Creating a meaningful life and a life that matters requires vulnerability. The more vulnerable your are, the more you expose yourself to risk. The greater your risk, the greater your fear. Learning to assess your vulnerability and manage fear will prevent you from having one of the top 5 regrets of the dying. Rather than avoiding fear, if we “lean in” and investigate our fear, we have the ability to understand it and work with it rather than against it. Here’s how:
Classify Your Fear
Most of us have a healthy fear of physical pain or death but in most situations in our everyday lives, our fear isn’t about physical danger. It is usually emotional. If you start to look closely at this kind of fear it usually falls in one of two categories:
- Fear of Rejection or
- Fear of Failure.
What I’ve found is that oftentimes people tend to fear one more than the other, almost as if one is more pervasive or somehow worse. Which one tends to be dominate for you?
Give Your Fear a Seat at the Table
Stop trying to banish fear- it won’t go away. We need fear. Allow it to be there. Treat fear as one your mind’s cabinet members. Give it a seat at the table. Allow it to advise you. Its’ perspective is important, but only one opinion. If you lean in and dig a little deeper, you usually will be able to get to the root of your fear: rejection or failure. What does it need to feel acknowledged and heard? Listen to your fear, but don’t let it run you.
More complex fear reactions- those associated with phobias or PTSD– will need professional assistance. What I’m talking about is your run-of-the-mill “I could never do that” fear. The one that stops you from connecting with others and taking on those things you really want to do in your life.
For me, fear of rejection is always dominant. I’ve learned to greet my fear of rejection like a family member. The one you have to invite to family gatherings regardless of how much you like or dislike their company. Fear of failure or rejection can be like your crazy Aunt Betty or your weird Uncle Tom- regardless of their quirks, they’re family and they’re going to be there. Accept them. Once you accept that fear will always be there, it isn’t such an unwelcome guest.
Tuning Into Fear
But keep in mind, once you start to pay attention to something, it will often become a louder or more apparent, like tuning into a radio station after listening to static- the feeling becomes distinct from the background burble of thoughts in your mind. You’ll notice your fear of failure or rejection more often. Just in the way that once you notice that Aunt Betty always chews with her mouth open, it will grate on you like nails on chalkboard. But if you recognize that she probably will never change and you accept it, you can let it go.
By learning to acknowledge the “elephant in the room,” or the fear or emotion that show up when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you have an opportunity to interact with them. Once the fear is acknowledge you can choose to allow it to “run” you or you can choose to act differently. Once we are aware of the unconscious scripts in our mind, we can choose to rewrite them.
Fear of rejection is what can stop me from taking on those projects that make me feel vulnearable and exposed. It is what can lead to regret. My fear of rejection will always be there- so I might as well learn to live with it. I tell myself, “Ah, there it is again, fear of rejection,” and then I ask myself, “am I willing to let that stop me?”
Living a regret free life requires you to acknowledge your fear and learn to do things anyway. Learning to manage fear gets us out of the stands and into the arena of life. It is messy and uncomfortable but totally worth it because allowing ourselves to be vulnerable allows us to connect with others. Human connection is what we all crave and desire.
Embrace the Full Range of Your Emotions
We also tend to label our emotions as either positive or negative. We want to have positive feelings but not the negative. Living a meaningful life and a life that matters requires that you accept the full range of your emotional experience and are able to be with it. Feeling fear is okay. Feeling anger is okay. Feeling sadness is okay. All emotions are positive because they mean you are alive and engaged with the world.
Sometimes you may worry that if you let yourself feel an emotion, it will consume you. I used to imagine allowing these “negative” emotions to be there would be like throwing myself into a deep dark well with Gollum from Lord of the Rings. I felt I might never get back out as if somehow my soul would be obliterated. This feeling triggered my lizard brain into full blown panic. After working with a trusted therapist, I was able to retrain my mind to distinguish real danger from perceived danger and know that regardless of how bad the emotional overwhelm might seem, I would survive.
Leaning into fear and the full range of your emotional experience rather than shying away from the “negative” emotions or trying to banish fear allows us to the opportunity to work with them rather than against them.
Which is worse for you? Fear of failure or fear of rejection? How are you learning to live with this sometimes unwelcome guest? Which emotions have you been trying to banish? How can you give them a seat at the table? Share in the comments.