Have you ever heard this advice to someone afraid of performing: “Imagine everyone in the audience naked!” I’ve heard it on TV shows since I was a kid and even in a recent song. Now, if you were standing up in front of a room full of naked people staring at you, would that put you at ease? I’m not saying you might not enjoy it, I don’t know you, but at ease?
It seems people think the only way to get over a fear is to traumatize themselves into it. Face your fears. Jump into it. Face it head on. I find “Face it” so… in your face.
When I look back, every fear I’ve ever gotten over has ultimately happened because of self-compassion and gentle experiences. Not from forcing myself into it. Now I understand scientifically, why.
Associations. Ever since we’re itty bitty babies, neurons in our brains connect our thoughts and experiences with corresponding emotional reactions. Like memorizing.
Also, the neurons connect with each other, creating a neural net. That’s why one thought can lead to another and why one thought can produce a certain feeling every time a similar thing happens. How about when a song brings you right back to a memory, you can feel it like you’re there?
Seems to me, if a thought or situation connects with “fear” there was a reason. Maybe it’s far away from memory, but if you can get back to the start, the direct experience or even the news story that effected you, somewhere in there it makes sense.
I learned from a documentary called “What the Bleep Do We Know” that you can actually rewire the connections in your brain to create new associations, but you need new thoughts to do it. It’s called neuroplasticity.
Building on that, I think creating new thoughts means something other than just trying affirmations or lying to yourself: “This is great!” when it’s not. What I found in my life is that it’s connecting the old thoughts with new emotions that counts. To do that, it took new, reassuring, experiences.
For example, when I was very young, a dog thought I was playing and came out of nowhere and chased me. From that moment on I was afraid of dogs. Makes sense for a little kid, right? My body was protecting my survival by associating big dogs with: Run! Well, not run or I’d be chased again, but “Avoid! Avoid! Avoid!”
Then when I was ten years-old, I had a friend who had two big dogs. They were old, quiet, and moved slowly. The family kept the dogs in another room when I came over, but since the dogs were so quiet the whole time I was there, every time I was there, I got more comfortable. Soon, I was able to be in the same room with them. They weren’t a threat or as unpredictable as I’d “memorized” dogs were. An important part is, they were like this consistently. That allowed my mind and body to make new, proven, associations.
As an adult, I had a similar experience going to Toastmasters, a public speaking club. I attend as often as I can and speak in front of the group. The first time, I was extremely uncomfortable, anxious with a severe feeling of dread. My mind was working overtime trying to tell me why I couldn’t and shouldn’t do it. But with getting up week after week, positive feedback from the group, and learning how to prepare, it got easier every time. The associations I’m making are beyond just standing up in front of a group, they include a willingness to fail, that mistakes don’t ruin a whole thing, the recognition that there’s not one way to do something, and reinforcing a general belief in myself.
These two proven experiences gave me 8 ideas for ways to get over a fear. I’d like to share them and maybe save you some time.
1. Reframe “Fear” to “Preference”.
A fear doesn’t mean you’re weak. It just means you’re protecting yourself for a reason that applies to you. When I looked at a fear as a preference, I was able to drop a good amount of the stress. For example, I used to be stressed about people’s judgement that I was “afraid” to go on a roller coaster. I just have no desire to go on one. Going extremely fast, upside down and in circles, miles above the earth, with no roof, just doesn’t appeal to me. In the same way you may have no desire to be a stunt pilot.
2. Gather Some Self-Compassion.
You have limits for a reason. You have a fear of that thing for a reason. You don’t have to be able to handle everything by yourself. If you’re overcoming a fear think of it as practice.
3. Get Information.
I’d faced public speaking many times without learning any tools to do it and each time, just barely got through it. Doing it the “facing it” way didn’t make it any easier the next time. The difference? Learning a new approach. For example, how to prepare for different types of speeches. Things to do while speaking to have greater impact. Making mistakes often enough that it’s not so embarrassing, and seeing other people make mistakes and realizing it doesn’t really matter. Practicing frequently. That is what has created a long-term change. For your fear, what tools can you use to make yourself feel more secure? What are ways that you can prepare? Can you visit the place you’ll be beforehand to see what the environment will be like — and make that dry run fun so you can start an “at ease” (yet clothed) emotional association?
4. Give Yourself Some Back-Up
Make the reason for dipping your toe in to overcome your fear something that will trip up the old association. Do it for the New You. Do it for your gender. Do it for another gender. Your culture. Your hometown. Do it to be an example to someone else. You get the idea.
5. De-Shame It.
Never be ashamed of a fear. If you keep it a secret long term, it can make it harder to bare. It can turn anxiety into an attack. When you can state it without judgement, the easier it is to go easy on yourself and make more secure associations.
6. Watch Your Language.
If you experience anxiety please don’t call it “my” anxiety. You don’t own it and it doesn’t own you. It’s just an emotion like all the others and you probably have a good reason for it.
If you do want to overcome your favorite fear, change saying “I can’t” or “I won’t” to “I want to…” I went from “I don’t public speak” to “I want to be a better public speaker” to “I want to be a great public speaker”. That helped me see opportunities to try it in small ways. (Check out my post “How to Get What You Want… Faster.”)
7. Manage Your Expectations.
Sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be. I’ll tell you about the time I went 1.0 (that’s “one-point-oh”.) My cell phone contract was up and it was time to upgrade. I knew my smartphone was constantly distracting and keeping me from being present in my life. I’d considered going back to a flip phone but was actually afraid to do it! I had a fear that I’d be completely out of the loop. Shunned by society. Unable to hold up my end of a conversation. Then I reminded myself that uh, I still had a computer, and that I could always go back if the adjustment was too difficult. If the detox was too hard to bare. (Ridiculous!) The day after I received my flip phone, I forgot about the whole thing. It was far far easier than I expected.
8. Dip Your Toe.
Start small! Instead of creating more trauma for yourself. Go easy on it. Afraid of clowns? Please don’t go to a circus and sit in the front row. Maybe start by watching a clip of Mr. Rogers sitting with a clown while he puts on the make up. (Really, there is one!) I don’t happen to be afraid of clowns, but I have to say I can understand why. It’s not cute.
In my opinion, fears are understandable. They serve as self-protection and they started somewhere for a reason. Even if they seem irrational, they’re pretty normal, so don’t be afraid (see what I did there?) to dip your toe.
18 Comments on “Don’t *Face* Your Fears. Dip Your Toe. (You’ll see what I mean.)”
Another great article Heather!
Thank you!! ❤️
Great points – and I love how you were able to make some pretty complicated ideas so accessible. As a psychologist who works with many children/teens who experience anxiety and fear about all sorts of different things, I’ll be sure to reference back to this!
Thank you! I really appreciate your comment and am so glad to hear these ideas are (and will be) helpful.
Great advice. A lot of sensible and easy exercises to relax and control the mind. Thank you!
Connect old thoughts with new emotions!
Instead of “I can’t” say “I would like to….”
Learn a new approach
Get used to mistakes
New Heather-quotes on my mirror!
Thank you for your comment – I’m so glad these ideas resonated for you!
Again, reading your column gave me reassurance. Yeah, fears started from some first experience – like the dog story. And how to get over them – like the clown idea – great! You amaze me! Maybe I’m not crazy!
Yes – some first experience. Thank you for your note!
Funny – don’t face your fears, use your toe. I wish all counselors could read this and learn from your experience. Thanks for the funny but useful help.
So glad it made you laugh as well. Thanks, Kim.
I never could understand neuroplasticity until your explanation. Thanks.
It’s fascinating, isn’t it? What a thing, too, that you can change old patterns when you can see that patterns is what they are.
You are so beautiful ! You look like your stunning mother ! Creativity runs in our dna. I missed that gene and went into sciences and became an I u nurse! We are a family if strong opinionated woman, your great grandma was a woman before her times ! Your grandma Ruth was sooo creative , your mom always was creative and now the gene has been passed down to you ! I love all the work you have participated in ! You are a talent worth being recognized for all her accomplishments !
Thank you for such thoughtful words and for coming to the site! Thank you also for the meaningful and important work that you’re doing. I think creativity is everywhere, including in science and medicine where every situation requires making creative connections – whether it’s thinking of in-the-moment solutions or connecting with other people (especially when they’re healing.) Loved hearing from you here!
Excellent ideas to approach what others may seem as irrational fears but feel very real to you. Just have to agree with you about the movie “What the Bleep” – really fabulous and thought provoking!
I’m so glad you wrote, connected with these ideas, and saw What the Bleep! Joe Dispenza, one of the interviewees in it, has written some fantastic books. And yes! Once I take the weight of “it’s irrational so I shouldn’t feel it” out of the equation, it’s easier to handle things. I think the neural net can make exponential connections we’re not even aware of (but can get to) like “if it happened here, then it can happen there, then that can happen…”) – it might seem irrational on the surface but ultimately it makes sense.