Have you ever felt stuck trying to overcome fear? When I first read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as a kid, I was scared for months. See, I’ve always been scared of snakes, and now I had giant, talking, invisible death snakes hiding in the walls to worry about? Thank you for your service, Mrs. Rowling, truly.
This wasn’t an uncommon experience for me though, I was an unusually skittish kid. I was afraid of so many things, never wanted to be alone, always wanted the lights on, wouldn’t go on any ride more intense than It’s a Small World (which is, y’know, all the rest of them). I also had high social anxiety and was a fiendishly picky eater. New things were scary, and scary was bad.
I don’t exactly know why, but somewhere along the way, it all turned for me, and sharply. As I grew up, I started looking for new, scary, and uncomfortable things on purpose.
These days I love horror stories, the darker the better (sometimes I even use them for personal growth tips); there’s no roller coaster I’m not excited to try; and I can’t get enough of the new, strange, and unfamiliar. These things light up my life and create countless new opportunities.
So where did all that fear go? Well, that’s the funny thing: nowhere. It’s been here all along, I just have a wildly different relationship with it now than I once did. It used to rule my life and hold me back from so many things, and now it’s an avenue to untold joy and endless potential.
Here’s all I have learned along my weird, anxious journey along with the practical steps you can take to overcome fear and get unstuck in your own life.
Overcome Fear by First Understanding It
Every emotion has the capacity to be helpful. Even the ones that feel mostly negative are still there for a reason:
- Anger prepares us to fight off potential threats
- Grief guides us through difficult life transitions
- Guilt and Shame teach us how not to repeat past mistakes
- Fear warns us of potential dangers so that we can avoid them
Emotions play an important roles and help motivate us to succeed. But emotions don’t always get it right. Too much of any of these, or simply having one hit at the wrong time, can also cause problems:
- Anger can cause regrettable choices and needless harm
- Grief can lead to hopelessness and depression
- Guilt and Shame make a slippery slope to hating yourself
- Fear can hold us back from things that not only aren’t dangerous, but could even be hugely beneficial to us
Emotions work quickly, which is part of why they are so useful. But quick work is not always accurate work, and can end up being detrimental. To deal with emotions, and in this case to overcome fear, we have to start from this place of understanding.
Fear, like so very many other things, is simply a result of our bodies doing their damndest to keep us alive and well. A lot of the time, that works great. And sometimes, we need to balance it out with a bit of our slower, but far more precise capacity for rational thinking.
And that’s just what we’re going to do.
Your Life, Your Goals, Your Fears
Fear is like a sentry atop a high watchtower. It raises the alarm at the first sight of anything that might be dangerous to you. It’s there to direct your attention, but it’s up to you to assess the threat.
As I mentioned before, I’m afraid of snakes. Many types of snakes can cause me significant harm faster than I can have anything to say about it. While not every snake is dangerous, that fear still checks out and I’m content to listen to my body’s warnings. Jury’s still out on mythical super-snakes (again, Mrs. Rowling, thank you so much for all the lost sleep).
But many fears are false warnings. These fears, particularly those we feel when chasing our goals, making big changes in life, and setting off on new journeys, are the ones that can cause real harm if we fail to push back on them.
You may know some of these as the fear of failure, inadequacy, unpreparedness, or many others. Whatever mask it wears, this is all one overarching worry. All this anxiety is your body’s way of asking “What if it goes wrong? What if you’re not ready? What if you are ready but you still suck at it?”
Success is Waiting for You to Overcome Fear
It does make some sense where this comes from. We’re talking about big-time hopes and dreams here, like moving to a new city, changing your career path, asking someone to spend their life with you.
All these things have a lot of emotion wrapped up in them, like hope and excitement. But where there are high hopes, there is always potential for them to be dashed by unfortunate events. Fear doesn’t want us to have our dreams crushed, so it tries to keep us where we are, where it’s safe.
It’s normal to feel fear holding you back from major steps forward like these. But when something really matters to you, the only way to overcome fear is to intentionally choose the possible pain of it not going perfectly, rather than the guaranteed pain of never even trying.
Making big changes and inviting new things into your life isn’t always easy, but letting all your chances pass you by leads to nothing but regret. Assess the risks and take the first step. Take yourself from 0 to 1, and I promise you won’t regret it.
Taking this step will not remove fear from your life. The good news is, it doesn’t have to. This step will get you moving forward again, but we still need one more piece of the puzzle to fully overcome fear.
The Only Way to Finally Overcome Fear is to Adapt to It
Overcoming an obstacle doesn’t always mean crushing or defeating it.
wEbsTeRS diCtiOnARy DeFInEs To overcome simply means to succeed in dealing with a problem or difficulty.
To succeed in dealing with fear certainly doesn’t mean to get rid of it. Being able to feel fear is a good thing, remember? The snakes and all that? Overcoming fear and getting unstuck in life is a matter of working with that emotion, not against it.
We’ve established that fear is our basic warning system for potential dangers, and that sometimes we need our analytical brain to step in, punch in the code for the alarm, and say “nah, that’s okay. Don’t worry about that.” That helps us get past the fear, but doesn’t turn it off. We still feel it, which can be pretty unpleasant.
See how I said “can be” unpleasant? That’s because it doesn’t have to be. You have little choice in your physiological response to a stimulus, but plenty of choice in how you interpret it. As health psychologist Kelly McGonigal demonstrated in her fascinating TED talk, stress is only problematic to those who view it as such.
The physical “symptoms” of stress or fear, like a raised heart rate, flushed skin, and faster breathing are all ways of getting your brain and body ready for action. You know what else does that? Excitement.
Time to Get Uncomfortable
It’s a fine line, if there even is one, between fear and excitement. Many things that people enjoy, like roller coasters, video games, and horror movies, tap into this sensation. Are roller coasters frightening and dangerous, or are they thrilling? There’s not really much difference, except whether you choose to take a negative or positive view of the experience.
This is not me trying to convince you to like roller coasters. They’re not for everybody. But when it comes to overcoming fear, be that of roller coasters or anything else, you have far more power than you may realize.
When you are able to separate the emotion of fear from its physical component, you’ve unlocked the door between you and a whole world of fun, excitement, growth, and possibilities. That world is your discomfort zone.
With some deliberate questioning and a bit of practice, you can overcome all of the fearful voices in your head holding you back from going after your goals with full intensity. And then you’ll be able to not just move forward, but turn that sensation into the very thing that makes it so satisfying to crush those goals.