Working Smarter

Do the Thing You Fear the Most

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Fear is overrated. We know that because time and time again its catastrophes don’t come to pass. The plane doesn’t crash, and the odds of that happening are infinitesimal. We get up to dance, and the whole room doesn’t break into laughter. Everyone else is too caught up in their own anxieties to notice you.

The track record of fear is absurdly bad. We would fire anyone whose predictions were as consistently wrong as the fantasies and false beliefs in our head. At the minimum, we wouldn’t pay attention to their yammerings anymore.

BORN TO WORRY

Unfortunately, we are outfitted with a brain prone to imagine worst-case scenarios, and the one thing it’s better at than that is nagging about its various dreads. We are born to be worrywarts, and that default has worked to the extent we are still around on the planet. Yet unless we know how to manage this default and separate out the bogus from the real threats, we wind up being played by our hyper-tuned amygdalas to the tune of missing out on the whole point of being here: engagement with our life.

It turns out that what our brains really want is not to stew all day and night about things that don’t exist in a tense we are not in but novelty and challenge, as brain scientist Gregory Berns has pointed out. Our mandate is to participate in our experience and do things that the fear police don’t want us to do.

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It’s one of the great, or maybe not so great, paradoxes of the human condition. In your brain every day the forces of safety and comfort are hard at work trying to squelch your craving for growth, otherwise known as progress. The security default seems like the way to go, but it’s completely at odds with the progress you need to be happy.

The source of gratification, the science tells us, are core psychological needs that express fear-busting aspirations such as autonomy and competence. We need to feel like we are writing our own script. To do that, we have to step beyond the comfort zone and fear’s flashing red lights. Not acting on the core needs leads to stagnation, boredom and vital life sources sealed off from our reach. You might be safe, but you’re sorry, because you are not moving forward.

REFLEXIVE FANTASIES

When a perceived risk appears in our consciousness, the primal impulse in the defense hub of the amygdala reflexively triggers the danger signal. Enter catastrophic thoughts of what might happen if you do something outside the bubble. You’ll be a wimp if you speak up about the stress or health issues you have. Other people would judge you a failure at pottery or painting. You might get mugged if you travel to another country. There’s no end to what the amygdala can concoct to keep you in a box.

We buy into these false alarms, because the thoughts are in our head. If we’re thinking them, they must be true. No! Thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is. Fear is a projected anxiety, a figment of imagination that shuts down opportunities for growth, aliveness, and meaning. Who’s in charge here? You or an automatic thought that’s as accurate as “the earth is flat.”

There is no progress without risk, so giving our brain neurons the novelty and challenge they want means not being able to predict what will happen when you take a leap. That’s okay, since the fear equipment has a horrible track record in the prophecy department too. Fear is even more inept when it comes to decision-making. No good choice is ever made from the desperation and panic of fear.

Most fears that dominate our days fall into the social realm. The projected anxieties boil down into the dread of others’ disapproval. Since humans are not born with the cues of how to behave like Arctic terns, we look to see what the majority is doing and try to do that, but that’s a bad yardstick when it comes to satisfying your core needs—since no one can do that for you. We have to look to our own affinities and what is meaningful to us to gratify our self-determination equipment.

THE VISE-GRIP OF SOCIAL FEAR

Fear of looking foolish is one of the top blocks to learning and progress for adults. We had no problem jumping in to try things as kids, but adults are supposed to know everything already and sweat not appearing omniscient. Yet foolishness is merely the state of not-knowing on the way to skill and knowledge. It is the act of learning, in other words. Fools have more fun, which is why kids have more fun. They don’t feel foolish when they jump into something new; learning is their job. It’s our job too, if we want to keep our brain neurons happy.

A young man approached me after I delivered a recent keynote address on empowerment for the staff of Pasadena City College. He wanted to thank me for the talk. In it, I had sketched out a couple of fear scenarios, which hit home for him. “I was at a club and a girl asked me to dance, but I said No, because I’m shy. I really regret it. I won’t be doing that again,” he said with a big smile. He was more in charge of his thoughts now, not the other way around.

Fear is momentary. Regret is forever. Breaking out of the clutches of the fear factory in our heads means stepping into the non-life threatening fears in our life. “Do the thing you fear the most, and the death of fear is certain,” Mark Twain said.

What keeps fear activated is avoidance. We don’t want to go there with fear, so we step around it or try to ignore it, but it actually becomes the guiding hand in the form of aversion. We don’t realize that under all social fear is one not-so-big deal, a belief we wouldn’t be able to handle it. Guess what? We always handle it. The belief is bogus.

A JOURNEY OF SECONDS

Ditching the paralysis of fear means noticing the butterflies in the stomach and moving anyway. A few seconds of dripping armpits is worth it, because on the other side is exhilaration, competence, skills, autonomy, new friends and opportunities, and the victory of having overcome an impediment to your potential. It’s a journey of mere seconds through the self-imposed barricades that keep out the life we want.

For many, the fear that holds progress back is the fear of making a mistake, again an external approval metric. Even philharmonic musicians dread messing up and playing a wrong note. The answer for those with performance anxiety is the same as it is for anyone wanting to do something that pushes their envelope in some way—understanding that non-life-threatening mistakes are survivable, human. Be okay with mistakes. It’s the fear of mistakes that causes them, as our attention is diverted from the task at hand to thoughts of dread and what might happen.

The more you step through irrational and catastrophic thoughtsto engage with your life, the more you strengthen competence and mastery needs, which cut down on the security reflex. Studies show that people whose self-worth is based on intrinsic goals—acting for the sake of it, for no external reward—are much less in the defensive posture.

The more we push past fear thresholds, the more we see that calamity is not around every corner. We are emboldened to embrace the new and unknown, and brain neurons applaud with a celebration of dopamine, their party drug.

The world of play is particularly good as a place to confront fears, because it’s a no-judgment realm where nothing is on the line except fun and enjoyment. If you want to make the safety equipment cringe and your challenge need celebrate, jump into a new hobby. Learn how to make a ceramic pot, play saxophone, or dance mambo. When you do, you’ll see how easy it is to take on the next challenge and do what a part of your brain said you couldn’t.

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Tags: fear, fear and risk-taking, stress management, gratification, empowerment, catastrophic thoughts

The Call of Risk: Fear Is Momentary, Regret Is Forever

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If fear was gold, we’d all be millionaires. Unfortunately, the payoff is mostly less than zero for this ancient and epidemic human emotion. In the epic battle in your brain between the forces of safety and growth, the comfort zone usually wins, keeping at bay a skill essential to the full expression of your non-work life: risk-taking.

You’d never know it in a world of alarmists and nay-sayers, but we weren’t built to cling to the Barcalounger. The biochemistry is designed for the exact opposite, to go where we haven’t gone before. Comfort is your enemy.

Risk is the central piece of forward progress—and the life satisfaction that springs from it. Without managing fears we can’t satisfy the mandate of our brain neurons for novelty and challenge, the keys to long-term life fulfillment, say brain researchers, not to mention avoiding the regrets that rush in when fear squelches our progress.

Without risk, we can’t gratify core psychological needs that require that we step off the moving sidewalk and chart the path we're here for.

ITCHY SECURITY TRIGGER

Fear is the power of what doesn't exist to control what does. It has the upper hand most of the time, thanks to an itchy security trigger from our days back on the savanna and our habit of not disputing the emotional backwash in our brains. If it’s in my head, it’s gotta be true. The research shows we can outfox fear’s vise-grip on risk by modifying our behavior and thoughts and changing the terms of risk evaluation.

What risks has fear overruled for you? Maybe a trip someone convinced you wasn’t safe, an activity you didn’t want to look like a fool doing?Looking back, you’d make a different choice, because, with time you see that the “fears” were false, momentary blips of projected anxiety that stepped on the neck of your life.

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Fear is momentary; regrets are forever. The reality is that fears that paralyze us today will be long forgotten tomorrow, and we’ll be left with the after-effects of opting for safety — life unexperienced, progress unmade, a truckful of regret. All because of irrational neuron burps in your brain. For nothing, in other words.

It’s the opportunities we don’t act on that cause the most regret, say researchers, known as “the inaction effect.” Instead of looking back years later at what we wished we would have done, why not look back now in the moment of risk, and use regret to transcend autopilot fears?

IRRATIONAL PROJECTIONS = REGRET

Regret is a built-in insurance policy to make sure we don’t leave too much life on the table. It forces us to see the big picture fear obscures. Think how mad you’re going to be later that projections in your brain of things that don’t exist kept you from the life you could have lived. Instead, let the prospect of future regret fortify your courage to act now.

We pay for the safety default with boredom and stir-craziness, items born of something built into the DNA — adaptation. We’re made to get tired of reruns. This anti-rut device is designed to make us change things up. Core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, can only be satisfied when you demonstrate your capacity to take on new things 

We can improve risk-taking ability by changing attitude, increasing competence and through a process of reframing fears called fear extinction. Researchers have found that people in a positive frame of mind tend to see risk as an opportunity, not a threat. Stress management is key, since stress keeps your brain constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment, i.e., negativity. Intrinsic goals are another way to disarm fear. Acting for the sake of the experience itself removes the expectations that give us pause.

Risk is about managing uncertainty. The more that uncertainty is managed, and the more you feel competent to handle the risk, the easier it is to step forward, instead of back. Competence makes you see potential benefits, instead of threats, say researchers.

Fears can also be weakened by exposure to threatening stimuli. You can change fearful images by altering your memory of them. Each time you recall a memory and add or subtract from it, you are defanging the initial fear.

More of us could take the risks we need by changing the equation from potential loss to gain. Try viewing the unknown, not as a threat, but as exploring, exactly what your brain neurons want you to do.

Researchers call the release of the brain’s party chemical, dopamine, at the mere expectation of something novel the “exploration bonus.” You can get your bonus through incremental risk, one step at a time 

GET TO THE BASE CAMP 

Mountaineer Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb the world’s 14 tallest peaks, made a practice of not looking at the summit when he climbed a daunting peak. Too intimidating. “You see this rock in front of you and say, I’m going to go to that rock and then I’m going to stop,” he told me. His goal for the day is the base camp, not the summit.

In the course of doing a book on the power of engaged experience, Don't Miss Your Life, I met a host of folks who have applied the spirit of exploration to risks in their personal lives that have transformed their lives. Psychotherapist Sheila Gross turned the jitters of performing with a group of strangers into the most important feature of her week — singing in a community choir. Accountant Marty Herman transcended his social fears by becoming an ace salsa dancer in his 50s.

Breast cancer survivor Cindy Roberts overcame her battle with the ultimate fear through the power of dragon boat paddling. She knows the truth behind risk: There’s no such thing as security anyway. “There is no later. Live it now,” she says.

Mountaineers call the initial climb of a peak a “first ascent.” There’s an extra incentive in bagging a “first,” a distinction we can use to turn the discomfort of doing something new to its flip-side: excitement.

What can you do for the first time this week? Next week? It could be anything from trying an exotic fruit for the first time to signing up for a dance class. Consider your “firsts” progress, and the route to a life of no regrets.

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Tags: fear, regret, risk-taking and fear, avoiding regrets, stress and fear, risk

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