During the summer, my wife and I took our 3 kids on our 1st family Via Ferrata in the French Alpes (a Via Ferrata is way to climb a cliff with a line to which you are attached all along for your safety, with some rungs into the wall in the difficult pathways, and it can be pretty impressive and physically challenging). Our kids had a lot of fun … and also had to practice dealing with their fear, as did I (as much as I enjoy these activities, I still have some fear when hung into the void and only secured by a small carabiner…).
So, how do you deal with fear? You can look away from it or you can look at it.
Looking away from fear is what most of us do automatically. It is not wrong. When you are climbing a cliff, you are told to not look down. If you start feeling really scared, you’d better look up and focus on where you want to go as opposed to where you don’t want to fall. And that can definitely help you get out of it. However, it is often automatic (like when I was a kid and used to rush back from the dark scary basement after getting some food), therefore disabling your capacity to choose, and it leaves you with an unpleasant experience, which has you avoid it which will in turn reinforces the fear the next time you do it. It’s a vicious cycle. When that happens in areas of your life where you want to progress, you can see how this is getting in your way.
However, there is another way: you can look at Fear. You can look down in the via ferrata, take a deep breathe, and notice what you feel in your body, what sensations are there and just stay with it first, not doing anything but observe. What’s available with this is to see the fear dissolve and have you step into a state where fear is still there but you are not afraid anymore. This sounds counter intuitive but it only means that you still have body sensations but you are not afraid of staying there with them. You can then move forward with a sense of least resistance. Sometimes, you may even switch to enjoying it and feeling a sense of plenitude (that was my case when I practiced taking the time to look down before skydiving or bungee jumping instead of looking away from it). When you practice looking at fear, you learn to discover that you can be OK with this feeling (because in the end it’s no more than a feeling), it gives you a different experience that is less likely to turn you off, it builds your confidence and it encourages you to face more situation like this in life.
What’s challenging in this is that it requires to let go of control. But it’s deceptive. Our automatics are in a sense a way to keep us in control but it usually ends up not really being in control (ask my parents if I looked in control when as a kid, I was running all along the yard chased by wasps 😊). On the other end when, in the moment we decide to look at our fear, we let go of control, we actually get it back with a calmer and better decision-making ability.
Have you heard of the Fight or Flight reaction created by your amygdala in the primitive brain when facing a danger or when getting scared? That’s great when you are attacked by a tiger or your life is in danger, less when you are just dealing with everyday life. Looking away from Fear will have you flight (run away as quick as you can) or fight (moving forward despite the fear but with a sense of push through and unpleasant effort that doesn’t want you to do this again). When you are looking at Fear, you are offering yourself another option which I would call Flow in order to fit in the “F” theme. You are moving forward on a path of least resistance. Some mention the possibility to Freeze, when you just can’t do anything and stay still. This is actually be a great place to choose whether you want to Fight, Flight, or Flow.
Eventually, how does that apply to leadership and life?
When you are triggered in a conversation at work, when you are scared to speak in front of a board of directors, or in front of a new team when stepping into a new position, when Fear is preventing you from moving forward with your business (getting new, higher paying clients, creating fun projects, etc…), when you are nervous before a competition, see if you can notice the fear. Instead of looking away from it (reacting, shutting down, distracting yourself, finding reasons for which you can’t do what you want, etc…), see if you can embrace the fear. Notice what you feel in your body. You don’t have to fix anything, or push through, just feel what is there and observe. See if you can stay 1% more. Notice what’s available for you.
Looking away from fear is not wrong and can be useful sometimes. And, there is an opportunity to practice looking at fear, as a way to expand our range, notice what’s available, how this can help us be more at choice and move forward toward a more accomplished and fulfilled leadership and life, and in the end grow as a human being.
What’s scary for you at the moment? Can you stay 1% more with the feeling it brings and notice what’s available there?