How mindfulness can help you do things that scare you

One of our many mantras at that Happy Startup School is to thingify your thoughts — turn your idea into a thing, a vision board, a blog post or a lego model. The important thing is to get the stream of interconnected thoughts out of your head and into a form that is easy to share with others. This is the most efficient way to develop our ideas because it invites feedback which can lead to valuable new insights.

Don’t think, do!

We’ve all read the Lean Startup and know the benefits of feedback and iteration. Getting feedback and iterating on an idea means that it can evolve from an idea based on opinion and assumption, to one based on real life data and objective experience. Even though this all makes logical sense, many of us still hesitate from doing it.

I believe one of the main reasons for this is that most of us want to avoid getting negative feedback. The prospect of having our ideas criticised can lead to feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, fear, frustration, overwhelm, stress and vulnerability. All of these unpleasant feelings then build up to create an invisible barrier. And so the idea stays locked inside us and never sees the light of day. Sad times…

Therefore an awareness of how to work with these feelings and learning strategies to overcome them are just as important as knowing Eric Reis’ book inside out.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Feelings are never bad or good, they’re just unpleasant or pleasant. Though they might seem like it, these feelings are not who we are, they are signals telling us that some ‘need’ deep inside of us is either being met or unmet. For instance, when telling a stranger about our startup idea we experience a feeling of vulnerability because our need for safety is not being met. The act of sharing our idea isn’t creating the feeling, it’s our perception of not being safe, which itself could be linked to a fear of being judged.

When we’re clear about the source of the feeling then we can choose the right approach to deal with it. Fundamentally your idea isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that your nervous system has been triggered at a deep level.

Knowing helps, but you’re still feeling the feeling. So, if these feelings hold us back, how do we overcome them?

It’s good to be bored

One way is the process of habituation. Habituation, defined formally, refers to the fact that the nervous system arousal decreases on repeated exposure to the same stimulus. In other words: familiar things get boring. It’s evolutionarily important that familiar things get boring because if every new experience we had stimulated our nervous system in the same way all the time we’d be super stressed and die. It’s quite possible that there were some early ancestors of ours who were scared of everything and never left their cave. Unfortunately they probably starved to death and never found a mate.

You’ve probably experienced habituation regularly in your life. Take your smart phone, when you first bought it you probably thought it was amazing. Over time you got use to it and now you’re looking for a new one. The whole world of advertising is based on this process.

So if we’re evolutionarily designed to habituate to stimuli, why are we always having to remind people to share their ideas? Understandably, but unfortunately, most people attempt to cope with unpleasant feelings by avoiding situations that provoke them. While avoidance itself is a form of protection it also prevents your nervous system from habituating.

On top of that, when you avoid a situation just because it feels unpleasant, you can experience a sense of failure. Your anxiety about that situation then gains strength creating a vicious circle and making it more likely you’ll avoid that situation in the future. Finally, avoidance eliminates practice and without practice it is difficult to gain mastery and without mastery, your confidence takes a hit and the cycle continues…

Think big, start small, feel the fear

So the only way forward is to initially expose yourself to the challenging situation. However, exposure is scary and most people, who don’t know about habituation, expect their fears to escalate indefinitely, but nothing rises indefinitely.

Fear, if you face it, will fade as you habituate. This means we need to stay in the feared situation and stay with the heightened fear response long enough for it to subside.

So how do we stay in the feared situation? Well firstly, try not to do something that scares the sh!t out of you straight away. If you’re scared about your ideas being judged don’t jump straight into a Dragon’s Den pitch. Instead find a related but less threatening way to share your idea and then build from there. Maybe write it out on piece of paper for yourself. Then share it with a trusted friend. I recommend joining a safe and kind community like our Happy Startups and sharing it there.

The mindfulness advantage

At each step of this habituating process you’re going to be experiencing fear, so cultivating a mindful approach to trying new things is going to really help.

Mindfulness of a fearful situation is the capacity to identify and observe unpleasant thoughts and feelings in the here-and-now and responding to them more reflectively instead of reactively.

It’s not about getting getting comfortable with being uncomfortable but accepting that discomfort is there.

Accepting your discomfort, be it worry or anxiety, and not fighting it or trying to have complete control of it, is a concept used in everyday mindfulness training.

When we let go in small increments and allow ourselves to be present in the discomfort for brief periods of time, we start to habituate to the feelings. Over time, we start to take on bigger challenges as your fear levels diminish. And finish that paragraph saying ‘In this way, your confidence grows in all sorts of areas. Not just in your work. You create a positive cycle. Through habituation our brains get used to the fear and the fear then decreases in strength. We then build emotional tolerance and are able to deal with stress better.

On a psychological level, when we confront our fears instead of avoiding them we build a sense of accomplishment and empowerment. Every time we confront the fear we gain power while our anxiety loses strength. Slowly we realise we can cope with situations that were, previously, too scary.

On a behavioural level, confronting our fear repeatedly helps develop skills and mastery. Mastery decreases our chance of failure and so…we worry less!

Finally, this exposure approach is particularly useful on an emotional level. It turns out the problem isn’t fear itself but the fear of fear. Most people who fear public speaking, selling or pitching know that these situations aren’t dangerous. What they are afraid of is the sensation of fear. Being mindful of this fear and where it comes from means you not only learn to habituate to the sensation, but you also start to improve your emotional literacy — learning how to identify and live with other unpleasant emotions.

In summary, trying something new is scary. And that fear can over-activate your nervous system. So break it down into embarrassingly tiny steps, and mindfully have a go. Trust that the fear will diminish through the process of habituation. This process will boost your confidence, build your self-esteem and you’ll find yourself thingifying your ideas into action.

If you’re into mindfulness check out our friend Shamash Alidina and his website.

If you want to thingify an idea you have for a business then you should check out our Happy Startup eBook.