We all feel fear from time to time. Of course, there may be good reason for us to feel it: being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, or physically attacked by a gang or a madman. In such cases, perhaps we can turn the fear into focus and enough aggression or resolve to fight our way through it. If not, then we’re in big trouble.
But fear arises at other times, and can prove an obstacle to self-improvement or self-actualization.
Anyone who has practiced martial arts for a while will have witnessed people joining, staying for a few months, showing enthusiasm for a time, and then suddenly disappearing. It may be that they have simply found the training too physically demanding. But, often, there’s a fear of being hit (even in drills), of getting hurt, or just looking foolish.
Likewise, sometimes when I give a public talk someone will come up to me at the end and will tell me that they’ve been thinking about giving a talk to a similar group. When I encourage them, however, they usually tell me that they “might do” — which means that they won’t do. Public speaking is something that the majority of people fear, and the thought of it can be paralyzing.
But, we often don’t want to face our fear. Instead, we will use psychological crutches to convince ourselves that it’s not the reason that we decide not to do something. We’ll tell ourselves that we’re just not that sort of person. That we don’t really have it in us. That we don’t really have the time to do it. Or that we’re just not that interested after all. And so on.
A few months ago, I was sitting reading over my notes, preparing to give a talk to an audience of a few hundred people. An older man sat next to me and asked if I was the speaker. I told him I was. “You look really nervous,” he responded. I was only marginally nervous — or, to put it another way, appropriately nervous. If I had been truly fearful of, or less experienced at, public speaking, the comment could well have been emotionally crippling. It was a stupid thing to say, at best. But, instead of letting it knock me off balance, I focused on the anger that I felt at the thoughtless and stupid comment.
More recently, I was on the subway in New York. I’m normally attentive to everything going on, but I’d been training and was pretty exhausted. I just wanted to get home. The subway car was also virtually empty, with no one doing anything out of the ordinary. As we pulled into one of the stations, I looked around, over my shoulder to see where I was. Then, a pretty nondescript guy at the end of the row of seats turned to me and said I owed him money. I had never seen him before, and he knew it. Some muggings and harassment start with this kind of “testing.” However, it didn’t take much to convince the individual that he was mistaken, and to put an end to the encounter before it escalated. Almost immediately, as I spoke to him, I focused on the anger that I now felt.
To be one-hundred percent clear, in neither case was the anger all-consuming. It was just enough to raise my energy. I wasn’t out of control, the way anger can make us. (Far from it.) Instead, I used it to be more in control, and more focused. If you’re wondering, the talk I gave that day was probably the best-received of any that I’ve given — so the thoughtless comment turned out to be a big help. And the confrontation on the subway was cut short without the need for threats or physical confrontation.
Not everything works out so well, however.
A couple of weeks after my subway confrontation, I was at my regular martial arts class. I was introduced to fighting blindfold. Although I was definitely nervous, I was ok with my first performance against a much more senior student. I got knocked to the ground, but I got some punches and kicks in, and I didn’t freak out when I was on the floor; I just got back up.
The next student I was out up against had about ten years more experience than me but — from previous experience — I knew he wouldn’t go easy. In pitch blackness, he zipped around me, striking me, seemingly out of nowhere. By the time I reacted he’d disappeared again. In the darkness, I began to feel both fear and disorientation. After a few minutes it began to feel more like hazing than fighting. Although I really wasn’t physically hurt, my disorientation and, with that, fear increased.
I felt absolutely miserable for a few days after. No one likes to be defeated, to feel defeated, or to feel fear, disorientation, embarrassment. It’s not nice to admit. But, later I was able to see — after speaking with my second opponent (who’s also a friend and one of my instructors, incidentally) — what I had done wrong, and what I could do right in future. Unlike the previous two incidents mentioned above, I had given my attention not only to the fear but to what was beyond my control. Regardless of how I felt, during my talk I focused on my words and how I was speaking — I focused on the things that I could control. Likewise, on the subway, I had focused on what I could feel and what I could say and do. Fighting blindfold, however, I had focused on my opponent’s actions, not mine.
“[A]s a crippled person walks on crutches, so a person who is… crippled by fear uses various kinds of crutches,” said Jiddu Krishnamurti. Most of the time, those crutches are excuses. At other times, it’s posing and making a big show of being something we’re not.
Neither you nor I want to live a life of excuses or pretending. If fear or something else knocks us down, we have a choice: We can make excuses and stay down, or we can take responsibility and get back up. We can either give up and let fear defeat us, or we can do the only other thing possible: turn our fear into focus.
If we can do it in the moment of necessity, great. If we can’t — or don’t — we can make our new fear a longer-term focus for our continued work.
Notably, Tim Ferriss talks of “fear setting” rather than goal setting. (Our fear and our aspiration are often the same thing.) Ferriss recommends writing out the worst thing that could happen in those situations we fear, and then writing down how we can protect ourselves from it, and how we can recover if it does occur.
Personally, I don’t really agree with Ferriss. In my opinion, thinking of the worst case scenario might well exaggerate our fear. I personally couldn’t give public talks, for example, if I thought of the worst thing that could happen to me on stage, even if I made a contingency plan.
Fear is overcome through practice, and through familiarizing ourselves with the unknown. We get to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We get to learn how to adapt, who we are, and what personal resources we have to draw on when things don’t go as planned. We get to work toward our fear incrementally, seeing small successes along the way. And we get to learn what we can control in those moments in which anything seems possible.
Of course, in the process, our ego can get bruised. When we get knocked down it can be hard to shake ourselves off, stand up, and aim for the target again. But, if we want to develop ourselves to the max, we have no choice but to continue to push forward. Fear might not be our favorite thing to aim at, but occasionally it’s all we have. And we should recall that the best of who we are is what we once aimed to be — and the journey that got us here once looked frightening to us.