As an academic, you’ve been trained to interrogate ideas. Have you noticed you’ve developed an expertise in identifying flaws in arguments and logistical inconsistencies in new ideas? Have you noticed this skill goes into overdrive when you’re the one with the new idea?
What do you want to do this term that’s new and a bit risky?
- Teach a new course
- Apply for a new position
- Expand into a new area or research
- Expand your expertise area
- Find and cultivate new collaboration partners
- Apply or reapply for a grant
- Step up to a leadership position
When you consider those new adventures, does a voice rise up in you to say . . .
- “no, you’re going to fail”
- “you don’t know how to do that”
- “you’ve never done anything like that”
- Or worse, does that voice taunt you with memories of previous, less-than-stellar experiences? “Remember what happened the last time you did that or something equally foolish?”
Let me sum it up. When you begin thinking about doing something new and a bit risky, you’re likely going to experience some doubt, anxiety, or frustration—all different guises for FEAR!! All very unpleasant.
No worries. Fear simply means you’re human!
Take a deep breath and appreciate that the survival function of your brain is working properly, continually striving to keep you safe and alive.
Fear of Acknowledging Fear
Much easier said than done, I know. Fear is so unpleasant we often don’t even like to acknowledge fear is what we’re experiencing. Often experiencing fear, and certainly acknowledging it, evokes feelings of shame. We feel weak, vulnerable, and incapable. And, of course, you certainly don’t want anyone else to notice any of these extremely unpleasant things, so you work to mask or deny fear.
Fear’s Message: Obey me! Usually, that means avoid risks, stay where you are, don’t try that new thing, keep your mouth shut or blame someone else.
Fear’s Approach: To use blunt, extreme, hyped, and excessively exaggerated messages. For example, obey me or you’ll be humiliated, fired, exposed as a fraud, shunned by your peers, hated, ostracized, abandoned, and a failure!
Fear’s Goal: Keep you safe! Hey, that’s not so bad.
Two Ineffective Responses to Fear
Ignore her or Obey her [Yes, personifying scary things can shift your thinking about them.]
1. Ignore Fear: Fear does not like to be ignored! She can be relentless. And there are obvious reasons that ignoring her can be detrimental. If you’re afraid to walk in front of a moving truck and ignore that fear, you won’t live to learn from that mistake.
2. Obey Fear: Fear loves to be obeyed. That is her core message after all. While blindly obeying fear might keep you safe in the case of not walking in front of moving trucks, such blind obedience will also end your growth and expansion. Blind obedience means no new opportunities, relationships, or adventures. Fear tolerates no uncertainty. Blind obedience is neither recommended nor desirable.
Fear—a One-note Wonder
One huge problem with fear is that she dishes out the same exaggerated tone to avoid the risk of a publication rejection as she does for genuinely life-threatening situations. She reacts to applying for a new position or a never before sought-after grant the same way she would if you were contemplating putting a plastic bag over your head and tying it tight.
Yet that exaggerated strategy she has going on is quite effective. If you think and feel like you’re going to die, you kind of want to honor that feeling and stand clear!
Fear is Not Completely Trustworthy
Almost always fear has a slither of truth or wise caution to offer, but the blunt and extreme packaging for delivering that message complicates the sorting of her message. So, it’s tempting simply to obey or ignore.
Alternative Strategies for Contending with Fear
- Notice Fear: fear and acknowledge her. Is she showing up as a constricted throat, rapid heart rate, tight jaw, sweaty palms, shallow breathing, or something else? Extremely valuable to recognize that she’s simply a collection of unpleasant sensations in your body. You can handle those!
- Respect Fear: Rather than treating fear like a loathed pest that you want to scream at or stomp on, thank her kindly for her concern. Your safety is the common goal you share.
- Outwit Fear: While fear has no filter, you can outwit her when you ignore the tone and relentlessness of the message. Instead, get curious about the timing of her appearance and the particular message she whispers relentlessly or shouts at you.
Shift Control Away from Fear
The sooner you notice and allow the emotion of fear and the sensation in your body that fear is evoking, the more quickly you can restore calm and shift away from the survival-focused function of your brain, to the rational-thinking system of your brain.
Once you do that, then your highly developed, analytical skills can serve you rather than derail you. You can take fear’s kernel of truth and then begin to think about your anticipated goal in a much more productive and practical way.
The beauty of working with a coach is that she can help you create greater awareness of how fear and other obstacles get in your way but are disguised by your familiar patterns and practiced approaches.