Why Being Afraid Is the Ultimate Curse
How I recovered from burnout and developed a strategy for conquering fear.
I was in my late twenties when I suffered burnout for the first time.Huddled in the fetal position in the men’s bathroom of my office, I was later diagnosed with depression related to stress, and put on medication. But stress wasn’t the reason for my breakdown; rather, it was a byproduct of the real culprit: fear.
I was scared of everything — clients leaving, competitors stealing market share, my best customer becoming angry at me. But these quite sensible fears, which often inspire entrepreneurs into action during times of demotivation, were just the beginning of a mental vortex that had become my prison.
I would overanalyze my fears, and enter a rabbit hole of implications: a client leaving would mean that more would go, then I would be unable to sustain the business, and would lose my house. My wife would leave me, and I would end up on the street, desolate, broke and alone.
Even as I write this now, it seems ridiculous. But in the moment, I wasn’t spending any time thinking about what I was thinking about. In other words, my thoughts were entirely reactive and I was at the mercy of this insane attitude that plagued my every moment, and controlled my every action.
Everything I did was from a position of fear, and as a result, I was unable to take any bold or even confident action, which frustrated those around me and inhibited me from achieving anything.
It wasn’t until I’d left the business, just before my first child was born, that I sought professional help. I was asked a very simple question by a psychiatrist.
“Are you afraid?”
Nobody had ever asked me that before, at least not without aligning it to a specific circumstance and metaphors such as a roller coaster, fast car or dark alley. It caught me off guard, as all the best questions do, and when I responded, I felt an extraordinary sense of relief.
“What are you afraid of?”
I was starting to cry when I answered the question, and remained inconsolable for the remainder of the session.
It wasn’t that I was sad about being afraid, or that I was reliving past miseries. I was crying because I’d never known what the problem was before, and with one question the source of my misery had been identified.
I’d been told before that was suffering from depression, that I was sad, that I was an artist overworked, that I was overly emotional, that I had become complacent, that I had needed a break. One of my best friends had said I was angry at the world, and that I’d lost my spark. I spent hours thinking about these statements and others, trying to force one of them into making sense, only to be told by family and friends that I was overthinking things.
The answer had been right in front of me all along. Between sessions, I researched and learned strategies for facing fear. Sitting again in the psychiatrist’s office, I clutched a folder full of internet clippings on my knee.
“What’s that for?” the psychiatrist asked.
“I want to put together a strategy for overcoming fear.”
“And that folder will help?”
“It’s research. I’ve been learning about mindset, attitude and confidence. I wanted to get your insights, and put together a timeline and some goals.”
“So you don’t want to be afraid anymore?”
I’ve been saying words that effect in my head all week, and nodded enthusiastically at my new, defining goal.
“How soon? I mean, how soon do you want to get rid of fear?”
“As soon as I can, obviously.”
“Alright then, let’s do that. What are you most afraid of in this world?”
The following conversation took more than 45 minutes. It’s not easy to admit your fear, and even harder to say it aloud when it terrifies you so much that even the thought causes the words to get stuck in your throat. I began with things that scared me a bit, but the psychiatrist wouldn’t let me off the hook and pressed further. I became frustrated; all I wanted to do was stop feeling afraid on a daily basis — not to overcome anything as profound as my ultimate fear. I tried to fool him with other fears, but when I found the one that truly made me shudder, he knew I was telling the truth.
“So you’re scared of heights?”
I couldn’t respond. I don’t know where the fear originated from, but I wasn’t just afraid of extreme heights, if I tried to climb the ladder I would shake uncontrollably.
“If you want to overcome fear as a feeling, you need to face your ultimate fear.” He watched my face contort, and gave me time to think. “What might that look like?” he eventually asked.
He didn’t tell me I needed to skydive, but allowed me to get to that point on my own. After my first jump, I didn’t become a daredevil and I wasn’t confident in every aspect of my life — but I wasn’t afraid anymore. By facing my ultimate fear, I was sending a signal to myself and the world that I wasn’t going to huddle in the corner anymore — that fear would no longer be my core driver. With help, I began looking at the world through optimistic eyes, and seeing opportunity in adversity.
I was wrong about one thing though, my ultimate fear. I wasn’t afraid of heights anywhere near as much as I was afraid to lose.
As a result, I would work long hours and avoid actions that could spur my business forward, if risk was attached. By removing my fear of losing, and embracing the possibility, I began living life on my own terms.
Now, with a successful business, loving family who have been through too much, and experiences I’d never dreamt of, I will never allow myself to fear failure, loss and lack again.
They will control you more than a fear of heights ever will.
Top image courtesy of Unsplash.