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Scared? 3 Ways We Respond to Our Greatest Fears

Oct 25, 2016

What is your greatest fear?

It has been said that our greatest fears are things like public speaking, death, failure, the dark, spiders, heights, and rejection.

fears woman running along a river

If you have one of these fears – or you know someone who does – you know the great lengths we humans will go to in order to avoid engaging the source of our fears. Some of us allow our fears to create unhealthy patterns, destructive habits and even prevent us from accomplishing our dreams.

I once worked with a friend it seemed was afraid of success. This person felt the pressure to live up to their past achievements. Each successful outcome only made this person feel like they had more expectations and more to lose. I watched this fear of success drive this person to intentionally procrastinate and avoid the work they was fully capable of doing. It was the ultimate act of self-sabotage. This person began stealing defeat from the jaws of victory.

A more famous example of someone who battled fear was Prince Albert, Duke of York, whose struggle with public speaking was told in the 2010 Academy-Award winning film, The King’s Speech. Albert, played by Colin Firth, battles a stutter. He was afraid of giving public speeches. However, as his father dies and his brother abdicates his place in the order of succession, Albert becomes King George VI of England. With the role of king in a tumultous time in history (the rise of Nazi Germany) comes the responsibility for delivering important, pressure-filled speeches.

 

The dynamic between the King (Firth) and his speech coach, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush), makes the film great. During their session, the king vascilates between avoiding the work, fighting with Logue, brooding, and doing the work. The struggle gives the story meaning, but it reminds us of central role fear plays in our stories.

Award-winning writer Jack Canfield famously said, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” In a similar vein, Tim Ferris wrote these words in his best-selling book, The Four Hour Workweek. “Your success, by and large, is based on the number of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have.”

This has been my experience as a leader. I’m not afraid of public speaking – I actually look forward to it every week! I’m not afraid of flying, the dark or spiders. I hate snakes (think Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark). However, as a leader, I have tended to avoid hard conversations. I avoided confronting people who needed to be stopped and empowered bad behavior because I was afraid of the uncomfortable conversation required to stop it. I talked a good game, but when faced with the opportunity, I ran. I still have a lot to learn and room to grow when it comes to dealing with my fears.

When responding to fear, I believe we have 3 options. We can flee our fears. We can face our fears. Or we can fake it.

1. Flee our fears.

In biology, we know about “fight or flight” syndrome. Built into our DNA, we have a natural response mechanism which empowers us to preserve ourselves by either running at danger to defeat it or running from it to survive it.

While most of us are not fleeing our fears like this man fled a bear, we often flee situations which evoke fear. If we’re afraid of rejection, we never confront friends or loved ones. The risk of being rejected is too much, so we become an enabler. If we’re afraid of failure, we never risk. We play it safe and only take steps where we know the outcome.

While running from a bear might save our lives, flight becomes dangerous as it prevents us from ever developing courage. We will have moments where our life is in danger, but most of our fears have to do with everyday fears. Without the courage to face our fears, we flee not only our fears but our opportunities too. What if Canfield is correct? Then we are running from our dreams which come disguised as our fears.

2. Fake it.

The option between fight and flight is to fake engagement. We fake it when we tell other people we aren’t scared but in truth, we are. Faking it means we put on a show of courage in action but in truth we’re not stepping forward. An observer might think we’re showing courage in the face of fear, but in actuality, we’re just lying.

A couple years ago, a former student of mine reached out to inquire if I would perform her wedding. I loved this student and knew of the impact my teaching and leadership had on her life, therefore I was overjoyed to think of holding this role of honor on her special day. I was heartbroken when a few months later she reached out to tell me the wedding was off. Through a random set of circumstances, she had come to learn of another romantic relationship her boyfriend was carrying on the entire time. My disappointment was nothing compared to her devastation.

In Her Own Words

Later that year, she wrote a very public, yet mature post on Facebook, sharing how she processed this loss and what she learned in the process. I’d like to share her words with you here.

“When I was younger my mother often told me to ‘fake it until you make it.’ This advice carried me through many difficult times but ‘faking’ never allowed me to share my hurt with others (due to fear). We all have faced pain and trials but it is when we share with others that our stories have power to help them to see they are not alone. I understand that having to walk away from a man I was going to marry may seem trivial but for anyone that knows me I am slow to speak and even slower to move. To be vulnerable enough to allow someone to love me is not something that comes natural to me. So when I say that I thought I finally had it all and lost it in a matter of a moment, it took my breath away in the worst of ways.

I hated my brother seeing me in my brokenness but also am hopeful that when he faces great pain, which he will, that he will remember that on that day I did not know how I would recover but it was by the love of God that I made it through.”

I think we are like my friend in that we’re tempted to lead others to believe we aren’t afraid. We’re tempted to go through the motions as if courage is the absence of fear. Faking it deceives others into believing we’re something we’re not, but it also tricks us into thinking we’re not dealing with the struggles we actually are. We are capable of incredible self-deception as humans and when we deceive ourselves, we hurt ourselves and others.

3. Face our fears

One of the most popular definitions of fear is a cliche. Some people define fear using this cliche in the form of an acronym – F.E.A.R. (False Evidence Appearing Real). I’ve never liked this defintion because I think our fears are often based on true, accurate information. I think our information is often true, yet also incomplete. Calling true evidence false is another way of fleeing our fears.

If we have to use an acronym, I prefer F.E.A.R. (Face Everything And Rise). Better to face the truth than call it a lie and flee. Better to rise with courage than live in denial of what is happening, either through flight or faking it. Contrary to public opinion, courage is not the absence of fear. Most of the courageous people we know personally or through history are people who’ve learned do their “work” in the face of fear, not in the absence of it. Writer Jeff Goins talks about courage in his field as “learning to write scared.” We may never be rid of our fear, but we can grab ahold of courage.

How the King Faced His Fears

One of the most defining moments in The King’s Speech is when Prince Albert argues with Lionel in the cathedral. In a moment of transparency revealed through his anger, Albert declares, “I have a voice!”

It is is this declaration which propels Prince Albert to become King George and declare his famous speech in 1939 around the British declaration of war against Nazi Germany. He faces his fear and delivers a brilliant speech which inspires a nation to courage.

Like this historical account, each of us are positioned within a challenging moment. While the particularities of our challenges are unique, similarities connect them. We are afraid, encountering the source of our fears on a daily or weekly basis. Like it or not, we will be defined by what we do with our fears.

If we run now and flee, we may run for the rest of our lives.

If we fake it, we’ll never develop the courage needed to accomplish our dreams.

If we face our fears, we may be defeated. But we will not live with the regret or disappointment which wonders what could have been had we not be driven by our fears. For we know, in the long-term, we tend to regret the opportunities we miss more than the mistakes we make.

Inspiration to Face Your Fears

Since this post has included some British governmental references, I want to leave you with a speech I memorized as middle schooler for a competitive public speaking event. In his play, Henry V, William Shakespeare wrote a speech known as Herny V’s Speech as Agincourt. In the play, King Henry stands before the troops. You can read the whole speech here, while I’ve chosen to include a relevant selection below.

“This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

Whatever your fear, may you face it today with courage. I pray you may one day be able to “strip your sleeve and show your scars” in a way that inspires others to face their fears too.

And if you need more encouragement, support and prayer, leave a comment below and allow the rest of the readers of this blog to jump in and cheer you on!

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