A simple process for mastering your fears
Kansas City, September 2014, several hours after a speech: I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.
I’m at a concert by myself. I don’t love going to events on my own, but I don’t know anyone in Kansas City either, so it’s either chill out in my hotel room all night, or go explore the world solo. Plus one of my favorite musicians, Lykee Li, is in town and I have a ticket to her show…
Recently, a woman I had been seeing broke the news that I was the man on the side; she had a serious boyfriend the whole time we were together with no intention of leaving him (not that it would matter; you can’t build a healthy relationship on a foundation of compromised trust). That was a fun conversation.
Being totally single still feels a bit odd to me.
Standing right next to me at the concert, waiting for Lykee Li to go on, is this stunning woman who looks to be about my age, and also appears to be alone.
I feel like I have two options, and neither one is terribly desirable:
Option 1: say, “Hi” to this woman, and see what happens. This is appealing because it opens the possibility of some sort of human connection with a cute stranger. But it also requires that I put my ego on the line because I’m opening myself to rejection and a potentially awkward experience.
Option 2: don’t say, “Hi” to the woman. This is appealing because it doesn’t put my ego at risk, but if I go this route, I know I’ll be beating myself up later on for not taking a chance.
I’ll come back to that in a second….
No one ever tells you this…
No one ever explicitly states this, so let me make it clear: your success in life is governed by your ability to leave your comfort zone and master your fear.
If you can’t leave your comfort zone, your life will never progress past where you are right now.
Most of the time when people think of leaving their comfort zone, they think of just leaping straight out. Of going all in. Of creating a do or die situation that forces them into action.
And honestly, I used to be an advocate of that approach in both word and action. But there’s a problem: long term it doesn’t work, short term it’s terrifying, and in many situations it’s gawky.
The real way to leave your comfort zone and master your fears is through reflection and calculated baby steps.
To Master Your Fears…
Start with reflection. Ask yourself:
- “What happens if I do nothing?”
- “What is the worst case scenario and how likely is it?”
- “How can I reduce the chance of the worst case scenario occurring?”
- “If the worst case scenario occurs, how can I bounce back?”
After you’ve spent a bit of time reflecting, then you have to decide: am I going to take on this fear, or am I going to learn to live within it?
Personally, I live within some of my fears. I’m terrified of sky diving, and for now, I’m fine with that. It looks fun, but I could have a full life even if I never jumped out of a plane.
But I work hard to master the fears that stand in the way of achieving my dreams. I want to be around amazing people, so I work through social anxiety. I want to build businesses that influence the world, so I work through the fear of failure. I want to see our planet first hand, so I deal with the fear of leaving the beaten path.
Lets say that you’re considering moving from New York City where you work in finance and aren’t happy, to Austin, TX so you can chase your dream of becoming a self employed artist, but you’re afraid of making a big change. The analysis would be:
What if I do nothing? Then I’ll remain unhappy as a finance person in NYC. If I want to find happiness, I’ll have to find some other source besides my work or city.
What is the worst-case scenario and how likely is it? I move to Austin, fail to make friends, burn through my savings, and need to get a job at a coffee shop or something like that to support myself. How likely is this? Well, it depends on the person, but this is fairly unlikely if you’re methodical about your work and social life.
How can I reduce the chance of the worst-case scenario? This is fairly easy. To avoid being friendless, join a rec sports league or take a class you’re interested in, and be proactive about hanging out with the people.
To avoid running out of money, start saving now, scale back your lifestyle, and get a part time job while you’re working on your business.
How could I bounce back from the worst-case scenario? Different ways for different people. Get an entry-level job. Crash with a friend or your brother while you get back on your feet. Move back in with your parents, if needed.
Then, slowly but surely, chip away at your fears
In the past, psychologists used to help people overcome their fears by hyper exposing them to the fear stimulus.
In other words, if you were afraid of snakes, they’d lock you in a room with tons of snakes, forcing you to confront your fears. This is called flooding and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t really work.
What does work is slowly chipping away at your fears with baby steps. Afraid of snakes? Start off by looking at one in a pet store. Then touch one in a pet store the next week. Then hold one that your friend owns. And so on…
If you’re thinking of moving from NYC to Austin and changing careers along the way, quitting your job and packing the van right now, would be the equivalent of flooding. It’s so damn bold and disruptive that most people – myself included – couldn’t do it. That approach will forever hold you suspended in unsatisfied desire.
A far better approach is to be slow and calculating, leaving your comfort zone a little bit each day.
Start off by working on your art business during the nights and weekends while you’re in NYC. Spend time each week studying. Save a bit more than you have been so that you’ll have a cushion when you transition careers.
Pick a date 3-6 months out in the future when you’ll leave for Austin. As the date gets closer, sell everything that you wont be bringing with you. Start looking at apartments online. Try to sell a few pieces of your art inexpensively in NYC to see if you can do it. Say goodbye to NYC.
Slowly but surely, chip away at your fears to create the reality of your dreams. The trick to mastering your fear is to gently leave your comfort zone over time. Even an inch outside of your comfort zone is infinitely better than no forward motion at all.
So, what happened in Kansas City?
In the past, I worked hard to overcome the mild-moderate social anxiety that plagues me and many other people.
Over time, I started slowly leaving my comfort zone. My first exercise with myself, several years ago, was learning to smile at and make eye contact with strangers on the street. By slowly expanding the limits of my comfort zone, I eventually got to the point where I could talk to most people in most situations.
Has the fear of rejection or humiliation in a social situation gone away? Absolutely not. In many cases, fear doesn’t vanish, instead, you learn to gain power over your fear while accepting that it’ll always be somewhat present.
I decided that I’d rather put myself out there, talk to the pretty woman and see what happens, than risk being frustrated with myself for missing a potentially cool opportunity. So I took a deep breath, smiled, and said, “Hi…”
Photo credit: “Halloween Cat” by Silversolo