It was early, and I was sitting with my eyes closed and hands open-palmed in my lap, trying to snatch a few minutes of meditation before my talk.
“Are you ok James?” someone asked, looking concerned.
All I could do was nod and say “Yeah”.
Really though, my stomach felt like it was having an argument with itself, and I didn’t want to be there.
A few hours later I was backstage with the tech crew, and the audience was just out of sight around a curtain. I was up next. About to give a talk about writing, something I have no formal qualifications in, and have only being doing for a few years. Ha!
At that moment, there was only one thought running through my head though:
“I’m excited to be doing this, I’m excited to be doing this, I’m excited….”
If that sounds odd, keep reading and I’ll explain why.
Normally I tell myself that I’m scared of lots of things. Scared of writing that next blog post, or presenting a website I’ve designed to a client.
But “scared” isn’t really the right choice of word. There’s no immediate danger in any of these scenarios—just a psychological fear of something that might happen. That someone might criticise my work, or laugh at me, or just not get it.
Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry — all forms of fear — are caused by too much future, and not enough presence.
It’s cliche, but only because it’s true: most of the things that we worry about never happen.
I’ve had times when my freelance work dried up and I wasn’t sure where next month’s rent would come from. But I didn’t end up homeless. Instead, a bunch of freelance opportunities came along a week later, and everything was hunky-dory.
None of the other stuff I worry about happens either.
The next time you find yourself thinking you’re “too scared” to do something, pause for a moment.
Is your life at risk? Could you be in physical danger?
If you’re reading this, probably not… You’ve got a safe place to sleep at night. Food in your belly. Clean water to drink. And all the other privileges of living in the modern world.
We don’t do the whole “living in caves and hunting wild animals” thing much these days.
But for the caveman, fear was an essential response mechanism.
Was that rustle in the bushes a lion? Or just the wind? Evolution has hard-wired us to be safe rather than sorry.
So we have to make a conscious effort to walk towards things that we feel afraid of.
When’s the last time you felt really afraid?
Think back to how your body felt in that moment.
Maybe someone snuck up behind you as a joke and shouted “Boo!” Or maybe you stepped out onto the road and then back again just in the knick of time, as a truck thundered past.
It’s hard to describe fear in words, but everyone knows what it feels like.
Your heart thumps against your chest.
You breathe faster than normal.
Your stomach goes crazy.
And you feel hyper-focussed on the world around you.
All of which is very different from everyday anxiety.
The sudden re-arrangement of your guts when an intruder holds a knife to your back (fear), is different from the mild nausea, dizziness and butterflies in your stomach as you’re about to make a difficult phone call (anxiety).
—Harriet Lerner, Psychology Today
The choice is yours—be scared, or be excited
Imagine you’ve got to do something next month that really freaks you out.
Maybe it’s standing up in a room full of people to give a speech. Maybe it’s performing on stage. Maybe it’s presenting your research findings at work.
Your train of thought (or rather, your train of feeling), might look like this:
Nerves —> Fear —> Panic
First of all, you look ahead and imagine the thing you’re dreading. You think about all the stuff that could go wrong. This makes you feel nervous as hell. Then, when the moment itself arrives, the adrenalin kicks in and you feel afraid. And perhaps if you’re really unfortunate, this develops into a moment of sheer panic.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
You have to believe that things will work out for the best
Let’s be clear.
I don’t mean “fake it until you make it”.
But something simpler…
Gently remind yourself that everything’s going to be all right.
Because 99.9% of the time, it will be.
Which means that your train of feeling could look like this:
Anticipation —> Excitement —> Exhilaration
You might be wondering “Wait a second, how do I turn something which scares the crap out of me into something exciting?”
I don’t have the answer.
Science does though.
Here’s the amazing thing…
Fear and excitement feel the same to our bodies
Whether we’re feeling afraid or excited, the same thing happens — our bodies release adrenaline.
When explaining this to patients, I’ll usually start by describing what happens in the body when we are excited or exhilarated: adrenalin starts pumping. This serves to focus your attention on the pleasurable circumstance by heightening the senses, encouraging your body and mind to continue moving towards the pleasure…. Fear also causes adrenaline to be secreted, so that in situations of actual danger, your senses will be on high alert, enabling you to quickly engage in a fight or flight response.
How to use fear to your advantage
You’ve heard the stories about famous actors. Even decades into their careers, when being on stage should be second nature, they’re still backstage before every show, puking their guts out.
The fear never goes away.
So we have to learn how to use it…
Fear is excitement without breath
The next time it feels like fear taking a hold of you, try to breathe with it.
And breathe out…
And breathe out…
Step towards the fear.
When I was backstage at that conference, this is why I told myself that I was excited.
I knew that once I got going, I’d enjoy being on stage. And I knew that I’d make all kinds of new connections as a result. (Mostly because the last time I’d given a talk—and spoken honestly about my life—it had been unexpectedly enjoyable).
Try this: instead of telling yourself that you’re afraid, tell yourself that you’re excited.
Who doesn’t want a little more excitement in life?
Living in an imaginary future is much more dangerous.
That’s why fear is a good thing. It snaps our attention back to the present moment, and to the world around us.
Try to be fear-fuelled, not fearless.
A closing note about another kind of fear
If you’ve done any reading on procrastination, you’re probably already familiar with the concept of “fear of success”.
Procrastination, self-sabotage, the feeling that you don’t deserve success, the fear of selling out. The painful list of symptoms goes on and on…
(“Fear of success” is in my arsenal of excuses too, by the way).
What if there was a different way of framing this fear?
One which creates benefits for other people as well as you?
This quote comes from a spiritual perspective, but don’t let that put you off…
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
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