For almost all of my life, I made most of my choices from a place of fear. My inner critic raged, “What if they don’t like you? You’re probably going to screw this up. You’ll try your hardest, and it won’t be good enough. Then your inadequacy will be right out there in the open. What if you don’t have enough money? What if your husband leaves you? What if you’re a terrible parent? What if…”
Yup. My inner critic is a hellacious bitch.
I handled this ocean of self-doubt with avoidance and a smile. I played it safe. I avoided risk and discomfort. I did what I was supposed to do. Then I ate my feelings rather than feel them. I did the best I could and slapped a happy face on it. And sure enough, it made me tired and sick.
I didn’t discover my inner critic until my late thirties. I just thought I wasn’t good enough. I also didn’t understand that I was closed to infinite, joyful possibilities. I didn’t know that I was letting fear steer the ship of my life.
But then, through the convergence of many, many blessings, I did know. And when you know better, you do better. I learned how to manage my fear. In fact, I made myself a promise that I would never again make fear-based decisions for myself. It’s a promise that I’ve had to revisit and relearn often, but the results have been literally life changing.
So let’s talk about fear. I don’t mean paralyzing, “I might die now” terror. I mean that persistent underlying hum of self-doubt. That little asshole voice in your mind that whispers, “Uh oh. What if…”
Different people process in different ways, but here are some things to consider if you would like to tackle your fear. Please accept what resonates with you and discard what’s meant for someone else.
- Mindfulness. You can’t work with your fear it if you don’t know it’s happening. Start paying attention to what your body and mind are saying to you. What does your inner critic say to you? When do you feel self-doubt or self-criticism? Are there people or situations that you avoid? Why? Try not to judge these things, but do observe them. A better understanding of yourself is a critic piece to growth. When you feel anxious or fearful, take a breath and think, “OK, what’s going on with me right now?” Notice it and acknowledge it.
- Rub some logic on it. Is your fear based on real danger? Is your fear coming from your inner wisdom? Or is it your inner critic screwing with you? For example, are you avoiding that guy who wants to date you because your gut tells you he’s a creep? (ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR GUT. This is your inner wisdom speaking to you, which is much different than your inner critic. More on that another day.) Or, are you avoiding that guy who wants to date you because you think you’re not good enough for him?
- Reason with your fear. Once you’ve determined that you are not in true danger, and that you want to do something that scares you (like giving a speech, dancing in public, voicing your opinion, etc.), acknowledge your fear and have a conversation with it. For example, “Fear, I know that you’re trying to protect me and I appreciate it. But I’m OK. I’ve got this. So I’m going to set you aside right now because I have stuff to do.”
- Honor your stubbornness. When something scares me, it makes me mad. The internal conversation I find myself having looks something like, “How dare you try to scare me?! I am doing this. Deal with it!”
- Follow the “what-if” all the way through. What is really the worst case scenario? If the worst thing that could happen happened, would you be able to handle it? Does the risk of doing something scary really outweigh the risk of avoidance? For example, “If I speak up in the meeting, they might not like my idea.” OK. What would then happen if they didn’t like your idea? Would you get fired? Or would you come up with another idea? Or could you say, “Now that I’ve seen all the ideas, I really like Suzie’s.” Or maybe you could just say, “OK, but I disagree.” Unless it’s a truly life and death situation, it’s helpful to go into it with an attitude of “no one dies.”
- Use your body to influence your mind. Move your breathing deeper into your belly. Stand up straight, tall, and defiant for a few minutes. If you know you’re going into a situation where you’ll need all your moxie, try some kickboxing moves before you get there.
- Visualize & affirm. Try taking a few minutes with your eyes closed and envision your success. See yourself being strong and capable. Affirm to yourself, “I got this. I am ready.”
- Ask for help. None of this is easy. Ask for advice. Ask for support. If your fear is not manageable and is really damaging your quality of life (for example, if you’re struggling with panic attacks, or any residue of trauma), seek out professional help. There is no benefit, no honor, no purpose in struggling all on your own.
- Celebrate every success. Stretching your comfort zone is where confidence comes from. Every time your do something that was intimidating, large or small, take a moment for “Yay me!”
- Learn, don’t punish. When you do take a risk and it doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, or when you avoid the risk altogether that you wish you had taken, it’s important to treat yourself with compassion. Find the lesson and try again. Perfection is never a good goal, so cut yourself lots of slack. When things fall apart, take a moment to regroup, then take another run at it.
Whichever of these resonate with you, the point is to make deliberate, conscious choices for yourself. You are the driver of your life. Don’t let fear take the wheel from you.