Fear has played a huge and intimate role in my life. On numerous occasions, I have refused to raise my hand and say something for fear of appearing stupid. It took me a long time to start my own business because I was afraid of failing. And, it took me even longer to find, own and express my voice because the fear of judgment was almost crippling.
For years, I thought the solution to overcoming all of my fears was to literally beat them out of me. I developed a hugely self-critical and punishing inner voice—my inner critic—that was always present, at my beck and call, to berate me and make me feel absolutely worthless every time I fell short of my expectations.
I thought the pain of feeling small would be motivating enough to move me forward. And it did, but that movement came from an unhealthy place of lack—of not feeling like I am enough, and strangely, that feeling never went away no matter how big my achievements were.
Then, I discovered mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practise of intentionally directing your attention, focus and energy to the present moment before you. One particular aspect of mindfulness that has made the biggest difference in my life with respect to moving past my fears and building courage is self-compassion.
Mindfulness is not just about paying attention to your thoughts; it is about paying attention to your thoughts with kindness. It is about accepting yourself, your thoughts and your experiences without judgment. When you do that, the corrosive power any self-judgment has over you naturally wanes because compassion and judgment cannot co-exist.
Step One: Acceptance
The first step to getting over any fear is to accept it as a normal part of our shared humanity. Countless people have been afraid before you, countless people will be afraid after you, and countless people are also experiencing the very fear that you are experiencing at this moment in time.
The worse thing we can do when we are afraid is to beat ourselves over being afraid. In fact, that is a sub-optimal response from a physiological perspective. The brain does not necessarily distinguish an attack that comes from others versus an attack we impose on ourselves.
In either case, whenever the brain senses an attack, it goes into fight-or-flight mode, and then proceeds to shut down all functions it deems to be non-essential for your survival, including creativity, learning and growth. In other words, when instead of fighting our fears we get busy fighting ourselves, we rob ourselves of the very resources we need to help us move forward.
Instead, we can practise acceptance by acknowledging our thoughts and our experiences exactly as they are. What acceptance sounds like is this: “This feels difficult”, “This is a moment of struggle” or “I am experiencing fear in this moment.”
Acceptance creates freedom to mindfully respond and react to our fears, and in the process, allows a more empowering thought, feeling or behaviour to emerge that can serve us better.
Step Two: Self-Compassion
Usually, when things don’t go our way, or we fall short of our own, often unrealistic, expectations of ourselves, we go into a space of either shame (“I am not good enough”) or self-pity (“Why is this happening to me?”). Neither of those responses is constructive. Instead, what a kind and compassionate response would be is to say: “This sucks, but I choose to be kind to myself in this moment. Let’s look at what worked, what didn’t work, and what I could do differently next time.”
The act of self-compassion is an explicit intention to be kind to yourself irrespective of the outcomes or the results you see in your life. For me, knowing that no matter what happens, and what the external perception or judgment of me may be, that at least I will always meet myself with kindness has emboldened me to do so much more in my life.
What helps me intentionally build a kind and compassionate state of mind is a daily practise of a loving-kindness meditation, which begins with silently affirming the statements—“May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at peace” before extending the same feeling to others.
It feels strange at first, especially if we are not used to actively wishing well for ourselves, but a compassion meditation has the power to fundamentally alter your relationship to your fears, and indeed, to yourself.
Step Three: Mindful (Micro) Action
The most powerful anti-dote to fear is action. We can’t think ourselves out of our fears. The most effective way to get over most fears is to expose yourself to the very thing that you are afraid to do, but in micro doses or baby steps, if you will, that feel non-threatening. It’s asking yourself: ‘What is the smallest action I can take right now that will allow me to move mindfully forward?’
And then, asking yourself that question again, and again, and again, until you’ve created an unmistakable momentum by taking a series of small actions in the direction you want to move into.
One of the greatest sources of human suffering is knowing that you are capable of so much more, yet you keep yourself small and chained to a sub-optimal life because of all the fears that hold you back.
When you take action towards tapping into your higher potential, no matter how small the action, and that action comes from a place of self-acceptance, not a place of lack, that then is the ultimate expression of self-compassion, and self-love.
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