I’ve set some very big, very ambitious goals for myself.
In fact, most of the goals I’ve set for myself easily fall into the category of BHAGs. You may have heard this term – BHAG. It was coined by author Jim Collins in his ground-breaking book, Built to Last, and stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
A BHAG isn’t just any old goal – lose 20 pounds, clean out the garage, organize your photo library. No, a BHAG is huge and daunting. A BHAG is President Kennedy in May of 1961 declaring, “this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” At the time, the most optimistic scientific estimates of success gave it a fifty-fifty chance. Many experts didn’t think it was possible at all.
Given the odds, such a bold commitment was nothing short of outrageous.
Which is an appropriate word to describe the BHAG I’ve set for myself: Help 10 million people completely eliminate fear and anxiety from their lives.
Like I said, outrageous.
At this time, the most optimistic scientific estimates of success gave it zero chance. Every expert doesn’t think it possible at all. Which, of course, only adds fuel to my fire.
Setting the goal is the easy part. Achieving it is another thing altogether because BHAGs are REALLY HARD. Any BHAG worth the label is going to require a great deal of concentrated time and effort and it’s so easy to find a million reasons and ways to avoid or postpone the real work.
However, instead of calling them “reasons,” let’s call them what they are – excuses.
I have committed to posting a video-a-day on the i-fearless YouTube channel. Each one is five to seven minutes long and takes that time, plus about twice that to edit. I’m learning so many creative ways to convince myself that I simply don’t have those 25 minutes. It’s too noisy. The lighting isn’t right. My head isn’t into it right now. I’ve already got three that are ready to go, so I don’t need to think about that today…
I have committed to posting a weekly blog (just like this one) every Friday and sending it out to my growing list of email subscribers. This takes a little longer – maybe three or four hours. There are countless obstacles that get in the way of that weekly task. It can’t possibly be done in several shorter time periods – the writing won’t be good enough. I got caught up in some family to-do items and it’s not my fault that I couldn’t find time. My readers won’t even notice if I miss a week…
I have committed to building a thriving and highly engaged Facebook Group – Fearless Living and Growth Society, which requires daily postings, comments and interactions. I should also be doing Facebook Live events regularly. But the lighting isn’t right, it’s too noisy, there aren’t enough people going to participate, I’m too busy writing the blog…
I’m committed to building a strong following on social media so I can provide the inspiration, tools and resources people need to overcome their own anxieties. But that requires investing in ads with money that’s hard to come by…
I’ve committed to recruiting mental health professionals, life coaches and other wellness experts to help me teach and spread the techniques that allowed me to remove fear and anxiety from my own life. But they’re all busy, COVID-19 has made it hard to network, getting their attention takes time, resources and creativity…
In their moments, every one of these roadblocks is a legitimate obstacle to accomplishing the BHAG that I’ve set for myself. So any failure to achieve it certainly won’t be my fault. I’ll be able to point to hundreds of genuine reasons why it didn’t happen. I’m even making a list of people to blame when I have to admit defeat.
But the truth is that there are no legitimate obstacles, there are only excuses. If I choose to see them as dead-end roadblocks, I’m finished. If, instead, I choose to see them as challenges, against which I measure the kind of stuff I’m made of, they become a game to be played and won. What I lack in resources I can make up for in resourcefulness.
When I look myself in the mirror and ask why I’m allowing this BHAG to get the better of me, I’m forced to admit that sometimes I’m a little intimidated by it and sometimes I’m just feeling lazy. Neither of these conditions serve me. Neither of these conditions take me closer to achieving this audacious and, in my view, entirely worthwhile goal.
Imagine a world that is completely free of anxiety. Imagine waking up every day knowing that you are fully capable of successfully taking on any challenge that arises. Imagine sleeping like a baby every night.
That’s why this goal is worth the effort.
On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd in the stadium at Rice University in Houston. Regarding the BHAG he’d set for the nation he said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
What excuses are you using to avoid progress on your BHAG?
There are four great reasons to rid your life of anxiety and worry.
1. It just feels awful
It sucks to be anxious all the time. In fact worry is one of the most unpleasant emotions that we experience as humans. It saps our energy, our strength and our motivation and there’s a powerlessness that seems to take over, preventing us from taking positive, constructive action. Anxiety comes with its own kind of psychic suffering that can (and does) immobilize you.
2. It accomplishes nothing
Worry contributes absolutely nothing to your life, to the lives of those around you or to the world. It has never improved any situation or solved any problem. While there are some who might fool themselves into believing that their worry will lead them to a solution to whatever perceived threat is hanging over their heads in the moment, it’s never true.
3. It blocks your potential
With every new bogeyman, we dream less, we hesitate more and the sphere of our infinite potential shrinks. Our potential and performance as human beings is stifled and we back away from the great things of which our unbridled imaginations are capable. Worries are constraining, restricting, limiting. In the face of them we believe less, try less and become less. They cause us to set limits for ourselves before we’ve even tried.
But the reason I want to focus on today is…
4. It makes you sick
It’s been more than well documented that stress, worry and anxiety are injurious to your health. From skin conditions and irritability to high blood pressure, ulcers and heart attacks, constant worry simply isn’t good for you.
The Mayo Clinic reports that anxiety can result in restlessness, panic attacks, increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, trembling, feeling weak or tired, trouble concentrating and gastrointestinal problems. Healthline adds depression, headaches, irritability, heart palpitations, muscle aches and loss of sex drive as resulting from worry.
Are we having fun yet?
You’ve also likely heard of the hormone Cortisol. Often referred to as “the stress hormone,” it’s produced by your adrenal glands and can be thought of your built-in alarm system. One of its primary roles is to help fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis situation. Whenever cortisol is produced, your body goes on high alert, muscles tighten, breathing increases, heart rate goes up and you’re ready to take on whatever might be threatening you.
Obviously, like the city fire department, it’s an extremely useful resource and we wouldn’t want to be without it. But, also like the fire department, the best days are the ones in which we don’t need to call on it.
Cortisol and the fire department are both designed to respond to emergencies. The nature of an emergency is that it doesn’t last too long. We respond to the crisis, solve the problem and then go back to living our normal lives.
But if your body’s “code red” status lasts too long, if worry and anxiety become chronic, some nasty things begin to happen. Too much cortisol compromises your immune system, making you more susceptible to disease. Relationships have been found between cortisol and diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
More recently it’s also been discovered that too much reliance on cortisol can also take an early toll on your ability to think.
A study published in 2018 in Neurology found that responding to everyday challenges with worry and anxiety, and the resultant release of cortisol, can have negative impacts on the brain by the time we reach early middle age. The study of more than 2,000 people, most in their 40s, learned that those with the highest levels of cortisol performed worse on tests of memory, organization, visual perception and attention.
The study also discovered that higher cortisol levels are connected with physical changes in the brain. In fact, the total volume of certain regions of the brain actually shrinks. This is often seen as a precursor to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. This connection is reinforced by other research that has shown that weaker-than-average performance on these types of tests can indicate a higher risk of dementia in later life. The link between high stress and anxiety and dementia is becoming clearer.
The study indicated that these effects seem to be most evident in women. But it’s uncertain whether middle-aged women are under more stress than men or simply have higher cortisol levels as a result of the same levels of stress.
So what should you do about it?
The last thing I want you to get stressed about is stress. So at the risk of sounding cheeky, don’t worry about it!
Dr. Sudha Seshadri, the lead researcher on the study says, “An important message to myself and others is that when challenges come our way, getting frustrated is very counterproductive.” She also says that other research has shown cortisol levels can be reduced with adequate sleep, exercise, socializing and relaxing mental activities such as meditation. Other research shows that some fairly simple activity and lifestyle changes (such as those we show you here at i-fearless) have been shown to change these levels.
Bruce McEwen is a neuroscientist and cortisol expert at The Rockefeller University. He was not part of the study but says other research suggests it is never too late to adopt a healthier lifestyle. He says that the brain does have the capacity for repairing and steps like reducing stress, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, getting enough good-quality sleep and finding meaning in one’s life can aid in that repair.
Of course, that’s what i-fearless is all about – showing you strategies and tactics that can help you reduce and even eliminate worry and anxiety from your life. Because life is too precious and offers too much opportunity for joy to be spent worrying.
I always enjoy learning new things. And on the way to acquiring a new skill, one of the most effective techniques is to be able to watch someone else who has already accomplished what I’m attempting to do. On our journey from anxiety to fearlessness it’s both instructive and inspiring to see someone else demonstrate fearlessness for us.
The power of a real, live example is in our ability to point to it, see it in action. We can say, “There! See that?! That’s what living fearlessly looks like! Now I’m going to try it.” In that way we’re able to set a new standard for ourselves. Watching someone else live out the example has a reality about it that is so much more powerful than vague or hypothetical situations.
Let’s look at two examples of fearless living that aren’t the least bit vague or hypothetical. They are both extremely real and very translatable into our own efforts to move from anxiety to fearlessness.
At the recent Democratic National Convention, which was held virtually because of the pandemic, every politician, lobbyist, actor and professional speaker was completely upstaged by a 13-year-old boy from New Hampshire named Brayden Harrington.
Speaking from the safe space of his own bedroom, Brayden told how he and Presidential contender Joe Biden are “members of the same club. We s……. st…… stutt…… stutter.”
As he went to pronounce the word “stutter,” the sound got stuck and just wouldn’t come out. You could see the effort, the determination and the shear fortitude that he summoned to carry on. And in a speech that lasted less than two minutes, this young man demonstrated a courage that left those of us watching in complete awe. Witnessing him struggle with his disfluency, knowing that he was being watched by millions of people, was a masterclass in facing a very real fear and making the decision to not let it hold him back.
As his address went on, Brayden encountered additional words that challenged his uncooperative vocal patterns. But in every case, he carried on. As I put myself in his place I could feel, in the pit of my stomach, the overwhelming temptation to dive for the safety of the covers of his bed that was mere feet away. But again and again, he made the choice to confront any fears, any self-consciousness, and declare that he would not allow them to limit him.
This demonstration of courage had nothing to do with politics. The boy won’t even be able to vote for another five years. The only dog he has in the hunt is his own determination to move beyond the kind of obstacle that so many of the rest of us declare as insurmountable.
I’ve lived five times as long as Brayden so far, but he just schooled me in living fearlessly.
Chelsie Hill was born to dance. In classes at the age of three, she was competing at regional and national events when she was five. As a 17-year-old high school senior she was involved in a drunk driving accident that left her with irreversible spinal cord damage and unable to walk.
During her recovery, Chelsie made the decision that she would not let her injuries and disabilities interrupt her dreams of being a professional dancer. She moved to Los Angeles to study dance and found herself the only wheelchair dancer in the class.
In 2012 she formed the Rollettes, a wheelchair dance team that has appeared on national media including Ellen, the Today Show, the Hallmark Channel and Access Daily as well as others. The group empowers women with disabilities to live boundlessly (and fearlessly) and shifts perspectives on disability through dance.
Nor has Chelsie stopped with wheelchair dancing. She is a speaker and advocate against drunk and distracted driving. She has her own line of jeans designed specifically for women with disabilities and unique body types. And in 2017 she partnered with Tommy Hilfiger and later Amazon for release of their adaptive clothing line.
Two very different people. Two very different challenges.
In both cases it’s easy to feel and empathize with the crushing fear that these two no doubt felt. And yet they made the decision to power through it, knowing that staying on the small side of that fear would result in a life lived from a place of timidity and cowering. But to confront that fear, to understand that it exists only in our minds, and to decide that it will no longer control us, will result in a life without limits.
I like to surround myself with people who inspire and instruct me to raise my own bar. When I watch them in action, see how they respond to challenging situations. I like to have their examples to imitate.
Brayden Harrington and Chelsie Hill are just two of the countless people who can teach the rest of us what it’s like to overcome anxiety, leave apprehension in the dust behind you and live fearlessly. I, for one, want to watch very closely, take careful notes and do my best to follow the examples.
A couple of years ago I enjoyed a fascinating day in Mountain View, California, as my wife Gail and I attended the annual shareholders meeting of Tesla, the electric car company founded by billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk. (Full disclosure: Gail was the smart one investing in Tesla. I was just arm candy.)
The business portion of the meeting lasted no more than five minutes. The interesting part, about four hours as the multi-talented Mr. Musk told stories about the early days of Tesla, the big ideas, the failed experiments, the almost-went-bankrupt nail-biters and the incredibly successful phenomenon that continues to unfold as this still-new company rewrites the rules on personal transportation.
Turns out that Elon is a truly terribly public speaker, a reasonably talented engineer and a stunningly brilliant visionary. And there’s the key. In story after story he told us that he could see the end results in his mind’s eye. He readily admitted that, at many points he didn’t have a clue as to HOW he would actually get to that end result, but he didn’t for a moment doubt that he would.
I love reading about and speaking with successful people. And the one thing they all have in common is the ability to visualize the goal they are heading towards.
For example, I recently read a great book* by Daymond John, the entrepreneur founder of the FUBU clothing line and multimillionaire member of the team of Sharks on the popular TV reality show, Shark Tank. The book highlights both his own experience and that of a number of other successful entrepreneurs as they founded and built their companies. And in every case, the driving force was the clarity of the vision they each had for what they wanted to accomplish.
So, when you look out into your future, what do you see? Can you describe a detailed picture of where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing? What goals will you be working to achieve? Who will you be serving? Can you visualize this day three years from now?
Notice that I’m using words that all talk about vision, pictures and seeing. The reason this is so important is that it forces you to have tremendous clarity about your goals. If they’re the least bit vague or clouded, the likelihood that you’ll achieve them falls off rapidly.
So when you think about your life 36 months, 1,080 days from today, what color will the walls be? What window will you be looking out? Who will you be calling, visiting? Who will you include in your circle of influence? What will your bank statement say? How will this picture be different from the one you see today?
Like Elon Musk, you might not have a clue about how you’re going to get there. But that’s not nearly as important as knowing where you want to get to. You’ll figure it out, bit by bit, along the way.
When you drive at night, the headlights on your car illuminate only the few hundred feet in front of you. But you can drive from Seattle to Miami seeing only that much at a time. You don’t need to see the whole route, but you do need to see Miami in your mind.
Daymond John makes a great comment near the end of his book that is going to stick with me: “You can’t hit a target that you can’t see.”
What does your target look like?
* ‘The Power of Broke: How Empty Pockets, a Tight Budget, and a Hunger for Success Can Become Your Greatest Competitive Advantage
A lotta things have been changing for a lotta folks lately. And dealing with change can be extremely stressful if we don’t understand its purpose and its role in helping us evolve.
Case studies are always helpful for learning, so I’d like to offer a case study in radical change and the lessons to be taken from it. The case subject is me.
Things in my life don’t look the least bit like they did a couple of years ago. About 85% of the changes have been my idea. The other half have either been imposed on me or are unexpected and unintended consequences. All of them are pushing me so far outside my comfort zone that I’m pretty sure I don’t have one anymore. This isn’t a matter of stretching my old zone. It’s a process of smashing it to smithereens and leaving it in a pile of debris that’s disappearing into the horizon behind me.
During the past 18 months I have:
In short, with the exception of my absolutely and always perfect wife, Gail, there’s essentially nothing about my life now that is the same as it was two years ago.
As proof that you both can and should teach an old dog new tricks, here are a few things that I’ve observed as a newly-minted, Medicare-eligible upstart who set out to reinvent himself at the age when they told me I was supposed to retire.
It would be nice if we could have all the right conditions lined up, the guarantees in place, the assurances secured, the permissions granted. But I’ve learned that your parachute can’t open until after you’ve jumped out of the plane.
What about you? COVID-19 has pushed all of us to the edges and beyond of our previous comfort zones. How much of it are you desperately trying to preserve? Why? What might you become if you decided that leaving it behind might not be so scary after all?
Your time and your energy are like strawberry jam – the farther you spread them, the thinner they get. And if you’re anything like me, a thin, barely visible skim of jam on your toast just won’t cut it.
One of the most pervasive challenges I see among so many people who are would like to rid themselves of anxiety is the tendency to spread themselves too thin.
Work begins the second you check your smart phone in the morning and ends… well, it never actually ends. The kids demand your attention, you feel obliged to stay informed with the news, your social media accounts need attention, the grass needs cutting, you wanted to volunteer more this year… Oh, and when are you going to get around to meeting with that financial planner who’s going to solve all your problems with a mutual fund?
Anxiety can creep in when you feel you’ve lost control of your life. So if it seems that you’re only barely managing to stay a step ahead of the freight train that’s bearing down on you, it might be worthwhile to rethink your approach. Operating in reactive mode all the time gives you no opportunity to reflect on where you’ve been or are heading and then to prepare and carry out the plans that will take you there.
Is the solution to have more jam or less toast?
Do you know what you have in common with Oprah, Richard Branson and Elon Musk? You’re all given 24 hours in each day. Not a second more, nor a second less no matter who you are.
As for energy, have you noticed how some people seem to barely drag their butts around through the day while others have so much vitality you want to smack ‘em?
We’re all given a finite supply of time and energy. The difference is how we each make use of them. I like to watch and learn from those who have been more successful (however I choose to define that) than me. When it comes to using time and energy more effectively, I see successful people leveraging and increasing the effectiveness of the supply they’ve got. Here are some strategies I’ve found useful:
Negativity will sap your energy faster than an ironman triathlon. It takes practice to make positivity and optimism your default thoughts, but it pays huge dividends in the amount of energy you have to fuel your days. Focus on the things that are working, the things that are going well, the things you’ve done right. Make a list of all the things that have worked out for you and remind yourself that there’s far more ‘up’ in your life than ‘down.’
Take a look at the list of goals you’ve set for yourself. (You have a goals list, right?) Then ask yourself, “What’s the ONE THING I could be spending my time on that will take me to those objectives the fastest?” When you’ve identified it, set aside at least 50% of your time to devote to this task. Everything else is secondary and can wait. If you don’t have a list of goals, I suggest that preparing one is your ONE THING.
We often spend more time switching between tasks than we do working on the tasks themselves. Instead of losing 20 pounds, earning another degree, coaching little league and starting a Facebook group, pick just one. A really good job done on just one of those efforts will bring you far more benefit than a poor or half-finished job on all four. The other three will wait patiently for when you’re ready. Plus, the success you enjoy in one area will fuel you for the effort in the next.
Ask! Ask! Ask!
Too many of us try to do everything on our own. But there is information, assistance, support, money and time available, if only we would ask. The most successful people are constantly asking others for all of these. The rest of us, though, hold back from asking because we’re afraid to look needy, foolish or stupid. We’ve also convinced ourselves that we’re likely to be rejected, so why bother asking in the first place? We say ‘no’ to ourselves before anyone else has a chance to say ‘yes.’
Surround yourself with successful people
There are people in your life who can simply walk into the room and you’re completely drained of energy. They bring the tension, the stress and the anxiety with them and they love to share it around. But there are others in your life, too. They’re the ones who always leave you feeling better than you did before they came. They bring the energy, the enthusiasm, the optimism and the encouragement. All emotions are contagious. Run from the toxic ones and seek out and breathe deeply from the uplifting ones.
Jim Rohn, one of the original success teachers and Tony Robbins’ mentor, liked to say that “success leaves clues.” In other words, if you hang around and observe successful people you can see what it is they do differently than the rest of us. When it comes to maximizing your finite supply of time and energy, each of these tactics will make your jam go a little farther while still retaining that sweet strawberry taste.
How often do you find yourself making a decision or taking an action based on what you believe others will think?
We worry what family, friends, co-workers – even complete strangers! will think of the clothes we wear, the way we cut or color our hair, what we choose to eat and drink, the car we drive, the house we live in, the friends we hang out with.
If you make a comment or a joke in a conversation, do you spend the next hour worrying if the others thought it was inappropriate, uninformed or unfunny? Do you second-guess yourself constantly because of what others might think?
Worrying what somebody else thinks about your hair, shoes or sense of humor can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. But things become downright debilitating when major life decisions are influenced or even dictated by the opinions of others. Choices about who you should date or marry, the school you select, the education you pursue and the career you choose will affect you for life. When choices like these are made in an attempt to please everybody else, you sentence yourself to a life of frustration and heartache.
It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see what’s going on: We’re constantly seeking the approval of others because we don’t get enough approval from ourselves.
The psychology can run deep and have many origins. Perhaps we weren’t praised enough growing up. Maybe we were taught that our opinions didn’t matter. Possibly we’ve spent our lives with people who weren’t comfortable expressing positive emotions.
I specifically recall a boss early in my career who told us point blank that we were grown-ups and ought to know when we’d done it right. His job was to point out (in the loudest and most public way) when we’d screwed up.
All human behavior is an attempt to avoid pain and seek out pleasure. Since we’ve been trained to associate powerful negative and painful emotions to disapproval, we’l seek its opposite wherever we can find it.
The approval we’re seeking is just another term for connection, relevance and love. But we’ll never find it in a true, lasting and meaningful way while we look for it from everybody else. It’s an unwinnable game.
Why is it unwinnable? Why can’t you simply spend your life conforming to the preferences of others?
Imagine two different people, both of whom are close and important to you, both of whose approval you seek. Now imagine a situation in which the way one of them wants you to behave is the opposite of what the other wants? Who should you attempt to please?
Now imagine a situation in which what both of them want of you is incompatible with what you want of yourself? Who should you attempt to please?
It’s useful to ask yourself whether or not this need for approval by everyone else is serving you. Do you enjoy it? Would you prefer a different reaction from your emotions? The choice is yours.
No matter how it began, once you’ve recognized the problem, it’s easy to fix. It’s easy to blame your upbringing, but you can’t go back and change that. Fortunately, whatever you used to be and wherever you came from does not dictate where you go from here.
You simply need to love and approve of yourself so much that you don’t require the love and approval of others.
This isn’t narcissism or ego. It’s much-needed self-care in which your self-esteem and confidence are restored to their factory settings. Nor is it shutting yourself off from the world and not caring what others think or feel. It’s simply choosing what and who are important to you. It’s cutting the puppet strings from everyone who wants to manipulate you for their purposes. It’s learning to steer your life in the direction that you want to go.
First, take every possible opportunity to celebrate yourself. Pay attention through your days and catch yourself when you get it right. This actually happens more often than you think. When it does – maybe even multiple times every hour, take a second to pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Catch yourself winning at life and celebrate those wins.
Second, keep a victory log. Write down your successes at the end of each day. They don’t have to be earth-shaking. In fact, it’s the steady stream of simple victories that build a solid foundation of confidence and self-esteem. Write in your journal that you balanced your checkbook, remembered to call your mother, fit into jeans that are one size smaller, cleaned out your inbox or exercised for 30 minutes.
Third, practice a daily “mirror exercise.” Before going to bed stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eyes and spend at least three minutes appreciating yourself, out loud, for everything you’ve accomplished during the day. Appreciate your achievements, the disciplines you maintained, the temptations you resisted. Maintain eye contact with yourself through the exercise. When you’re finished, continue to look deeply into your own eyes and say, “I love you (your name).” Then stand still for a few more moments to let the love sink in. This is guaranteed to feel beyond weird at first, but I guarantee that if you stick with it for at least 10 days you’ll feel an incredible transformation in your self-esteem.
Finally, sit quietly for a few minutes once a day and ask your heart what it wants to do, how it wants to dress, what career it wants to seek. Just for a moment, filter out the opinions of anyone else and ask what you would choose if there was no one else around to judge you. Carry the answers that your heart provides around with you. Reflect on them regularly and slowly you’ll begin to really feel and understand, in the depths of your soul, that the only person’s opinion that matters is your own
There’s a scene in the 1995 James Bond film, Goldeneye, with Pierce Brosnan as the iconic British spy, in which Bond is under attack and taking cover behind a concrete pillar. A bullet hits the pillar mere inches from his face and he nonchalantly cocks his head away from the impact without so much as a flinch.
In another scene he’s driving a stolen tank while chasing the bad guys through the streets of St. Petersburg. After he smashes through yet another building, he coolly takes a moment to straighten his tie.
Although the majority of superheroes have always, and rather chauvinistically, been men, we can also count on Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Captain Marvel, Black Widow and others to save us in a jam.
But whether it’s Chris Evans as Captain America or Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, our culture has created a conception of fearlessness that is all about guts and glory. The kick ass hero who’s afraid of nothing and no one and will run into a burning building to save a kitten and then humbly deflect any adulation as they head off into the sunset.
Our heroes are impregnable. Bullets bounce off them, they never stay down and, aside from the occasional rip in their leotards, they never even get cut or scratched. Once in a while their creator will give them one small flaw, just to make the story line more interesting. But we always know who’s going to win in the end.
None of these characters could ever be real because they’re missing a key trait that makes us all human – vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to know that things might not turn out all right, but to go ahead and dive in anyway. And that is living fearlessly.
Living fearlessly isn’t about being afraid of nothing. It’s about having the courage to be crap-your-pants scared, but choosing to go ahead and try it anyway.
Why on earth would we go ahead and try it anyway? Because to stay where we are has become unbearably painful. And because the place where we might end up could be glorious.
In contrast to those action heroes who always defeat the bad guy who comes from somewhere else, our kryptonite lies inside us. We carry it around with us every day. The things we’re most afraid of aren’t out there in the world, they’re inside our heads.
They are the beliefs we hold about what we can and can’t do. Our thoughts about our limitations. The fears we carry around about what others think of us. Our fears that we don’t measure up, that we’re somehow not good enough
That’s why superheroes are so appealing. They’re everything we wish we could be so we live vicariously through them.
The fears we run from have nothing to do with aliens or evil villains. Instead, we’re afraid to say “I’m sorry” to someone we’ve hurt, to open our heart to a new love, to listen openly to a different point of view, to admit that we were wrong.
If Spider-Man ran away and hid under a rock, it would be pretty obvious. But our fears are easy to hide. You can easily go about your day without anyone ever knowing that you’re afraid to apply for that promotion and risk being turned down. It’s easy to pretend that your relationship with your kids is just fine or that you’re not really reliant on pain killers.
But you know. And in the middle of the night, those demons that have been haunting you come back to remind you of what you could be if you were willing to try.
Deciding that you’re finally going to stare those demons down is living fearlessly.
Sitting down to begin that novel you’ve had in your heart forever is living fearlessly.
Quitting that soul-crushing job without another lined up is living fearlessly.
Starting that side-hustle business before you’re ready is living fearlessly.
Walking away from that dead-end relationship is living fearlessly.
Moving alone to that new city is living fearlessly.
Sitting down to have that tough conversation is living fearlessly.
Allowing yourself to fall in love and risk getting your ass kicked by it is living fearlessly.
Only you know what living fearlessly specifically means for you.
As long as we refuse to confront those fears our lives will always be less than they could be. As long as we put the hard stuff off till Someday we’ll be looking back at what we could have been, could have done, could have had.
Action heroes never doubt that they will succeed. Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Matt Damon, Daniel Craig… The characters they play aren’t actually fearless. Because they always have bigger guns, thicker armor, better aim or cooler gadgets, their outcomes are always certain. There’s nothing for them to fear.
But our outcomes don’t have those guarantees. Which, when you’re willing to risk that emotional, financial, spiritual and social uncertainty, makes you far braver than any superhero.
True fearlessness is not about kicking ass and taking names. It’s about accepting and embracing our humanness, our vulnerability and our exposure to risk. And doing the scary thing anyway.
Brené Brown is a professor, lecturer and researcher at the University of Texas who studies the concepts of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. In her book, Daring Greatly, she describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” We know it as that stressful feeling that comes when we step out of our comfort zone, knowing that we may not be able to control the outcomes.
It takes tremendous courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be emotionally open, to admit that you don’t know everything, that you were wrong. We all feel the fear. The difference is in how we decide to act in the face of it.
But here’s the payoff: When we do eventually face our fears – which we always will – we invariably discover that we’re made of far superior stuff than we ever imagined
If you were paying attention in 10th Grade physics, and if your memory goes back that far, you may remember a little experiment with tuning forks.
If you recall, a tuning fork is a little metal thingy that looks like a two-pronged fork. When you strike it, it vibrates, emitting a musical tone that’s unique to the size and shape of the fork. A fork that is tuned to sound the note of A, or 440 Hz, can only ever emit an A.
The experiment needed two tuning forks tuned to the same note. When the science teacher struck one of them and it began to vibrate, the other fork, located some distance away, would start to vibrate and emit its note too.
What we’re hearing is a phenomenon called sympathetic vibration or resonance. When the first fork is struck, its vibration sends energy waves outward. Because it’s tuned to the same vibrational frequency, the energy waves resonate with the second fork and it begins to vibrate as well. This is the trick behind the opera singer who can shatter a wine glass with her voice.
Now let’s move on to some advanced physics. (Stay with me, I promise that this is going somewhere!)
Since the late 1800s, and most famously by Albert Einstein, scientists have been learning about quantum physics, the structure and behavior of the tiniest particles in the universe. Among the discoveries are two remarkable notions.
First, the smaller the particles get, the less and less ‘stuff’ is actually there. In other words, what we see, touch and think of as ‘matter,’ the hard stuff of the world is, at its most fundamental level, nothing but energy. When we look at the tiniest ‘things’ through the most powerful microscopes, we discover there are no ‘things’ at all, just vibrating energy.
Second, as scientists experiment with these most minute particles, the results of those experiments actually depend on their expectations. Odd as it may seem, if a researcher expects one result, she gets it. If she expects something different, she gets that. The researcher’s thoughts and intentions truly do influence the experimental outcome.
Researchers are concluding that, like the vibrations of the tuning fork, our thoughts are actually a form of vibrational energy that go out and resonate with other thoughts. Additionally, since everything in the universe is also nothing but vibrating energy, our thoughts also resonate with things that match their frequency. This is the basis of what you’ve likely heard of as the Law of Attraction.
This concept states that, because of their vibrational nature, your thoughts have the power to attract similar thoughts and even events and circumstances that match your thoughts. In other words, if you spend all your time thinking that bad things are going to happen to you, you’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s been said that worry is using your mental energy to create a future that you don’t want. If you spend an inordinate amount of time worrying – about money, about love, about your health – it’s extremely likely that your worry is actually bringing those fears into your life. Rather than helping you find solutions, anxiety is making the problem worse.
There are two sides to every anxious thought – the aspect of it that you want and that which you don’t want.
I DO want to be slim and healthy.
I DON’T want to be overweight and sick.
While your brain might be thinking about the “I DO…” or the “I DON’T…” and assuming that those are the significant parts of those statements, your subconscious and your vibrating thoughts are focused on either “slim and healthy” or “overweight and sick.”
Try it for yourself: Close your eyes and focus on the thought, “I DON’T want to be overweight and sick.” Notice the subtle feelings that you evoke. They’re likely feelings of fear and aversion and you can’t help having images of oversized clothes, doctor visits and low energy.
Now close your eyes again and focus on the thought, “I DO want to be slim and healthy.” Again, notice how different this thought feels than the previous one. It feels uplifting, happy, lighthearted and even joyous. The images in your mind are about healthy eating, an active lifestyle and high energy.
Because the emotions you experience are the actual vibrations that your thoughts have generated, both your Reticular Activating System and the law of attraction resonate far more intensely to the feelings than they do to the conscious thoughts. And both will work to bring you closer to the thing that you spend most of your time and mental energy focusing on.
The beauty of both is also that, once we’ve learned how they work, we can use them to our advantage. Rather than using your worry and anxiety to create a future that you don’t want, why not turn it around and use your optimism and hope to create the future that you DO want?
In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson published what has since become a classic in children’s fairy tales, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’
In case it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, the story tells of two crooks who arrive at the court of a vain emperor. Posing as tailors, they offer to make him a magnificent set of clothes of magical cloth that they claim is completely invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. Thinking that he’ll be able to identify those who aren’t up to his intellectual standards, the emperor hires the con artists at great cost. While they pretend to work the emperor and his officials visit to check on the progress. They each see that the looms are empty but pretend to admire the beautiful cloth to avoid being thought of as a fool. When the tailors declare the clothes complete, they pretend to dress him and he sets off on a procession through the city. The citizens, also not wanting to appears as fools, feign admiration until a guileless child blurts out that the emperor is, indeed, naked.
There’s a term in social psychology that describes this kind of herd mentality. ‘Pluralistic ignorance’ means that everybody’s going along with an idea, not because it’s true or even makes sense, but simply because everyone else is. In other words, it’s normal, so it must be true and it must be okay.
The dictionary defines ‘normal’ as meaning usual, typical or expected. Since worry and anxiety are everywhere, everyone experiences them and no one questions them, worry and anxiety must, by definition, be normal.
But there’s a big difference between ‘normal’ and ‘useful’ or ‘desirable.’ There’s also a big difference between ‘normal’ and ‘unavoidable.’
You see, obesity is also normal. As are racial profiling, underfunded schools and potholes in the roads. But in each of these cases we recognize that we’d be better off without them and good people are working hard to make them abnormal, if not altogether extinct.
As much as they might be normal, anxiety and worry are neither desirable nor unavoidable and we’d be much better off without them.
Humans are hard-wired to respond to dangerous situations. It’s called a negativity bias and it evolved over millions of years. When we were wandering around in the same neighborhood as hungry saber tooth tigers, we were well served by a brain that made us notice, and respond to danger.
The incidents of imminent danger in our lives today, though, are incredibly rare. The saber tooth tigers are long gone so now, instead of a charging mastodon, our negativity bias alerts us to the insulting Facebook post or the (extremely remote) possibility of a bad medical diagnosis.
Where fear is a useful response to real and present danger, worry and anxiety are responses to threats that are neither immediate nor well defined. Social status, partisan politics and your finances in retirement are much more vague, distant and hard to comprehend than a fast-approaching bus. In fact most of the threats you perceive are only imagined.
Yet our bodies can’t tell the difference between a threat that is real and imminent and one that’s merely an illusion. Our systems are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, our bodies go on high alert, muscles tighten, breathing increases, heart rate goes up and we’re ready to take on the attacking barbarians. Even if they are only imagined.
If that ‘code red’ status lasts too long, nasty things begin to happen. Too much cortisol compromises your immune system, making you more susceptible to disease. Sustained anxiety has been linked to diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, panic attacks, hyperventilation, gastrointestinal problems, depression, headaches, irritability, muscle aches and loss of sex drive.
Whether you’re worrying about money, other people’s opinions of you or that mole on your arm, sustained worry and anxiety can not only make you sick, they can kill you.
Just like the emperor, strutting butt naked down the street, we’ve all been duped into believing that we’re supposed to worry. Throughout our lives we’ve been trained and conditioned to be anxious. Our parents, teachers, coaches and the entire world around us frets, so it must be the thing to do. It’s a time- honored practice that’s been going on for so long it’s become an unconscious habit.
Since no one ever questions the wisdom or usefulness of worrying, we assume it’s both normal AND natural.
When we do question the wisdom and usefulness of worrying we discover that it’s neither wise nor useful. In fact there are four major drawbacks to anxiety: 1) It feels awful, 2) it accomplishes nothing, 3) it makes us sick, and 4) it blocks our innate human potential. Four great reasons to let it go.
While our biology may date back millions of years, our intelligence has grown exponentially. When we discover that a behavior no longer serves us we have the ability to change it. Since there are no advantages to chronic anxiety, the wise person would conclude that they’re better off without it.
To gain control over and ultimately kick the worry habit completely the first step is to become consciously aware of our anxiety. We need to observe ourselves in the act of worrying.
This process of learning to become aware of when we’re worrying and then identifying the fear that lies behind the worry, teaches us to pull the worrying habit back out of our subconscious, daily ‘normal’ and into the realm of ‘front-of-mind.’
Once we’ve witnessed ourselves admiring the emperor’s non-existent clothes, it becomes much easier to establish a whole new, much healthier ‘normal.
Richard Bentall is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sheffield in the UK. In 1992, while at Liverpool University, he published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics titled, ‘A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder.’
His argument, although satirical, is that a psychiatric disorder is “a statistically abnormal psychological phenomenon that is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities.” In other words, it ain’t normal. So it’s a disorder.
Fortunately, Bentall was being ironic. But It doesn’t take much looking around to conclude that happiness is anything but normal. Listen in on most casual conversations and the prevailing theme is blame and complain.
Of course there’s much to complain about in the world and people who are chronically happy just can’t seem to understand that. Their cognitive ability to assess how bad things are is out of whack. As Bentall wrote, “It has been shown that happy people, in comparison with people who are miserable or depressed, are impaired when retrieving negative events from long term memory.” Research has also shown that happy people have inaccurate cognitive biases, such as overestimating their control over the environment.
Bentall concludes that “the unrealism of happy people [is] surely clear evidence that such people should be regarded as psychiatrically disordered.”
The bottom line: if you’re chronically happy, you’re weird.
Well please count me among the weird kids! And I invite you to join us as we OD on serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins.
Although the word chronic simply means “continuing for a long time,” it always implies there’s something awful going on: a chronic liar, a chronic state of civil war, chronic indigestion.
So let’s embrace our weirdness and repurpose it. Let’s use it to describe a quality that you’d love to have and cultivate. A quality that, if you were experiencing it every moment of every day, life would be a constant joy ride.
Happiness comes from feeling good about yourself and your situation. Since we can’t always control the situation (can you say COVID-19?) let’s focus on feeling good about yourself. Which we call self-esteem.
Nathaniel Branden was a psychotherapist and writer known for his work in the psychology of self-esteem. He said that self-esteem is “the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.”
Did you catch that? “Worthy of happiness.”
Just like every other human being in the world, whether you believe it in this moment or not, you are worthy of happiness. But, because it’s so unusual, it takes courage to claim your joy. You’re bucking the norm, swimming upstream and telling societal norms to take a flying leap.
Which is an act of fearlessness.
It takes courage, but it also takes practice to be chronically happy. And it requires that you break the mold that we’re all rammed into. The mold that tries to convince us that the world is brutish, that people are nasty and self-centered at heart and life is nothing but hard.
Of course there’s crap in your life. Anyone who pretends there isn’t is naïve. But when your 24/7 (or even 23/6) focus is on the crap, it comes to define your life. So yes, deal with the nasty stuff. Then instantly return your focus to all the joyous aspects of your life.
Happiness is a fearless decision about focus. The psychiatrically disordered, yet chronically happy person courageously chooses to spend most of their time focusing on what’s working, what feels good, the things that are going well.
As a result, they simply feel better and more confident than those who don’t. Feeling better and more confident, they’re more able to cope and are quicker to recover when the storms hit.
You can become one of the weird kids by making a conscious decision, regardless of circumstances, to simply choose happiness. To focus on those things that make you smile. Those things that are working. The people, the events and the circumstances in your life that please you.
When was the last time you felt truly happy and joyous for an extended period of time? When was the last time you were able to maintain your happiness even as it all hit the fan?
I dare you to demand the chronic happiness of which you are worthy. Do you have the courage?
You know what you want to accomplish. But there are a million reasons why you won’t succeed, ten thousand people who got their first and hundreds of legal, financial and technical obstacles in your way.
However, there are also countless people who face the same barriers but make the decision to ignore them and succeed in realizing their dreams. Here’s how they do it:
Take 100% responsibility
The first step on the road to fearless is to take 100 percent responsibility for absolutely everything that happens in your life. When things don’t go our way, we search for culprits and blame them for our circumstances. And nothing changes. When you place blame for your problems on something or someone else, you surrender all your ability to change anything. It’s only when you assume responsibility that things start to change.
Uncover your “why”
Each of us has a reason for being, something important to accomplish. But too many of us either roll through life, bumping from one event to the next, or do what other people tell us is worthy, well-paying or impressive. Your purpose is why, in spite of your fears, you take on the difficult challenges. When you find and choose to pursue your purpose you’re too busy and too focused to spend time on pointless fears.
Set intentional goals
With your ‘why’ clearly understood, the next step is to lay out your ‘what’ in clear and measurable goals. Most people have dreams but very few set goals. Perhaps they weren’t taught how. Perhaps they fear embarrassment and ridicule if they fall short. But high achievers know that, without goals, they’re rudderless. So they set clear goals that inspire them to action and steamroller over any fears or obstacles that dare to get in the way.
Appreciate yourself and everything you have
Appreciating yourself isn’t bragging, it’s recognizing that you’re a fully capable human being. It’s fuel for the times when self-doubt wants to derail you. And while you’re appreciating yourself, appreciate the things, circumstances and advantages you enjoy too. When your mind is filled with all the things you’re grateful for, there’s no room for fear. Fill your vision with what you have instead of what you’re afraid you might lose.
Visualize your fearlessness
The biggest obstacle holding you back from success is the beliefs you have about yourself. Reinforced by years of negative self-talk, you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t achieve your dreams. When you interrupt that pattern and introduce a new self-image through visualization, you start to ‘see’ your goals as already complete. At first, you won’t believe yourself for a moment. But the internal dissonance erodes the old beliefs and the creative powers of your subconscious mind begin to find ways to achieve those goals.
Join the winner’s club
Misery loves company, but it doesn’t have to be you. Leave the complainers behind and actively seek out those who lift you up and inspire you to great things. Find the ones who leave you feeling better than before. They bring energy, enthusiasm, optimism and encouragement. All emotions are contagious. Run from the toxic ones and seek out and breathe deeply from the uplifting ones.
Expose your inner roadblocks
The only real barriers to your success are within you. When you bring those hidden fears to the surface you can decide how you want to act in spite of those self-limiting beliefs. You can choose to go forward in spite of the (often irrational) fears. Identify both the desire and the fear behind each worry by saying: “I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________. For example, “I want to be my own boss, and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll go out of business and have to declare bankruptcy.” With the fear in broad daylight, you will find a way around it.
Take immediate action
There’s an old axiom of success that says, “The universe rewards action.” People who are consistently successful start something. They fail, learn from their mistakes, make corrections and try again. They build momentum and either achieve their goals or something better. No matter what your goal there’s always something you can do, right now, that will move you toward it. And in taking that action, you’ll immediately feel empowered because you acted fearlessly, took control and moved the marker down the field.
Act as if
Actors are trained to ‘become’ the character they’re playing. In their minds and in every fiber of their being they actually ‘are’ Hamlet or Spider-Man. Your success begins in your mind. When, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, you are able to walk, talk, think, breathe and feel success, your success is guaranteed. Like acting, it takes training and practice. Actors are just big kids playing ‘pretend.’ But when you pretend long enough, the pretending becomes your reality. Just like your success.
On a journey, your destination is in your windshield, not your rearview mirror. When we spend too much time thinking about and blaming our upbringing, our education or our lousy breaks we doom ourselves to an endless looping replay of what’s gone on before. The success you’re looking for is ahead of you, not behind. Never take your eyes off it.
Fearless people aren’t different from the rest of us. They just think and behave differently. When you begin to model those thoughts and behaviors, you become fearless too
We each make hundreds of decisions every day. Most of them are small and insignificant – What will I wear today? Where will I go for lunch? Others are pretty weighty – Will I accept that new job offer in Toledo? Will I ask her to marry me?
We love to believe that, as humans, we’re smart, self-directed and rational. In order to make the best decision we gather facts, weigh the pros and cons and, with the pure logic of a spreadsheet, reach the optimum conclusion.
Ah, if it were only that simple!
The truth is that, while there’s some logic involved in the decision-making process, no one makes any decision on a purely rational basis. Every choice we make has a whole lot of touchy-feely going on. Far too often, the emotions that drive our decisions are fear, anxiety and self-doubt.
The conclusion that most people will reach on any given question will vary by the day, the economy, what they had to eat for breakfast and probably the phase of the moon. Most of us are at least vaguely aware of this unreliability, which is why we get so nervous when faced with a big decision. How do you know you’ll make the right one?
There are four keys to making fearless decisions that will leave you feeling confident:
Key #1 Recognize that you’re being influenced
Logic aside, there are three psychological influencers in every decision you make.
The first is fear. Fear of harm or loss and fear of the judgment of others.
“If I take this job and it doesn’t work out, I’ll be stranded in Toledo.” “If I invest in this new business idea I might lose all my retirement savings.” “If I go away with him for the weekend, what will my Mother say?”
Get quiet for a few moments. Ask how you’re scaring yourself. Ask the wise, inner you what it is that you’re imagining might happen as a result of this decision. Recognize the fear for what it is and know that it’s worth overcoming.
The second is the self-limiting beliefs we all hold.
“I’m not smart enough to get a Master’s degree!” “He’s way out of my league and wouldn’t ever go out with me.” “I’ve never had good money instincts, so running my own business is a terrible idea.”
The third is the pre-programmed beliefs with which we’ve all been indoctrinated. “No one from our family moves overseas.” “My high school music teacher said I couldn’t carry a tune so there’s no point in me auditioning for that play.” “Dad always wanted me to be a doctor like him, so this idea about opening a restaurant is just a silly fantasy.”
Key #2 Know that there are two sides to every decision
Every decision has two sides. One is to go after what you DO want. The other is to avoid what you DON’T want. The first is made from a place of faith, courage and growth. The other is made from a place of fear.
“I’d love to hire that energetic young intern but my boss wants me to hire someone from his alma mater and I don’t want to get on his bad side.” “I really want to go back and finish my degree but I’m afraid of what my children might think.” “This new product line could really take off, but I don’t want to take the blame if something goes wrong.”
Key #3 Trust your gut
When all the weighing and comparing is done and the analysis and logic is complete, all final decisions are made in the heart, not the head.
Don’t be afraid of trusting your instinct. If you learn to be still and filter out all the psychological influencers we’ve discussed, you’ll discover a quiet, inner voice that knows what’s best for you.
In Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, he writes, “Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.”
You’ll know when your heart has spoken. Trust it.
Key #4 Once you’ve made a decision, own it
Second-guessing is a huge enemy of growth and progress. Sure, you can go over and over the decision, reviewing the pros and cons again and again. But a year from now you’ll still be trying to make up your mind and the opportunity will have passed.
Years ago I developed a method of decision making that I call “deciding to decide.” It recognizes that I always have many options and choices. But in THIS moment, I’ve made and will live with THIS decision. When I remove the option of changing my mind I become committed to finding every possible way to make the decision work.
And, more often than not, it does.
We each have 206 bones in our bodies.
Regardless of race, color, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation, health, language, religion, national origin, political persuasion, wealth, or any other label you care to apply, you get 206 bones.
Our biggest bone is the femur or thighbone. In the average adult male it’s about 48 centimeters or 19 inches long and can support up to thirty times the weight of an adult. Our smallest bone is the stapes, one of three tiny bones in the middle ear. It’s about five millimeters, or less than a quarter of an inch long and you could crush it with your pinkie.
Every one of those 206 bones matters a great deal and plays a vital role in holding you up and moving you about. But if you should fall down and break one of your bones, it’s suddenly going to matter a whole lot more than the others.
All the others are just fine, thank you. It’s the broken one that needs the attention right now.
In the conversation and debate about whose lives matter, it’s obvious, even “self-evident” to use the words of the Declaration of Independence, that every single life is precious. But right now, and for far too long, there are some very particular lives that are broken and in desperate need of all our attention.
Fortunately, your body is smart enough to know that there’s no benefit, and a great deal of suffering to be had, if that one bone were to remain broken. It’s a ludicrous notion to imagine the other bones deciding that they’re all better off if your left arm remained permanently fractured. Even more ridiculous is the idea of the big strong bones ganging up on the smaller, weaker ones.
If you have an injury or infection your body responds in an intelligent way. Blood rushes to the area to provide healing oxygen and nutrients. The antibodies and white blood cells immediately attack the disease. Your immune system kicks in to rid itself of the invaders and the body heals itself.
The body does not fight against itself. On the odd occasion that it does, we call that cancer and do everything in our power to remove the abnormal cells and bring the self-destructive process to an end.
If only we had the instinctive intelligence of our bodies.
We’re all familiar with the ‘fight or flight’ response to fear. It’s built into our biology and it was enormously useful when saber-tooth tigers were attacking. In today’s world, however, the occasions when we’re exposed to immediate, life-threatening danger are extremely rare.
And so we imagine and make up our fears. Fears that I will somehow be diminished, hurt or even killed by that person who is ‘other’ than me. We call it xenophobia: the irrational fear of others who are different. And behind that particular fear lies virtually all aggression, anger, violence, oppression and hate.
In the absence of saber-tooth tigers we continue to treat anything and anyone who isn’t like us as a threat. The threat isn’t real, it’s merely perceived or imagined. But because that other person looks or sounds different, is wearing different clothes or comes from the other side of an imaginary border, we convince ourselves that we’re threatened and must respond.
And so, we fight or flee.
The fight response is obvious – we’re seeing it around the globe daily. The flight response is just as obvious – you run back to your own familiar place, close and bar the door, build walls at your borders and prohibit those ‘others’ from entering.
The fear of the ‘other’ results from focusing on the differences between us. You’re not like me.
We can leave the fear behind when we recognize the similarities, the things we have in common.
Astronauts returning to Earth frequently report an experience that has come to be known as the ‘Overview Effect.’ First mentioned by Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart, it’s a cognitive shift in awareness that takes place while viewing the Earth from outer space.
Ian O'Neill, a science writer on space says, “From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.”
Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell had his life completely changed by the experience. O’Neill writes that Mitchell experienced, “a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness. He became profoundly aware that each and every atom in the Universe was connected in some way, and on seeing Earth from space he had an understanding that all the humans, animals and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole.”
Humanity has moved on from saber-tooth tigers and our primitive fear responses are guilty of far more harm than good.
So, what if, instead of fight or flight, we adopted a third option in the face of fear? What if our first response was to pause, even for a moment, to listen? To learn. To get to know and investigate how similar we are to the ‘other.’
What if our choices were fight, flight or unite
In the summer of 2009, for about a month, I found myself homeless.
I won’t bore you with the details of how or why, but suffice to say that, during that inglorious month, I spent a great deal of time looking for the people and the circumstances responsible for my impoverished situation. Believe me, if I’d been able to find them I’d have had a few choice words for them.
But somewhere along the way, in a rare moment of introspection and clarity, it suddenly dawned on me that, through all the descending cascade of events and circumstances that led to me sleeping in my car, there had been one, and only one common denominator: Me.
I had been the only one uniquely present for and actively participating in every single decision and action that led to my less-than-exalted social and financial status. Trust me, it was a shocking and humbling realization.
It was also a massive wake-up call as I realized two things.
First, as much as I wanted to blame and complain, no one was listening. And even if they had been, they were disinclined to change their world in order to make mine better. Second, blaming and complaining were making me feel even more miserable than I already was and contributing absolutely nothing to my improving the situation.
As daunting as those two realizations were, they also left me exhilarated. Because if the situation HAD been someone else’s fault, they would be the only one with the power to change it. But when I assumed 100% responsibility for everything that had happened to me I took back the power and the control over my life.
While I was responsible for all the failures that had led to my homelessness, I was also responsible for the successes I’d enjoyed. (And there’d been plenty of those, too!) If I’d created my current circumstances, I could also un-create them and re-create the ones I preferred.
But first I had to abandon all my excuses, victim stories and reasons why I hadn’t been able to achieve the goals I’d set for myself. Instead, I decided that, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, I’d always had the power to get it right and produce the results I wanted.
For whatever reasons – fear, needing to be right, ignorance, laziness, risk aversion – I’d simply chosen not to exercise that power. The reasons didn’t matter, they were behind me. What mattered was what I did – and to this day continue to do – next.
Since all the decisions and actions I’d taken to that point had landed me sleeping in my car, it was pretty clear that I needed to make some different decisions and take some different actions if I wanted a different outcome. As motivational speaker, entrepreneur and award-winning artist Mike Rayburn says, “If you want to do something you’ve never done before, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before.”
We have the choice to go back to the same decisions and actions, which will produce the same results. Or we can try something we’ve never done before which, of course, is scary.
But for every excuse I offer as to why the obstacles are too big and my goals are unreachable, there are countless people who have faced the same, or more challenging barriers, and succeeded. It is not my circumstances that limit me – it’s me. I stop myself with my limiting thoughts, my self-defeating behaviors and my excuses.
Right now, it’s very easy to blame and complain about the circumstances we find ourselves in. Whether it’s the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 or the rancorous mood the world has chosen to display, the universe has been throwing a few obstacles in our paths lately. I’d be lying if I said that all this hasn’t negatively affected my progress towards the goals I’ve set for myself.
But every minute spent listing the reasons why it’s hard, delayed or different than I’d hoped is a minute wasted.
There are three, and only three things that I can control in my life – the thoughts I think, the images I visualize and the actions I take. Those three things, when carefully chosen and controlled to serve me, will take me wherever I want to go
Eastern Colorado is a flat as a tabletop. It goes for miles and miles in every direction with only the slightest rolling adding contour to the otherwise level topography. It’s the very definition of the Great Plains.
But as you continue west along Interstate 70, an amazing feature begins to emerge from the horizon. The Front Range mountains form a 14,000-foot wall that rises just west of Denver. As far as you look to the north and south it reminds me of nothing so much as the Wall that separated the Kingdom of the North from the domain of the Wildlings in Game of Thrones.
I’ve often imagined some poor settler family, trundling across the prairie in their covered wagon. When they reach this formidable barrier Amos would reign in the horses and declare to Martha, “This looks like a good place to stop!”
That impenetrable wall is just like the one we each face when we run into a challenge that seems bigger than we currently are and scarier than we’re prepared to take on.
Right now, for example, I’m facing the challenge of having to do some old fashioned, cold calling. This is about as far outside my comfort zone as it gets. But an advisor whom I trust gave me this advice and, as much as I squirm and wriggle, he’s absolutely right that, given my goals, this is my best next step.
So what am I doing instead of diving into this vital activity? I’m procrastinating, wasting time, finding other things that are ‘more important,’ and making all manner of excuses as to why I can continue to put it off, if not avoid it altogether.
What are you facing that you’d just as soon avoid?
Maybe it’s way past time for you to confront that bad relationship. Perhaps your body is telling you to end that destructive habit once and for all. Are you overdue for taking the next big step to advance your education or career? Or have you been putting off what you know needs to be done to repair your finances?
We’ve all got those walls that appear to be insurmountable. And we are all incredibly creative when it comes to finding ways to circle around the challenge, make excuses for inaction or engage in busywork that we fool ourselves into believing is actually helping.
When we reach that impasse it’s important to recognize what’s going on. By stepping outside ourselves for a moment, we can see the inner conflict in an objective way and find ways to overcome it.
The real smackdown is happening between my ego and my soul.
My deepest inner self, that highest version of me knows what it wants to become, and is capable of becoming. It has a grand vision of the very best version of me that’s possible and it wants that for me. It also knows that I’m fully capable of being and doing whatever is necessary to achieve that grand vision.
My ego, my lower self, on the other hand, wants to protect itself. It likes things just the way they are and has no interest in stepping outside this comfortable and familiar space. It’s threatened by the actions I know I have to take if I’m to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself.
As we’re discovering through the wisdom of alternative medicines, the body has energy channels that stream through it. When the energy is flowing smoothly, our health is optimized and our lives seem effortless. When the flow of energy is blocked, which happens with inner conflict, health breaks down and our lives begin to come unglued.
When I sit in meditation and contemplate my own inner conflicts, my body will often begin to literally shake as the two forces meet each other at cross purposes because my state of mind is blocking that flow.
Going back to Colorado for a moment, those pioneers had California on their minds and weren’t about to let a little mountain range stop them. As they worked up the nerve to get closer and closer to the big, bad obstacle, they discovered hidden valleys, narrow gorges and mountain passes that were routes through to the far side. They weren’t always easy, but nor were they impossible.
The way to find ways through our own barriers is to examine our fears objectively. Take each worry and identify both the desire and the fear that are behind it by completing this sentence: “I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________.
I want to move up in the company, and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll be passed over for a promotion.
I want to let my children have happy, healthy relationships, and I scare myself by imagining that they’ll get into serious trouble if I don’t keep them closely supervised.
I want to enjoy a healthy, active lifestyle, and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll come down with some terrible disease.
I want to be my own boss, and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll go out of business and be ruined.
I want to spend the rest of my life with her, and I scare myself by imagining that she’ll turn me down if I ask her to marry me.
When we dig down and discover what’s at the real core of our fears, we often find three things. First, the likelihood of this terrible outcome occurring is actually pretty slim. Second, there are ways to minimize those risks while still going ahead with your dreams. Third, the grass truly is greener on the other side and the benefits of getting to the other side of your mountains far outweigh the risks of the journey.
So I’m settling in to make those calls, knowing that the terrible things I’ve imagined might happen a) likely won’t, b) are under my control, and c) will lead to the outcomes that I want on the far side of this mountain.
What about you?
There’s a nasty internet meme that’s been around for a while that characterizes the look on someone’s face when they’re relaxed or resting. While the label ‘Resting Bitch Face’ (RBF) has an obvious and horribly offensive sexist tilt, scientists using facial recognition technology confirm that it’s equally present regardless of gender.
The software they used compiles 500 points on the face to analyze facial expression and detect the emotions that are being communicated. The one that’s communicated most often with RBF? Contempt.
While it’s nice to have empirical confirmation, it doesn’t take a scientist to notice that the faces of just about everybody you encounter are expressing something far from happiness.
Why is everyone so miserable?
There’s no shortage of people who are quick to explain that our collective gloom is in response to the horrible world in which we live. Terrorism, climate change, raging partisanship, rising xenophobia. And now let’s throw in coronavirus just for fun!
It’s easy to conclude that anybody who isn’t miserable or frightened is either not paying attention or too dumb to realize what’s going on.
And yet there are some very smart, very attentive people who refuse to play along.
I’ve recently met a new friend, Michael Ray. He lives in Louisville and life hasn’t exactly been handed to him on a silver spoon. He suffered the death of a child, a divorce and his 21-year-old daughter, Maddie, has Down Syndrome and has been non-verbal her entire life.
It would be so easy to wallow in self-pity.
While Maddie’s never been able to speak the words, “I love you,” that doesn’t stop her from letting Michael know how she’s feeling. The smile that radiates from her face lights up everything in a way that mere words could never convey.
So Michael took his cue from her smile and started the Smile Project Louisville. Now his mission is to change attitudes and behaviors by spreading love through smiling. He says, “It's the simplicity of a smile, it doesn't cost anything."
My late Mother never seemed to get the memo either.
Despite painful and embarrassing skin problems, blindness and Parkinson’s Disease, you’d never see her without a smile on her face. That joyful expression, however, was a choice. Just as it is for all of us.
Mom decided to be happy. And so she was. She didn’t wait around hoping for happiness to arrive, she went looking for it, created it, plucked it out of thin air. And then she drank it up, delighted in it, splashed around in it and shared it with those who were lucky enough to be around her.
While there was (and always will be) plenty of ugliness around, she deliberately chose to see the joy and the beauty instead. Whether it was a bird at her feeder, a new flower blooming in her garden or the notes of some music that delighted her, she consciously chose to look for and see only those things that she wanted to see.
There are plenty who would call this refusal to face reality naïve or stubborn. But our reality is made up of what we choose to see regardless of what we’re looking at.
Take Mother Teresa for example. Here was a woman who gave up everything to spend her entire life serving the dregs of humanity in the most horrible surroundings. But I dare you to find a picture in which she’s not smiling or her eyes aren’t glowing with some mysterious inner radiance that I’d love to know more about.
Nelson Mandela’s another one who didn’t get the memo. He spent 27 years in prison and then, when he got out, worked hand-in-hand with the people who put him there to fix what was broken in his country. Instead of seeking revenge, he formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the wounds of apartheid. Just try to find a picture of him when he’s not smiling.
If you’re still not convinced, search for a photo of the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis that doesn’t just glow with happiness.
I always wonder why the pictures we see of Jesus have him looking so glum. I never got to meet Him in person but I’ve got to believe that He, just like His buddies the Buddha, Mohammed and all the other great teachers were a riot to hang out with. Laughing, joking, smiling all the time. And making those around them feel so darn good!
Imagine trying to take a selfie with the Buddha. He’d probably be laughing so hard you couldn’t hold the phone still. And I bet Jesus and Confucius would have photobombed it if they’d been close by.
They created their own realities by focusing on the joy they found around them. And that joy radiates from the faces of everyone who also finds joy in their world. It comes out through the eyes. It radiates from the smile. It positively glows through the skin.
But let’s get back to that resting face.
Our faces have no choice but to reflect what’s going on inside. Try it yourself. Think of something that makes you really happy and see if the corners of your mouth don’t start to turn up, even just a little.
So what’s going on inside you? What are you choosing as your reality? What are the emotions you’re feeling when you’re simply at rest? What will the rest of us see reflected in your eyes and on your face?
Is it contempt? Or is it contentment?
We’re spending a lot of time and energy these days focusing on what’s not working. The things we can’t do, the places we can’t go, the vaccine that hasn’t been found yet…
But in the midst of all this upheaval, quietly, in the background, some remarkable and positive changes have been happening. Few of them are making headlines. But if you know where to look you can see that maybe, just maybe, there’s a sea change occurring in the midst of all this upheaval and confusion. And it just might result in the world becoming a better place.
While it’s easy and even clichéd to say that all challenge contains the seeds of opportunity, it remains a universal truth that proves itself every time. Sure, we’re seeing anger, frustration and ugliness. But I believe that, as always, humanity is proving itself to be more resourceful, more resilient and more compassionate than we often appear to be.
Most obvious, of course, is the mind-blowing effort and sacrifice by the front-line medical workers. Their superhuman determination is the very definition of ‘above-and-beyond’ as they show up every day to work in conditions that are every bit as dangerous and stressful as a battlefield.
Then there are the scientists working to find treatments and vaccines. I can’t even imagine the pressure, the emotional roller coaster and the mental exhaustion they’re experiencing.
But aside from those specialized skills we’re watching ordinary people step forward in extraordinary ways. In the grocery stores. In the delivery vans. In the continuing availability of clean water and electricity. The folks that are keeping all these ‘systems’ operating are emerging as our new heroes.
Our day-to-day world has turned into a Masterclass in gratitude and appreciation. Have you ever, prior to this, seen anyone thanking a grocery store clerk for their service? Me neither.
In the midst of the worst public health crisis in 100 years and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I’m seeing daily examples of reasons to be hopeful. Reasons to be optimistic. Reasons to be cheerful. Things are happening now that couldn’t have been imagined just a few months ago.
And there are bigger, much bigger changes happening as well. Fundamental changes to how we see and treat each other.
Universal Basic Income, the idea that everyone in a society should receive a minimum income, has long been suggested as a way to promote equity and streamline economic support. While it’s always been a political hot potato, suddenly it’s being implemented and has a good chance of remaining. Learn More
Prison reform and the overwhelmed justice system have moved to the front of the line as judges and sheriff’s departments, who have been advocating reform for years, are releasing thousands of detainees who were awaiting trial or close to their release dates and judges hand down more lenient sentences. Learn More
We’ve been talking about the shift to a remote digital workforce for a long time now. While there are challenges, the move saves money and energy on office space, enables a global talent pool and allows workers to find better opportunities without leaving home. As Daymond John, multi-millionaire entrepreneur and member of the Shark Tank panel writes, that future has now been expedited. Learn More
In spite of the restrictions, there’s evidence that families experiencing lockdown together are growing closer. In a survey of British families, 80% of the parents believed that their families have formed even stronger bonds because of the time they’re spending together. Board games, puzzles and – wait for it – CONVERSATION! are replacing screen time and digital isolation. Learn More
The sudden and unprecedented move to remote instruction and home schooling for students around the world is producing unexpected benefits. Competition and comparisons surrounding testing have lessened, the chaos of the overcrowded classroom is gone and many students are finding the freedom to express talents and interests that were previously suppressed. Learn More
Like the Victory Gardens of WW2, people around the world are voluntarily finding a new interest in growing their own food. Seed suppliers are seeing a rush of orders as people plant herbs and vegetables in balcony containers and backyard plots. The #quarantinegarden movement is easing demand on an over-stressed food supply system, providing a source of high quality and ultra-fresh produce and offering built-in stress relief as new and returning gardeners get their fingers in the dirt. Learn More
Our hope for the resolution of this crisis does not lie with some miracle cure or the wisdom of politicians who we had assumed would lead us.
No, our wonder drug is the hope, ingenuity, resourcefulness and compassion with which we humans are already inoculated. We only have to watch as the quiet ones who don’t make the headlines have been stepping up and showing us what’s possible.
In the midst, and as a result of this global crisis, it appears that we’re shifting to a world that includes more compassion, caring and consideration. When the old rules no longer apply and we have to think for ourselves, the true depth of our human potential begins to surface.
So many of the anxieties that we face are rooted in events and circumstances that we’ve experienced in the past. Childhood traumas, challenges as a teenager and bad relationships in our adult years can all leave emotional scars that remain for years if not a lifetime. As long as they’re allowed to hang around, these old war wounds will continue to block your growth and success.
But rather than using those hurts as excuses or justifications for the anxieties and limitations you suffer now, recognizing and purging them can liberate you to move on and continue the growth that is your intention and your right.
The first step in leaving your worries behind is to establish an accurate assessment of exactly what it is you’re anxious about and how this worry routine began. When reflecting on my own life and the worry habits that I wanted to leave behind, I discovered a number of origins and reinforcements that needed to be addressed.
For example I did not grow up with anything even approaching financial wealth. We were wealthy in many non-financial ways, but dollars were scarce. One of the ways that my parents dealt with the situation was that my mother would sew many of our clothes herself. While it was a tremendous amount of work, not to mention a tremendous talent, as an adolescent I was always conscious of and embarrassed about wearing home-made clothes instead of fancy store-bought ones like the other kids wore. This was one of the many situations that reinforced for me that money didn’t grow on trees and required constant worry.
As I turned these and other origins of fear and worry over and over in my mind, that’s all that seemed to happen – I turned them over and over in my mind. I never made progress with my thinking. I never came up with any solutions. I simply regurgitated the same mental contents of yesterday, last week, last month, last year again and again.
Painful, boring and not the least bit useful.
One day, though, I was somehow inspired to take the constantly recurring thoughts out of my brain and put them down on paper.
And that’s when everything began to change.
All of a sudden, as I reread the notes I’d made, the worries were no longer in my head, they had somehow moved outside of me. I had gained an objectivity about them that hadn’t existed when they were simply swirling around in my brain. Suddenly, my worried thoughts no longer owned me. I owned them. And now that I owned them, they were mine to do with, to control and to dispose of as I pleased.
A major success strategy in conquering your own anxieties and worries is to get them outside of you, to externalize and objectify those feelings. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to write your feelings, and the origins of those feelings down on paper.
Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of the #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Emotional Agility. In an article for The Cut she wrote about the benefits of writing as a means to emotional processing. She cited research done by James Pennebaker, a distinguished professor at the University of Texas that showed how people who write about experiences that have been emotionally intense show improvements in both physical and mental well-being.
The process also allowed them to discover and benefit from the life lessons that are always buried deep in otherwise traumatic events. They were able to understand the experience and its consequences in a much clearer and more objective way.
I encourage you to start a personal journal.
Susan David suggests setting aside 20 minutes each day and using a notebook or a computer to write about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, or year. My personal experience is that, while it might be slower, it’s far more effective to write by hand than it is to type into a computer.
There’s something about the slower, more deliberate and kinesthetic act of writing that helps you objectify and externalize these negative emotions, which is an important part of the letting-go process. As you write, imagine the anxieties flowing out through your arm, your hand and your fingers, into the pen and onto the paper.
As you write, fully expect your self-censor to spring into action and try to shut you down or at least minimize your efforts. You’ll find your self-talk saying things such as, “This really isn’t a problem for me.” “It’s not that bad.” “I should be able to stop worrying on my own.” “What would my (mother) (husband) (rabbi) (children) say if they knew I was struggling with this?” “This is just silly! I’ve got more important things to do.” “My anxieties aren’t worth this much attention. Think about the starving children…”
Recognize these thoughts as they arise and smile as you recall that we predicted them right here. Don’t fight them, but let them gently pass through and then out of your mind. Imagine these thoughts as wisps of mist that drift into your brain and then drift right back out again. No need to pay them any attention.
The fact is that you do deserve to live a worry-free life. You are worthy of the time and attention it takes to let your anxieties melt away. You have as much right to a joyful, fear-free life as anyone and it’s time to be kind and gentle with yourself. So let all the “should’s,” “ought-to’s” and “you’re doing what’s?!” that come your way roll right off your back. This is your Me Time and you deserve it.
Don’t try to make the writing perfect, coherent or legible. The point is to let your mind flow where it will. Don’t try to justify, explain or judge yourself in any way. Just write. As you write about each anxiety and its origins, allow yourself to again feel fully the emotions that you felt way back then as you were told or witnessed or experienced something that caused you to be anxious. Feel, also, the emotions you experience every time a present-day trigger reinforces that anxiety. Let your thoughts flow into words on the paper as you freely describe your feelings.
So now it’s your turn. Pick up your pen and your journal and start writing now. When you get it out on paper it’s much harder for it to go back into your mind.
One of the hardest things in life is to think for yourself.
We all claim to be, and take pride in the independence of being, our own person. For the most part, however, the majority of our thoughts and beliefs are the result of what we’ve been trained, told and often coerced into thinking and believing.
𝗪𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲 𝗱𝗶𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗶𝗱𝗲𝗮𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗯𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗲𝘃𝗲 𝗶𝗻, 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘃𝗮𝗹𝘂𝗲𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗵𝗼𝗹𝗱 𝗱𝗲𝗮𝗿 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝗳𝗿𝗼𝗺?
We were all born into and brought up in families, social circles, religions and societies that hold common beliefs, which they passed on to us. The values we hold, our preferences, our ideas about right and wrong, are generally those of our parents, our parents’ parents, our friends and the societies in which we live.
The values and beliefs that inform our lives and our decision-making include everything from whether you’re a Yankees or a Red Sox fan, to whether you prefer rock-and-roll or opera, to how you vote and your ideas about God.
Even in our rebellious youth, we didn’t really rebel. We just switched our allegiance from one group of taste- and belief-influencers to another whose opinion about us mattered more at the time.
𝗥𝗲𝗮𝗹 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗶𝘀 𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗱 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸
In spite of the fact that most of our beliefs, preferences, values and anxieties have come to us second-hand, we rarely question them. Why? Because thinking for yourself requires a great deal of effort.
The normal, everyday kind of mental activity is easy. “Why did I get passed over for a raise?” “What’s for dinner?” “I’m not enjoying this date and certainly won’t be going out an another with him!”
But this isn’t really thinking. It’s simply lazily drifting down a thought river, and ending up wherever the current takes us.
Real thinking first requires that you take the time to conduct the introspection and discover what it is that you really believe. What are the values by which you make your important decisions? How do you behave when nobody’s watching?
Once you’ve isolated them, the next step is to determine the origins of these beliefs and values. Are they in your mind like a pre-programmed factory setting? Were they put there by your parents? By your teachers, your coaches or your religious leaders? Or are they there because they’re required if you’re to get along with the people you’re currently associating with?
When you’ve assembled your inventory of beliefs, you then need to question each one in turn. Based on your experience, your own unique interaction with the world and your own inner voice, does this belief make sense to you? Does it serve you as you pursue your purpose in life?
If it doesn’t, or doesn’t any longer, you’re obliged to either live a lie or change your belief. But to what?
See? Hard work.
𝗧𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘀𝗲𝗹𝗳 𝗶𝘀𝗻’𝘁 𝗷𝘂𝘀𝘁 𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗱 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸. 𝗜𝘁’𝘀 𝗮𝗹𝘀𝗼 𝗿𝗶𝘀𝗸𝘆.
When you question your beliefs and decide to think for yourself you risk the good opinion of others. You risk being unfashionable, shunned or even punished. You also risk the conclusion that your parents weren’t infallible. That your religious leaders might not have all the answers. That the teachers and coaches you so admired were just following the instructions they’d been given by THEIR teachers and coaches.
Now there’s nothing wrong with holding on to the values that your parents taught you. As long as they genuinely serve the authentic you. But very few of the values we’ve incorporated into our personal ‘truth’ have been developed from our own unique experiences and thoughtful interpretations of them.
For example, as I’m writing this, an email has just popped, completely uninvited, into my inbox – “Who’s getting the most love on Pinterest right now?” If I want to be viewed as ‘in the know,’ if I want others to think of me as current (or at least current with what Pinterest deems to be of value) then I’d better shift my attention (and my priorities) away from writing this blog post.
If I jump on Twitter I’m instantly brought up to date on what’s trending now. Not what I’m interested in, but what Twitter tells me I’m supposed to be interested in. If I switch on CNN or Fox News I’m instantly brought up to date on that particular organization’s version of ‘facts’ and told what I ought to fear and what I ought to cheer. If I don’t cooperate, then, by implication, there’s something wrong with me.
𝗟𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗼 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗾𝘂𝗶𝗲𝘁 𝗶𝗻𝗻𝗲𝗿 𝘃𝗼𝗶𝗰𝗲
We all possess a very quiet, but very insistent, inner voice that can always provide an accurate and reliable report on what we value and believe. But we have to learn how to hear it and decide to listen to it.
Begin by being still. Find a quiet place where the outer world can’t intrude and give yourself ten or fifteen minutes. Every day. It’ll take practice because the outer world loves nothing more than to invade and occupy your inner one too. But persist and you’ll hear it before long.
And when you do, it’s unmistakable. That voice is so soothing, so refreshing, and so truthful. It’s the real you speaking and it wants nothing more than for you to show up authentically in the world.
Yes, thinking for yourself can be risky and hard. But it’s also the most rewarding thing you can do. Because when you hand off your thinking and show up in life pretending or attempting to be someone or something else, you’ve got nothing to give. But when you show up as the authentic, genuine YOU, you’ve got more than you ever imagined.
Who are you showing up as?
Have you ever had a ride in one of those old clunker taxis that seems to be held together by duct tape and hope? A favorite trick of those drivers is to put a piece of black tape over the glowing ‘check engine’ light on the dashboard so it doesn’t shine in their eyes. I’ve yet to figure out the logic behind that tactic…
Anxiety is like a warning light on the dashboard of your life. It’s trying to tell you there’s something wrong that needs to be fixed.
During this incredibly goofy time we’re hearing endless advice about how to deal with the anxiety that so many people are suffering. But to be completely honest, I’m getting a little tired of reading and hearing the suggestions: Deep breathing, aromatherapy, long walks, meditation, enough sleep, baking banana bread…
These are all great ideas and each one will help you lead a healthier, more balanced life. (Although you might want to go easy on the banana bread.) The problem, though, is that most of them are nothing more than distractions to take your mind off your anxious thoughts for a while. None of them go deep to get at the root of your anxiety and remove it permanently.
Unlike our friendly, if self-deceiving cab driver, if I discover a problem that’s interfering with the quality of my life, I want to eliminate, not simply mask it.
Anxiety does not lie in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They’re merely circumstances, facts, situations. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about them. They just are.
No, our anxiety lies in our responses and reactions to those circumstances. And when your mental warning light comes on, it’s trying to tell you that something needs to change.
The first step to permanently freeing yourself from worry and anxiety is to take 100 percent responsibility for absolutely everything that happens to you and in your life. This principle is fundamental to ridding yourself of worry and creating a joyful life.
Worry and anxiety are thoughts that we entertain within our minds. Those thoughts are always in response to circumstances, events and people that are external to our minds. The current boogeyman is COVID-19 but there’s always something – partisan politics, terrorism, global warming...
Because the things we worry about are always out there in the physical world, external to our minds, it’s easy to think, “If only those circumstances would change, I wouldn’t have to worry so much.” So we search for culprits, pass judgment and place blame for the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And nothing changes. As long as we invest our time, our energy and our emotions in blaming and complaining about how things are, we will never be able to stop worrying and create the lives we want to live.
As soon as you place the blame for your circumstances on someone or something, you surrender all your power. As long as you believe that someone else’s behavior is responsible for your situation and emotional state, you have handed all your ability to change things over to them. Because unless they decide to change the way they’re acting, your situation will remain exactly the same.
Now, admittedly, it could very well be that someone else’s actions or an external event resulted in your circumstances. After all, you didn’t cause COVID-19. Expecting or insisting that the circumstances change in order to please you is a fool’s game. It’s simply not going to happen.
The anxiety-producing event has happened or is happening. By assuming 100% responsibility for what happens next, you take 100% of the power to resolve the problem for yourself.
In our current situation we have very little ability to control or change the external circumstances. But we can control and change our thoughts and our emotional responses.
Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist in Austria in the years leading up to WW2. As with millions of his faith, he ended up in a concentration camp in the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Conditions that make our current shelter-in-place conditions seem luxurious in comparison.
Trapped in unspeakably hideous conditions, Frankl made a decision. He decided that no one would own his spirit. As he later wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Regardless of the external circumstances, no one can tell you what to think, what to imagine or what to feel. You always have a choice. And in that fact lies your power. We’re all waiting for the medical experts to rescue us from this virus. But only you can make the choice to rescue yourself from anxiety.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Emotions are, well, emotional and there’s a lot of them swirling around these days. Some of them feel wonderful and we love it when they’re around. Others (like fear and anxiety) just feel like crap.
For most people, emotions are like the weather: sunny days are great but you have no control over when it decides to rain. Wouldn’t it be great if you could choose your emotional state, rather than having it dumped on you?
Turns out, you can.
We feel, experience and occasionally even become our emotions, rather than merely observing and understanding them. Which, when your emotions begin to take control of you, makes it tricky to make intelligent and beneficial choices that lead to the dreams and goals you’ve set for yourself.
The Art of War was written more than 2,500 years ago by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu. It’s long been studied and lauded for its advice on success in battle. Lately it’s been used by countless entrepreneurs and business people looking for an edge in the corporate world.
His advice to know your enemy can also be enormously valuable as we work to overcome anxiety and leave negative emotions behind. If we don’t understand how our emotions work, how can we ever possibly hope to achieve mastery over them?
Now I’m in no way suggesting that your emotions are, in some way, your ‘enemy’ and must be defeated. A life without emotion would be robotic and empty. Likewise, a life ruled exclusively by our feelings is like a cork, bobbing in the ocean, tossed around by whatever wave knocks it next. A life that takes full, conscious advantage of its rich emotional range while not becoming hostage to it is a life well-lived.
Since reason and logic are the antithesis of emotion, we can use these opposites to gain valuable insight into our emotional life as we study this enigmatic creature – ourselves.
In my workshops and signature online course, Unsubscribe from Anxiety, students are taught to imagine themselves as detached, objective scientists in a laboratory. You’re wearing a white lab coat and you’re about to conduct an academic study of this subject of yours called ‘Emotion.’ There’s a big blob of it sitting on your laboratory bench and you’re going to measure it, probe it, take its temperature, weigh it and learn everything there is to know about this mysterious creature.
Only then will you be able to decide what you want to do with it.
A good first step on the way to emotional self-knowledge is to take inventory. What are the actual emotions that we’re experiencing? On the one hand, it’s useful (if a little too easy) to simply divide emotions into two groups – ones that feel good and ones that feel bad. But we want to get a little more fine-grained than that.
In the wonderful book, ‘Ask and It is Given,’ by Abraham Hicks, there’s a useful ‘emotional scale’ that lists 22 of our most common emotions in sequence from our highest feelings to our lowest.
The further up the scale your emotion, the more that feeling can serve you. For example, if you’re feeling discouraged and angry, you’re less in control than if you’re feeling frustrated and impatient. Impatience can lead to action, which can lead to hope, positive expectation and eventually empowerment.
But even anger is a more positive and proactive feeling than insecurity or fear. Anger contains an energy that can be channeled into decisive action.
By knowing where our current emotions are on the scale, we can begin to make decisions about where we’d like to go from there. You might be feeling overwhelmed in these days of isolation and uncertainty. But when you decide to upgrade your emotion from overwhelment to impatience, things start to happen.
The truth is that you CAN decide which emotion you’d prefer to feel and then launch that one.
One of my favorite characters in the iconic Rob Reiner film, The Princess Bride, is Miracle Max, played by the great Billy Crystal. When he’s presented with the apparently dead body of our hero Westley, he says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”
And so it is with our emotions. There’s a big difference between feeling worried about the situation and feeling completely powerless. And there’s never a point in your emotional life when you’re “all dead.” No matter how much like crap you feel, no matter how frightened or threatened, you’re still slightly alive. You can step back, put on the white lab coat, and decide to move – just one step – up the emotional scale.
In these days of pandemic-induced anxiety there’s a real benefit to being precise when referring to the various flavors of fear that we’re all coping with. That kind of detached, almost scientific accuracy helps us step back from our emotions and our fears, see them objectively and deal with them in healthy and constructive ways.
We all know what joy feels like.
It feels like we’ve been wrapped in a sense of calmness and bliss that’s a world beyond the giddy pleasure of mere happiness. It’s as if we’ve been injected with a potion made from equal parts warm bath, fresh snowfall and puppies that’s now glowing from the inside, out. It’s the ultimate in mindfulness because it holds us fully in that moment in which all is right with the world.
And damn, it feels good!
Then it’s gone.
Most of us only experience joy when the circumstances around us are just right. Everyone is cooperating, the sun is shining, there’s no pandemic and the planets have aligned. But our hold on joy is tenuous. Change the circumstances, let someone say a wrong word or have the rain begin and joy runs down the drain.
Now, we’re all smart enough to know that real joy comes from the inside, out. But knowing it and living it are two different things. Despite the timeless wisdom of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and every other great teacher who’s ever walked the earth, the world keeps insisting that joy, happiness and serenity migrate from the outside, in.
Wear these clothes. Drive this car. Travel to this place. Be like these people. Most often, we put the responsibility for our joy in the hands of everyone else and the world around us. If and when that crowd chooses to cooperate, your day’s going to be great. If not, you’re screwed.
Reclaiming responsibility for your own joy takes practice. Just like piano lessons, the more you work at it, the better you get.
How do you practice for joy? It begins with basic brain training.
Most of our thoughts are reactive. In other words, we re-act the same thoughts and the same actions that we’ve adopted as habits. Traffic gets snarled (again) and, without giving any thought to our thoughts, we get snarly right along with it (again). Instead, we need to retrain our minds to think again, to think differently.
For example, you’ve been enjoying your regular Wednesday lunches with that old friend for years. Now the city is in lockdown and the restaurants are closed. Our habitual thought is to be disappointed, upset, even angry. Certainly not joyful. But since disappointment and anger neither feel good nor help the situation we’d be better served with different thoughts and different emotions. This is an opportunity to practice those differences. An opportunity to re-train your mind.
The moment you feel the pivot from delightful anticipation to disappointment and anger, recognize the switch in your thoughts and your feelings. Then decide to take control.
First, accept and honor the current feelings. After all, you are disappointed. But only for a moment. You don’t want to let it ruin your afternoon.
Then decide that you’d rather choose a better feeling thought. You might choose to spend a few moments re-living some of the delightful lunches you’ve shared with your friend in the past. Recall the joyful experience and re-feel the positive emotions you felt at the time. Don’t simply remember the event, allow yourself to go inside and deeply feel the friendship, the delight and the happiness you felt in the moments you were together. Then watch as your mood swings back to the bright side of the dial in response.
We all have deep mental grooves that have been worn in our thought apparatus over the decades of our lives. It’s way too easy to fall back into them without being aware.
It’s vital to begin forming new mental habits. But rather than waiting for a stressful situation, start training your brain with daily practice. When you first wake up, develop the habit of listing five things for which you’re grateful in the coming day. Alternatively, you could list five of your favorite things or five accomplishments of which you’re particularly proud. The point is, begin your day by insisting that your mind focus on things that feel good. That gets it off on the right foot. Repeat the exercise several times throughout the day.
Of course this won’t be easy at first. But neither is playing the piano. Work at it diligently, though, and it will soon be second nature.
Does it serve you to have your mood and mental state in the hands of others? Is it useful to have your emotional strings pulled by the outside world? Are you pleased to be put off your game whenever you’re thrown a curve ball? If not, you can choose to reinvent the way you think. After all, the joy belongs to you. Shouldn’t you be the one who gets to control it?
When you grant other people and outside conditions the power to annoy you whenever they want, you give up the ability to experience joy whenever you want.
You don’t need a reason or excuse to be joyful. Nor do you have to justify your joy to anyone else. You can choose to experience it any time you’d like simply because it feels good. You also don’t need to wait around, hoping for the right circumstances that will allow you to feel that emotional high.
It will take practice to overcome this habit of re-acting in tired old ways to outside events, people and circumstances. But slowly, then more quickly, you’ll get better and better at it. Eventually, you’ll be completely in charge of your own joy, which you can then call up whenever it pleases you.
For the last couple of weeks, and likely for the foreseeable weeks to come, we’re inundated with minute-by-minute updates on our current Armageddon. And right alongside we’re being given no end of advice about how to deal with the widespread anxiety that’s accompanying this pandemic.
Most of the guidance I’ve seen offered is focused on coping strategies – basically, how to distract yourself from the racing thoughts that keep you tossing in the night and fretting through the day. I’ve seen suggestions that range from guided relaxations, to cooking and baking, journaling, exercising with a YouTube video and making a photo album for grandma.
These are all delightful activities that are likely to be helpful in the moment. But like tossing a bone to distract an angry dog, they’ll only work for a little while. They won’t change the fact that anxiety has control over you. Will grandma get a new photo album every time there’s a crisis?
Anxiety is anxiety. Whether it’s over coronavirus or your dwindling followers on Instagram. And when you find the secret to permanently overcoming it you’ll be able to apply it no matter what the cause.
Begin by asking yourself if you enjoy your anxiety and whether or not it’s serving you.
If you find it pleasant and useful, there’s nothing more to be done. If, however, you think you’d be better off without it, then you’ll have to tackle the roots of the issue, not mask the symptoms by distracting yourself.
There are three fundamental principles that can make a difference for you today, in the midst of all this uproar. More importantly, they can make a difference for you every day for the rest of your life.
1. Decide that you are going to take full and complete responsibility for everything that happens in your life. While it’s easy and tempting to find culprits and complain about how bad things are, neither of these will change anything. Even if there is someone or something that’s responsible, pointing the finger won’t change your situation one whit.
You’re stuck at home, you’re running low on toilet paper and you’ve been furloughed from your job. Got it. Now, write down five ideas that occur to you immediately that could help relieve each of these situations. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: Read three new books, use wash cloths and launder them, register yourself on one of the freelance work websites. Now it’s your turn…
Doesn’t it feel empowering when you start to actually solve a problem instead of merely stressing about it?
2. If there are absolutely no good actions to take, and the choices in front of you amount to Bad, Really Bad and Awful, remember that you ALWAYS have the ability to choose your mental and emotional response.
I was making dinner the other night and discovered that I was short of an ingredient. While normally I’d dash across the street to the grocery store, this time I was tempted to whine about our current lack of mobility. I thought I was due a little pity-party until I remembered our visit, last summer, to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. For 25 months she and her family hid in an attic, relying on the bravery of friends to keep them fed. If you haven’t read her inspiring diary, or if it’s been some time, this would be a great time to read it again.
As Viktor Frankl, another prisoner during the Holocaust, wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
3. Realize that peace is not the absence of external turmoil or discomfort. No matter where, no matter when, if you look around you’ll be able to find something with the ability to distress you: You’re lying by a babbling brook, fluffy white clouds floating overhead and warm, gentle breezes rustling the leaves. How many people do you know that would point out the mosquito?
Instead, let’s model those who, in the midst of pandemonium and panic, will always notice and take delight in the flower growing up through the cracks in the concrete.
It takes desire and it takes practice. But anyone who truly wants to can do it.
Let’s face it – life occasionally hands us a sour one. There have always been and there will always be external events that challenge our ability to remain calm, centered and at peace.
But the more you fight against, complain about or live in fear of what might be going on, the harder you push against it, the more whatever’s going on will push back. The more you protest that it’s not fair or right, the more you’ll discover that whatever’s going on is bigger and stronger than you.
When you relax and accept what’s going on for what it is, though, you regain the power to choose your response and influence your outcomes.
No, serenity is not the absence of disorder and chaos. Serenity is a choice you make regardless of what’s going on around you.
No it doesn't
We all get to choose.
That’s the essence of free will. In every moment, no matter the circumstances or the situation, we always get to choose. And even when there don’t seem to be many or any good choices, we always have the ability to choose what we think and the attitude we adopt.
This week, as we all come to grips with our new reality, I’ve noticed that people are choosing to be kinder and more considerate. In spite of the imposed separations, I see people who seem to be more willing to engage in conversation and smile. To go to an effort to consider the other one.
Maybe it’s just what I’m choosing to see. But it works for me and I like what I’m seeing
There are many excuses for choosing anxiety and unkind behavior in our current circumstances. But there are more than enough examples of people choosing to reach for – and embrace – their higher selves.
It’s possible to imagine a world without anxiety. (And I do. Regularly.) And even amidst the onslaught of coronavirus news there are plenty of demonstrations of anxiety-free thinking and behaving, if you choose to look for them
Let’s all put our minds to imagining a world in which challenge is always met with careful thought, not hysteria. Where obstacles are encountered with determined action, not selfish panic. Where we realize that we are one, global, interconnected body and the kindness you do for me is also done for yourself
What are you choosing in this moment?