Note: This is the third post in a four post series on overcoming fear and building confidence. You can find the first two posts here: Overcoming Fear Series – Part 1: What is Fear? and Overcoming Fear Series – Part 2: Defining Our Fear.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
SHIFTING YOUR THINKING
You are not your fear. Fear is the body's response to a perceived - an imagined - threat, not an actual threat. As an example, your perception could be that you imagine negative consequences if you fail. Fear may feel all pervasive, as if it runs through every cell in your body. In this sense, the fear response is very real, regardless if there is a rational basis for it.
This response is due to conditioning.
I often have feared failure. I thought of the humiliation I might feel, that those people that discouraged me may somehow be right. I would feel like a loser. It’s amazing that as a grown adult, I still have some of those same fears, from time to time, that I've had since a child! I reacted this way due to my conditioning. I say ‘react’ because it was beyond conscious thought.
Fear is an essential function and we would not want to be without it entirely, we just want to maintain the ability to assess risk and be able to think clearly. I delve more in depth into how memories are created and how we can 're-vision' them later in the post.
We may be programmed to have the ability to fear, but most of the typical fears we have today are modern fears. Cave men had fears, but being embarrassed over a failed business venture probably wasn’t one of them. Would they fear giving a speech to a large crowd? I don’t think so!
There are many people who have a real reason to fear and have experienced situations that were very traumatic, such as combat, abuse, and so forth. I’m not referring to real and physical threats, but existential fear.
First, we are going to approach fear as if it were something outside of ourselves. We will also look at how to reshape our thinking and to employ methods to address our fear.
Once we have done that, we will move to re-vision/re-program prior memories or negative thought processes.
Encapsulating Your Fear
When I say that you are not your fear, what I mean is that fear is a conditioned response rather than an inherent part of you. Of course there is a physical and chemical component, but it is a construct of our minds. What I want you to do here is to shift your mental thinking to fear as a separate entity from yourself, as if it were an independent thing. If it helps to think of it as another person, whether clearly defined or a vague concept, that is fine.
This concept may be foreign to you, but it can provide profound results. You cut the disease from you and can direct your efforts to confront it. I love the quote at the beginning of the post. It both acknowledges the existence of fear, but it is separate from the self. It also shows that we can let it pass, that it doesn’t control us.
By taking control of our thinking about our specific fear, we may still have it present, but it becomes much easier to confront when it is not so superfluous. You are empowering yourself and taking charge of your life and actions, and not letting fear make decisions for you.
The exercise below will help you to do this process concretely. It continues the process of defining our fear, but also transitions into taking control back from it.
Now, let’s shift our thinking.
EXERCISE: SHIFTING YOUR THINKING
To put fear in its context, think of what your fear represents.
What Does Fear Look Like?
(Look at fear as something outside of yourself, as a separate being or entity. What does it look like? Does it have form, or is there someone that comes to mind that encapsulates that fear? Describe what it looks like in detail)
Write a Letter to Fear
This part of the exercise is an important one and will have a major contribution to the total process. It will also be deeply personal and emotional. Be sure when doing this that you have the privacy and time to engage it fully and openly. This is more than just answering questions, even if the questions are profound. Here, the exercise is free form based on your experience.
(Now that you have described fear outside of you, what do you want to say to it? This is the opportunity to let your thoughts and emotions run free. There is no self-blame, but feel free to blame it now that it isn’t you. What does that entity represent to you? This may sound a bit strange, but I have seen this process work in grief counseling groups in a very profound way. Fear has taken away something from you, so it is appropriate to confront it in a concrete manner. Express yourself fully)
REDEFINING YOUR MEMORIES
“No memory is ever alone; it's at the end of a trail of memories, a dozen trails that each have their own associations.”
- Louis L'Amour
Now we start taking the bull by the horns. You have defined your fear, where it comes from, and shifted your thinking about it. In the last exercise, you went after your fear and gave it a piece of your mind!
We are crossing a bridge between addressing fear and beginning to build confidence. Remember:
“When fear recedes, confidence fills the void.”
Now that we have confronted our fear and defined it separate from ourselves, we will diminish it even further by redefining the memory of where our fear comes from. Because belief comes from our conditioning, we can change our beliefs by changing our conditioning.
I refer to a memory as being the source of our fear, such as a specific event, but it could also be a perception of a potential result. For example, most people fear public speaking. This fear often does not originate from any experience, but from an imagined negative outcome. It may be difficult to identify any precise piece of advice or influence that led you to feel that way, other than it is one of the primary fears most people have. If other people fear it, there must be something to fear, right? Not true.
Even without a prior memory, you can still have a thought, an image, of what that fear represents. This is where we will redefine, or 're-vision' our thoughts (my term).
How Memories Work
Traditional scientific theory holds that long term memories are consolidated, much like ink on the page. Once the ink is dry, those words are difficult to change. Keep in mind, physical injury and impacts of disease are not considered here.
Research is beginning to question this hypothesis. Memory is more malleable than once thought.
For example, when you experience an event, then recall it for the first time, you have already interpreted the event in your mind. As you continue to recall that memory over time, you aren’t recalling the initial experience, but the previous memory. It's no stretch of the imagination that our deeply held programming is at work interpreting any experience, thought, or memory we have, potentially altering it each time it is recalled.
The science behind this is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that science does support the notion that recalling memories in different ways can help us re-interpret the past. You can apply this process to any memory, even a potential outcome, such as irrational fear.
The importance is not to find that our memory is incorrect, but understand how we process that memory and the meaning we prescribe to it. If our thoughts, beliefs and feelings have been altered by the filters of our conditioning, we need to apply new filters to shift that meaning. By doing this, we control our pattern of thought.
In essence, we are self-conditioning.
Through the application of new filters, we use our cognitive processes to diminish prior meaning to memories and establish new meaning. Doing this, we change our thoughts, feelings and beliefs, and therefore our actions. Remember: actions determine our results.
What was once a barrier to action won’t be, and/or will be reduced. We have an alternate basis to form a belief and to take action that was not possible previously.
I learned this process through having to deal with my own emotional events. I recall a particularly difficult event when I had a boss berate me fairly brutally, at least in my mind. It didn’t matter that I deserved it (I did deserve to be called out, just not in this fashion), but I was also at a fragile point in my life. The combination was devastating to me on a deep personal level.
I struggled with this by replaying it in my mind over and over, each time feeling worse. I would even try to reason through it, but my mind made it even more profoundly disturbing. It was an ‘end of the world’ sort of drama for me. In essence, I couldn’t deal with it constructively.
Looking back, the experience still irks me, but I have long since dealt with that memory through the process I am about to describe. Unfortunately, I cannot pinpoint whom I learned this from and have been unable to do so. Still, I have used repeatedly and it has worked wonders for me.
In fact, just by having practiced this technique previously, new situations that are dramatic don’t affect me as much. This is because I understand the process, so my mind doesn’t interpret the event in quite the same way as it would have had I not had this tool. That's how re-conditioning works.
Although this technique was applied in my case not to fear, but to a traumatic event, it was still a memory. You can apply this technique to any thought you want to redefine.
EXERCISE: CRAZY MAKING
Yes, I know the term sounds, well, crazy. It is, and it will be for you as well. That’s not to say this is not serious; it is very serious. In fact, crazy is what we want.
This exercise has a process to it:
What we will be doing is going from an old conditioning, defining what that is in Step 1. We then define a new memory or thought by applying the process in Step 2. There is a shift between these two steps where your thought process will change. What you will be left with is a re-visioned memory or thought.
Step 1: Envision the event or situation that causes fear
In this step, you will need to recall the situation in as much vivid detail that you can, using all your senses. We aren't trying to accomplish anything other than get very clear on every detail.
It could be uncomfortable, but that is why we are doing this.
Really feel it.
- What you were seeing?
- What you were wearing?
- What time of day was it?
- How bright/dark it was
- Is it in a room or outside?
- What can you hear?
- What peripheral details do you remember? Trees, buildings, books on the shelf, the desk, carpet, size of the environment, presence of other people etc.
- What did you feel?
- What did you do/say/think?
Step 2: Change the details
This is where it gets crazy. For each of the details you recalled above, change the nature of the detail. For example, I pictured the person speaking in a high-pitched voice, changed the color of the room to pink, played the Benny Hill Theme in my head as he spoke, etc. Understand now why I call this crazy?
You can even step outside of yourself and look at the scene from a distance, separating yourself even more from the situation. However you do it, I caution against applying negative thoughts. Don't take this opportunity to berate the person (in my case for example), or hit them or do other negative actions on your part. Keep it crazy and keep it silly. You don't want to introduce additional negativity to the situation. After all, we are trying to get to a positive place.
When we focus on the negative, we naturally amplify each of the details. In my case, the person probably wasn't as harsh in reality, but my mind turned up the harshness in my memory. By changing the details to something less threatening, or crazy, it undermines the significance of that thought or emotion.
The greater the detail and the more you use your brain to imagine a ridiculous scenario, the better. The more 'out-there' the new scene is, the more likely it will be remembered. In the future, when you recall this memory, the new images will also be recalled, as a filter over the old memory. You won't be able to separate the two.
Over time, every recollection will have the new filter applied, constantly altering the thought process, undermining its negative impact.
When I think back on my memory, all I remember is the silly scenario I imagined. Of course, a filter is just a filter, I still see the original scenario, it just looks different, less powerful, and less emotional. It has less grip on me.
This process will work for you as well, if you give it time. You may experience a quick and profound impact, or you may need to apply this over time. Regardless, recalling a memory allows us to alter it. Keep altering it and it will continue to change, and have less control over you.
As the intensity of the event or memory lessens, you open the door for confidence.
Now that we have undergone some deep thinking and analysis, we will now shift to a more external approach. We can change how we think, but we also need to work on the confidence side of the equation. We lessened the burden of fear, and as we continue to do so, we ramp up our confidence building skills.
We turn away now from confronting fear and turn our sights squarely on how we can build confidence. The next post will introduce some exercises that will expand your comfort zone. Don’t worry! We will go slow and continue the progressive process.
Take a deep breath and relax, we have come a long way over the last three weeks. Thinking about the things that influence us in a negative way is exhausting, but you have held in there and gained new tools. We have delved into the depths, now we re-emerge back into the light.