In his first inaugural address to the nation, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Nothing against the venerable 32nd president, but there’s nothing “only” about fear – not when you’re about to go into a job interview, leave an unhealthy relationship or do anything that seems daunting or impossible. The questions are: Where do your unhealthy fears come from? And how can you find the courage to face your fears?
“The fears that hold us back are our ‘shadow fears,’ ” says Amy Stone, a certified “courage coach.” She explains that these fears are born of negative lessons usually learned in early childhood (often unintentionally taught by parents) and that persist as we grow older.
The beliefs are common – I’m not good enough, smart enough, capable enough – yet we’re so unconscious of them we don’t even see how they affect us. But the shadows they cast are long, causing us to avoid intimacy or socializing, or a new move, or asking for a raise.
“These fears make us feel small and frustrated, like we’re not living the life we are meant to live,” says Stone. “This leads to frustration – which only perpetuates the negative patterns, behaviors and beliefs that keep us in the background of our lives.”
On how to overcome fear and to conquer “shadow fears,” Stone recommends a three-step process:
Identify the fear. For instance, if you’re hesitant to go after a new job, it’s probably not the work itself that frightens you. Think about what’s really behind your worries. Are you afraid that a new boss might judge you harshly? Or are you uneasy about the thought of leaving your familiar workplace?
Ask yourself where the fear comes from. Some fears are instinctive – we’re cautious around fire to avoid getting burned – but many others are taught. If you were labeled as “awkward” or “shy” as a child, you may have trouble believing that you could be confident enough to give a presentation at work.
Make peace with your fear. “This is not about ‘muscling through’ anything,” Stone says. “It’s about seeing ourselves for who we really are, without apology, excuse or justification.” It’s also about having compassion for your whole self, even your fearful side. Take some time each day to sit, breathe deeply and meditate on a positive, self-accepting message such as “I love all of myself” or “I deserve happiness and success.” Then, rather than looking at your fear as something negative, think of the lessons you can learn from it. For example, if you’re afraid of entering a new relationship, praise yourself for the strength and wisdom you’ve gained from past ones.
“Once we take small steps to uncover what stops us, we find the courage to take another step, and another,” says Stone. “The new behaviors build upon themselves to the point where we believe that if we face our fears, we will be better off for it. We have replaced fear with faith.”
Ronnie Polaneczky is an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Her work has also appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, Men’s Health and others.