How to Overcome Fear and Build Confidence
“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” - Bertrand Russell
Oh boy, this is a big one.
We’ve all had moments in our lives when fear stopped us from doing something. Whether that was setting up an online dating profile, buying a new car or starting a new job. Think about a time in your life when fear stopped you in your tracks. What thoughts ran through your head? What emotions did you experience?
I’ve pushed through a lot of fearful thoughts in my life: I was afraid to go to college 10 hours away from my family, I was afraid to leave my six-figure job for an uncertain future, and I was afraid to start coaching. My dad passed away in 2011, and the one thing he taught me that I continue to teach others is to always do the thing that scares you.
Because here’s the thing about fear: it’s only as powerful as you make it.
How to Overcome Fear and Build Confidence
Some fear is a good thing. It’s a natural response to a real or perceived threat.
If we’re walking by the edge of a cliff or swimming in deep water, we should have a healthy amount of fear to keep us safe. These are real threats that have the potential to harm us if we don’t listen to our fear.
As women, many of us fear three things: failure, rejection and criticism. These are perceived threats because they are things that MIGHT happen. They haven’t actually happened to us, but we put so much stock into how terrible failure and rejection and criticism are that we avoid any risk of them happening to us.
- Here’s what a fear of failure might look like: “If I start my own bakery, I won’t have any customers. There are already so many wonderful bakeries in my town; what makes mine so great? I’ll have to lower my prices to attract customers, but then I won’t make any money. I don’t think I can do this. I’ll be a complete failure.”
- Here’s what a fear of rejection might look like: “If I ask my boss for a raise, he’ll laugh in my face. He’ll remind me about the time I sent that report out a day late, or ask me why I deserve a raise over my other coworkers. I don’t have a good answer to that because there’s nothing special about me. On second thought, I really don’t deserve a raise. I’ll just wait another year.”
- And a fear of criticism: “If I publish this book, I’ll be torn apart. I really want to tell my story to help other women, but I’m not that good of a writer, and I’m not a doctor or professor. Who am I to give advice? I’ll get terrible reviews, and no one will buy it.”
Sometimes I just can’t believe the way we talk to ourselves… notice how all three of these thoughts started out with the word IF. IF this happens… because it hasn’t happened. It’s a fear we made up because we don’t know what will happen. At the root of each of these fears is the fear of uncertainty, which is probably the scariest thing of all for most of us. We fear what we can’t see or don’t know.
The Fear Cycle
“To start something new, you have to leave something behind. There is a fear of the unknown. The first step is to overcome your fear.” – Rabbi Levi Brackman
Unfortunately for us, fear often shows up in a cycle. Fear causes inaction – we are afraid of what might happen, so we don’t take that step forward or take that risk. And inaction fuels fear. So, because we didn’t try something new or we didn’t move forward, we will continue to be afraid, because it’s the unknown.
Here’s an example: Say you’re afraid of public speaking. And if you are, you’re in good company, because it’s the number one fear, even over death. Because of this fear, you avoid any situation in which you have to speak in front of an audience. And because you never give yourself the chance to practice speaking in public, you’ll continue to be afraid.
“Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist, persists.” - Eckhart Tolle
The more we avoid the fear, the stronger it becomes. Remember those “if” scenarios? According to Dr. Sharon Melnick, the “what ifs” in our lives hold us back by preventing us from testing our comfort zone. These what ifs come from our lack of confidence and lack of self-trust. If we don’t trust ourselves to be able to learn and course correct from our mistakes, if we don’t have a secure feeling that ‘no matter what happens, I will make a good situation out of it’, and if we don’t have a strong and accurate appreciation of our own value, then we will feel a need to maintain tight control over and pre-forecast the outcomes of any new step. And when we forecast the worst-case scenario… game over.
What adds to the cycle is our inability to identify the fear itself. More people are held back by fears than by any other factor. It is an emotion that overrides our intelligence, stops us from moving towards our goals and worsens our quality of life. We don’t often recognize the impact fear has in our lives, simply because we use different words to describe the emotion – words like worry, nervousness, stress, shyness or anxiety. Specific fears can also be hard to identify, even though they may drastically impact our lives.
The major fear that stands as the greatest obstacle to success is fear of failure. The problem is not actually failure, which can make us stronger and more determined, but the fear itself that paralyzes us from action. We attach fear to things we don’t need to have any intense feelings about. To things like trying something new and not having it turn out exactly the way we expect, or receiving feedback or criticism, or speaking in front of people, or heights. None of those things are either positive or negative. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about them. It’s our mindset and what we believe about these things that create the fear, and the fear is what prevents us from moving forward. And not moving forward keeps us in that cycle of fear.
Fear vs. Truth
Sometimes we’re afraid to pursue our most important dreams because we are afraid of judgment, disappointing our family or friends, and most of all disappointing ourselves. That little voice always seems to creep in just as we’re about to take a step forward saying awful things like “they will laugh,” “you can’t do it,” “you’re not the expert” or “something bad will happen.”
This is where we need to learn the difference between our fears and our inner truth. Our inner truth will never bring turmoil or confusion. For example, fear will say “don’t do this – it won’t work out,” while your inner guidance will say, “if it doesn’t work out, on to Plan B.” One inner voice uses scare tactics and the other uses positive guidance.
We can learn to tell the difference between these two voices by tapping into our self-awareness – the wisdom we have about ourselves. The knowledge we have about who we are and how we react to the world around us. You can use this free workbook to develop a strong and healthy self-awareness. Using this wisdom, you can start to understand your inner truth. You can also think about this as your intuition, your inner guide, or your compass.
Comparing kills confidence
If comparison is the thief of joy, then it’s the cheerleader of fear. When we compare ourselves to others, it weakens our confidence and removes the focus on the unique qualities we have that allow us to succeed in life. When we stop focusing on our strengths, we start to be guided by our weaknesses. When we focus on our weaknesses, we start to believe that we don’t have what it takes to succeed. We start to fear failure, which stops us from moving forward. Remember, everything is cyclical. Comparison is harmful because when we see someone else achieve a goal that we have, we subconsciously think that the only way to achieve the same thing is to be exactly the same as that person. We have to have the same degree, the same job, the same house, the same family….
But the truth is, we already have everything we need to be successful in this life. YOU already have everything YOU need to be successful and achieve your dreams. When you don’t believe that, you allow fear to creep in. Remember, you are perfectly equipped to have everything you want in life. What’s standing in your way is what you believe about yourself.
The Cure for Fear
We all feel fear initially, but some people learn to overcome it. Therefore, it is not fear itself that is the problem, but how we react when faced with it. For some people the fear is motivating. For others it creates a state of complete paralysis. People who overcome fear view it from a position of power. They use words like “excited” to describe the emotion rather than words like “nervous.” This power puts us in control of our emotions, reactions and decisions.
One way we can combat fear is by practicing kaizen, or continuous improvement. Now, I could literally go on for hours about this topic because it’s what I taught and practiced in my day job as a hospital executive. Kaizen, loosely translated, means “change for good.” The premise is by making small changes every day, you can start to see massive results over time. So, this could mean changes in the way we think about ourselves, taking tiny steps to overcome our fear, or making small decisions each day. Confucius said: “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.”
You might not like what I have to say next, but this is the good stuff: feel the fear and do it anyway. A fascinating thing about fears is that if you face them courageously, they diminish. The key to overcoming fears is to face them quickly and bravely, without giving yourself time to be afraid. When you discipline yourself to do the thing you fear, your fear of the situation gradually goes away. You just do what you fear again and again until it holds no more fear for you. You face the fear, confront the fear, and act despite the fear until you are no longer afraid.
I know what you’re thinking. But hear me out: I used to be terrified of flying. I would have a panic attack before getting on the plane – sweaty palms, nausea, racing heartbeat, racing thoughts… I would feel so uncomfortable during the whole flight (which back then weren’t long flights – maybe 2 hours at the very longest), then practically kiss the ground when I got off. Then a few days later, when it was time to return home, the same thing.
I knew something had to change when I was on my honeymoon. In Dubai. 18 hours from DC. Not only did we have more than one flight to get there, but they were each pretty long flights. I was miserable the whole time, and my anxiety made me so nauseous that I could barely eat or drink. Which, in the desert, is not a good thing. I became dehydrated and didn’t eat much the entire two weeks we were there. It was still an amazing trip, but I felt terrible the whole time. The next year, I started a job where I traveled pretty frequently for different conferences or trainings. At first, I was back to my old cycle of fear, but the more I flew, the easier it became every time. Today, I feel like a pro – considering where I started. I didn’t set out to intentionally face my fear, but in doing so, flying became less scary. Don’t let your fear ruin an experience for you. Tackle it head on. Don’t think about it – just do it.
If the thought of that is too much for you, then consider this instead: visualization. Our minds are extremely powerful. Try this: close your eyes. Now, envision something physical that scares you, like spiders or snakes or heights. Imagine you’re standing there in front of that thing and notice what you’re feeling. It’s fear isn’t it? You’re imagining something that isn’t really there, but your mind doesn’t know the difference!
The same will be true if you visualize yourself overcoming your fear. Practice by picking up that spider or snake, or standing really close to the edge of a cliff – but in the safety of your own mind. Then, visualize yourself overcoming your other fears – see yourself opening your own bakery or going back to school or interviewing for that job. Feel what it feels like to accomplish those steps. You can also visualize what it would be like to take a step that doesn’t work out. What does that feel like? Hold on to those feelings and remind yourself that it’s not the outcome, but the fear that’s holding you back from your dreams.
I love this YouTube video for so many reasons, and I use it frequently in workshops and trainings. In the first half, it talks about believing in yourself, and in the second half, the narrator, the great Eric Thomas, speaks powerfully about opportunity vs. obligation. He says, “think about what you’re thinking about when your effort is low.” So think about when you’re afraid – your effort is low. You’re not making decisions, you’re not moving forward.
When your effort is low, you’re not thinking about the opportunity, you’re thinking about the obligation. Stop looking at your dreams like it’s something that you have to do or something that you’re forced to do. YOU set that goal. It’s up to YOU to achieve it. If you want what you’ve never had before, if you want to be what you’ve never been before, if you want to do what you’ve never done before, change your mentality. And notice that your effort goes up when you look at it like “I’ve got the opportunity of a lifetime!”
Be excited about the fact that you have an opportunity. Be excited that you have an opportunity to change your life. To create the life you want. Use that excitement to fuel your momentum and push through the fear to take a step forward. Then keep taking steps forward until you get to where you want to be. This is your life. It’s time to stop waiting for things to happen and time to create it for yourself.
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