What if your fairy godmother came to visit, waved her wand and removed your ability to be afraid of anything?
Now before we go too far and start messing with the rules, let’s be clear – she isn’t the genie that gives you three wishes, so this is all you get. And she didn’t even ask if that’s what you actually wanted. She didn't make you rich. She didn't make you look like Dwayne Johnson or Jennifer Lopez. She didn't give you an IQ of 160. She didn't guarantee that everything you try will always work out.
She just showed up, and Wham! You’re not afraid anymore. Of anything.
What would you do?
We all have a list of things we’d love to do, “If only I weren’t afraid of…” “If only I weren’t scared to…” That’s the worst thing about anxiety and worry – they hold us back from living the lives we dream about. They put the brakes on our potential and limit what we can and do become.
One college professor asked his students to list the things they’d do, if only they weren’t afraid. Here’s a selection from the list they compiled:
Every one of these wishes is a description of someone’s dream life from which they’re being held back.
When you and I look at that list, it’s easy for us to say, “Go ahead, turn the lights out! There are no boogeymen hiding under your bed!” And yet, for that person who doesn’t have the nerve to sleep with the lights off, the fear is an insurmountable barrier.
Imagine what their lives could be like if they could make that fear go away. Imagine what your life could be like if you could make the fear go away! There are so many things that we fail to even consider, let alone try.
Where’s that fairy godmother when you need her?
The bad news is, there’s no such person. The good news is, you don’t need one. Because the truth is that, when it comes to removing your fears, you are your own fairy godmother.
Let’s reference another fictional character. I’m sure you remember when Glinda, the Good Witch of the South in the Wizard of Oz, said to Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”
Fiction always mirrors real life. And in your own real life, you have the magic wand in your hand.
You see, anxiety is a decision we make. It isn’t some external, objective reality that can’t be changed. We’ve simply made the decision to be scared, afraid, intimidated and fearful so often, that it’s become a habit. Keep a habit long enough and it becomes a belief that rules your life, dictating what you will and won’t try, what you can and can’t do.
But for every fear that holds you and I back, there are thousands, even millions of people who decided, in the face of the same fear, to do it anyway. Sometimes unpleasant things happened. Most often, they didn’t. When, in spite of circumstances, those people keep making the decision to not be afraid, they eventually find their way to the goal they’ve been seeking.
And now they’re reaping the rewards.
We started this blog by asking a “what if..” question. So finish by asking another one.
What if you made a new, and different decision? What if you decided that you simply weren’t going to be afraid anymore? What if you decided that you’re simply going to try the things you’ve been dreaming about?
Here’s what going to go down: Some bad things might happen. They probably won’t. If they do, you’ll find a way around and through them. As you find your way around and through those obstacles, you’ll learn and grow and experience the glorious adventure that life can be.
And then you’ll reap the rewards.
Yes, there is a post-anxiety life waiting for you. And it’s worth the decision.
Yes, it really is that simple. You only need to wave your wand and make the decision that you won’t be afraid anymore.
Now what are you going to do?
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
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?
We all have things that we have to do. Or, rather, and more accurately, we all have things that we choose to do. As you learn to release the anxiety and worry from your life, it’s critical to recognize the difference.
Think about the things in life that you have to do, many of which turn into sources of anxiety. Many people would say that, among other things, you have to:
There are plenty of people, however, who don’t pay their taxes, don’t take care of their children and don’t phone their mothers. But, you might say, there are institutions that will make you pay your taxes, go to school and take care of your children. And your mother might be pretty good at ‘making’ you phone her. You might say, further, that while it’s true that there are people who don’t do these things, bad things happen as a result. You’re right again. But the fact remains that everyone, at all times, has a choice. And you need to be aware that, even when it feels like you are being forced into something, you still have a choice.
If we believe that there is anything at all that we absolutely, positively must do because circumstances or someone else is forcing us to, we again surrender our power. In every single instance, we hold and make the choice. Let’s look at an example:
But let’s say you don’t mind being broke…
Of course, there are also people who would rather go to jail than pay their taxes, reveal their secret information source, renounce their beliefs, etc. Although the choices you have might not be great ones, it’s absolutely critical to understand that you always have choices.
Worry and anxiety are also choices that we make. Let’s take a common example: You’re driving to work and there’s a big traffic jam. You begin to worry that you’re going to be late. That worry turns into a worry that, being late, you’ll miss the important meeting. Which turns into a worry about the boss’s opinion of you. Which turns into a worry about job security. Which turns into…
When you arrive late to work, you tell the boss, “The traffic made me late.” In blaming the traffic, you have chosen to be a victim of circumstances beyond your control. And as you sat in the traffic jam and your blood pressure went up, you chose to blame the traffic for your blood pressure too. Both these choices leave you powerless.
Let’s change things up and see if we are as much of a victim as we sometimes like to claim.
Let’s say the morning’s meeting was to announce you as the next Senior Vice President and the position came with a $50,000 bonus. It was conditional, however, on you being on time for the meeting. Do you think you could have found a way to be there on time? If the bonus was $500,000, would you have left the house at 3 am or even slept in the boardroom overnight to be sure you were there? I bet you could be pretty ingenious at overcoming obstacles if we put the stakes high enough.
Which highlights the truth that you are not a victim of the traffic, you made a choice to risk the (highly predictable) heavy traffic. It was more important for you to get up at your regular time and have your regular breakfast than it was to be at the meeting on time, so you chose sleep time and breakfast over the consequences at work. Having made that choice, it’s pointless to then worry about what the boss might think. If, on the other hand, you chose to make sure you were at the meeting on time, it’s pointless to worry about your lost sleep.
The truth is that no one and nothing can force you to do anything. You always have the choice to comply or not, to agree or not, to act or not, to worry or not to worry. Many of us pretend we are a victim, but we are not, we always have a choice. Victim mentality, blaming and complaining weaken our ability to make clear, conscious choices.
It's entirely possible to live a worry-free life. But a worry-free life is not and should not be a fear-free life.
Fear is a natural and extremely useful response that humans share with many, much simpler organisms. I live in a neighborhood that is heavily wooded and we share the area with a very healthy population of white-tailed deer. These animals are notoriously nervous and run at the slightest sign of danger. But, like all species with some level of intelligence, they’re also able to learn. It’s been interesting to watch as the deer have slowly come to realize that humans (at least in this neighborhood) are not a threat and the deer comfortably stand and watch as we walk or drive by.
Our fears diminish
You’re much smarter than any white-tailed deer and capable of learning much more complex concepts, much more quickly. Throughout your life, one of the patterns of your learning has been to decrease the number of things that you’re afraid of. When you were a very young child you might have been scared of the dark, thunder and even Santa Claus. When you were older you were afraid to jump off the high board at the swimming pool, ask a girl (or a boy) to dance, and speak in front of the class.
With every new accomplishment, self-confidence grows, your comfort zone expands and your fears decrease. Where you once couldn’t have imagined going into the big city alone, today you do it every day on the way to work. Where once you were a white-knuckle flyer, now you’re a seasoned road warrior. We all experience a level of fear when we are about to step up our game and try something new. But we analyze the fear, the risk-reward ratio, we learn how to reduce and manage the risks and we go for it. After just a few times we’ve mastered a new set of skills, fear has been completely replaced with confidence and you’ve grown into a bigger, better someone than you used to be.
Good news! You have more fearful times yet to look forward to!
As long as you continue to challenge yourself and raise the bar with new experiences, you will face at least some level of fear. If it’s an invitation to go skinny-dipping with the sharks off Australia or base-jumping from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the fear may be intense, the risk-reward calculation unappealing and you might decide to take a pass. But if the challenge is to apply for a promotion at work or write that book you’ve had in your head for years the fears are entirely manageable and you’ll feel fantastic after you’ve overcome them. Your fear lets you know that you are standing at the perimeter of your comfort zone. You have the choice to maintain the status quo by running back to the middle or step outside that line and grow.
Fear demands a decision
Fear demands a decision about your next action. The psychologists call it ‘fight or flight’ but the choice implies that you’ll choose an action – run away or charge. Worry and anxiety, on the other hand, are states of inaction. Our friendly white-tail is frozen in the headlights. When you allow worry and anxiety to take over, you freeze and you stop growing.
Ah, genetics! You may have been born with brown eyes and curly hair, but short of wearing dark glasses and a hat, you’re pretty much stuck with them. But you weren’t born worrying. That’s something you picked up along the way and are fully capable of putting back down. There hasn’t been a single piece of evidence that proves or even suggests that anxiety and worry are built into your genes.
You were taught to worry
Remember your carefree days as a child? You didn’t worry about a thing until your parents, teachers, coaches and the world around you convinced you that you should. “Don’t talk to strangers!” “Don’t touch that, you might get sick!” “If you don’t get into a good college you’ll end up a failure!” Every worry, anxious moment or fear that you’ve experienced has been learned, adopted or conditioned from your experiences through the years.
It might be tempting to say that children are naïve and don’t understand the threats that the ‘real world’ imposes. But how often do we wish or seek guidance to be more childlike again? They don’t spend time thinking about all the terrible things that might happen, they live in the moment, take delight and joy in the smallest things and deal with life as it comes along.
Your long history of success
And life’s been ‘coming along’ at you for many years now. Over all those years you’ve become extremely good at dealing with life as it comes along. The proof is that you’re still alive. You have successfully dealt with every threat and obstacle the world has thrown at you. There isn’t a single thing that has defeated you.
You might object and say that you’ve taken your share of bumps and bruises, nasty collisions even. And still, here you are today – alive, breathing, thinking and wanting to become an even greater version of yourself. That’s proof enough of your ability to survive, prosper, grow and be victorious.
Take a moment to pat yourself on the back! When you think about all the threats, risks, hazards, perils and pressures that you’ve laid awake nights worrying about, not one has taken you down. In spite of all the mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in anxiety over all the terrible tragedies that you were concerned might befall you, you’ve always emerged the victor. Sure, you may have been down on the mat occasionally. You may even have been close to throwing in the towel. But you didn’t. You’re still here, still reaching for the next prize.
That’s worth taking a moment – or an entire week! – to celebrate!
Have you ever petted a rescue dog? I can’t resist petting a dog that I meet when I’m out for a walk, but I can always tell the ones who were rescue dogs. Just about every one that I’ve ever petted has reacted in a predictable way. As gentle and loving as your intentions might be, when you raise your hand to pet them, they flinch. The tail goes between the legs, the head goes down and they cringe, waiting for the slap they know is coming.
Makes me want to cry.
Of course, the reason they react this way is that, from the youngest age, they’ve been ignored, scolded, slapped down, maybe even beaten. It’s trained them to expect to be hit so whenever they see a raised hand, they brace for what they know is coming.
We’re trained to be afraid
We’ve all been trained, to one degree or another, to expect to be hit. Perhaps not physically, but the mental and emotional blows we’ve been dealt have been just as painful and just as effective in training us to flinch and stay down on the ground.
Maybe it was your mother who, once too often said, “You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?” Or your father who, upon seeing the 98% you got on the test, asked what happened to the other two points. Or a lover, who liked to play passive-aggressive control games. Or the gym coach who smirked at your athletic attempts.
It could have been the math teacher who rolled her eyes when you raised your hand with a question, the music teacher who suggested that you just lip sync and let the rest of the choir carry the tune. Or maybe you watched as your parents struggled to make ends meet in the monthly budget.
Doesn’t matter where or by whom we were trained, we’ve all picked up a whole lot of useless baggage and a big set of fears and self-doubts along the way. And they always give us that instinctive and painful emotional flinch when we evaluate how we look, how smart we are, how physically adept we are or how much we’re worthy of being loved.
I like to call it, ‘rescue dog syndrome.’ If you’ve been beaten down often enough, you start volunteering to stay down.
The best way to avoid that pain? If you simply take a pass on trying to look nice, taking up running, signing up for a course or going out on a new date, nobody can judge or criticize you. And every time we give in to that unfortunate training and accept the judgment of others, we shrink. Our possibilities shrink, our self-esteem shrinks, our willingness to try new things shrinks. And we end up as small, shrunken people who flinch at the first hint of a raised hand, whether that hand is metaphorical or real.
In the vast majority of cases, our fears and self-doubts have no basis in objective reality. They’re simply what we’ve come to believe about ourselves. We’ve convinced ourselves that we’re not good with money. We’ve trained ourselves to believe that we’re unattractive. We’ve come to accept that we will always be passed over for promotions.
These fears we harbor, though, are rarely based on some external, uncontrollable reality. They’re merely our own thoughts; beliefs we’ve grown to accept. Have a thought in your head often enough and it eventually becomes a belief. Your beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies and end up as your reality.
Do your thoughts serve you?
If these fears, self-doubts and limiting beliefs have been learned, and if you decide you’d be better off without them, then it might be a good idea to set about un-learning them. Step one is to become aware. Catch yourself in the act of doubting yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts, don’t just accept them as they waltz through your head. Then ask, does this thought serve me? Is my life better as a result of this belief I’m holding? Or would I be stronger, more capable, and willing to try more if I could get rid of this belief?
By paying attention to the thoughts that habitually swirl around in our heads, we can begin to get a handle on the limiting beliefs we’ve convinced ourselves are true. These are the culprits that we can then root out on our way to a contented and joyful life.
When that fearful, flinching dog unlearns her old thinking habits and understands that a raised hand does NOT mean she’s about to be beaten, her life becomes a whole lot more joyful.
Let’s make some distinction among the various threats that seem hell-bent on our destruction. Without getting into fine-grained science it will serve us to define fear as a response to a very real and present danger. Hot stoves, hungry tigers, high-voltage wires, all fall into the “Oh crap! That bus is about to hit me!” kind of scared and they’re just smart and downright useful survival instincts.
In these situations our responses are always instantaneous and action-oriented. We’re all familiar with the “fight-or-flight” response to a threat. Both of these options involve decisive and immediate action. If the house in on fire, we grab the kids and get out. If the ship is sinking, we make for the lifeboats. If the bully is heading our way in the playground, we run the other way or stand up and punch him in the nose.
‘Fear,’ ‘anxiety’ and ‘worry’ surface when we figure something bad is going to happen and they can be thought of as different intensities of the same emotion. In other words, they’re all the same thing, just with the dial turned up or down.
Any time your mind perceives that an event is approaching that could end badly for you, one intensity or another of this set of emotions is triggered. In every case, though, the ‘event’ is something you’re imagining that might or might not happen at some future time.
None of these events has actually happened. They’re all some distance off in the future. The closer in time the fear-inducing event is, the more we’ll respond in that fight-or-flight, immediate and decisive action mode. In fact, when it comes to the fear spectrum, there’s something perversely satisfying about a real emergency: it arises, we respond, and it’s over. The muscles relax, the adrenaline dissipates and we clean up the mess.
A vague, or far-off event, though, can trigger that low-grade, chronic anxiety that drains our energy because, while we find ourselves fretting in anticipation of the negative outcome, there seems to be little or nothing we can do about it right now.
You’ve likely heard the acronym that defines FEAR as Fantasized Experiences Appearing Real. Absolutely anything that evokes fear, anxiety or worry is going to, or is imagined as going to take place in the future. If it’s already happened, you’re not afraid anymore. You might be angry, injured, broke or even dead but you aren’t anxious or afraid anymore.
The point of the acronym, however, is that a future event isn’t actually real. Right now it exists solely in your imagination. And a great many of the future events over which we agonize never actually come to pass. As the 16th-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne, observed, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”
We writhe in mental agony over the diagnosis we’re convinced we will get, the lover we’re sure is having an affair, the exam we’re terrified we’ll fail or the nut-job with a gun we’re sure is walking through the mall, yet these events virtually never materialize.
Even though these ‘events’ exist purely in our imagined future, we’ve taught ourselves to fear them as if they were both very real and very immediate. Perhaps it’s time we unlearned that lesson.
I recently had occasion to remember a meeting with the accountant some time back.
His view: We’re all gonna die!!
Do you realize how much you’ve spent on travel? Have you even looked at the tax liability that’ll be due next April?! And don’t get me started on the ridiculous amounts you’ve been spending on marketing this past quarter!!
My view: We’re crushin’ it here!
Our revenues are up more than 25% over last year. We’re profitable! We’ve initiated some amazing relationships this year that promise to open new doors and create new opportunities. We’re getting ready two launch two major new initiatives this year.
How can two people, looking at the same set of facts, see two so dramatically different sights?
On the spectrum of pessimism-realism-optimism, I’ve always been off the charts on the Polyanna, sun’s-gonna-come-out-tomorrow, side of things. And I’m proud of it. Oh, I’ve taken my share of heat from the ‘realists’ of the world who claim that I have to face up to reality and stop ignoring the facts. But I let it run off my back.
Here’s another fact: Right now, my kitchen is a mess. Haven’t emptied the dishwasher since yesterday and there are dishes piled up in the sink from last night. I could stare at that ‘fact’ and get depressed over my terrible housekeeping skills. Or I could smile as I recall the great dinner we had last night, decide that I’d like a tidier kitchen and spend the next 20 minutes cleaning up.
The only ‘fact’ is that I’m in charge. And if I don’t happen to like ‘reality’ the way it is right now, I can do something about it.
The state of ‘what is’ is nothing more than a snapshot of a particular point in time. If you don’t happen to like ‘what is,’ then do something about it. Spending your precious energy regretting what you failed to do, yearning for what hasn’t happened, and worrying about what might be going to happen is a total waste.
The late, great Wayne Dyer, one of my favorite inspirational writers, liked to say, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” I could have looked at that financial report and seen doom and gloom. Trust me, it was there if you wanted to find it, just ask the accountant! Or I can look at the same report and see progress, possibility and an amazing future. The choice is completely up to me.
You can climb a tree looking up at the next branch to grab, seeing the blue sky above and thinking about the incredible view you’ll have from the top. Or you can look down and see how far you could fall and the nasty splinters you’ll pick up on the way down. The choice is completely up to you.
How full is your glass?
Isn’t it great to be really pissed at somebody? Doesn’t it feel righteous and justified? Ain’t it grand to feel all superior and right? After all, what they did (or didn’t do), or said (or failed to say) is unforgivable. So we carry a grudge.
Interesting how they call it “carrying” a grudge. Kinda like carrying a heavy weight. Or hauling a big load around. Sounds like hard work! And that’s the point – carrying a grudge is hard work. Like most hard work, it saps your energy and is usually best avoided.
But if heavy work must be done, shouldn’t the guilty one be doing it? If they committed the unforgivable offense, doesn’t it make sense that they should do the carrying? More often than not, though, they’re walking around, happy as a lark and you’re left with the heavy grudge.
Why is this this grudge-carrying business so important?
“He offended me! She insulted me! I can’t let them get away with that! From this day forward, I’m going to punish them by holding a grudge. They will forever be deprived of my good opinion, my friendship and my affection!”
The problem is that, from now on, every day when you wake up, you’ll have to remind yourself to pick up that grudge. Everywhere you go you’ll have to carry it. Because, if you forget, even for a moment, that you’re carrying that grudge-load, you might slip up and think kindly about him. It’s a load you’ve chosen to carry forever.
Of course, you could always forgive.
Our first instinct, when we think about forgiveness, is to recoil from the idea. “What have they done to deserve my forgiveness? They haven’t apologized! What they did was wrong and it hurt me!”
But that misses the big, delicious secret of forgiveness: You don’t forgive someone for their sake. You do it for yourself.
Most people think of forgiveness as the act of deciding that, whatever was done to you wasn’t so bad, so you’ll just let it go. “Maybe I overreacted. I guess I misinterpreted or I’m just being stubborn. I guess I was the one who was wrong.”
Nope! What they did to you WAS wrong and is still wrong. It won’t ever be right. And your forgiveness can’t, won’t and isn’t supposed to make it right.
Forgiveness isn’t changing your mind about what they did to you. It’s deciding that you don’t want to lug that load around anymore. It’s relieving yourself of the hard work that’s required to carry that grudge. So you set it down and walk away.
Not in an, “Aren’t I so superior!” kind of way either. That brings its own kind of debilitating load. You simply set your offense down, leave it behind, and feel the lightness, the freedom, the joy that a grudge-free journey brings.
Resentment and anger are lead weights that drag you down, constantly crashing into the toe-stubbing obstacles that inflict a recurring pain every time you pick them up. Forgiveness, though, is a helium balloon, weightless, floating you effortlessly up to your own marvelous freedom to choose joy.
When we’re born we come pre-programmed with two, and only two fears: The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. After that, anything that makes you fearful, anxious or in doubt about yourself is learned or conditioned. And with every new bogeyman, we dream less, we hesitate more and the sphere of our infinite potential shrinks.
Some fears are downright useful – hot stoves, hungry tigers, high-voltage wires. These are the “Oh crap! That bus is about to hit me!” kind of scared and they’re just smart survival instincts.