It's entirely possible to live a worry-free life. But a worry-free life is not and should not be a fear-free life.
Fear is a natural and extremely useful response that humans share with many, much simpler organisms. I live in a neighborhood that is heavily wooded and we share the area with a very healthy population of white-tailed deer. These animals are notoriously nervous and run at the slightest sign of danger. But, like all species with some level of intelligence, they’re also able to learn. It’s been interesting to watch as the deer have slowly come to realize that humans (at least in this neighborhood) are not a threat and the deer comfortably stand and watch as we walk or drive by.
Our fears diminish
You’re much smarter than any white-tailed deer and capable of learning much more complex concepts, much more quickly. Throughout your life, one of the patterns of your learning has been to decrease the number of things that you’re afraid of. When you were a very young child you might have been scared of the dark, thunder and even Santa Claus. When you were older you were afraid to jump off the high board at the swimming pool, ask a girl (or a boy) to dance, and speak in front of the class.
With every new accomplishment, self-confidence grows, your comfort zone expands and your fears decrease. Where you once couldn’t have imagined going into the big city alone, today you do it every day on the way to work. Where once you were a white-knuckle flyer, now you’re a seasoned road warrior. We all experience a level of fear when we are about to step up our game and try something new. But we analyze the fear, the risk-reward ratio, we learn how to reduce and manage the risks and we go for it. After just a few times we’ve mastered a new set of skills, fear has been completely replaced with confidence and you’ve grown into a bigger, better someone than you used to be.
Good news! You have more fearful times yet to look forward to!
As long as you continue to challenge yourself and raise the bar with new experiences, you will face at least some level of fear. If it’s an invitation to go skinny-dipping with the sharks off Australia or base-jumping from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the fear may be intense, the risk-reward calculation unappealing and you might decide to take a pass. But if the challenge is to apply for a promotion at work or write that book you’ve had in your head for years the fears are entirely manageable and you’ll feel fantastic after you’ve overcome them. Your fear lets you know that you are standing at the perimeter of your comfort zone. You have the choice to maintain the status quo by running back to the middle or step outside that line and grow.
Fear demands a decision
Fear demands a decision about your next action. The psychologists call it ‘fight or flight’ but the choice implies that you’ll choose an action – run away or charge. Worry and anxiety, on the other hand, are states of inaction. Our friendly white-tail is frozen in the headlights. When you allow worry and anxiety to take over, you freeze and you stop growing.
Henry Ford, one of the great innovators of the last century, once famously said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” In other words, the only obstacle to your success is your firm belief that the odds that are stacked against you are insurmountable.
The world we inhabit today is vastly different than the one we lived in yesterday. The rules have changed dramatically and it makes a lot of us uncomfortable.
You hear it every day:
Social media is so full of hateful statements!
Why has the world become so divided and partisan?
We need to do something about the wealth inequality
The world seems to have lost all sense of decency
Who’s fault is it?
It’s both easy and convenient to place blame. The boss who fails to understand your value, the friends who don’t support you, even the planets that fail to align in your favor. Regardless of whose fault you declare it to be, when the dust has settled, the challenges remain leaving you with two choices. Give up and go home. Or find some way to climb over, knock down or bust through the wall that blocks your path.
The wall you’re facing right now is called ‘change.’ It’s the need for you to accept that the strategies and tactics that got you this far aren’t going to get you much farther in this rapidly changing world.
I’ve seen so much resistance to change that I could sell it by the pound. Excuses fly thick and fast and the rationalizing that explains why the status quo is the best plan could float a ship.
Change your inner monologue
If we accept that ‘ol Henry was right, then the change that must be made begins by taking out the trash that’s in your head. Every time you catch yourself thinking that something is unlikely, improbable or impossible, stop. Catch yourself, think about Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Elon Musk, and then ask yourself if your little challenge is truly insurmountable.
It’s been called possibility thinking, positivity, optimism and ‘what can be.’ Napoleon Hill, a contemporary of Ford’s and author of the incredible book, ‘Think and Grow Rich,’ said, “What the mind of man can conceive, it can achieve.” It doesn’t mean it will be easy or obvious, but it will always be possible.
All your growth has taken place outside your comfort zone
It is almost guaranteed that the solution will lie outside your comfort zone. But the truth is, all growth happens at the edges of our comfort zones. Everything that’s good that ever happened in your life was out of your comfort zone at some point.
You don’t have to jump way outside of it, but start with some baby steps. Stick your toe in the water and dare yourself to try something different. Open yourself to the possibility that the kid with the tattoos and the purple hair, the old retired guy or anybody who doesn’t look or think like you just might have some really good ideas that are worth listening to. Open yourself to the radical notion that the thoughts that live so comfortable in your head just might be your biggest impediment.
It’s a strange – and wonderful – new world
The world doesn’t look the same anymore. And isn’t that great news?! Just as has been the case whenever the world has changed, there are more opportunities than problems. They just don’t look like they used to. It’s time to step up and decide that this exciting, strange new world is the one that you’re going to conquer.
Helen Keller, another contemporary of Ford’s and resident of an unimaginably challenging world once said, “Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
According to the National Institute of Justice, within three years, about two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters are typically back behind bars.
We can have all manner of debate about the criminal justice system, but one significant factor that contributes to this high recidivism rate is a characteristic we all share, regardless of which side of the law we find ourselves on.
We don’t like surprises
We’re all intimately familiar with our comfort zone. That’s the sum of the surroundings, the behaviors, the companions, the habits of thinking in which we feel safe and secure. In this place, with these people and these activities, I know what’s likely to happen on any given day. There are few surprises and few big challenges.
A significant number of repeat felons commit a crime in order to get back into jail because it’s frightening to be out in the world and responsible for themselves. “Prison may not be the nicest place, but they give me three squares and I know how things work.” Whether these thoughts are conscious or subconscious, the results are the same.
Finding your happy place
The rest of us exhibit the same behavior – we find that place, those people, those habits, those opinions, that food, with which we’re most comfortable, and we stay there. Should anything happen to move us out of that safe place, we take quick action – conscious or subconscious – to get ourselves back into that familiar, comfy place.
Surprisingly, this even applies when the new situation we’ve found ourselves in is objectively better. As much as many of us struggle to lose those extra pounds, if the scale tells you that you’ve gone above what has become your ‘comfortable’ weight, it’s usually not too hard to cut back on the pasta and do the extra sit-ups that will bring us back to the weight that we see for ourselves. Go too far below that, though, and we quickly self-sabotage in some way to get things back to normal.
All growth happens at the perimeter of your comfort zone
It’s familiar, safe and easy in the center of your comfort zone. That’s the good news. The bad news is that no growth can happen there. From the safety of that place it’s impossible to learn a new skill, begin a different relationship, start a new career or accomplish anything you haven’t before.
So what if, instead of thinking of a ‘comfort zone,’ we begin to think of it as a ‘comfort prison,’ with a high fence, razor wire and guard towers? A jail with steel bars that trap you in one spot and take away the freedom to pursue your dreams?
Every hope and every dream lies outside that comfort prison. In order to achieve them, we’re going to have to cut those bars, scale those walls and break out. And when we realize that we are both prisoner and jailer, that the walls are entirely self-imposed, we’re faced with a tough choice. We can continue to blame genetics, birth order, the boss, the economy, the weather or the alignment of the planets. Or we can dare to take that first intimidating step outside and realize that those prison bars, those boundaries of our comfort zones are flexible, infinitely expandable, and completely imaginary.
Fear is a response to a real and present danger and it always demands a decision about your next action: Fight or Flight? Are you going to turn-tail and run? Or are you going to stand your ground and fight back? Because of the immediacy of the threat we’re forced to quickly choose which action we’re going to take and then get on with it. NOW!
Worry and anxiety, though, arise as we respond to perceived threats that are much more vague, hard to define or somewhere off in the future. Instead of taking some kind of definitive and results-oriented action, we muddle about what’s going to happen to us and what, if anything, we should do. And the muddling goes on, and on, and on.
Paralyzed by worry
For example, I live on the southeast coast of the US. Every year, as summer winds down, hurricane season winds up along with the palpable anxiety that you can almost feel in the air. The problem with hurricanes is that you can see them coming for weeks ahead. It’s a slow-motion threat that gives you way too much time to think about all the horrible things that might happen. Everyone is glued to their screens watching the path and strength predictions from the various weather monitoring agencies. Are we watching the Navy Model? The American Model? The European Model? How about a conglomeration of them all? I’ve never inquired, but I’d be willing to bet that benzos prescriptions in the southeast spike every year from June to November.
Yet hurricanes, powerful as they can be, are pretty easy to prepare for: Have an emergency kit stocked with water, canned food, batteries and the other essentials that are listed on countless websites. Know the evacuation route you’ll take, should the order be given. Move your lawn furniture into the garage. Let your loved ones know where you’re heading.
Now you can relax
That’s it. Once you’ve taken those actions, you can relax, have a snooze, read a book, go for a walk… Anything but worry. Because from that point on, any anxiety that you expend is a complete waste and only makes you feel terrible, raises your blood pressure, increases your heart rate, makes you sweat, tremble, feel weak and tired, gives you headaches, heart palpitations, muscle aches and can result in a loss of libido.
There’s a delightful little piece called “The Serenity Prayer.” Written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, it truly encompasses the perfect approach to anxiety with action:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
In the case of a hurricane, I can’t do anything to stop it coming but I can update the status of my emergency kit and move the furniture off my deck. Then I can stop worrying and get on with my life.
Two intelligent choices
One of the characteristics of worry is that we evaluate options, alternatives and choices over and over, endlessly weighing this against that. Then we go back and do it all again. The paralysis of anxiety bogs us down in the ceaseless cycle of analyze, plan, compare, doubt, repeat. In the face of any perceived threat, though, you have two intelligent choices: Do something or do nothing.
Doing something – anything – provides you with the benefit of results. If you get the result you want, the problem is solved. If you get a different result, you’ll at least have feedback and you can fine tune your action as you try something else. Doing nothing, on the other hand, provides you with the benefit of leisure, rest and relaxation.
Worry accomplishes nothing
The endless analysis and mentation of the worrier, though, lies somewhere in between. It consumes tremendous energy but produces no results. And it allows no leisure, rest or relaxation. In other words, it’s the worst possible option.
Johann Wolfgang van Goethe once wrote, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” There’s also an old axiom of success that says, “The universe rewards action.”
Action produces results
When you begin to take action, all manner of things begin to happen that work in your favor. The people around you recognize that you’re serious and those who want the same things align and want to team with you. You produce results, which show and teach you things that you couldn’t possibly learn from others, reading books, watching YouTube or endlessly analyzing the situation. You start to get feedback about how your actions can be made better, more efficient and faster. When you begin to take action you unleash and harness forces that you didn’t even know existed.
Everyone who has ever lived has faced challenges that had the potential to be worrying. Why do some people seem to be more adept at getting past these challenges than others? In Stephen Covey’s classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the very first habit is, “Be Proactive.” In other words, don’t sit and wait in reactive mode. Do something.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the face of the Great Depression, said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
I spend a lot of time in airports and I frequently see people who are borderline apoplectic with anger, anxiety and worry that they’ll miss their connection or be otherwise inconvenienced. They are beside themselves with worry that they’ll miss their flight.
People miss flights all the time. And when they do, the meeting gets postponed, the party is missed or the vacation begins one day later. Again, so what?
You will survive
People actually lose their jobs all the time, too. They also get sick all the time, and they suffer the breakup of relationships, too. If you’re alive and breathing, bad things are, occasionally, going to happen to you. But you are going to survive.
The point is, we spend so much time worrying about horrible things happening to us. And on the odd occasion when they do, it’s never so bad as we believe it’s going to be. Yes, it’s inconvenient, annoying, sometimes even painful. But the feelings of tension, anxiety, anger and frustration that we experience by letting ourselves be rattled by the anticipation of the event are far more disturbing, damaging and dangerous than the unwelcome outcomes that we endure.
Worrying about it is worse than the problem
The list of negative health effects that chronic worry and anxiety can bring on should be enough to scare you out of being scared: Skin conditions, irritability, high blood pressure, ulcers, restlessness, panic attacks, increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, trembling, feeling weak or tired, trouble concentrating, gastrointestinal problems, depression, headaches, irritability, heart palpitations, muscle aches and loss of libido.
Or you could just be late for your meeting. The choice is yours.
The same comparison is true regardless of the particular worry that might be your personal favorite. We all believe that our worry is different, the negative outcomes more catastrophic, the consequences more far-reaching. But they’re not.
Worries or lessons?
While the negative outcomes are never as bad as we believe they’re going to be, the lessons that we can learn and the growth we can experience from those outcomes are always infinitely more valuable than you can imagine. But that’s if, and only if we choose to pay attention to the lessons.
Think back to some situations in which the very thing you were worried about came true. While it’s obvious that you survived, how bad was it? Be honest with your assessment here – Did things turn out to be as terrible as you had imagined them being during the runup to the catastrophe? Or were they not quite as awful as you anticipated they were going to be?
Perhaps, more importantly, did you grow from the experience? Did you learn any lessons that have helped you to avoid or mitigate similar situations in the future? What were your takeaways? Did it just leave you even more worried about a repeat performance? Or did experiencing the consequence result in your begin better prepared and better equipped in the future?
Bad things will still happen
There is no doubt that at some point in your future, something is going to happen that you’d prefer didn’t. Are you going to spend the time between now and that day working on your heart palpitations? Or are you going to rationally anticipate that life will throw the occasional curve ball, be ready with the lessons you’ve been learning all your life and, in the meantime, enjoy the sunshine?
“Do you remember the things you were worrying about a year ago? How did they work out? Didn’t you waste a lot of fruitless energy on account of most of them? Didn’t most of them turn out all right after all?
Mentation is a fancy word for mental activity or the act of thinking and we do it all the time. Experts can’t seem to agree how many discrete thoughts we have every day but estimates range from 20,000 to 70,000. Regardless, it’s a lot. For chronic worriers, many, if not most of those thoughts are problem-focused.
Many habitual worriers like to claim that their anxiety helps them solve the problems they believe they’re facing. But problem-solving is a very different activity than worrying. It’s rational, it’s action-oriented and it makes progress. When you’re worrying, your mentation takes on a very different tone. It’s very easy to tell the difference for yourself.
Worry is circular thinking
If your thinking is primarily worry-focused, you’ll find that, throughout the day, you’re regurgitating the same mental contents of yesterday. Yesterday’s thoughts were essentially the same as those of last week, last month and even a year ago. Your thinking goes round-and-round in circles and always ends up back where you began, concerned about money, health, relationships or the low-pressure zone that’s forming in the eastern Atlantic. Most telling, though, is that your thoughts don’t feel good. But no matter how drained, down and crappy the thoughts make you feel, you’re simply unable to stop them from cycling around, over and over again.
Mentation that’s aimed at problem-solving, in contrast, makes you feel good. It feels like you’re moving forward towards a solution. The process might be tough and challenging, but it’s also productive. You weigh options, test ideas and make choices. As with worry, you might feel drained after a problem-solving session, but you additionally feel like you’ve accomplished something useful. That the effort was worthwhile. Instead of circling back to the same place you were yesterday, you can see the progress that you’ve made and it feels satisfying.
Become aware of your thoughts
One of the keys to unsubscribing from anxiety is learning to pay attention to and become more aware of the nature of our thoughts. By learning to distinguish between a good old-fashioned worry-fest and productive, progressive, problem-solving, we can take the first steps to controlling and eventually overcoming the pointless and debilitating habit of worrying.
Ah, genetics! You may have been born with brown eyes and curly hair, but short of wearing dark glasses and a hat, you’re pretty much stuck with them. But you weren’t born worrying. That’s something you picked up along the way and are fully capable of putting back down. There hasn’t been a single piece of evidence that proves or even suggests that anxiety and worry are built into your genes.
You were taught to worry
Remember your carefree days as a child? You didn’t worry about a thing until your parents, teachers, coaches and the world around you convinced you that you should. “Don’t talk to strangers!” “Don’t touch that, you might get sick!” “If you don’t get into a good college you’ll end up a failure!” Every worry, anxious moment or fear that you’ve experienced has been learned, adopted or conditioned from your experiences through the years.
It might be tempting to say that children are naïve and don’t understand the threats that the ‘real world’ imposes. But how often do we wish or seek guidance to be more childlike again? They don’t spend time thinking about all the terrible things that might happen, they live in the moment, take delight and joy in the smallest things and deal with life as it comes along.
Your long history of success
And life’s been ‘coming along’ at you for many years now. Over all those years you’ve become extremely good at dealing with life as it comes along. The proof is that you’re still alive. You have successfully dealt with every threat and obstacle the world has thrown at you. There isn’t a single thing that has defeated you.
You might object and say that you’ve taken your share of bumps and bruises, nasty collisions even. And still, here you are today – alive, breathing, thinking and wanting to become an even greater version of yourself. That’s proof enough of your ability to survive, prosper, grow and be victorious.
Take a moment to pat yourself on the back! When you think about all the threats, risks, hazards, perils and pressures that you’ve laid awake nights worrying about, not one has taken you down. In spite of all the mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in anxiety over all the terrible tragedies that you were concerned might befall you, you’ve always emerged the victor. Sure, you may have been down on the mat occasionally. You may even have been close to throwing in the towel. But you didn’t. You’re still here, still reaching for the next prize.
That’s worth taking a moment – or an entire week! – to celebrate!
One of the characteristics of worry and anxiety is how easily and frequently we spin off, spiraling down through layers and layers of ever-increasing terrors. Here’s how it works:
We hear a news item about the Dow Jones falling 500 points today. Some pundit then goes on to tell us how the economy is overdue for a major correction and this is likely just the beginning. They dig up and recycle stories from 1929, 1987, 2008 and every other time the stock exchange has taken a dive. “Experts” are interviewed about what this means to the average investor and how this is likely to hit the ‘regular Joe’s’ 401(k) accounts, mutual funds and retirement savings.
This doom and gloom has you in a panic about your own investments and you begin to imagine your savings being flushed down one gigantic toilet bowl. Your throat tightens and your pulse rate goes up as you think about having to work three jobs for the next ten years to recover these losses. No, wait, you’re too old! It will be impossible to recover them! Now you’re imagining retirement in a rusty old single-wide trailer, parked outside some nowhere town as you wander the streets looking for bottles and cans to turn in for a few bucks at the recycling center while hoping to scrounge enough for the cans of cat food that will have to serve as your dinner.
24-hours later, you hear another news item that the Dow recovered yesterday’s losses and went on to a record close.
So much for the self-administered nightmare.
Thoughts aren’t always reliable
As rational and intelligent human beings we put a great deal of stock and faith in our ability to think. We register informational input, we process it, we reach conclusions and we make decisions.
But what if our thoughts weren’t always trustworthy? What if they aren’t always as reliable as we like to believe they are? The fact is, there are limits to rationale and reason. And even when those limits are very high, there are also, occasionally, very real obstacles that prevent them from functioning properly and reliably.
Many things affect our ability to think accurately and reliably. Have you ever had a few glasses of wine and found yourself saying or doing things that, in the clear light of the next morning, might not have been so wise? Have you ever been overcome with emotion, perhaps anger, jealousy, or even joy, and found yourself entertaining thoughts or making judgments – either negative or positive – that later seemed a little unreasonable?
Anxiety impairs thinking
Aside from true cognitive impairment brought on by disease or aging, there are many things in daily life that can and do impair our ability to think clearly. Fear, anxiety and worry are high on the list. Your ability to concentrate is one of the many functions that is hampered when you’re worried. And studies have also shown that anxiety can affect perception, attention, learning and executive functions, which are the processes that have to do with mental control and self-regulation.
Conclusions we reach and decisions we make in the midst of anxiety or worry are at high risk of being unreliable. And yet, caught up in the whirlwind of worry, they seem logical, inevitable and terrifying. So the next time you’re deep into your own worry-fest or it feels like you’re overcome with anxiety, step outside yourself for a moment and remember that the conclusions and decisions you’re making in those moments should probably not be trusted.
“I wished to live deliberately… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Henry David Thoreau
Everybody has a list of things they’d love to do, “If only I weren’t afraid of…” That’s the worst thing about anxiety and worry – they hold us back from living the lives we dream about. They put the brakes on our potential and limit what we can become. One college professor asked his students to list the things they’d do, if only they weren’t afraid. Here’s the list they compiled. See anything that resonates with you?
If I weren't afraid, I would:
Now, what’s on that list of yours?
Whenever you head out on a journey it’s smart to take along a few supplies. Whether it’s some water on an afternoon hike or a map and some snacks on a road trip, a few basic provisions are indispensable along the way.
Many of us would like to be less fearful, less anxious, less worried and self-doubting but let’s face it, we’re not there yet. We’ll have to take a journey to get from our current place of anxiety to that land of fearlessness. What are the supplies we’ll need to get us all the way there?
Build your self-esteem
Fearlessness is built on confidence, which is built on self-esteem. And self-esteem is built when one small accomplishment is stacked on another and then another. Every time we achieve a goal, win a victory or pull off an achievement, our self-esteem grows. We feel better about ourselves and we’re more willing to take on the next challenge.
Things get sticky, though, when obstacles come along and our anxieties and self-doubts fill the windshield again. When that happens, the self-esteem disappears and it seems like we’re back to square one. That’s why it’s important to bring a knapsack full of victories, accomplishments and achievements along for this journey.
Document your successes
Start by making a list – it MUST be written – of five things you did before you were 18 that you were really proud of. Doesn’t matter how big or small they seem now, they were big to you at the time. Perhaps you caught a fly ball in little league. Or maybe you stood up in front of your sixth-grade class and read a poem you’d written. I remember, at about age 12 or 13, building a go-cart from bits and pieces of scrap metal and an old lawnmower motor that my Dad had in the garage. My today-self can see it as a rusty pile of junk, held together by bits of wire, but I’ll never forget the incredible feeling when it actually ran and I was bumping noisily around the front yard.
As you add each success to the list, close your eyes and remember how you felt at the time of that victory. Put yourself back into that feeling place for a few moments and let yourself glow all over again.
Next, make a list of five things you accomplished in college or at your very first job. Again, they don’t have to be huge in your eyes today. What matters is that they were victories to you at the time. The challenges you overcame in those moments seemed daunting, even overwhelming in their moment, but somehow you found the courage, the resources, the determination to do it anyway. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back again today for that win you scored back then.
Expanding your comfort zone
While you can repeat this exercise for as many time periods in your life as you’d like, make sure you finish up with a list of five successes you had last week. It might take some thinking because we’ve gotten into the habit of focusing on the things that haven’t or might not work out. But they’re there. Maybe it was a great meal that you cooked, a really insightful report you wrote or the way you brought a smile to someone else. Each one is a victory, an accomplishment, a win. And each time we bring these wins back into our minds, our self-esteem grows. The more our self-esteem grows, the more confident we become, the more willing to try something new and different and challenging. And every time we try and succeed at something that’s new and challenging, the closer we get to fearlessness.
When you’re facing a challenge that seems daunting, it’s too easy to forget the things you’ve already accomplished, the challenges you’ve already overcome and the bad-ass warrior that you actually are. So when you head out on the road towards fearlessness, be sure to bring along a big supply of previous victories.
The world, society, our friends and relations all love it when we worry.
Why? Because they worry too, worrying is miserable and misery loves company! But there’s no requirement that you play their game.
Once you’ve decided to opt out of worry, you’ll want to keep an eye out for these four ways that the world loves to try to keep you worried.
Walk through an airport, run on a treadmill at the gym or sit down for a drink at the bar and there it is – non-stop news. News stations make their money from the number of eyeballs and eardrums that are tuned in and the more sensational, the more terrifying they can make the report, the more fearful we become and the more we tune in. But you don’t have to! Try going without the news for an entire week and see how much lighter, freer, easier you feel!
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the whole social media tidal wave has got us plugged in 24-hours a day. We become addicted to the emotional roller-coaster and our blood pressure goes up and down right along. If you must be connected (and there’s no rule that says you must) set a specific (and short!) time each day to check your phone. Then put it down and go back to that great book, your gardening or sit for your daily 10-minute meditation.
The ‘Worry Club’
You know them. They’re the ones who phone you up regularly, and it’s always bad news. “Did you hear about the earthquake?!!” “Looks like it’s going to rain again today.” “I bet the traffic is going to be bad this morning.” Misery does love company, but it doesn’t have to be you. Drop out of the worry club. Avoid the people who drag you down and seek out the ones who lift you up and make you feel alive. And in those times when you can’t avoid the ‘worry-monger,’ keep the chat short and follow it immediately with a little treat for yourself.
What’s the opposite of a ‘feel-good’ movie? It’s one that makes you feel miserable, scared, depressed, anxious or otherwise yucky. Same goes for music lyrics. If you’re choosing to unsubscribe from anxiety, you might want to make some adjustments to your entertainment diet. While those ‘feel-good’ movies might have a reputation for being light-weight and occasionally a bit cheesy, the endorphins, dopamine and serotonin pulsing through your veins will more than make up for it.
If you have an allergy, the strategy is simple: Avoid those things you’re allergic to. If you don’t want to feel worried or anxious it’s easy to begin avoiding those things that bring on those feelings. What worry trigger are you going to start avoiding today?
Can you believe that we’re almost at the halfway point of 2019!?
In any sports event, the coach and the team always use halftime to reassess their game plan. They review their performance, assess the situation and set new intentions as they head into the second half.
And what about you? What’s your score at halftime? Have you grown? Are you thriving? Are you on your way to accomplishments, milestones and places you’ve never been before? Accomplishments, milestones and places you’ve dreamed about?
Exactly what are your intentions for the second half of 2019?
Intentions versus plans
Notice I didn’t say ‘plans.’ I said, ‘intentions.’ There’s a difference.
A plan is a set of goals that you felt obliged to create. It’s a wish list that, if the gods are smiling and the planets align, you might accomplish a portion of.
But intention is different. It’s a force of nature that embodies a focused, singular vision that generates its own energy. It’s an irresistible movement forward toward a future that fills your field of view and creates butterflies in your gut. It’s a full-color, surround-sound, 3D-extravaganza that you can feel and taste and touch. It’s an idea so clear, so intense, it marshals its own optimism, momentum and luck.
It begins as you accept the reality of today for what it is. But it doesn’t accept today as a blueprint for tomorrow. Instead, it sets today as the springboard for tomorrow and beyond. You’ve heard it before: anything the mind can conceive, it can achieve. What are you conceiving for yourself in the second half of this year?
The universe rewards action
But intention alone isn’t enough. Intention begets impatient, inspired action. Every hour. Every day. Every week. Every month is dominated by an insatiably itching to-do list that pushes you forward. You take care of the day-to-day, but you never take your eye off the bigger, farther-away target. I don’t care if you’re a CEO, a student, a stay-at-home parent or a retiree. If you haven’t set your unstoppable intention yet, what are you waiting for?
Look forward, beyond the windshield: What are you going to do this moment, this day, this week, this month to move forward toward your vision of the future?
Look back in the rear-view mirror: What progress have you made? What ground have you covered today? If you’re still surrounded by the same scenery, it’s time to get serious about your future.
Are you the dinghy floating in the ocean, tossed this way and that by fickle circumstances, convenient excuses and vague aspirations? Or are you the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, with a laser-lock on your destination and a relentless urgency to plow through any headwind and rogue wave that tries to knock you off course?
What’s your second half going to be like?
The problems of the world are too large, too complex for me to even comprehend, let alone contribute to a solution.
What am I supposed to do about global warming? Drive a Prius and the ice sheets will stop melting? Recycle my plastic bottles and the fires in California will go away? Hardly.
What am I supposed to do about the whack-jobs running Syria, North Korea and ISIS? Send $25 to UNICEF? Walk in a protest rally? I don’t think so.
What can I do to help the millions of refugees who have lost their homes and families and are literally adrift in a strange and scary world that doesn’t want them? Write a letter to my Member of Congress? Send another $25 to UNICEF? Ain’t gonna change a thing.
So here I sit, helpless to do anything.
Random acts of kindness
But then I recall the time I was working with a client a thousand miles from home and had a bad toothache. The client called his dentist, who took me right away and made the pain go away.
And the time I thought I’d lost my phone in the Atlanta airport and the kindly Delta agent walked the entire length of the terminal to return it to me.
And the time my brother sat and listened, he didn’t judge, he just listened as I poured my problems into his ear.
Tiny little acts of kindness. One-to-one, that brightened my day, lifted my spirit, renewed my faith in humanity. There have been countless moments in my life when friends, family, even total strangers have made the decision to give a little of themselves and help me.
There is no shortage of opportunities to be kind
So I realize that I’m far from helpless. Every single day I’m handed dozens of opportunities to pass on that tiny act of kindness. I can look the checkout clerk at the grocery store in the eye and offer a genuine smile. I can treat the man at the call center for the cable company like the human being he is. I can shock the heck out of someone by holding the door for them.
There’s an old story about a woman walking along a beach and coming across an entire school of fish that had been washed up and stranded well above the water line. She bent down and picked one up, carried it back to the ocean and let it go. A bystander scoffed that there were hundreds of other fish and she couldn’t possibly help them all. “No,” she replied, “but I could help that one.”
Gifts aren’t just those prettily-wrapped packages on birthdays and Christmas. They also include those tiny, every-day kindnesses that other people do for us. Whether it’s holding a door, offering a compliment or giving up a seat on the bus, the little things that we do for one another every day are small gifts that we exchange along the way.
But why do we struggle to accept the gifts we’re offered?
A couple of weeks ago I was going through the security line at an airport. The TSA guy checking our identification was wearing a nice watch. I like watches, so I complimented him on it. He shrugged and said, “It’s all I can afford.”
Since his watch was quite distinctive, I can assume that, when he was shopping for it, he wanted to get something that at least he, if not others, would admire, even if he couldn’t afford the latest Patek Philippe. And he was successful – someone else admired it. But then he brushed it off, dismissing my compliment – my small gift to him – as unwelcome.
Why is it so hard for us to accept a gift?
Why do we struggle to graciously accept a compliment or a kindness? Why do we blush and feel a little embarrassed? The armchair psychologist in me suspects that it makes us somehow feel beholden to or less-than the person offering the gift and our ego reacts. Or maybe our self-esteem is running so low that we don’t believe we deserve the compliment or the kindness.
Or perhaps we bought into all that nonsense about how it’s better to give than to receive. Think about it – for every ‘give,’ there has to be a ‘receive,’ or there couldn’t be any ‘give!’
While, giving is wonderful, it can also be seductive. Being the giver lets us be in the superior position. It lets us be the one in charge, in control. It lets us be seen as the one who has the resources to be able to give. “Look at me! I’m so wealthy and generous, I can give you this gift!” But when the tables are turned, it’s not always so easy to humbly and genuinely express gratitude and allow the other person to enjoy their generosity.
I see two opportunities for practicing fearlessness when someone offers you a gift. The first is in having the confidence to believe that you’re worthy of gifts from others. Yes, you deserve this gift! You are a person worthy of gifts, compliments, kindness and consideration! So accept it and bask in the justifiable recognition that it is.
The second is in having the humility to be grateful for what the other person has done for you. It takes a really big person to humbly and sincerely express gratitude.
Giving and receiving are like two poles of a magnet. You can’t have one without the other. So the next time someone offers you a compliment, a kindness, a courtesy… simply say, “Why, thank you very much!” and accept it for the gift that it is. Take a moment to recognize their generosity and your worthiness.
Have you ever petted a rescue dog? I can’t resist petting a dog that I meet when I’m out for a walk, but I can always tell the ones who were rescue dogs. Just about every one that I’ve ever petted has reacted in a predictable way. As gentle and loving as your intentions might be, when you raise your hand to pet them, they flinch. The tail goes between the legs, the head goes down and they cringe, waiting for the slap they know is coming.
Makes me want to cry.
Of course, the reason they react this way is that, from the youngest age, they’ve been ignored, scolded, slapped down, maybe even beaten. It’s trained them to expect to be hit so whenever they see a raised hand, they brace for what they know is coming.
We’re trained to be afraid
We’ve all been trained, to one degree or another, to expect to be hit. Perhaps not physically, but the mental and emotional blows we’ve been dealt have been just as painful and just as effective in training us to flinch and stay down on the ground.
Maybe it was your mother who, once too often said, “You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?” Or your father who, upon seeing the 98% you got on the test, asked what happened to the other two points. Or a lover, who liked to play passive-aggressive control games. Or the gym coach who smirked at your athletic attempts.
It could have been the math teacher who rolled her eyes when you raised your hand with a question, the music teacher who suggested that you just lip sync and let the rest of the choir carry the tune. Or maybe you watched as your parents struggled to make ends meet in the monthly budget.
Doesn’t matter where or by whom we were trained, we’ve all picked up a whole lot of useless baggage and a big set of fears and self-doubts along the way. And they always give us that instinctive and painful emotional flinch when we evaluate how we look, how smart we are, how physically adept we are or how much we’re worthy of being loved.
I like to call it, ‘rescue dog syndrome.’ If you’ve been beaten down often enough, you start volunteering to stay down.
The best way to avoid that pain? If you simply take a pass on trying to look nice, taking up running, signing up for a course or going out on a new date, nobody can judge or criticize you. And every time we give in to that unfortunate training and accept the judgment of others, we shrink. Our possibilities shrink, our self-esteem shrinks, our willingness to try new things shrinks. And we end up as small, shrunken people who flinch at the first hint of a raised hand, whether that hand is metaphorical or real.
In the vast majority of cases, our fears and self-doubts have no basis in objective reality. They’re simply what we’ve come to believe about ourselves. We’ve convinced ourselves that we’re not good with money. We’ve trained ourselves to believe that we’re unattractive. We’ve come to accept that we will always be passed over for promotions.
These fears we harbor, though, are rarely based on some external, uncontrollable reality. They’re merely our own thoughts; beliefs we’ve grown to accept. Have a thought in your head often enough and it eventually becomes a belief. Your beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies and end up as your reality.
Do your thoughts serve you?
If these fears, self-doubts and limiting beliefs have been learned, and if you decide you’d be better off without them, then it might be a good idea to set about un-learning them. Step one is to become aware. Catch yourself in the act of doubting yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts, don’t just accept them as they waltz through your head. Then ask, does this thought serve me? Is my life better as a result of this belief I’m holding? Or would I be stronger, more capable, and willing to try more if I could get rid of this belief?
By paying attention to the thoughts that habitually swirl around in our heads, we can begin to get a handle on the limiting beliefs we’ve convinced ourselves are true. These are the culprits that we can then root out on our way to a contented and joyful life.
When that fearful, flinching dog unlearns her old thinking habits and understands that a raised hand does NOT mean she’s about to be beaten, her life becomes a whole lot more joyful.
“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”
Johann Wolfgang van Goethe
When I think back over my life so far, the things I’ve accomplished, the truly remarkable things of which I’m most proud, have, without fail, been those things I was most scared to do. Every one of them seemed, at the time, to be a wild and crazy idea with catastrophic consequences of failure. Every fiber of my being was telling me to run and hide under the covers, to play it safe.
But each time, something in me, perhaps that obstreperous adolescent with the twinkle in his eye and the slingshot in his back pocket who still lurks in my soul, dared me over the cliff edge. And more often than not, it worked.
Sure, I’ve had my share of times that I fell flat on my face in an ignominious heap. But each time I’ve managed to get up, dust myself off and carry on, all the wiser for my sorry splat. And the wisdom that I gained didn’t keep me from trying again. Instead, it helped me refine my leap, fine tune the risk and increase the chances of success.
Living without regret
I’ve heard countless stories of men and women who, as they near the end of their lives, say that they don’t regret any of the things they did. Much more it’s the things they failed to try that leave them wishing for another turn at bat.
Some time ago I was asked to speak to the senior managers of a company at their annual retreat. The speaker I followed was their liability insurance provider and by the time I walked into the room, there were 30 adults whimpering for their Mammas, having just heard – again – how many ways there are each day to mess up, go broke, end up in jail and otherwise ruin your life. Took me a while to breathe some life and a measure of optimism back into them!
Are you afraid of risk?
By the time we reach a certain point in life, most of us have become trained, professional, risk avoiders. We’ve been shown a thousand ways that things can fail and taught to steer a wide path around the potholes.
Those who make things happen, on the other hand, for themselves and the world, have become trained, professional, risk takers. They know that the best opportunities come wrapped in risk and they get up every morning looking for those opportunities, measuring those risks and excited about the possibilities they see hiding there.
There are two ways to play a game. You can play to win, or you can play to not lose.
Playing it safe, avoiding the risks, working to offend no one, is playing to not lose. In doing so we blend into that vast, featureless collection of could-a-been’s. Bland, easily forgotten and perhaps regretful for those things we didn’t try.
Boldness, daring and risk taking
Playing to win, on the other hand, requires boldness, daring and risk taking. The best coaches know that the best defense is a good offense and, unless there are only seconds left in the fourth quarter and they’re up by 100 points, they don’t back off.
Playing to not lose gets you second place. Playing to win gets you either first place, or dead last. Both are memorable. Both are valuable. First place wins all the marbles. Dead last pays the same as second place but comes complete with free lessons.
Don’t fear failure. Fear timidity.
When we’re born we come pre-programmed with two, and only two fears: The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. After that, anything that makes you fearful, anxious or in doubt about yourself is learned or conditioned. And with every new bogeyman, we dream less, we hesitate more and the sphere of our infinite potential shrinks.
Some fears are downright useful – hot stoves, hungry tigers, high-voltage wires. These are the “Oh crap! That bus is about to hit me!” kind of scared and they’re just smart survival instincts.
Fear is constricting
But most are constraining, restricting, limiting. In the face of them we believe less, try less and become less. These are the non-stop, low-grade, chronic, “How-am-I-going-to-pay-the-cable-bill-this-month?,” “Why-hasn’t-my-friend-liked-my-Instagram-post-yet?,” “I-think-I’m-supposed-to-worry-more-about-climate-change,” “I’m-sure-these-symptoms-mean-I-have-cancer!” kind of anxiety. It’s the kind of scared that, late at night, when you can’t sleep, the cascade of hideous outcomes ends with you pushing a shopping cart along the sidewalk or rotting in a rat-infested prison.
Then, just for fun, let’s add in those self-doubts that are purely the result of our conditioned beliefs. The ones that set limits for ourselves before we’ve even tried. “I’ll never be good at math.” “You have to be lucky or criminal to be rich.” “I can’t get up there and sing karaoke!”
It sucks to be scared all the time.
So let’s stop.
We make ourselves anxious
Turns out that, with the exception of the hot stove/oncoming bus kind of anxieties, none of the rest are based on any external reality. They’re our over-active imaginations cranking up the fear factor. They’re our tendency to immediately go for the worst-case scenario that has you landing in that hell-hole prison.
In other words, our fears, our anxieties, our self-doubts are self-imposed.
And they come with an ‘off’ switch.
We’ve immobilized ourselves with our addiction to CNN, Twitter and the gut-wrenching competition to win that last spot in the best pre-K so your three-year-old will get into Yale. None of which are mandatory.
Remember “Chicken Little?” That dim-witted hen who, when an acorn fell on her head, concluded that the sky was falling and proceeded to instill mass panic among the rest of the farmyard animals? It’s a cute story and it’s easy to see the folly of jumping to conclusions based on fake news.
Remember “The Emperor’s New Clothes?” The dim-witted emperor and townspeople who believed the con men who told them that only the smart people can see the cloth? It’s a cautionary tale for those who can’t or won’t think for themselves.
When we allow our imaginations, our psyches and our inner monologues to be hijacked by fear-mongering headlines and Twitter posts, our wits are also dimmed. And our infinite supply of human potential is stolen.
Such a colossal waste!
But what about Chicken Little? Like her, I spent way too much of my life convinced that the sky was, indeed, falling. That’s how we all feel when we’re so trapped in our very real, personal panic. It’s impossible to think calmly and rationally. And as imaginary as these demons are, the power they wield in our psyches makes them impassable roadblocks just the same.
Are you fed up with anxiety?
Sooner or later, every one of us gets fed up with worrying what others think, hiding under the bed and surrendering command of our lives.
In spite of the power those demons wield, it’s entirely possible to remove those roadblocks. Since it’s all self-imposed, we can learn to unplug from the fear. We can untangle the net of fear, anxiety and self-doubt that keeps us from exploring and our limitless human potential. We can live up to the promises we’ve made to ourselves.
Anyone can do it. But only if you’re willing to hit that ‘off’ switch. Only if you want to leave the drama behind and get to know the valuable, competent, courageous, remarkable human being that you are.
Overcoming the fear, transcending the anxiety, conquering the self-doubt. That’s what i-fearless is all about.