The year is 2008 and I am debuting the World of Warcraft miniatures game at San Diego Comic Con to over 2000 impatient WoW fans. I’d never spoken in front of so many people before and I was terrified. I’d spent three years of my life building this game, and now was the moment of truth. My mind was racing. Why did I think this was a good idea? These are video game players – why would they play a miniatures game? They are going to hate me. I should have practiced my presentation more. I should have had someone else do it. I shouldn’t even be here. Soon it was my time to speak and I had no choice but to begin…
There is a voice inside all of us that tells us we aren’t good enough; that tells us we are a fraud; that says “Today would be a great day to stay hidden under the covers, or to lose ourselves in diversions like TV, alcohol, and social media.” I call this voice “The Fear.”
The fear thrives in dark places, in the corners of our mind where we don’t dare tread. It grows inside worries of possible futures and in reconstructed stories from our past. But the fear does not survive long in the scrutiny of our sustained attention. The fear can be conquered. Here is how.
1. Breathe- When dealing with any situation of stress or anxiety, take a few moments first to breathe in deeply. This will not eliminate the fear or solve your problems, but it will relax your body and prepare your mind for a more direct confrontation with fear. Spend one minute breathing deeply and focusing on nothing but your breath and your present moment experience. There are plenty of studies to support the value of relaxed, deep breathing, and never is it more important then when facing the fear. During this time of deep breathing, try to focus on just the immediate physical sensations, not the thoughts behind them. Do you feel a tightness in your chest? Nausea in your stomach? A tension in your skull? Don’t try to suppress these symptoms, just observe them with a spirit of curiosity. Understand the specifics of what your body is interpreting as fear, and you will find they have less power over you as you breathe with each sensation.
2. Reframe- Remember that fear is there to help you. It doesn’t feel like it in the moment, but realize that fear is a response evolved to prevent you from entering into dangerous situations. This instinct served us well when we were in danger of being eaten by wild animals, but today that kind of threat is rare. Fear manifests in modern life primarily as a response to our need to be accepted. In ancient times, being deemed unacceptable by one’s tribe meant almost certain death (or at minimum an unpleasant life with little chance to procreate). Today, there are millions of tribes to join at the click of a button, but this fear still drives us. Understand that your fear is here to help you- it is pointing at something in your life that needs attention and focus. You can use that focus to improve and grow. As much as possible, be grateful for it.
3. Define- Take a close look at whatever you feel is causing the fear response, and define the worst case scenario that could come from this situation. If you do poorly at the company meeting, will you lose your job? If so, what will happen? How would you deal with this situation if it happened? Be as explicit as possible and write down all of your nightmare scenarios. You will find that none of them are nearly so scary when they are written out. Even if they are still bad, your mind will almost immediately begin thinking of ways to mitigate these worst case scenarios – which were causing far more anxiety when vague and undefined.
4. Accept- Once you’ve written out the worst case scenarios for everything, pretend like they have all already happened. You’ve blown the interview. Lost the job. Been rejected. Visualize the events as in the past. Accept these nightmare consequences and realize that, in most cases, everything will still be ok. People are incredibly resilient to change and incredibly bad predictors of how happy or sad something will make them. Even your nightmares can become blessings in disguise.
5. Take Action- Now that you’ve accepted the worst case scenario, start writing down some concrete things you can do to improve that scenario. Take the first step as soon as possible. Try to plan one step you can take each day, no matter how small, to help make things better or to cultivate better options for the future. The very fact that you are taking action will provide comfort, even before the reality of your situation improves.
6. Let go- If you have followed these steps, you have now defined your fear and are taking at least one concrete step everyday to face it. Beyond this, realize that you do not control the outcome of your life. As much as possible, let go of your attachment to the results of your actions. None of us can predict the future, and as much as we might like to believe otherwise, we have limited control over its outcome. We can, however, control how we react to the events of our lives and how we frame the situations we are in. Holding on to fear and anxiety about that which we can’t control does far more harm than good. Pay attention to those sensations when they arise and breathe with them until they dissipate. If necessary, come back to these steps and repeat them to prevent fear from controlling you.
We all must face fear in our lives. It is the price we pay for exploring our world and pushing against the boundaries of our own limitations. Fear will always be a part of any creative life. There is nothing shameful about it- quite the contrary. Be grateful that your life is one that triggers fear and know that you share this same feeling with billions of others. Fear does not define you, but how you handle it will.