have no walls is that you are part of a far more advanced species than the human race. In which case, “Welcome to our planet!” But don’t waste your time digging into all this messy “human stuff.” Instead, I recommend doing some sightseeing while you’re here. Visit the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China. Maybe swing by the Eiffel Tower if the lines aren’t too long.
If you’re still reading (all you messy human types), then a good place to start for all of us is to first figure out what we’re really avoiding. When we’re pushing ourselves to grow, and we feel like something is stopping us, most of the time it’s fear. Learning to confront our fears does not typically happen overnight (or by the end of a single blog post), but we can begin by recognizing our resistance.
The first step in overcoming our fear is to acknowledge it and bring it into the light. Be prepared, this can be a lot of work. Fear thrives when covered in darkness and buried in denial. Here are a few questions to help you start the digging process:
What is something I want in my life? (Something I don’t currently have) – This could be a job, a business, a relationship, a specific accomplishment, etc. Another way to think about this is to ask, “If I could snap my fingers and change anything about my life today, what would it be?”
What’s getting in my way? – This could be a lack of knowing how to do something, or a skill we need to develop. This could be a belief that we can’t do something. It could be the time or effort it would take to achieve a goal. Maybe it’s the fear of stepping outside our comfort zone and looking foolish. (I can definitely relate to that one.) Alternatively, it might be a real barrier. For example, if I decide tomorrow I want to be a professional basketball player, my age, complete lack of coordination, and my inability to jump high enough to sit on a counter, let alone dunk a basketball, would be a considerable barrier to achieving this goal. Capture everything you believe is getting in your way.
Note: If you come up with a long list of how other people need to change so you can build the life you want, then you’re bumping up against that wall, and it’s time to take out your pickaxe. You can’t change other people, but you can use the pickaxe to either chip away at the wall or start to climb it. Your choice.
What am I really afraid of? – Look at the hurdles you’ve listed. For each one, ask yourself, “What is one action I could take to overcome this hurdle?” Write down the action. The minute you identify each of these actions, that little voice in your head (you know the one) may jump in with, “Yeah, but…” and then give you a litany of reasons why it can’t be done. It might say something like, “I don’t know how,” “I don’t have time,” “I don’t have the money,” or “It’s a lot of work/I don’t want to do that part.” Rather than taking what that voice tells you at face value, stop, and explore a little bit. Ask yourself, “What am I afraid will happen if I take this action?”
Sometimes we balk at the word “afraid” or “fear” because “fear” seems too strong. We may not want to admit we’re afraid because we feel too vulnerable, or maybe we feel the word “fear” should be reserved for the really big, scary things in life (e.g., fear for our life or the lives of others). So, we push fear away, and say, “I’m not afraid.” Then instead ask, “What am I concerned will happen (or not happen) if I do this?” or “What am I worried about if I do that?” We can make our fears more accessible by helping our worries and concerns bubble to the surface.
What am I giving up? – Part of motivating ourselves to challenge our fear and step outside our comfort zone is recognizing the tradeoffs we will be making, but that we may not be acknowledging: “Where am I limiting myself and my life by not facing this fear/concern?” and “What am I giving up as a result?” We instinctively look for the risks when we choose to act. We also need to ask, “What am I sacrificing if I don’t take the risk?”
Step into the Possibilities
There are many real things to fear in this world, and we are wired to defend against clear, immediate risk. What is often less clear is the hidden potential in confronting those risks. I thought confronting this one fear would help me achieve a specific goal, but the door it opened was so much bigger than I could have ever imagined. Not because I continued to build on that goal, but because once I confronted my fear, I began to wonder, “What else is possible?”