The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it.
Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.
Always, always, always, always, always do what you are afraid to do.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have spent the better part of 20 years researching self-actualization and what it means to live and to lead at your highest potential. Recently someone asked me to boil it all down to one insight – what had I learned that was the most important takeaway? That question really caused me to stop and wonder, and I think I have discovered an important answer. Becoming more self-actualized requires you to face your fears. I have touched on this topic indirectly in any number of blogs; the attributes of Trust, Courage, and Candor, living an independent life and caring a little less about what others think, and meeting the 3 Leadership Shadows that are all grounded in fear (i.e., Fear of Failure, Fear of Rejection, and Fear of Betrayal.) However I really haven’t addressed this topic – fear – directly yet. As such, the purpose of this blog is to examine fear, including the role it plays in our lives, suggested strategies for facing our fears, and the ultimate price we will pay if we are not willing to do so.
The Role of Fear in Our Lives
We typically consider the concept of fear, whether through our own experience, a TED Talk or a blog like this one, as something that needs to be overcome. And while that is often the case, it is not always true. In his best-selling book “The Gift of Fear,” Gavin de Becker reminds us that fear serves a very important purpose in protecting us from danger. In story after story de Becker illustrates how fear, manifesting itself in the “technology of intuition” or “gut feelings,” keeps us out of harm’s way and protects us from danger. Moreover, scientists often point to the “fight/flight” response, which is an automatic reflex grounded in fear, as a key adaptation that has allowed for our survival.
While it’s true that these examples do justify submitting to fear in extreme cases, too often we allow fear and doubt to dictate our decisions, our behavior, and, ultimately, our lives. Shakespeare’s quote at the beginning of this blog is a very powerful insight to consider: our fears are traitors, often preventing us from achieving the life we deserve because they create imiting beliefs that inhibit risk-taking.
“Life Begins Just Outside Your Comfort Zone”
Most of us have read some version of the above quote: “Life” or “Excitement” or “Happiness” begins just outside of our comfort zone. While this quote is arguably a little glib and overused, it’s actually true. That moment of feeling alive, accepted, connected, and exhilarated can come only from experiencing vulnerability, which in turn comes from facing our fears. The book “The Tools” by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels is an excellent resource that provides a framework (“The Reversal of Desire”) for understanding the power of shifting from the desire to avoid pain by staying ensconced in our comfort zone to the desire to learn and grow, and the endless possibilities that then emerge, existing on the other side of fear.
There are common fears that we all face in our lives: asking for help, saying “I’m sorry” (and meaning it), trusting that your children will do the right thing, and on and on. The fear that underlies our hesitancy to be vulnerable emerges because we must let our guard down, allow ourselves to truly be seen, and relinquish control. In a very real sense, we must be willing to be disappointed, or even heartbroken. Brené Brown reminds us that so many of us want to live a whole-hearted life, but we simply aren’t willing to pay the admission price of vulnerability to do so. Said another way, if you want to have your heart filled, you must be willing to have it broken. That’s it. It’s that simple, and that terrifying.
Lessons for Leaders
From a leadership perspective, Actualized Leaders must be willing to face their Leadership Shadow and to live and lead outside of their comfort zones. And although there are common fears we all face in some aspects of our lives, there are unique fears related to each style that must be effectively managed in order to reach your highest potential.
For Achievers, and the Fear of Failure, you must be willing to step into the fear of ambiguity and to let go of wanting perfection. This effort will require you to delegate to others, to allow others to fail, and to resist the temptation to micromanage when a deadline is looming.
For Affirmers, and the Fear of Rejection, you must be willing to step into the fear of isolation and separation in the sense of not seeking the approval of others. You must be willing to confront others with candor, to say “no,” and to truly care a little less about the “good opinions of other people,” realizing that what they think of you is really none of your business.
And for Asserters, and the Fear of Betrayal, you must be willing to step into the fear of vulnerability and letting go of wanting total control. This effort will require you to admit you don’t know the answer, to ask for help, and to listen to others. You must resist the temptation to offer advice, to assume that your opinion is always right, and to solve others’ problems.
In all three examples above, the fear is unique for each style; it is not a “one size fits all.” Asserters have no issue with confrontation, and Affirmers are empathetic listeners who naturally consider the input and insights of others. With this in mind, I would like to close this blog with some suggested steps to help you face and conquer your fears:
- Know yourself: You must know your Style and your Shadow so that you can accurately identify your comfort zone, and your plan to get on the other side of it.
- Begin to identify the areas in your life where fear is impacting your decisions and actions and ask yourself what price you are paying, and may ultimately pay, if you allow this cycle to continue.
- Remind yourself that it is only through getting outside of our comfort zones and facing our fears that we gain strength, courage, and confidence to live into our highest potential. Eleanor Roosevelt said that we should never forget the obstacles and trauma we’ve overcome in our lives, reminding ourselves daily that “I lived through that horror …. I can surely take the next thing that comes along.”
Having the courage to face your fears is absolutely critical for achieving your highest purpose and potential. And in this space of unknown and uncertainty, outside of where we feel comfortable, is where we learn the most about ourselves. It is also the place we will build the confidence to confront new challenges that the future will surely hold for each of us. And if Jim Morrison is correct, when we find the courage to “break on through” to the other side we will find something else: freedom.