Well believe it or not, but we are doing this all the time. On a daily basis we are often unknowingly creating and living with the experience of fear, particularly in our professional lives. So, this month we shine a light on fear and face up to those unspoken and unconscious worries that might be holding us back. The great news is that fear isn’t fixed: we can change our response to fear by becoming conscious of the mechanisms behind the fear response. Join us as we cross edges, step in and create exciting new possibilities by making friends with fear. To use the wonderful words of Maslow: “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” What would your life look like if you stepped into fear? Well, there’s only one way to find out…
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear”
– Nelson Mandela
We may believe that our fears are unique to us, yet in reality your fears are much more commonplace than you might think. Among the top workplace fears are the fear of losing your job, the fear of looking stupid, the fear of being yelled at, the fear of stepping on toes and the fear of being a know-it-all. But topping them all is: the fear of speaking up. Sound familiar? Many of us will recognise some of these workplace fears whilst others might not believe that they are particularly bothered by any of the above. But sometimes our behaviours give away the fact that we are unknowingly being driven by a deep fear. These behaviours are what we like to call the 9 faces of fear and they indicate that our fear has been triggered. You may recognise some of them. They are:
1. Not giving 100%
9. Lack of completion
In isolation these manifestations of fear may be harmless and possibly useful in certain situations. Issues only arise when these states of fear become our day-to-day default modes of operating and perhaps even our only modes of operating. When we are living in a constant state of fear we contribute to a culture of fear, which limits potential for growth, creates unacceptable behaviour, reduces productivity and creativity, demotivates and discourages individuals and teams, leads to poor communication and drives stress.
So, how can we stop fear from running our lives and negatively affecting our families, teams and wider communities? By understanding what is being triggered. When we become aware of our fear-based behaviours and thought patterns, we awaken the power of conscious choice.
At 4D we use a model called the pyramid of fear to separate the different layers of fear and to illustrate how fear shows up in our body, brain and beliefs. At the very base of that pyramid- the foundation underneath the various levels of fear- lies four simple words “I can’t handle it.” Susan Jeffers, psychologist and author of ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ argues that maybe we can handle quite a lot more than we believe. And what’s the best way of strengthening this belief? By handling things that you didn’t believe you could handle. When you “‘handle it’ self-esteem is raised considerably. You learn to trust that you will survive, no matter what happens. And in this way your fears are diminished immeasurably.” (Susan Jeffers)
“Thinking will not overcome fear but action will”
– W. Clement Stone
At the very top of our fear pyramid is the body. The tip of the iceberg so to speak as this segment focuses on the surface level signs of fear that show up physically. Can we really change the way our body responds to fear? Yes, and believe it or not – no special equipment or training is required. All you need is your breath.
Fear kicks off our flight or fight response, an automatic and involuntary reaction activated by a deep and ancient part of the brain. When activated, our heart rate goes up, blood pressure increases and the body floods with adrenaline. All of which are incredibly useful if we’re walking alone in the dark and hear footsteps behind us or historically, if we’re being chased by a tiger, as it stops us from thinking and simply gets us ready to defend ourselves or to run away. However, this isn’t so useful if it’s triggered by a stressful meeting at work.
The good news is that our response to fear isn’t fixed: we can train our body to respond to fear differently. One of the easiest ways of reprogramming your internal operating system is by tuning into the breath. You’ve probably heard- and perhaps even said- the following phrase during a stressful situation: take a deep breath. Now this is helpful as long as that deep inhalation is followed by a long and slow exhalation (we want to avoid inhaling and holding the breath because this can lead to overbreathing!) So, counting the breath is a much more useful tool (and mantra) to use during stressful situations as it creates a slow and deep breathing cycle, which sends a signal to our brain that we are safe. As a result, the body returns to a more balanced state. Through working with the breath, we can regulate ourselves and get ourselves back to our optimal zone of functioning – what Psychiatry professor Dr Daniel J. Siegel and trauma therapist Pat Ogden Phd call our ‘Window of Tolerance.’ So, the next time you find yourself in a stressful meeting, “breath in for 4 and out for 4“…and open up your Window of Tolerance. You’ll find it much easier to solve the situation with a clear, calm head.
“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are your own fears”
– Rudyard Kipling
The second layer of our fear pyramid uncovers the stories we tell ourselves about our fears. When we are in a state of fear the stories running through our minds can hugely distort and exaggerate the threat in front of us. I’m sure many of you have experienced the effect of a ‘runaway thought train’ (credit to our fab clients Ginny and El for this term!) It’s when one small- and seemingly innocent- thought builds into a full-blown disaster narrative. The catastrophizing train of thoughts creates a whole reality in our heads about something that hasn’t happened and probably never will. However, your brain doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined experiences. This is why you may find yourself jumping when watching a horror film, because your brain doesn’t register the difference between your reality (sitting in your living room) and the imagined reality in front of you (a full-blown zombie apocalypse!)
Neuroscientist and meditation expert, Dr. Joe Dispenza, believes that these negative thought cycles are stopping us from reaching our full potential and are ultimately making us sick. Whilst all animals can cope with a degree of fear and stress (for example, a deer running away from a fox will experience stress and fear as it tries to escape but once it’s safe, the response will be turned off and the deer will return to a balanced state), no animal can survive in a long-term, constant state of stress and fear. When our fear response is turned on and never turned off we are heading for disease. “So, our thoughts make us sick. But that means our thoughts can make us well” (Joe Dispenza).
If you think about a future event- your body doesn’t know the difference between the conjured idea and reality. So, most people are constantly reaffirming their fears and emotional states from past events in their life.
However, the same is true for future events. If you close your eyes, cultivate present awareness and mentally rehearse an action, your brain won’t know the difference between the imagined future and reality. For example, if you are one of the many people who are fearful of public speaking, you might imagine a different reality for an upcoming presentation, one in which you are feeling confident and self-assured. By doing this you are in a sense installing “new neurological hardware into your brain”, to look like the event has already occurred. Suddenly the brain is no longer just “a record of the past” but “a map to the future” (Joe Dispenza). So, the question is: what do you want your future to look like? What fears are you finally willing to let go of and leave behind?
“Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change”
– Jim Rohn
And so we come to the 3rd layer of fear: our beliefs. This is where we find our deepest and darkest fears. Fundamentally, this is what we believe about ourselves. Therapist and author Marisa Peer, believes that the fear of not being “enough” is “the biggest disease affecting humanity.” If we open this up we find the 4 main fears that sit at the core of our identities:
1. Am I competent?
2. Am I a good person?
3. Will I be the best?
4. Will I be liked?
Which one of these is often playing out in your life? The thought of not being liked? Or not being considered a good and worthy person? You may associate with one in particular (mine is usually around being the best!)
If any of these fears are triggered it can feel very frightening and threatening because our sense of self – who we are and what we believe about ourselves- can feel under attack. Guilt, anger and humiliation are signals of this and they can be deeply uncomfortable. Think back to the 9 faces of fear and the behaviours we tend to display. These are simply manifestations of these deep-set fears and they are ways we try to keep ourselves in our comfort zone.
And that is the one of the greatest challenges for us as human beings. We are driven to keep our identity safe and our fears hidden. To stay with what’s known and familiar. But of course, by keeping ourselves safe, we also keep ourselves stuck and this makes it very difficult to step in and start creating new patterns in our lives…
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear”
– Jack Cornfield
Which brings us to the very base of our fear pyramid: “I can’t handle it!” When we work down through the layers of the fear pyramid, we can flip our response to fear and transform an ‘I can’t’ into ‘I can.’
Remember, even the fear of ‘I can’t handle it’ is simply a narrative you have created. You have no proof that you can’t handle it unless you step in. Whether it’s speaking up at work, asking for a promotion or even one of the big, frightening curveballs that life can throw us – you can handle it. It might not be easy but we can all handle a lot more than we believe.
So, what limiting beliefs are stopping you from stepping in, pushing boundaries and realising your unbounded potential? Can you lean in with a curiosity instead of running away with regret? Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Big Magic’, believes that this is the key for “creative living” because a creative life is “any life that is driven more strongly by creativity that it is by fear.” So, let’s stop fear from ruling our lives by stepping in with curiosity, conscious intentionality and with the knowledge that we can, in fact, handle a lot more than we might think! Who knows what’s possible if we “travel in the direction of our fear” (John Berryman).