Be Honest, What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

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“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is far more important than fear.”

– Ambrose Redmoon

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”

–Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Is it just me, or do you ever wonder why the worthwhile things in life are so damn scary to do? Any time I think of doing something new, the “what ifs” come rolling through my mind like a series of bowling balls crushing my dreams. They get me every time. As soon as I set my mind to something, I immediately start trying to talk myself out of it; I even convince myself that I’m not being fearful, I’m just being realistic and choosing the safe bet. I’ve got a ton of perfectly logical and convincing reasons why I shouldn’t do the things that scare me. Those reasons are so precise, so well articulated that I can easily convince other people that the safer, playing-it-small option is what I really want. But even when I’ve got others fooled, I know, deep down, that I’m selling out.

One of the professors in my doctoral program once lectured about an idea I’ll never forget. He said, “In my life I always choose the option that scares me the most.” When I first heard this I was dumbfounded. I remember thinking, “So you play in traffic and jump out of planes without parachutes? That seems pretty stupid to me.” As I get older, I realized he wasn’t referring to making reckless life choices. What he meant is that he doesn’t let fear stop him from doing what it is he really wants to do. I came to realize that this is a good way to live. If something scares the crap out of you, it’s probably the thing you want to do most; but fear will convince you to do something else if you let it. When you’re facing a choice and one of the options invokes fear, that’s the one that’s most worth doing. The least comfortable option is the one that will bring you the most growth and the most fulfillment.

When I first heard my professor’s philosophy on choosing what scares him, I was going through life making safe choices. I had stayed in my home state for college, declined an opportunity to study abroad, kept the same circle of friends since grade school, and applied only to the internships and jobs I was pretty sure I’d get. I lived life in an attempt to know what I was going to get—no surprises—and I was oh, so comfortable. Until one day I wasn’t. Eventually my complicity morphed into a nagging desire. And I know this wasn’t unique to me. For lots of people, the desire for more gets stuffed down and repressed through mindless activities like drinking, drugging, eating, chasing money, and getting overly involved in other unfulfilling pursuits. It manifests as anxiety, distress, anger, and a feeling of emptiness. This, of course, is no way to live.

Fear: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Listen, the truth is that some amount of fear is a good thing; it allows you to carefully consider your options, ponder the worst case scenarios, and see if what you want is worth the risk. If you’re in real danger, fear will set you into speedy action. It can keep your unhelpful impulses under control and remind you not to do anything truly stupid, like ride a motorcycle without a helmet or trade in all your retirement savings for lotto tickets. However, fear stops being a good thing when it overwhelms or paralyzes you, keeping you from taking action. Moving through fear is productively necessary. As bestselling author Spencer Johnson puts it, “When you move beyond fear, you feel free.” If you want to know what you would be free to do if you weren’t afraid, here are a few tips to get started:

1. Let Go. You can let go of fear by shifting your focus from what could go wrong to what will go right if you make a certain decision. When you do this, the fear subsides, and you begin to think of everything that’s possible. Let yourself dream about what you want in life, because your thoughts and feelings about having what you desire will help you get there.

2. Try Something New. Trying the same things you’ve always tried will never give you new results. In order to generate new results, you need to change your routine. Once you modify your behaviors, you’ll start seeing new outcomes. When you truly believe in yourself and know that you can achieve your goals, you’ll try new approaches until you get there.

3. Your Imagination is Scarier Then Reality. Your imagination can be cruel sometimes. It’s important that you remember this so that your thoughts about what could go wrong won’t keep you from taking action. As Spencer Johnson wisely says, “What you are afraid of is never as bad as what you imagine. The fear you let build up in your mind is worse than the situation that actually exists”

4. Don’t Allow Fear to Talk You Out of Your Values. Considering what you’d do if you weren’t afraid is a great way to take a closer look at how you live your life. You’re likely to see that fear is the biggest thing stopping you from having your life align with your values. If you were to let fear go, what would your life look like?

Final Thoughts

To become who you’ve always wanted to be and do what you’ve always wanted to do, you’ll need courage. Getting rid of fear won’t help you accomplish your goals; you’ll do it by embracing fear, knowing it’s scary to go for what you truly want, and doing it anyway. That’s where bravery and courage come from. So, ask yourself the tough questions: “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” “What would I do if there was no real risk?” Then take action and enjoy what it feels like to truly be free.

Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier


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