Are You Paralyzed by Fear?

Young businessman standing on edge of rock mountain and looking across“It is as though fear is a virus, constantly coursing through our veins and waiting for the first sign of weakness so that it can instantly activate and take over.”

By Bill Reeb

Fear is an important topic to me. I believe fear is often one of the greatest offenders interfering with behavior, skill development, success, satisfaction with yourself, and happiness in your life.

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I am not just talking about fear as it would manifest in feelings of terror, but rather the entire range of fear, from being afraid of dying on one extreme through a simple negative thought wafting through your brain on the other.

I will start with the leftmost swing of the pendulum (the slight impact of fear) by mentioning how easy it is to hit a ball out of bounds by simply being scared you will. I remember playing golf in a tournament in high school and as I turned the front nine, I noticed that I was tied for the lead. I remember clearly taking a practice swing, standing on the 10th tee box looking down a fairly easy golf hole as I thought to myself, “Whatever you do, don’t go out of bounds to the right.” Or in other words, “Bill … don’t slice your tee shot!” I then proceeded to hit the ball a fairly long way, and while it was not clear, it looked like it barely rolled out of bounds to the right. That one negative thought – my fear of losing the lead – was all it took to create a swing malfunction so that the golf ball would go exactly where I hoped it wouldn’t. As I re-teed the ball to hit a provisional shot (a second ball that I would play if the first one was found out of bounds), I thought to myself, “Don’t do that again. If I do, it will be hard for me to ever make up those strokes.” So I swing and hit another drive that appears to have gone on the exact same line as the previous one. Frustrated, I re-teed thinking, “If I hit this ball out of bounds, I am out of contention.” And again, good contact, strong hit, on the same line.

Finally, and yes this story is about to come to an end, I put down my third provisional tee shot and thought to myself, “If I have to play this one, it doesn’t matter.” With the fear gone, I smoked the fourth ball down the middle.

Hoping that one of my earlier tee shots was in bounds, I walked up briskly to see where they finally came to rest. All three balls were lined up within two feet of each other, two feet out of bounds. I took a 12 on that hole and while I played fine the rest of the round, I wound up in the middle of the pack simply because of my outrageous score on that one hole. The fear of losing the lead was all it took to hit three of the most consistent drives in my life … all within a small circle about 280 yards away, all out of bounds.

A very common form of fear I encounter as a consultant is fear of change, a slight pendulum move to the right. Even when we know we need to change because something in our life is not working, we invoke dysfunctional thoughts like, “I know what I am doing is not working, but what if I change and make my situation worse? I don’t like being where I am, but at least it is a misery I know and a misery I can tolerate.”

As the pendulum continues to swing to the right (add a little more fear), I think about how fear occasionally slips into my life at what seem to be absurd moments. I don’t have to go back in time very far to think of an example. Recently, one of our standard poodles had to be put down because of kidney failure. Our other standard poodle, Delilah (Lila) who is 12 years old, was devastated by the loss of her companion. After a couple of months and a lot of crying from every member of our pack, we brought home a standard poodle puppy. Lila hated the puppy. However, she had good reason because he was kind of wild. We ended up naming him “So Ho Yen,” Korean for “tigers at play” (based on our best interpretation of Korean), but we just call him Tiger for short. After about a month, one day out of the blue, Lila decided to interact with Tiger. Watching them just warmed our hearts. I didn’t even realize how big the smile on my face was until Michaelle pointed it out. As they wrapped up whatever game they were playing and trotted back from the yard to the house together, at that moment, we knew Lila was starting to come out of her depression and that we had gotten the signal that our pack had just accepted a new member.

What a high I was feeling. Now, here is the absurd part.

My mind allowed me to enjoy that high for about 10 minutes, and then I starting experiencing all kinds of unprovoked negative thoughts like “I wonder how long Lila’s health will hold out?” and “What happens if Tiger falls in the water and drowns and Lila loses another companion?” and so on. Nothing actually occurred to trigger those feelings. However, my senses were flooded by this rash of paranoid thoughts that quickly wiped out my euphoria. I went from feeling great to a slight state of depression, and nothing had actually happened except for a fearful thought entering my mind!

Now, let’s move the fear pendulum to the right of center to a situation in which there was and is actually a chance of being injured. I have always been a little cautious because I can still hear my dad saying to my mom, “I can’t take that risk because I have a family to support,” when explaining why he might not ski, ride a motorcycle and do other things that could be dangerous. Though I do take a number of risks, with his comment always running through the subconscious corridors of my mind, I find myself regularly challenging the safety reasonableness of what I am about to try.

With that said, let me tell you about falling in martial arts. There are numerous ways to fall, from a soft roll to a break fall to a wheel fall. Just as it sounds, the soft roll is fairly mild.

Once you are comfortable protecting your head, neck and back, rolling is very safe. The break fall is a little more hostile because it is learning to fall as if someone swept your feet out from under you. And finally there is the wheel fall, which embodies a movement similar to its name because your feet leave the ground following an arc shaped like a wheel (270 degrees of spin) as your legs and feet travel over your head with you landing on your side and back.

I remember the first time I was asked to execute a wheel fall with someone throwing me. I was scared, and not just a little scared. I was “visualizing landing on my head and breaking my neck” scared. And to this day, I am still slightly nervous when I execute a wheel fall for the first time after not having done one for several weeks.

But here is the bad news. The most dangerous thing you can do when you need to execute a wheel fall is be reluctant. When I was first learning to fall, my fear-based instinct would influence me to fight flipping, which converted to a partial flip when thrown, resulting in painful and sometimes dangerous landings. The more times I landed badly, the more reluctant I became. I was embarrassed that I was scared, so I tried to cover it up. But John saw through that.

After watching me for about 15 minutes one day, with my progress deteriorating rather than improving, he walked over and calmly talked me through the process. While on the one hand he was gentle in his delivery, on the other, he was forceful. He grabbed my hand and torqued it in a way that required me to flip literally heels over head. He made it clear that I was going to commit to the fall. Over I went … and it was painless for the first time. As we often find, as it was in this case, my fear of getting hurt actually created an environment with the greatest opportunity for me to be hurt. As the title of this post reflects, fear stifles you in every way.

My final story moves the pendulum even further to the right. As you know, I travel a great deal. And some days, being in the air can be a terrifying experience. When you are on a plane and there are storms all around, with lightning in the clouds on both sides with the plane bouncing up and down so viciously you believe the wings should fall off any minute, these are terrifying moments.

When you think you have a chance of dying in the near term, that fear all but paralyzes you and it is not uncommon to find yourself forgetting to breathe as all of your mental capacity is caught up processing the way you feel in that moment.

Regardless of whether I am talking about fear on one extreme (fear of success in my golfing example) or the other (fear of being trapped in a plane that might fall from the sky at any second), the answer is not only the same, but is simple. Face your fear and accept it. It is as though fear is a virus, constantly coursing through our veins and waiting for the first sign of weakness so that it can instantly activate and take over.

The problem is that fear tends to stifle positive and effective emotional, physiological and intellectual responses. In fact, fear often instigates the most unacceptable and dangerous responses. So, when I am on one of my plane trips from hell, bouncing in the sky, though I know this might sound counterintuitive, the only way for me  to control the fear is to accept the outcome that I so much want to avoid. As soon as I have a mental conversation with myself that I very well could die in the next few minutes, the fear instantly dissolves away and my head becomes clear again.

When I was having trouble committing to the wheel fall, with John counting down to throw me, I accepted the fact that I might get hurt and focused on what I needed to do. When I have those moments of absurd thinking that the world around me might crater, I accept the fact that it could happen and if it does, I will deal with what is actually coming at me at that time. When I am playing golf and have that negative thought about my swing, I say to myself, “What kind of swing would I take if I were not afraid?” which gets my mind focused on what I need to be doing. In each case, when fear is creeping in or taking over, I take a deep breath, I embrace the fear, and then clear my mind and think about what I need to be doing right then.

I am reminded of a great classic film called “Twelve O’clock High.” I used it for years as part of the training in my leadership classes. It is a true story about World War II, depicting when the Americans decided to start bombing at 9,000 feet instead of 19,000 feet. The B-17s were not able to inflict the destruction necessary at 19,000 feet in their bombing runs, and to make matters worse, they were taking heavy casualties at that altitude as well. The thought of flying at 9,000 feet was terrifying because they were so much closer to enemy fire. Suffice it to say that the bomber groups were not happy with the orders and did not want to fly at that altitude. I was surprised the first time I saw the movie when Gregory Peck, playing the role of the general who took over a failing bomber squadron that had just been assigned this more difficult mission, gathered his men and told them the following:

“We are in a war, a shooting war, and we’ve got to fight. And some of us have got to die. I’m not trying to tell you not to be afraid. Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it and about yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home.

“Consider yourselves already dead.”

This is certainly not what I would ever want to hear from my boss, but the message is the same one that I have been sharing above. When you accept the fact that your worst fears can come true, fear immediately loses its grip on you and your mind is instantly freed up to think and respond more decisively, clearly and effectively to the situation at hand. Don’t let fear take your momentum away any longer. Its only power is in the possibility of something bad happening, and with acceptance of that as a possibility, you can easily regain your momentum and keep moving toward your goals.

 

Self-assessment on managing fear

What fear is stifling you?

How is fear taking momentum away from the objectives you are trying to achieve?

What changes should you be making to take control of your fears so that you can start regaining your momentum again?

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