Facing Fear Head-On: Finding the Courage to Change in 2014
By Claire Gibson
The strings of lights brightening up shop windows once again, the myriad of ads enticing us to buy the latest ‘it’ toy for our kids, the advertisements for delicious seasonal dishes and colorful décor ideas … it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and as 2013 comes to a close, we ask ourselves what we have achieved, what we could have done better and above all, what we need to change so we can stop being our own worst saboteur. Many times, what stops up from speaking to our boss about a raise, solving conflicts at work or even moving on and starting our own business, is fear.
The role of fear and anxiety
Fear and anxiety are not always negative feelings; in fact, they can be of great aid, invoking the useful ‘fight or flight’ response in critical situations, and imbuing us a sixth sense that can be incredibly useful both at work and in the realm of personal relationships. For instance, we can sense when it isn’t the right time to talk to our superior about something. At other times, fear can lead us to take action despite advice to the contrary. For instance, when we feel that something is ‘not quite right’ with our bodies, we may seek another opinion, despite having already been told by a couple of doctors that there is nothing wrong with us. Many times, it is in our attempt to put fears to rest that we stumble upon the solution to a nagging problem, condition or situation.
At other times, fear and anxiety can let us down – for instance, when we are called upon to make a public speech and we draw a mental blank or fear freezes us to the spot. It can also keep us rooted to self-destructive habits like smoking or overeating – we fear that if we fail on our first attempt, we will never succeed. The people around us can feed our anxiety as well. Relationships expert and best-selling author of Dance of Fear, Dr. Harriet Lerner, explains: “The anxiety that accompanies change only begins when you take the first step of saying, asking, or doing something different that threatens the status quo. Next, the other person will make a ‘countermove’ maneuver to try to reinstate the old pattern and the old you.” Countermoves can manifest themselves in many ways: If you’re trying to quit smoking, for instance, the colleague you normally share a smoke break with insensitively light up in front of you or belittle your resolve to kick the habit; if you are seeking to become more proactive at work, other colleagues might belittle your efforts or try to get you to assume a more passive stance.
Indeed, colleagues, friends and family can react less than encouragingly to your attempts to change. They may resist your attempts subtly or even resort to labeling you as being selfish, crazy or even ‘too old’ to take a new path in life. As Dr. Lerner says, “the other person may withdraw or terminate the relationship… or they may sulk, argue, fight, gossip about your or do whatever they do when they get anxious. Your kids will test you over and over to see if you ‘really mean it’.” Yet despite the sometimes tough resistance you may encounter, it is refreshing to know that it is all part and parcel of change; the key is to do what you need to despite the fear you feel. As therapist, David Reynolds, once said, “When people tell you they don’t fly because they are afraid of flying, you need not believe them. They don’t fly because they don’t buy airline tickets.”
Facing fear head-on
One of the most important things when it comes taking fear by the horns, says Dr. Lerner, lies in identifying the way we commonly react when we are anxious. Some people over-function – they go into ‘fix it’ mode, trying to tell others how to think, behave and react to situations. This can lead people to see them as bossy or controlling. Other people under-function when stressed – they become unproductive, arrive late to work, begin making mistakes, etc. A third group of people take a blaming stance, creating villains and victims every time a tense situation ensues, perhaps out of an underlying fear of being seen as the cause of the problem. Still others grow distant or begin to gossip incessantly.
We need to be keen observers of how we react in tense situations. Once we do, we can attempt to change the thoughts, beliefs and actions which have thus far been non-productive. For instance, if you tend to distance yourself from colleagues when there is a problem at work, you need to see how that could make you seem uncaring or even cause others to label you as the problem; if, on the other hand, you tend to get ultra defensive and blame others, you need to stop that thought process and remind yourself that when you get anxious, you tend to adopt a blaming stance. Stop the cycle of negativity before it has dire consequences (e.g.continuous gossiping can lead to a fight with a colleague who hears ‘through the grapevine’ that you have been speaking ill of them).
Sometimes, the strongest ‘countermoves’ don’t come from others, if not from yourself. Habit can be a much bigger enemy than fear. You also need to be aware of how any anxieties from your personal life can affect the way you deal with situations and people at work. Above all, when you are at the brink of making an important change and fear is threatening to hold you back, remember it is in the heart of the unknown that a world of new possibilities and opportunities reside. Life is short but also incredibly beautiful if we live it with courage.