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How to not let fear hold you back

Insight

10 July 2015

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“Confidence isn’t the absence of fear; it’s a transformed relationship with fear,” Russ Harris.

 

When leaders transition into different roles they face a lot of ‘new’. New skills to learn, new methods of getting work done, new relationships, new targets and new situations almost every day. It’s of no surprise that many high potential leaders fail to progress quickly as expected or even end up leaving their organisations. On some level this makes sense; new isn’t always easy. New often means getting out of the comfort zone and experiencing feelings of fear and anxiety. It’s this fear that causes people to ‘get stuck’ in transition. In other words, they fail to do the things that will bring most value to their transition because they are held back by fear and end up repeating old patterns which don’t lead to progression.

For different people, feelings of fear and anxiety come in different guises. We may fear failure, embarrassment, making mistakes, rejection or letting people down. Or we may dread that familiar knot in the stomach when you think about presenting to your peers. But is fear really something that should hold us back? Here we explore a slightly counterintuitive way of getting unstuck, or not being held back by fear at all. Let’s start with a story…

 

Imagine you’ve been brought up in an obscure community, and have been taught that sheep are the most dangerous animals on the planet: they have huge razor-sharp teeth, love nothing more than to hunt and eat humans , and they can also leap higher than a three-story house.

Suppose you believe all this and one day, while you are out walking in the countryside, you suddenly catch sight of a sheep. It’s peering at you from behind a small wooden fence. How would you feel? Nervous? Anxious? Terrified? And while there is obviously no ‘real’ danger, how real would the danger feel to you? Suppose your destination is the other side of the field that the sheep are in. Do you carry on with your journey, or turn back towards where you’ve come from?

This story comes from an excellent book on Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT); ‘The Confidence Gap’ by Russ Harris. While it may seem far-fetched, it is almost exactly like the way we’ve been raised to think about fear. From a young age we’ve been taught to think that fear is “bad”, that it’s unnatural, a sign of weakness, that successful people don’t have it, that we need to reduce it or get rid of it and that it holds us back in life. We believe this and therefore try hard to either reduce our symptoms of fear when they arise or avoid situations which are likely to make us anxious. We do this because fear and anxiety feels unpleasant, which confirms our view that it’s bad.

This makes us fear our own fear. We are anxious about our anxiety, nervous of our nerves. Spot the vicious cycle?

As the story highlights, fear itself can’t hurt us. The only way they can impact our lives is if we let it dictate our actions and therefore prevent us from doing the things that will help us grow and help us develop.

 

It is time to change our relationship with fear. But how?

Feelings of fear and anxiety are often the brain’s natural reaction to ‘new’ or being out of your comfort zone. This response has its roots in human evolution, in order to prepare the body for either fight or flight. The brain is very adept at protecting us, and therefore often sees ‘threat’ in any situation which it hasn’t encountered before. With knowledge of this, rather than fighting or avoiding fear, we can apply the A, B, C principal:

  • Accept it – fear can be a potent fuel; increased reactions, strength and stamina. Rather than fight it or avoid it, accept it and let it stay.
  • Befriend it – Be pleasant towards your fear and associate positive feelings with it.
  • Channel its energy and put it into action. Say “Here we go, let’s put this energy into action”

 

As a leader going through a transition, you can expect that fear and anxiety are going to appear regularly. This is an inevitable consequence of doing something new and learning new capabilities. Rather than trying to avoid or wrestle with fear, try accepting that fear is present, making it your ally and channelling its energy to help you transition effectively.

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