If you’re like me, whenever you decide to stretch your wings, try something new, or consider a leap of faith, your inner critic pipes up with a hundred cautionary tales and reasons why things might not work out.
At the best of times, we are able to separate ourselves from this harsh inner critic. Far more often however, we buy into these stories and accept them as gospel.
Identifying Your Fear
When I am firmly situated in a space of grounded calm, I notice that the critical self-talk informing me that I am not enough, don’t have enough, and am not worthy of love is nothing more than fear. Fear is the court jester of emotions as it has many disguises. It has been known to masquerade as self-preservation, protection, expectation, and the desire to fit in. But if you scratch below the surface, you will discover the same old trickster.
Fear does have a rightful place in the lexicon of emotions. Fear warns us to run from the approaching stampede of wild elephants and to leave the bar crowded with brawling bikers who’ve had too many beers. But the type of fear that causes you to compare yourself to others, to feel less-than, to not pursue your dreams—or even allow yourself to dream at all—that’s the type of fear we need to get a handle on.
If we are to live our lives as expressions of love and pure potential, which is our birthright, we need to recognize fear, acknowledge it by name, and practice the tools that allow us to coexist peacefully with this challenging bedfellow—without letting it run us out of town.
Your desire for more confidence, more talent, and more success may be so powerful that it feels like there’s a battle raging inside of you. And when in battle, it’s been said that it’s equally important to know your enemy as it is to know yourself. So how can you recognize your fear so you can manage it? Keep an eye out for these three telltale signs. And know that whatever emotion or story that’s preventing you from moving forward is involved with that pesky four-letter “F” word: FEAR.
1. It’s Irrational
Do you long to take a dance class, paint a picture, or serve on a non-profit board but you are convinced that these expressions could put you in grave danger? You really believe, though now that you think about it, it is a little strange, that something very bad could happen if you publish that book of poems you’ve been working on.
That is classic fear, trying to protect you by telling you to stay small and not do anything that could get you noticed and singled out.
The “fear center” of our brains is called the amygdala, also known as the reptilian brain because it’s been with us since the dinosaur age. You’ve probably heard of the fight-or-flight mechanisms that helped keep us safe as we evolved into fully upright, verbal Homo Sapiens. We can be grateful to the amygdala for preserving us by imparting the instinct not to challenge a saber tooth tiger to a duel and prompting us to run from fire, but there is one big problem with this neural center. It does not have the ability to distinguish between real physical danger and our imagination of danger, which means we can go into a sweaty-palmed panic at the very thought of moving outside our comfort zone.
So if you feel threatened, bring your attention to your breath and intentionally slow it down. Ask yourself: At this moment, am I in danger? If the answer is no, that’s fear paying you a visit.
2. It’s Mean
Fear has a way of always reminding us of our very worst qualities, blowing up every minor issue into a major catastrophe, and never, ever being on your side. In short, if fear was a person, it would be a total psychopath and you would not want its company.
If you notice that your inner dialogue is hurling insults that you wouldn’t lob at your worst enemy, fear has probably taken over.
To combat this nasty naysayer, best-selling author and creativity expert Elizabeth Gilbert shares that before she starts any big project, whether it’s a writing endeavor or an important dinner party, she has a conversation with her fear—literally. She sits Fear down, addresses Fear by its proper name, announces the journey, and actually invites it to come along for the ride (it always does, anyway). She then tells Fear that while it can join her on this journey, it is not allowed to make any decisions—and definitely not allowed to drive. What she’s doing is making an arrangement with Fear that allows her to move forward and puts Fear in a place they can both live with—which is never the driver’s seat.
3. It Justifies and Makes Excuses
Have you ever been really excited about something—such as the thought of taking a trip to Portugal or starting a small business—and then just moments after the delightful thought you are struck with a litany of reasons why you could not possibly do the exciting thing? When this inner dialogue happens, pause for a moment and take a closer look.
If your list of ironclad reasons include things like “it might rain in Portugal and it will be uncomfortable to be in a rainy foreign country” or “Someone in my city has already opened a Thai restaurant,” then it’s quite possible that your good friend Fear has made another appearance.
Fear does not take responsibility and it certainly does not take chances. Over-rationalizing, moving into worry and planning mode, or calling it quits before you’ve even gotten started, are all signs that it may be time to take a moment to look fear directly in its well-meaning, outdated little face … and dare it to stop you.