Published January 29, 2009 at MaketheDaysCount.com.
When the thought of writing about conquering fears first entered my mind, I figured I would probably be the least qualified to write about such a thing. I am no psychologist or guru, and I worry about even the silliest things – a trait I inherited from other generations of women in my family.
When I was young, I had their fear of storms. Even as a child, I worried about my loved ones, innocently making false promises to my favorite doll and teddy bear that I would save them if they were in danger – a promise I could not keep when our house burned down while I was at school. As I grew up, I was afraid of driving, pumping gas, getting a job, and to this day I still worry if things are turned off and unplugged when I leave the house.
It isn’t a simple matter of being afraid.
There are what I describe as “death scenarios” that constantly play out in my mind. Some of them might not actually involve death – like the fear that other people are watching me critically to see if I do something wrong – but some do. One example I often refer to is the scenario that plays out in my mind when I’m following a log-truck on the highway. In it, one of the logs in the load is not fit tightly into the straps or against the other logs, and ends up flying straight back and through the windshield like a straw into an orange on an orange juice commercial.
Lay Your Fears Outside Yourself
I know that the logs are strapped down to the log truck tightly, and that the people who loaded them and the driver of the truck are aware that if they didn’t do their job properly, other lives would be at stake. I also know that if the straps did loosen, it would be likely that the logs would unroll and tumble off the sides of the truck, hitting the ground on either side before bouncing back at me. There’s also something called inertia that keeps that truck and the logs on it moving at the same speed, and one log is not going to dislodge and suddenly stop moving in the same direction in order to fly backwards into my car or hold still for me to hit it. Not only that, but if I were in danger there would likely be a warning sign that I could spot.
Think about your fear, and then externalize it.
Take it out of your mind and put it out into the world where there is all sort of logic to debunk it. If you keep your fears within you, and dwell on them, there they’ll stay; but when you compare them to things in the world that make good sense, those fears will lose their power.
Put Your Fears in Perspective
When I was a kid, I would be ready to head for the cellar if the wind blew funny. My fear of storms lead to a curiosity about tornadoes, and I began to check out books from the library about the destruction tornadoes left behind – things that I had never actually seen, but could still fear, since a small tornado or two swept by now and then.
Then I learned about people who chase tornadoes, and understood in a small way how they worked, and suddenly that tornado didn’t seem like the frightening end of the world that it had the potential to be. It seemed like something I could prepare for and live through.
After I graduated high school I moved to L.A. and lived through a few small earthquakes. I was going to school with people from all over the world, and one day a fellow classmate said that they would be terrified to live in the Midwest, where there are “all those tornadoes.” Of course, to me, the Midwest was not defined by the weather – it was home. And why should I be afraid of weather but not earthquakes?
When you find you have a valid fear about something, compare it to something else you’ve done or lived through that is equally or even more dangerous. Better yet, make it positive and think about all of your triumphs and accomplishments – living through natural disasters, rebuilding your life, having children, surviving a crash, fighting for your country, or helping others get through similar situations and seeing first hand that life can go on.
Identify Your True Fear
In certain circles it is taught that there are only a few real motivations for people’s behaviors, and that no one acts without motivation. In acting school we were taught to ask ourselves, “Why?” The trick to asking yourself this question is not to find the answer, but to get to the absolute, bottom-line, root of the thought process and base of the story. Don’t stop at the first answer. Take the answer and ask, “Why that?” and continue to ask until you can’t anymore.
Many fears, such as a fear of driving or natural disaster, can be traced to a fear of death or not existing. Many people are not afraid of dying as much as being afraid of leaving unfinished business or letting go of something that they are irrationally attached to.
My fear of pumping gas was a fear of being scrutinized by people who might see me. I was afraid they would talk about me – about something I might do wrong or embarrass myself with. I was afraid of a tarnished reputation and letting my guard down. In the end, that was just a fear of being myself.
Fear exists to help us survive. It is a basic “fight or flight” instinct that has survived within us as mankind has evolved. Fear is not meant to be kept around indefinitely. It is meant to help us survive in the moment and then be put to rest.
Fear exists in order to end fear; and in order to end it, you must identify it, tell yourself the truth about why you are afraid, and then stop internalizing that fear by seeing it from the outside – looking at it logically and realizing you have the power, the strength, and the mind not only to survive, but conquer the fear itself.