Do we need to feel the fear before we do it?

Eliminate fear

In Susan Jeffers’ famous book of the same name we are told to “Feel the fear and do it anyway”. This is a great piece of advice since it enables us to act in the face of our fears, making it more likely that we will be successful in any endeavour. But how realistic is this for most people most of the time? How long can we keep doing it if we feel the fear?

The mahout can only take so much

In another excellent book, “Switch: how to change things when change is hard” by Chip & Dan Heath, a distinction is made between the rational and emotional parts of us, with the emotional part likened to an elephant and the rational part to a rider that is trying to control the elephant. You may have heard of elephant riders referred to as “mahouts”. They point out that the mahout can only control the elephant for so long and when trying to act in the face of our fears the elephant will finally win and we won’t act any more. It will pretty difficult for us to start taking action again too. Wouldn’t it be better, then, if we could avoid having the fear in the first place?

What are we afraid of?

Where does this fear come from and what is the fear about? It is fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, or as Tony Robbins tells us, fear of pain in all its guises. So, what if we weren’t worried about all these things? Martial artists focus on a calm mind that cares nothing about the outcome. Why? Because that way you have nothing to fear and your anxiety about your performance, winning, not losing or whatever, disappears.

This is important. In “Switch” the authors talk about the rider having to direct the elephant and the rider getting tired easily. If the rider didn’t have to control the fear elephant, he or she would have much more energy to focus on their goals without dealing with constant doubts.

What can we do about the fear?

So how do we let go of this fear, or better yet not feel it in the first place? The martial artists mentioned earlier spend years trying to develop an empty mind, where everything they do comes automatically and they aren’t worrying about the outcome. The Japanese term for this is Heijoshin, which can be roughly translated to “ordinary mind”. This means to keep the state of your mind as it is normally – not worried, fearful or stressed, but calm.

Fortunately, unlike martial artists, most of us aren’t preparing to defend ourselves from a physical attack. This means that most of our fears come from the voices and pictures inside our heads that constantly criticise, introduce doubts, or present worst-case scenarios resulting from our proposed actions.

Words and pictures

There are techniques that we can use to help us maintain an “ordinary mind” in these situations. For example, listen to the voices and think about what kind of voice it is – loud, soft, rough, smooth? Where is it coming from? Now, change the voice so that it is a high pitched comedy voice – it doesn’t have the same authority any more.

You are also probably making pictures in your mind of the thing you are afraid of. If it is something that really frightens you the pictures are likely to be huge, up close and in vivid colour. Try shrinking the picture down to the size of a small photograph, drain the colour out of it and push it a long way away. That should take the emotional impact out of it and let you move forward and take action.

Techniques like this can take a bit of practice but it is worth the effort. We are much more likely to do “it” if we are not feeling the fear in the first place.

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