Fear is a pretty valid evolutionary trait, though, and it keeps us from striding down dark alleys and stepping off great heights. Fear keeps us from brushing up against deadly spiders, leopards, and those terrifying squids with teeth on the ends of their tentacles. It’s the low burn in the back of our minds that makes horror films so fun to watch. But our brain is undiscerning. There are times when you really need to choke fear down. Sometimes the fear gets too much, and you start to procrastinate, and even quit projects, avoid assignments, and never try anything new. Unlike anxiety, real bottom-out fear is hard to manage, and so sometimes you just have to trick yourself into putting your best feet forward, and throwing yourself into the future.
What’s the difference between fear and anxiety?
Fear and anxiety both manifest as a physical and emotional reactions. They both paralyze you, but fear paralyzes harder. Anxiety makes a stressful situation extremely unpleasant, and can hamper your performance, but generally you can muscle through it. Fear is nastier, and can keep you from trying altogether. While the cause of anxiety is often vague, and hard to determine, fear tends to be easier to pin down. You’re afraid of rejection, you’re afraid of failing, you’re afraid of screwing up. Regardless of how valid or logical that fear is, it’s still holding you back. So it’s time to trick yourself into getting things done.
Not letting the right hand know what the left is doing
Our faces are very good at hiding our anxiety. If you’re a chronically anxious person, you’ll likely have heard people says things like, “You were nervous? You seemed fine.” Fear is a sharp, immediate, emotional response, and it sometimes feels like it’s tearing you up inside. But we’re good at not letting it show. That’s because, besides sweaty hands, quickened heartbeat, your brain pumping your system full of deadly cortisol, and other physiological fear responses, your fear isn’t actually tethering down your body. So it’s a separate function of your brain, often accompanying anticipation of something scary.
We’re usually afraid of what might happen—what happens if we go to the job interview, if we talk to that girl, if we go to another country. But you’re better at handling scary situations than you might think. When you’re smack dab in a stressful situation, your instinct kicks in.
Actors with stage fright often talk about the trance, when they force themselves out onto stage and out into your entrance and everything becomes a blur. After you exit the stage, it’s as if you’ve woken up from a dream. The trick is forcing yourself out onto the stage.
You can still feel fear, and in fact, you should feel it, so you can later analyze it, and find out exactly why you feel that way. But in the meantime, you’ll need to covertly steer yourself out the door, or into writing that e-mail, or onto the airplane, or into the office.
This is called not letting the right hand know what the left is doing. It means that while you freak out, you’re slowly and stealthily maneuvering yourself through a stressful situation.
The trick to doing this is to collapse every task into tiny bite-sized manageable pieces. This sounds like normal productivity advice—”To help with actualizing yourself, you have to break each goal down into small tasks”, etc.—but in this case, the point of it is to trick your brain. Instead of viewing your fear as a big picture, you force yourself to deal with tiny steps.
These can be as a big or as small as telling yourself to:
- Get your coat on
- Put your shoes on
- Walk outside
- Walk to the bus stop
- Get into your car
- Say hello
- Pick up the phone and dial a number
- Open your e-mail client
- Type ‘To whom it may concern’
- Walk through the door
These seem so tiny. They are, and that is essential. Often we procrastinate and never take the first step. But by giving yourself tiny tasks that shuttle you to your stressful situation, you’re essentially forcing yourself to cope. The point of this is to get you to confront the fearful situation rather than shut down, either by bailing out or procrastinating.
To summarize: Collapse down your goals into tiny, manageable bites, trick yourself into handling each one individually, and you’ll find yourself getting through scary situations again and again.
Fear often manifests because you look ahead to potential, scary futures—that feeling that screwing up at the job interview means you’re a Failure, for instance. A big part of getting over these fears is by changing your overall attitudes towards yourself (failure, after all, isn’t the end of the world, and screwing up an assignment or a job interview does not make you a Failure). But until then, you still need to live your live. Go forth, get through the door, and live it.