Facing Your Fears
As a therapist and a life coach, I know that “living without fear” is what many people believe they want. But fear is an important emotion that we need to keep ourselves safe from potential threats — whether they’re physical, emotional, or spiritual.
No one likes to feel afraid, but fear can be a powerful tool for living the life you want to live. Fear will alert you when you’re not living in alignment with your goals and your values. If you can face your fear and take wisdom from it, you can open doors in your life that you wouldn’t otherwise have the clarity or the motivation to open.
We feel fear for a reason — because it can illuminate what’s most important. You can take guidance from your fears to live more fully and more in alignment with your values, and this article will show you how. I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can find it on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
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Facing Your Fears: Episode Highlights
Fear is a physiological and emotional response to a real or perceived threat. When we feel fear, stress hormones begin coursing through our blood streams, making us feel emotionally flooded. In this state, we feel highly focused on defending ourselves, running away, or shutting down internally (fight, flight, or freeze).
We have these responses for a good reason — they likely kept several of your ancestors from becoming grizzly bear food. But in the modern world, where the “threats” are often more abstract, it’s harder to know when and how to take action on our fear.
Sometimes, the threat is internal. We have emotional and physiological reactions to our thoughts, even when they’re about things that aren’t happening in the here and now. We can feel fear when we’re thinking about things that could happen to us (or what will happen to us), and we might respond to that fear with the same set of tools — “fighting” back, running away, or becoming paralyzed.
For example, many of us avoid thinking about death because we fear it. We might even put off writing a will or taking practical steps to ensure our families will be taken care of — many people do. Similarly, we may avoid pursuing a dream because we have self-limiting beliefs that make us fear the possibility of failure. We might put off making an important decision because we fear the consequences of making the wrong choice. We might feel so freaked out by our thoughts about all the bad things that could happen that we shut those thoughts out, rather than taking appropriate action that could help protect us and the people we love.
Facing your fears is about being honest with yourself about your feelings of fear, understanding what it is you’re really afraid of, and then making an intentional choice about how you want to respond to the “threat,” rather than letting the survival reactions that fear produces make the choice for you. Doing this well not only takes courage, it takes some emotional intelligence.
Fear vs. Anxiety
Fear is a normal part of being a human, but anxiety is different. Anxiety happens when you have a fear response that isn’t necessarily connected to a specific threat. It’s more like a feeling in search of a reason rather than the other way around, and there usually isn’t an opportunity to take appropriate action that would protect you from the threat. If there is an action you can take, the feelings of anxiety will likely attach themselves to a new threat, like a moving target.
If you struggle with anxiety, worrying about possible outcomes can consume a lot of your time and internal resources. Unlike fear, feelings of anxiety don’t need to be listened to and acted upon — they need to be managed. Working with a good anxiety therapist who’s trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and mindfulness techniques for managing anxiety can make a huge difference.
Pervasive feelings of fear can also be due to past trauma. Traumatic experiences can create an elevated mental state called hypervigilance, where you’re constantly scanning your environment for threats. This can go on for months or even years after the traumatic experience is over. Working with a good trauma-informed therapist can help you address hypervigilance and other symptoms of trauma (and reap the very real benefits of “post-traumatic growth”).
How to Face Your Fears
What exactly are you afraid of? Can you say it out loud or write it down?
If you want to close this tab and run away right now, that’s totally normal, by the way. Fear is a big emotion that’s hard to handle, and avoiding is what we do when we feel afraid. The first step in facing your fear is identifying it and really letting it in.
Here’s an example of what this exercise could look like.
Let’s say you’re afraid of your mother dying (most of us are!). Can you allow yourself to sit with that thought for a moment? What will happen when your mother dies, and what about that feels so scary?
You will feel powerful feelings of grief. You may wonder if you’ll be able to cope with life after loss. You may have to take care of the practicalities of her estate and her end of life plans, and that will likely feel stressful. You may also experience painful feelings of regret about the things you didn’t talk about with your mom, or things you didn’t do together.
These are all scary possibilities, and it makes sense to feel fear when you think about them. But listening to that fear and using it as your guide allows you to take action now to create a better outcome in the future. You can acknowledge that you’re afraid of grief, and spend some time learning about the grief process and how people get through it, so you can build confidence in your own resilience. You can get clarity about your mother’s end of life plans so you’ll know what to expect when the time comes. Most importantly, you can have important conversations and experiences with your mom now, and rest easier knowing that you did so.
These are all actions you can take to bring yourself some peace, now and in the future. Fear feels awful, but it also illuminates the things that are most important for us to do.
Fear of Death
Almost everyone fears death to some degree. But facing the reality that we all will die someday can help us make choices that lead us to the life we truly want.
As much as we want to avoid it, the truth is that we only have so much time, and that none of us know how much time we have. We have to make choices about the things we’d really like to do. When you’re living your life with an awareness that you will indeed die some day, it can help you prioritize, keep things in perspective, and invest the time you have in the right places.
Cultures throughout history have embraced this idea. The Latin term “memento mori” translates roughly to “remember that you must die.” In art, the concept is often represented by human skulls and bones. These motifs might look morbid to us today, since our culture tends to push death away, but the purpose of memento mori was to remind people that life is precious.
Fear of Loss
Loss is painful, and the fear of loss can be a powerful motivator. It’s common to feel anxiety in a new relationship, for example, because you’re afraid to lose that relationship. But this feeling might motivate you to do valuable personal growth work that allows you to be the best partner you can be. Similarly, fear of losing your job could motivate you to learn new skills so you can do your best work. Fear of losing your home in a natural disaster might motivate you to buy flood insurance.
Of course, you can’t always protect yourself from loss, or the painful feelings that come with it. We are all guaranteed to be hurt again and again in life — and that’s a fear you can face, too.
What would happen if you were hurt? If fear is telling you that you wouldn’t be able to manage, that’s a great thing to work on. Thank you, fear.
Fear of Missing the Boat
We all have a little FOMO, over things big and small. This is connected to the fear of death, but it’s not one and the same.
Many people, especially women, fear that they’ll run out of time to have children. This is an instance when listening to your fear is really important. It can be tempting to buy into messages that “40 is the new 30” and the miracles of infertility treatment, but the reality is that, if you’re a woman, it will not be possible for you to have biological children after a certain age. If that’s important to you, and you’re not sure how you’re going to make it happen, I know how scary that can be. But I also know that you can listen to your fear and use it to guide yourself in the direction of your goal of building a family.
So what’s holding you back, and what is in your power to change? Maybe you need to work with a good dating coach to break free from dating patterns that are keeping you stuck. Maybe you’re in a dead-end relationship, and your fear is telling you that it’s time to reevaluate it. Maybe you need to make a plan to freeze some eggs, so that you’ll have that insurance policy while you figure all this other stuff out.
Whatever experience you fear missing out on, facing that fear helps you take the right action to design your life around what matters most to you.
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
Facing Your Fears
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Free, Expert Advice — For You.
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Music in this episode is by Neko Case with their song “Things that Scare Me.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: nekocaseofficial.bandcamp.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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