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.
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 “I’m-gonna-die-real-soon-if-I-don’t-do-something-fast” sort of scared. These are the really smart survival instincts that have kept humans alive for millennia.
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.
Fearful emotions are triggered
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.
Anxiety is different
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 may have 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.
It's time to unlearn our reactions
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.
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.
Would you rather be right or happy?
Why is 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!”
Forgiveness isn’t about the other guy
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.
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.
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.
If you don’t like it, change 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?
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!
When we’re born we come pre-programmed with two, and only two fears: The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. After that, anything that makes you fearful, anxious or in doubt about yourself is learned or conditioned. And with every new bogeyman, we dream less, we hesitate more and the sphere of our infinite potential shrinks.
Some fears are downright useful – hot stoves, hungry tigers, high-voltage wires. These are the “Oh crap! That bus is about to hit me!” kind of scared and they’re just smart survival instincts.
Fear is constricting
But most are constraining, restricting, limiting. In the face of them we believe less, try less and become less. These are the non-stop, low-grade, chronic, “How-am-I-going-to-pay-the-cable-bill-this-month?,” “Why-hasn’t-my-friend-liked-my-Instagram-post-yet?,” “I-think-I’m-supposed-to-worry-more-about-climate-change,” “I’m-sure-these-symptoms-mean-I-have-cancer!” kind of anxiety. It’s the kind of scared that, late at night, when you can’t sleep, the cascade of hideous outcomes ends with you pushing a shopping cart along the sidewalk or rotting in a rat-infested prison.
Then, just for fun, let’s add in those self-doubts that are purely the result of our conditioned beliefs. The ones that set limits for ourselves before we’ve even tried. “I’ll never be good at math.” “You have to be lucky or criminal to be rich.” “I can’t get up there and sing karaoke!”
It sucks to be scared all the time.
So let’s stop.
We make ourselves anxious
Turns out that, with the exception of the hot stove/oncoming bus kind of anxieties, none of the rest are based on any external reality. They’re our over-active imaginations cranking up the fear factor. They’re our tendency to immediately go for the worst-case scenario that has you landing in that hell-hole prison.
In other words, our fears, our anxieties, our self-doubts are self-imposed.
And they come with an ‘off’ switch.
We’ve immobilized ourselves with our addiction to CNN, Twitter and the gut-wrenching competition to win that last spot in the best pre-K so your three-year-old will get into Yale. None of which are mandatory.
Remember “Chicken Little?” That dim-witted hen who, when an acorn fell on her head, concluded that the sky was falling and proceeded to instill mass panic among the rest of the farmyard animals? It’s a cute story and it’s easy to see the folly of jumping to conclusions based on fake news.
Remember “The Emperor’s New Clothes?” The dim-witted emperor and townspeople who believed the con men who told them that only the smart people can see the cloth? It’s a cautionary tale for those who can’t or won’t think for themselves.
When we allow our imaginations, our psyches and our inner monologues to be hijacked by fear-mongering headlines and Twitter posts, our wits are also dimmed. And our infinite supply of human potential is stolen.
Such a colossal waste!
But what about Chicken Little? Like her, I spent way too much of my life convinced that the sky was, indeed, falling. That’s how we all feel when we’re so trapped in our very real, personal panic. It’s impossible to think calmly and rationally. And as imaginary as these demons are, the power they wield in our psyches makes them impassable roadblocks just the same.
Are you fed up with anxiety?
Sooner or later, every one of us gets fed up with worrying what others think, hiding under the bed and surrendering command of our lives.
In spite of the power those demons wield, it’s entirely possible to remove those roadblocks. Since it’s all self-imposed, we can learn to unplug from the fear. We can untangle the net of fear, anxiety and self-doubt that keeps us from exploring and our limitless human potential. We can live up to the promises we’ve made to ourselves.
Anyone can do it. But only if you’re willing to hit that ‘off’ switch. Only if you want to leave the drama behind and get to know the valuable, competent, courageous, remarkable human being that you are.
Overcoming the fear, transcending the anxiety, conquering the self-doubt. That’s what i-fearless is all about.