Fear is perhaps the greatest stumbling block to success and happiness that exists today. It keeps people (myself included) mired in stagnation and mediocrity. Thereby, defeating fear is of paramount importance.
The following are the most effective methods that my experience and study have taught me in overcoming fear. Hopefully they will be of assistance to you as well:
1. Accept Fear and Embrace It
Fear is something we all have. It is a naturally evolved mechanism that, at times, serves us well. Today however, in advanced, modern societies it tends to be counterproductive and even debilitating.
Understanding that everyone deals with fear about a whole range of things is the first key insight. No one is alone in this battle. It would seem that every time a famous or successful person opens up, they talk about the fears they had along the way. For example, Warren Buffet admitted he was “terrified” of public speaking and Lebron James admitted to having a severe “fear of failure.”
In addition to recognizing that fear is universal to humanity, it is also helpful to try to identify what particular issue is causing the fear. Most seem to boil down to either a fear of the unknown or a fear of criticism. Isolating the causes of fear can by itself help dispel them because many, once stated explicitly, become visibly absurd.
But we should go even further and embrace our fear. As Susan Jeffers notes in her fantastic book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyways, “The fear will never go away as long as [you] continue to grow” (pg. 22). This is because, as mentioned above, one of the greatest fears is that of the unknown. And thereby, whenever you’re doing something new or reaching a new level in your career, life or relationships, it will be scary.
Therefore, fear is often a good thing, a sign that you are growing or taking on something new. So seek after it and embrace it.
2. Lean Just Outside of Your Comfort Zone
“The only sure way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it” Susan Jeffers tells us. (Feel the Fear and Do It Anyways, pg. 23). And she is absolutely right. We can all think of things that were tarrying when we first did them (the high dive, roller coasters, etc.) but now don’t give us a second thought.
However, taking on what can seem like the whole world all at once is an overwhelming task sure to crush someone’s courage in a heartbeat. The key to defeating fear and building courage is simply to take one step at a time.
So, if you have a fear of public speaking, don’t try to give a massive presentation to a packed audience right out of the gate. The fear will almost certainly paralyze you and defeat the whole project. Instead, join Toastmasters or something to that effect. Then once you have become comfortable with that, you can take the next step.
A famous saying goes that “comfort makes cowards of us all.” So don’t let yourself get comfortable! Try to constantly stay just outside of your comfort zone. Live in that state. Embrace that state. That way you are pushing yourself further without the risk of becoming overwhelmed.
3. Remind Yourself of the Context
My father once told me that 99 percent of things you worry about don’t come true. That may not be technically accurate, but it sounds about right. And even for those fears that do come true, they are usually not nearly as bad as they originally seem. Indeed, from my experience, it’s usually unexpected things that blindside us that cause most of life’s problems, not the things we are incessantly worrying about.
Most people (myself included) get too wrapped up in the minutia of everyday life that we forget to look at the bigger picture. We become attached to and mentally exhausted by all of this baggage. Brian Tracey, in his excellent book Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life, mentions that “The great spiritual teachers, such as Buddha and Jesus, have emphasized the importance of separating yourself emotionally from the situation (disidentification), in order to regain your calmness and composure.” (Pg. 24)
Separating ourselves from the situation and even the potential outcomes can help a lot. Compared to the size and history of the universe, we are rather insignificant. While that may sound disheartening, it also means our problems and fears are rather insignificant as well.
Even our own mortality can be viewed in a way to alleviate fear. As one popular Youtuber noted “we all die” and that once we accept this, all we need to ask is “Will this thing you’re afraid of matter in 300 years?” Once you really start to think about it, in all likelihood, it probably won’t even matter next week.
One of the biggest, most consistent fears is the fear of being judged, criticized or ridiculed. I would say it’s almost universal in our society. This fear makes us seek out after mediocrity as 1) risk can lead to failure which can be ridiculed and 2) success or uniqueness breeds attention, which can lead to criticism. After all, try to name one famous person who isn’t being criticized nearly all of the time.
Accepting that criticism is universal is the first step to overcome this fear, but being honest is also of the utmost importance. Living a life in the shadows creates a sort of paranoia; “what if I get found out?” However, if people already know, then there’s nothing to be found out and thereby nothing to fear. If you made some mistake, admit it quickly and fully. Generally, people can’t even be bothered to care.
And I would go even further. Demand that your friends, family, supervisors, colleagues and subordinates give you honest feedback and give it to them as well. Don’t merely accept polite platitudes that allow us to maintain a comfortable and oblivious mediocrity.
5. Personal Rules and Practice
Thinking and making decisions can be exhausting. Sometimes you just need to give yourself simple rules to follow in certain situations. For example, one of the best proposed rules I’ve heard and started to use was from Brian Tracey in the book listed above,
“There is a rule that I have learned from experience: Never do or refrain from doing something because you are concerned about what people might think about you. The fact is that nobody is even thinking about you at all.” (Change Your Thinking; Change Your Life, pg. 26)
Rules like this should be automatic and can defeat fears before they even come up. Of course, we have to remember that practice makes perfect (although, as already mentioned, fear never goes away nor should you want it to). Along the way, mistakes are to be expected. In fact, like fear, mikstakes are often signs that we are growing and trying new things. As former IBM CEO Thomas Watson said, “If you want to succeed, double your rate of failure.”
If you are ready for some advanced fear-crushing exercises, check out the challenges Timothy Ferris gives in his book The Four Hour Work Week. Or make up some challenges for yourself, such as starting a conversation with someone on the bus or try traveling abroad.
And if all else fails, just read this quote from Theodore Roosevelt, which I always find helpful:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”