The Stamina of Fear
How to silence fear instead of facing it outright
What is your greatest fear? What is the big thing that is holding you back in life? Have you ever thought to yourself “I would never do that because I’d be terrified.” This type of limiting self-talk is characteristic of not doing the thing you need to do in your life when you’re just too damn scared to do it. You’re not alone.
Behind the fear wall
We’ve all heard the sage advice: “everything you want in life is on the other side of fear.”
The common idea is that what you want is not just on the other side of fear. It’s not just around it. It’s through it. Facing your fear is the only way. Doing the thing you’re afraid of is the only way to get what you want.
As some people seem to think, there really is no workaround. It’s not like there’s some path where fear is in the way and you can just walk around it. You must grapple with it, and so when you are confronted by that, it’s like this monolithic object weighing you down, even as you attempt to wrestle and jostle yourself out from under it. I think there’s some truth to that Sisyphus-like story. Fear is like sleep paralysis where you try to move, but every time you try your mind just does not connect to your body. Hence, you feel this weight on your chest, but it’s just there and you’re stuck.
Fear is not as much an object in the way as it is a presence. It’s the resonance of our nervous system and the sense of unease that comes with it. It’s a response to an interpretation of something as a threat. It’s easy to think that no matter what you do it will be there, and the only way to get past it is to drive full speed into the wall until you either crash and burn or come out on the other side.
And that’s exactly what you might think when “face your fear” is the only tool in the toolkit. Honestly, I was just tired of that mindset. It wasn’t working for me. Metaphorically speaking, jump off the dock and learn to swim just seemed like I was going to drown.
The issue I have with this way of looking at it is that it recognizes the fear or limiting belief, but seems to put the emphasis on action before strategy. Saying “I’m afraid of doing X” is actually helpful as a starting point. However, if that’s the only way you think about your fear then it’s as if you are acknowledging that this is a part of you, but stopping short of problem-solving for it.
When I say I’m afraid to do X and I can’t get myself to do X, the advice to do X is completely missing the point. It’s treating the desired outcome as the way to get the desired outcome.
I’ve thought this way myself. For like 15 years, I was afraid of getting up and playing music, original compositions, on stage. Even just getting up on stage and playing any music was terrifying for me. I simply said I’m afraid of getting up on stage and playing music, but if that’s all I said, I would have been stuck that way forever assuming the fear just didn’t go away on its own. It was only when I actually started making an effort to solve the problem that anything changed enough to put me in a position where I could actually do it. Last month, I did for the first time play in front of like 40 people. Many of them were musicians, which added mental pressure to do well. Despite all of that, when I got there, I was able to do it, and I didn’t feel as much fear as I initially thought I would. Here’s the rough process I went through to get myself there. That process started with the question of why.
Why are you afraid?
This is a hard question to answer, and it takes some level of self-honesty and critical thinking. Diving in and asking five whys is a great activity. What you do is ask yourself why five times until you feel like you’ve identified the causes, factors, or deeper issues. After writing down your answers, then you can start to break the fear down into component parts.
For me, after really thinking about it, I realized that playing on stage was a fear, but it was more the aspects of performance that I was afraid of.
- I was afraid I would mess up
- It would sound awful
- I was afraid that people would think my self-expression was cringeworthy.
Create your gameplan
Once I saw why I was afraid, I was able to start to outline a gameplan on how to tackle it.
It interesting how in other areas of our lives it’s so easy to gameplan. When we have to complete a project by a deadline, take a test, or plan a weekend trip, we can readily start to plan and think critically about what we need to do. But on our deepest fears our biggest dreams and the like, the critical skills we use to deal with the humdrum and mundane go right out the window.
Use what you already know works in other areas. For example, on fear number one above, I literally practiced my song over one hundred times. I knew that when I got up there, it was very likely that I was not going to mess up, and if I did I had a strategy of what to do.
After practicing that much, one thing I started to notice made me feel better. I could literally imagine the whole song in my head. The composition. The notes. The lyrics. It was a pretty simple song and the ability to just call it to memory really decreased any fear that I would forget how to perform it.
By that point, I already had accepted in my life that there were ways to decrease fear, but at that point it was no longer an abstract concept. I could actually feel the fear decreasing.
The question is what steps you need to take to weaken fear.
The game plan I constructed was as follows:
- Play for one person first to start to get an idea of what it would be like to play in front of other people.
- Post an original song online
- Practice the song until you know it inside and out
- Imagine yourself doing it and think about all the potential ways it could go
- Set appropriate expectations about what to get out of it
Put your plans into practice
When I first started acting on my gameplan, I had all these fears run through my head. What if the microphone cuts out? What if people can’t hear me? What if no one claps? What if I’m ignored?
With these thoughts, I noticed that they were all about how people would receive the performance. I think one thing that helps is being realistic about what you are going to achieve on your first time doing anything. A lot of times the biggest fears we have are tied to grander dreams or ambitions, and that’s why we weigh so heavily how things that we do are received by others. The problem with that is that when you’re thinking about greatness all your doing is irritating the difference between who you are now and who you want to become. Then you start to feel like you can’t do something because you’re not the best. You are self-aware of your limitations, but not your needs.
The truth is you need to practice. That’s okay. The truth is that you are not great yet. That’s okay. Coming into a fear-facing situation with the expectation of automatic greatness is pure hubris. Instead of thinking about the outcome, focus on the mechanics of what you need to do and lower the existential weight on putting yourself out there.
Stop thinking of fear as a one-punch knockout. Start thinking of it as a battle of attrition.
Practicing my song was not what many people would call “facing your fear” at least not outright. I was not on stage, but when I practiced I did imagine what it would be like to be there doing it. It was not like ripping off the bandaid. It was gradual. It was an exercise.
Outwork your fear
Facing your fear outright is not a requirement. You can change how you feel fear. How you think about fears before you have to just outright face them. When I got there, I felt way less fear than I did the month before. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it fear. I was nervous. In fact, when I walked in the room there was this guitarist finishing his set on the stage and he was just ripping blues licks like Jimmy Hendrix. That set me on edge a lot, but at that point I was in the tunnel of determination. It wasn’t the same experience as I had imagined. I was not fearful of the same things that I was before.
I was so tired of not doing what I wanted to do. If you feel the same, seriously start doing things that will help you get to the point where you quiet the fear your head and make the change that you need to in your life. Fear has stamina, but it can be worn out. It has a half-life that decays in proportion to the number of actions you take to address it.