How to cultivate courage and make fear your friend

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If there’s one thing you could give up that would make the greatest positive impact on your life, what would it be?

Last year, I did something a bit weird.

I asked myself this question (that’s not the weird part) – and the answer I came up with surprised me. The answer was “fear”

A bit of context: It was late January and my social media feed was starting to feature posts about “FebFast” – an annual fundraising event that challenges people to fast from sugar or alcohol for an entire month. I enjoy challenging myself, but, as a low-level social drinker with some degree of control over my sweet tooth, neither of these options seemed particularly impactful to me. So I decided to do a different kind of fast –  I decided to fast from fear.

Now you may be thinking (a) that’s weird, and/or (b) why the heck would she spend a whole month focusing on something that most people spend their whole lives trying to avoid?

Well, I have developed quite a fascination with fear because it’s so fundamental to our experience as human beings. Whether we know it or not, and whether we admit it or not, all of us (except this lady) experience fear at some point in our lives – and some of us much more frequently than others. At best, fear is a nuisance; at worst, it can be completely debilitating and prevent us from living happy, satisfied, purposeful lives.

And I’m fed up of some of the conventional approaches to dealing with fear. Like:

  • “Fake it ‘til you make it”

  • “Feel the fear and do it anyway”

  • “Do one thing each day that scares you”

I’m not saying that these modern-day proverbs don’t have their place. But isn’t life stressful enough without constantly putting our heads into the lion’s mouth (metaphorically – don’t try this at home!) to prove that we are “fearless”? Not to mention the inauthenticity that these attitudes tend to breed – the sense that we have to appear invulnerable at all times.

The thing is: fear is normal. It is our body’s navigational system doing its job. To habitually override our fear is like trying to drive at 100km/hour when our satellite navigation system is telling us that we’re approaching a peak-hour traffic jam. You wouldn’t usually argue with your GPS, would you? You would just notice the data and respond appropriately.

So what if we could do the same thing with fear?

That’s what I wanted to find out.

Before I could change my mind, I told a few friends about it and put the word out on social media that I would be running it as an online challenge. To my surprise, about 20 people signed up to join me for my first fear fast. 

A slightly unconventional fast

Now, to be fair, it wasn’t strictly a “fast”.

Aside from some sort of radical brain surgery, I’m not aware of any technique or tool that will enable you to eradicate fear completely. So the “fast” was more of a commitment that I wasn’t going to try and avoid the unavoidable. If I experienced fear during the 28 days, I would simply notice it and explore it with curiosity. I wouldn't hide from it and I wouldn't fight it. Beyond that, I had no idea what was going to happen. I would simply allow the experience to guide me.

So what did I learn in 28 days?

Well, not surprisingly, something came up a week or so into the challenge that really triggered my fear. My initial (habitual) reaction was to catastrophise – to imagine the absolute (almost ridiculous) worst-case scenario and start planning for that. My mind started to spiral out of control. But because I was on the fast – and particularly because I was doing it “publicly” – I caught myself mid-spiral, took a few deep breaths and started to apply the principles that I was sharing with my online group.

After a week of witnessing my fear rather than allowing myself to become absorbed in it, I had taken constructive action to deal with the situation and learned some extremely valuable lessons along the way.

Here are some of the highlights:

  1. Concerns: The ultimate purpose of fear is to keep us safe, whether physically or psychologically, but it also serves another purpose. It tells us what is important to us (in ontological coaching, our “concerns”). If you are feeling fear, it is because something that you care about is being threatened. When you can identify what that thing is, you are in a better position to proactively take care of it. Without going into the specifics of my situation, my fear revealed to me a whole range of things that I considered to be “at stake” – some of which were genuinely important to me (and which I then took steps to protect) and others of which were only important from an ego perspective (that is, I was concerned with what others would think of me). I’m not dismissing the latter (ego concerns) as unimportant, but I realised that they were secondary concerns in the scheme of things and didn’t let them dictate my response to the situation.

  2. Curiosity: When fear is triggered, there can be a tendency to focus on the worst-case scenario. It took me a while to realise that while I was focusing on what could go wrong, I was paying no attention at all to what could go right. The thing is, there was a better than even chance that things would work out in my favour (and they did) but, for some reason, I was completely oblivious to this. It was as if my fear had put a set of blinkers on me. By choosing to be curious about my fear (which is one of the strategies I had shared with the online group), I realised that I wasn’t being curious – or open – about the situation itself. I was simply assuming the worst-case scenario was inevitable and living as if that was a fact rather than a mere possibility. When I brought curiosity to the situation, I suddenly became aware of all the resources (people, processes, etc) available to me to create a more positive outcome. I became empowered again. [Read more: How to kick your addiction to certainty]

  3. Compassion: One of the most significant insights I gained during my fast was that my fear is a part of me. Some may disagree with this, but there is a school of thought that says that those parts of ourselves that we reject become our “shadow” (in other words, subconscious drivers that become buried and therefore more difficult to manage) and that it is only in fully embracing all parts of ourselves that we can be truly empowered (whole). Normally, I would have tried to rationalise my fear away – or suppress it – and in doing so, reject that part of me that is fearful. But when I simply allowed my fear to be there, I noticed that (a) I didn’t die, and (b) there was another part of me that was notfearful – and that latter part of me had the capacity for compassion towards my fear. Since that time, I’ve done further studies that have enhanced my understanding of how this works at a psychological level – but, at that time, I was doing it intuitively and, somehow, it worked. My compassion for my fear soothed my fear, diminishing its power over me and my response to the situation.

  4. Courage: Following on from compassion, I realised that the part of me that was “not fear” was actually the part of me that I would later identify as “courage”. When we think of courage, we might think of people who don’t appear to experience fear (at least in a particular context) – people who are apparently “fearless”. Or we might think of people who choose to push through their fear – “feel the fear and do it anyway”. For me, being courageous is a bit more nuanced than that. The word “courage” comes from the old French word “corage”, which refers to “heart, innermost feelings; temper”, and the Latin word “cor”, which also means “heart”. So I interpret courage as being a heart-centred emotion that enables us to hold our fear with compassion and drive forward with passion – both emotions of the heart. Courage is not about denying or getting rid of your fear. It is about rising up around that fear using the energies of compassion and passion.

Ultimately, one of my most significant takeaways from the fast was the power of “trust” – or, as I have come to accept it, “faith”. (These are not words I use lightly.)

When I really dug into my fear, I realised that it was coupled with a deep-seated lack of faith in Life (also known as “God” or “the Universe” or simply “the laws of nature”, depending on your orientation). The challenges of the previous few years had eroded my expectation that things would work out for the best and had conditioned me to expect the worst. I also lacked faith in myself – in my ability to take constructive action and recover from any negative consequences that might unfold.

This realisation really shook me. I mean, if it was 95% to 5% that things would work out just fine, why was I so focused on the 5%? Why didn’t I believe I was entitled to the 95%?

Since then, I have worked on developing a more positive relationship with myself that is based on a strong foundation of faith – that ultimately, things will work out for the best, as long as I am being and doing my best. I also cultivated (and validated) the belief that “life is happening for me not to me”, enabling me to find the gifts in any challenging situation. [Read more: How to recover from a major setback]

So I’m curious to know...

How does this resonate with your own experience of fear?

Have you learned any strategies to help you work with fear rather than against it?

“Fear makes us feel our humanity.” (Benjamin Disraeli)