Fear is a part of everyday life. Read that again. Fear is part of everyday life. It’s always lurking around, threatening us, horrifying us, on bad days crippling us, and on good days simply annoying us. There are the mega fears—both real and imaginary: that someone is following you when you walk alone at night or that you might be killed by a terrorist the next time you go to the mall or a movie. More common are little nagging fears that keep you awake at night, eat away at you, and prevent you from experiencing the day around you. How do we work through all of these sources of anxiety?
Personally, I haven’t found one all-purpose answer. But, what seems to ring true for most situations is that you have to challenge yourself to do things that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. For me, this approach helps me wake up, calm down, and extend myself. In the past ten years I’ve noticed that physically challenging tasks are the ones that cause the most visceral fear reactions for me: seeing my fears, my seeming limitations, and questioning how I can go beyond what I think I can do.
I often refer to my daughter as my personal trainer, because she convinces me to go for hikes and other outdoor adventures that force me outside of my comfort zone. When I go for a hike with her, it’s usually twice as long as my normal limit, and it often takes me over terrain that is more varied and challenging than I “like.” I’m not like an antelope jumping from rock to rock. I’m more like a turtle with a waddle, trying to climb a hill.
I’ve learned to breathe through most of these adventures, when to take a break, and when to push on. I’ve also found that a moment of uncertainty or fear brings instant focus on the present. And the fear that grabs at me when I face the first physical challenge on the trail—well, I’ve often seen that fade and transform into a feeling of bravery and accomplishment.
So, I recommend the uncomfortable as a way to learn to work with fear. It can be a physical challenge, as described above, or leaning into a relationship or an uncomfortable interpersonal space. As the Stranger in the Big Lebowski says, “Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes, well, he eats you. “ You don’t always win, in other words, but you learn as much from the mistakes as from the triumphs. And fear will always give you more chances on the path of life.
To help get cozier with the uncomfortable, and even the downright fear-inducing parts of life, try this:
- Approach your fears with a bit of tough love. The tough part is that you don’t give up on yourself or the task at hand at the first sign of difficulty. Unless you have hit a life-threatening precipice, you can press on a little—even if it’s a tiny little step forward. Like the children’s story of the Little Engine that Could, tell yourself: I think I can, I think I can. Then take another step and see how it goes.
- Appreciate that you have shown up. The love part of tough love is that you have won by just showing up. So be kind to yourself. You may not conquer your fear, but you make some inroads forward. Celebrate that, and next time press on a little further.
- Meditate and observe your fears. Mindfulness meditation provides a safe space in which your fears can arise. See them come and go, breathe them out, breathe them in. The more familiar they become, the less power they have to control you. At some point you may even be able to sit with your fears and smile at them.
Carolyn’s article “Face Fear and Keep Going” appeared in the April issue of Mindful Magazine.