In the past few months, I have had several conversations with various people about workplace fears and fears in different life situations. All these conversations happened independently of each other. Many of my discussion partners confessed that they have given up one or another goal or activity because of the fear they have experienced. Some wished they would not fear certain events or situations; others were unsure how to handle their fears.
These discussions made me think about fear, about my relationship with it. It also made me explore why do I see fear as an invitation rather than a hindrance. This post summarises those discussions and my thoughts and experiences with fears at work and in life.
According to Wikipedia, fear is an emotion induced by perceived danger or threat. It causes psychological and behavioural changes, such as mounting an aggressive response or fleeing the threat. In difference to anxiety, fear focuses on a specific threat or event. In contrast, anxiety comes from an unknown or poorly defined threat.
On personal and professional levels, we experience fears whenever we face unknown situations. I probably have been exposed to more unfamiliar situations at my job than some of my discussion counterparts. Such frequent exposure, combined with the ambition to excel at my job and the natural inclination to self-analysis, have helped me to befriend fear and use it as a tool to recognise opportunities.
The very first step in managing your fears is being aware you have them. Funny enough, many people don’t consciously analyse the emotions they are experiencing and would automatically label any unpleasant emotion as stress.
To achieve awareness practically, I take few deep breaths to calm my emotions and mind. Then I ask myself, “What is it that I am feeling right now?” Whenever the response is “stress, anger, frustration, unhappiness, sorrow or fear”, I continue by asking myself what has caused me to feel this way. Being honest in my answers helps me identify the cause of my distress.
An additional bonus here is that diaphragmatic breath, if practised correctly, gives you such cleanness of mind that high-performance becomes almost too simple.
The second step in managing your fears (and any other overwhelming emotions) is acknowledging it exists. Sometimes this step is already enough to change your emotional state.
For me, acknowledgement can only come from a place where there is no judgement. There is no right or wrong answer to those questions. Also, there is no right or wrong way to feel about a new challenge, upcoming change, unfriendly comment from a colleague or forgotten anniversary.
When you put a name to the emotion you are currently experiencing, you permit yourself to feel it. You also show your readiness to accept this emotion without labelling it, trying to ban it or punishing yourself for it.
Once you have named the emotion and acknowledged your right to this emotional response, you can understand that the trigger that has caused this response has no qualities by itself. It is you who empowers it by assigning certain features like scary, impossible, complicated or mean.
By paying conscious attention to the situation that has caused you to feel afraid, you will understand it and study it from various perspectives. It will not simply happen to you anymore – you will be present and actively participate in it.
Being present also allows me to recall a mental inventory list. The mental inventory list reminds me of my professional skills and abilities, strengths and past experiences in similar situations, choices I have already made and the outcomes I have already witnessed.
This quick exercise has two purposes. First, it will help me choose the most suitable response to the situation. In addition, it also empowers me because it shows me what I have already achieved and boosts my confidence.
Response over reaction
The difference between response and reaction is consciousness. Reactions are born in our unconscious minds, like instincts. You don’t pause and think before you react – you allow the subconscious to auto-pilot you.
On the other hand, a response is a thoughtful reply that considers possible outcomes and the goals and previous experiences.
Each time I choose to respond instead of reacting, I change the setup entirely. The emotion no longer controls me; I own it. Being in control allows me to choose the response that I consider appropriate and satisfying carefully.
I was (and still am) afraid of public speaking. The combined load of expectations, attention, challenge and discomfort if I make a fool of myself by making a mistake pressure me. I lose my confidence, sweat, worry, fear that someone could ask me a question I cannot answer.
Do I scold myself for experiencing this fear? Do I try to prohibit myself from feeling this way? Do I regret feeling fear afterwards? Not at all. I understand my fear because I know where it is coming from, and I allow myself to experience it.
There is no use in trying to restrict the emotions – it will only make you more anxious. Instead, you can use the tools you have to ensure the feelings do not influence your performance negatively.
Allowing yourself to be you, feel what your body and mind are currently willing to feel, and be kind towards yourself. Kindness creates kindness, and each time after I’ve spoken in front of the public, I leave the stage feeling grateful for myself. And if I have made some mistakes, I add them to my Growth Compass (a list I keep with all the things I want to know about) to study and master in the future.
I prefer seeing fear as a choice. You cannot influence life to ensure you are never exposed to a situation that scares you. However, you are always in charge of the response you decide to showcase. Instead of submitting and giving up power, you can choose to empower yourself.
An unexpected takeaway from my fear management was the realisation that taking a deep breath before answering any question makes communication with those around me much more enjoyable.
It also lessens the possibility of spontaneous conflicts that could arise because I replied to what I thought was said instead of the actual message.