A Complete Guide to Conquering Fear
It all starts with twenty seconds of courage
We must travel in the direction of our fear.” — John Berryman
As I kid, I was terribly afraid of the dark. My two siblings and I frequently crowded my mother’s bed so that we didn’t have to endure the nighttime darkness in solitude.
Over time, I learned to sleep alone with the aid of a nightlight, and eventually, I learned to overcome my fear completely and sleep by myself all throughout the night.
After a recent experience where I relived my fear of the dark (while running up the basement stairs), I realized I never actually “overcame” my fear. It still existed — I just learned how to live with it.
Now, I’m a firm believer that people don’t truly understand what it means to conquer their fears.
Let me explain…
The True Definition of Fear
Fear is defined as ‘an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.’
This emotion lives inside all living things. Part of what makes us human, though, is our clever, rather unfortunate adaptation of it.
While fear’s main purpose is to keep us alive and/or safe in the face of immediate danger, we’ve managed to develop fears for far-off danger — danger that exists only in our minds that might never happen at all.
Fear for immediate danger has proven itself a useful evolutionary feature; however, our fear of far-off danger is rather foolish and baseless. This fear holds us back from realizing our hopes and dreams, and from achieving success in our lives.
So what is fear, really?
It’s the fear of failure, of success, of death, abandonment; the fear of not being good enough, or of being rejected.
All these fears — for humans — are natural. You’ve probably never witnessed a squirrel run away from a nut because he was afraid he might not get it and,
“Oh God, what would my squirrel friends think of me as a failure?”
The point is, we all live with it. But letting it prevent you from living out your dreams is a crime against humanity. It robs the world of you and your gifts. And yet, it happens all the time.
So, what enables some people to push past their fear while others sit idle, living their “comfortable” lives unable to break the barrier?
You Can Beat Fear
It’s a tough thing to do, but there is a solution. I've done my best to lay it out as simply as possible below. I’ve crafted a step-by-step solution to help you put an end to your fears.
Since fear is unique and somewhat personal, it’s tough to prescribe one method to help everyone. Regardless, here’s what has worked for me and some others I’ve talked to.
Maybe it can work for you, too.
1. Introduce yourself to fear
Jason, meet fear. Fear, meet Jason.
Whenever you try to do something worthwhile or meaningful, fear perks up. Your mind starts asking questions like:
- “What if this thing doesn’t turn out how I’d hoped?”
- “What if I’m let down?”
- “What if I let others down?”
- “What if I fail?”
- “What if I’m not good enough?”
Whether you realize it or not, these questions are being asked beneath the surface, which is why far too often, fear like this goes unnoticed.
You skip going to an audition because “you’re too tired,” or, at least that’s the excuse you tell yourself. In reality, you’re terrified of competing and potentially not earning the part… you’re afraid of being rejected.
Suppressing these fears isn’t healthy. And it’s for damn sure not doing you any favours. If not acknowledged, these fears will sit underneath the surface and continuously thwart your attempts at making progress — at creating or doing something worthwhile in your life.
So instead of letting the fear hide, acknowledge its existence. Waltz on up to it and say:
“Hey, I see you there, Fear. I’m [insert name here]. Nice to meet you.”
2. Don’t run from it
All the hard stuff comes after introducing yourself to fear.
As with anything scary, your gut reaction is to try to run from it because it makes you feel weak and insecure… but that doesn’t do much good for anyone. In fact, running can sometimes be worse than refusing to acknowledge your fear in the first place.
After saying hello to your fear, don’t immediately dismiss it. Instead, welcome the feeling. Stand your ground and proceed with curiosity.
“Listen Fear, I’m not going to run, but I know you’re not going anywhere, so let’s get to know each other a little better, OK?”
3. Feel your fear
“ Freedom is on the other side of the wall of fear. So when we feel fear, it’s actually a signal that we should go toward the fear.” — Leo Babauta
If you’ve never practised any sort of mindfulness, now would be a good time to start. In order to feel your fear, you’ve got to sit with it for some time, observe it, and experience all the feelings of fear — the nervousness, the sweaty palms, the anxiety.
This doesn’t have to be as complicated as it sounds. Whenever you recognize fear surfacing, pause for a few moments and explore the feeling. You’ll realize that regardless of the physical response your body elicits, it’s only a feeling, and you have nothing to be afraid of.
In time, you may even get used to the feeling so that it doesn’t bother you anymore.
4. Become friends with it
They say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Fortunately for you, fear is always very close-by. And since it’s going to be around for a while (forever, actually) then you better start learning how to form a healthy relationship with it.
It’s funny how people think that they should be able to have a monogamous relationship with their hopes and dreams, as if they can chase them and it should be totally easy with no roadblocks.
However, when it comes to people and their hopes and dreams, it’s actually more akin to a devil’s three-way.
There’s you, the other person (your goals), and then there’s the other person — the one you don’t really want but you have to accept their presence since it’s the only way your goals will sleep with you.
You, your lover, and your adversary must learn to get along, otherwise, you won’t ever achieve your dreams. Don’t try to kick fear out or dismiss it because it will only come roaring back and make sure you never get off the couch or make any progress again.
Instead, accept that it’s coming along for the ride (metaphorically, of course) and learn to live in harmonious discord.
You’re in it for the long haul together so you better get used to each other's company.
5. Muster twenty seconds of insane courage
Now that you, your lover, and fear are all best friends, you have to learn how to deal with the resistance fear is going to provide. This is by far the hardest step.
In the movie We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon, while talking to his son about girls, tells him:
“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally, 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”
I’ve always loved that quote, and it’s exactly how you conquer fear.
When you want to start writing your novel, or begin writing down lyrics to a song, or auditioning for a part, or whatever it is you want, you’ll notice that fear stands up to stop you.
He wants to see if you’re serious about your goals and whether or not you think they’re worth fighting for.
So when fear makes his move, all you have to do is stand your ground and show twenty seconds of enormous courage — maybe not even twenty, but more like five — to simply start and then let momentum carry you from there.
As I write this, I’ve been writing for over 3 years, yet I still felt the resistance to get started. Ultimately, since fear and I are well-acquainted, all I had to do was recognize the feeling of fear, muster up my courage, then say:
“No, sir. Not today. Time to get to work.”
And then I opened up my laptop and started writing. I intended to put a somewhat detailed outline of this article together and stop there, but 1,400 words later and the “detailed outline” turned into a “detailed first draft”.
It’s crazy what a few seconds of insane courage can lead to.
6. Practice makes perfect
Fear is always going to be by your side.
I wish I could say that fear’s push-back gets lighter or that mustering up your courage gets easier, but it doesn’t. With practice, however, you can build the mental resilience to keep saying “Screw it, let’s just do it,” and then begin your work.
Basically though, it never gets easier — you just get tougher.
When I was younger, and even up until a few years ago, I felt terrified to jump in the ocean. Living in the northeast US, the water is always cold even in the hottest months of the summer. It took me forever to wade into the water and feel comfortable enough to submerge my whole body.
Today, it still really sucks, and the water certainly hasn’t gotten any warmer, but I’ve started diving right in. Trust me, I still feel terrified every time I do it, and every fibre in my body screams “don’t do it, you maniac!”
But since I’ve spent time building up the “screw it, let’s go” mentality, I’ve gained experience with this type of fear, and with each successive time I feel it, I get a little more comfortable with it.
“Hmm, last time I jumped in, it sucked, but I was proud of myself, and nothing bad happened. Plus, it made me feel alive.”
You’re always going to feel fear before doing anything scary or important to you. The more you do it, and the more you practice your twenty seconds of courage moment, the more comfortable you feel in spite of your fear.
Practice is what makes the difference.
7. Start small
Rome wasn’t conquered in a day.
If you’re new to this thing, and you’re inexperienced at standing face-to-face with your fear spirit, don’t feel like you need to jump into the freezing ocean head first or write an entire chapter on your first go.
Just get used to bringing your fear to the surface, saying hello, then inching forward with progress in fear’s presence.
Write a few hundred words. Even just a few words if you have to. Your goal, in the beginning, is to practice starting your activity, which means facing your fear and proceeding onward in spite of it.
When you start small, especially with something like writing, by the time you actually get to the writing part, the hardest part is done. You’ve already overcome the initial fear of taking action towards your hopes and dreams.
Each time you overcome that, you gain a little more confidence to do it again the next time.
8. Never stop
One valuable lesson I’ve learned in the later part of my 20’s is that persistence is the key to success in almost anything.
With persistence, I’ve been able to turn one article — a few hundred words — into hundreds of articles, thousands upon thousands of words, and an audience of zero, into more than 10,000 each month.
One or two bouts with fear don’t reward you with that kind of progress. It’s not enough for you to beat fear once, twice, or even a handful of times — you’ve got to continuously do it on a daily basis.
Show up. Push yourself to keep going.
With fear as your partner, hop in the front seat of your life’s roller-coaster and hang on tight, because once you learn how to live harmoniously with your fear — and to thwart his resistance — you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Originally published at www.themonklife.net on December 26, 2018.