My son had a haircut and is now in a trauma state. Yes, a micro trauma all things considered but the reaction going on in his young mind and body is symptomatic of trauma. He’s terrified about going to school, being bullied and suffering shame. He’s oscillating from hysteria to immense sadness to pragmatic resolution: “I’m not going to school for a few weeks Mum.” (Sidenote, “Sorry Darling, but yes you are.”).
The grand perspective we may have as older, wiser philosophers that this really doesn’t matter doesn’t apply here because he is in an excessively heightened psychological and physiological state. This is real and visceral fear. Fear becoming panic, cascading into paralysis. He is terrified of the judgement awaiting him tomorrow. Of the humiliation of rejection. And whilst you and I will be off to work not school in the morning, I bet you can relate to a similar circumstance at some point in your world.
Fear grabs hold of us all at times. It’s human nature to experience it. The very reaction exists to keep us safe. Think of that fight or flight response where the brain’s trigger centre, the amygdala, fires emergency signals to halt or run. It’s by clever, deliberate design as part of our primeval wiring. When we lived as prehistoric communities, nestled within our tribe, the risk of being ostracised and sent out into the wilderness alone was grave. It was very unlikely that we would survive alone. So, neurologically this fear response to judgement is a valid one, it’s just that modern life triggers tend to be haircuts, stage presentations, saying the wrong thing, underdelivering, being late, being too old/unrelatable/unintelligent/etc, not carnivorous beasts.
Neuroscientists have identified that when we experience fear of rejection, the same area of the brain is activated as when we experience a wound. We are indeed suffering something viscerally. The pain is real.
What’s also clear is that far too many of us allow this pain, this fear, to hold us back in life. We’re too afraid to put ourselves out there on the dating scene, too afraid to ask for promotion or to lead a large company project, too afraid to resign and set up our dream business. We resist joining that night school to learn anew, or sending that ‘let’s collaborate’ email or initiating conversation with that intriguing stranger. We freeze and stay inert and safe in our comfort zones.
But there’s no need to stay small. One life and all that. Fear is created in the mind and thus it can be managed by the mind. As Susan Jeffers quotes in Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway “The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out… and do it.”
Here are 5 ways to trial overcoming any fear that may be holding you back.
1. Repeated exposure to the fear
In phobia therapy repeated exposure to the imagined threat numbs it until it evaporates entirely. Because illogical fear is often an imagined fantasy scenario looping endlessly in our imaginations, once we usurp the vision with a reality the fear disappears. We realise it was just an illusion all along.
In psychologist Harriet Lerner’s ‘Fear & Uninvited Guests: Tackling the Anxiety, Fear and Shame that Keep Us From Optimal Living and Loving’, she describes brilliantly tasking a client with healthy ways to build rejection immunity. He was too nervous to ask a colleague out on a date so she instructed him to get 100 date rejections. He had to stand at the foot of an escalator in a busy shopping centre and politely (not creepily we hope!) ask women on dates until he achieved 100 refusals. By the time he had 12 Nos, he had accrued 5 Yeses. And so his confidence started to build. By 34 he stopped the experiment feeling a newfound confidence and optimism. The fear was extinguished. Exposure had built immunity.
I used to be an abominable public speaker, quivery voiced and shaky legged, always asked if I was ill after a stand-up moment because of my flappy paper hand jitters. So, I made it my mission to leap wholeheartedly into this debilitating fear and overcome the heck out of it. I joined speaker groups, hosted my own Speaker Mastery lunchtime group at work, put my hand up for every keynote, hosted workshops for my local community and got on stage after stage after stage until I was anaesthetised and it became fun not fear. Yes it took years, endless stamina and graft, and my god I shook in my stilettos those first few times but I knew I needed to crush this out of me to be the communicator I wanted to be, and so I did.
What can you deliberately, safely expose yourself to to grow into the version of you that’s waiting?
2. Play with then silence the inner critic
The way we speak to ourselves is rarely how we would address someone we know or love. Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, warns “The inner critic will show up whenever we’re on the edge of playing bigger and whenever we’re taking a new risk and stretching ourselves. And so we just need tools to deal with it.”
Try this. Give your critic a nick name, acknowledge the noise it’s making in your head and talk back to it. “Come on Derek, not today.” “Oh Jemima, trying to play with my insecurities are you? Not helpful, now please, back in your box!” Instead, replace the sabotaging voice with positive rationalisations – I am enough, I know what I know, I am here with love and curiosity, etc. There’s a lot to be said for fake it to make it and if you say it enough with enough conviction to yourself you’ll believe it and over shadow the nagging critic.
3. Visualise success scenarios and shrink the fear
In NLP there’s a tool where we take our clients into a meditative state and visualise a positive outcome as shinier, brighter, larger and more dominant than the imagined fear scenario. We guide the client through the worst case image versus the best case image and shrink the fear one into black and white, inversed, upside down, rippled, distorted, smaller and smaller until it’s gone and there is only the positive outcome vibrantly remaining magnificently instead.
If you aren’t currently working with a coach or NLP practitioner you can still practice your own positive visualisation daily. Write down every tiny, inspiring detail of what a good outcome looks like from what you’re wearing, to the environment, the conversation, the mood, the sounds, the smells and so on. Then relish quiet time deeply immersing into the vision and enjoy the rich sensations within your body, mind and soul.
I do this nightly if I have a big milestone life moment ahead. Neuroscience again proves that activation centres in our brain light up identically whether a visualisation or real life event. A stunning study conducted with students mentally playing complex music on the piano solely in their imaginations proved that after weeks of visualised practice without every having touched a keyboard, when they finally sat down at the tinkly, ivory majesty, they played note by note, melody by melody perfectly. The mind is truly your most powerful tool. Embrace it. As Oprah says “Anything you can imagine you can create.”
4. Breathe and flip fear into excitement
Fear and curiosity cannot exist simultaneously. Fact. So, take a deep belly breath and flip that fear into a sensation of curiosity and fresh potential. When things become an experiment we’re motivated by interest and perhaps excitement to explore the outcome. So, walk into the boardroom tomorrow with yourself as an experiment. How adeptly will you influence the group to make the decision you desire? How effectively will you make eye contact and establish respect from your most vociferous detractor? How will you relay your numbers insightfully and energetically this time? Play a game with the situation to make it one of exploration and motivating possibilities.
(I may try this with my son too. Perhaps I’ll make tomorrow’s school foray an adventure in noting the best/worst tease he gets or number of comments, dirtiest swear word, or similar, something to distract from the overwhelming I’m going to hurt fears…)
5. Get perspective; People are thinking about themselves
Our brain’s default state is to think about ourselves. Science proves the majority of our conversation (78%) is about ourselves, we use our own experiences to make assumptions about other people (unconscious bias) and our wiring prompts us to think about ourselves when not engaged in other external demands. The research is clear, we’re mostly thinking about ourselves.
You may be painfully nervous of publishing that article on your work intranet, exposing your POV to a vast network of peers but, per the above, it will get milliseconds of attention, if at all. You may agonise over a point missed when delivering a presentation, but no one will notice. You may be frozen with nervousness over raising your hand to ask a question at a conference, but you’ll be forgotten by the time the next question is asked.
When you feel judged, it’s predominantly because you’re judging yourself. And as Brene Brown teaches in her classic Dare to Lead, ‘Whose feedback matters?’. So, do this exercise. Reflect on the fear eliciting judgement scenario and write down a list of those people whose feedback actually does matter? Your mum, your partner, your boss, your teacher? If they’re the ones that count any other feedback is noise.
Also, work hard to frame this situation in a macro context. It probably really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Will my son’s childhood memories be dominated by this new skin fade mistake? No chance. Will I be forever remembered as the woman who did a reading at a christening and couldn’t hold the paper still? I hope not. Life moves on and everyone focuses back in on their own universes.
Marcus Aurelius said, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” So, let’s live. The best way to build resilience, and boy do we need resilience in this fast-moving, competitive, ever-undulating modern age, is through adversity. So I’ll encourage my son to face his adversity tomorrow, using the tips above, and know that tomorrow he will grow. And that from that growth will burgeon resilience, a strength to herald forever more. Onwards…