By Kelly Hearn
Kids are great at exploring new things. My seven year-old comes home from school excited to show me new things he’s learned (last night it was push ups from gym class). He doesn’t always find these new things easy, but he enthusiastically gives them a go (then face plants on the kitchen floor when his tiny, developing arms are not yet strong enough to push him back up for a fourth time). Giggles ensue. He tries again. The inspiring thing about childhood is it is all so expansive. Every day, month, year there is growth of one kind or another. It is mostly seen as fun and exciting – ‘Look what I can do!’ – rather than self-consciously guarded. At least in the early years.
We unintentionally pigeonhole ourselves into a small sub-segment of our human potential. No wonder we then can find ourselves bored, uninspired, wanting.
Inevitably, most of us become more risk averse in later years. Fear becomes a more prominent emotion; we fear failure, ridicule. We start playing it more ‘safe,’ honing our skills in things we think we are good at and sometimes eschewing those we find difficult. The problem with this approach is that it can stunt our growth and development. We unintentionally pigeonhole ourselves into a small sub-segment of our human potential. No wonder we then can find ourselves bored, uninspired, wanting.
This isn’t me dissing fear. Fear, like all emotions, has its merit. It tells us when we are in danger, can keep us safe. If it weren’t for our friend fear, we wouldn’t have lasted this long in evolutionary terms; thousands of years ago we would have become Sabre-Toothed tiger kibble and that would have been that. Instead, our nervous system kicked in with a ‘stress response’ (fight/flight/freeze) and ensured our survival. However, our brain development hasn’t kept up with the times. There are no such cats cruising the streets of London (indeed the family of them became extinct 9,000 years ago). Yet our brains remain stuck in the Stone Age, victim to a persistent negativity bias. Simply put, this means we react more intensely to negative stimuli than positive ones because missing a threat historically meant risking survival. Or, as the psychologist and writer Rick Hanson puts it ‘the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.’ Studies have shown that it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one for that reason. Is it any wonder that fear is so pervasive?
‘the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.’
So the way forward, it seems, is to step back and ask ourselves regularly what kind of fear we’re dealing with. Is it the ‘good’ kind, hard-wired to keep us safe, or is it the ‘unhelpful’ kind that is more imagined than real, our Stone Age brain stirring up a fearful frenzy? I love the way the author Elizabeth Gilbert describes her relationship with fear in her latest book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
‘(Fear)…you’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice…but you are not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.’
So we can acknowledge our fear, have an open dialogue with it, listen to it and act accordingly if indeed our life is in danger. But in the many, many instances when fear is merely keeping us from striving for something that matters deeply to us, from doing something that would make our lives more satisfying and meaningful, we need to relegate that fear firmly to the back seat and keep on driving.
‘Argue for your limitations and you get to keep them.’
‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,’ so the saying goes. I prefer to tinker it a bit and say it begins at the edge of your comfort zone. There is helpful friction at the edge. A state of constantly nudging that boundary out ever further out to create a larger, fuller life. Sometimes this is awkward and uncomfortable, perhaps even laced with fear. But this isn’t reason enough to shy from it. The alternative is a static, or even diminished, way of being. As another saying goes, ‘Argue for your limitations and you get to keep them.’
‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ was a question posed to women by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In campaign. It is a worthy one for us all, because it helps us see clearly what we are holding ourselves back from in the name of fear. Some of the responses:
‘I would perform my music for someone other than my dog.’
‘I would put myself out there instead of being afraid I’m going to get rejected.’
‘I would speak up for what I want instead of just waiting for it to happen.’
‘I would say no.’
‘I would build my own company and not someone else’s.’
‘I would have more kids.’
Putting it on the page presents the choice: what is more important, your capacity to create something – whether art, romance, a satisfying career, children – or fear? Even more basic, the choice seems one of love over fear. It takes courage to do this. As many readers will know, the English word courage has its roots in the Latin word Coeur (heart). Courage is therefore the triumph of the heart ‘s desires, of love, over the fear brewing in our minds. But how to actually muster up this courage? If we know that stressors cannot be avoided (such is life!) and a ‘stress response’ is our nervous system’s automatic response to negative stimuli, we need to figure out a way to work with this productively.
In her book The Upside of Stress, psychologist and Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal puts forth three ways to alter our relationship with the stress response:
1/ to view your body’s stress response as helpful, not debilitating – for example, to view stress as energy you can use,
2/ to view yourself as able to handle and even learn and grow from, the stress in your life; and
3/ to view stress as something everyone deals with, and not something that proves how uniquely screwed up you or your life is.
Along the same lines, psychologist Elissa Epel and her colleague Nobel-prize winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn have suggested a similar ‘reframing’ of our relationship with fear. We can start looking at threats instead as challenges. In this way, the duo have found that the body reacts much differently. Epel and Blackburn say that it is not stress per se that is the problem, but how we react to it. Their research suggests we can develop ‘stress resilience’ by turning what is usually thought of as ‘threat stress’ (the view that the stress will harm us) into ‘challenge stress,’ (the idea that this stress is a challenge to help us grow). We listen to our bodies’ cues – heart racing, breath quickening – then remind ourselves that these are natural responses to stress. That part is automatic. What we do with it is up to us: unleash a chain of negative thoughts, or muster up the courage to meet the challenge? The first option compounds stress further; the second presents an opportunity for growth.
‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’
As 2016 comes to a close and we start looking forward to the New Year, perhaps now is a good time to revisit that all-important question with this new perspective in mind. ‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’ Then imagine ourselves doing it. Feels good, doesn’t it?
A final thing I’ll mention about ‘living on the edge’ is this: sometimes we don’t even know what our edge is because we numb through it. Numbing is a classic tool of a fear-driven existence. So we do things like have a glass of wine or two ‘to take the edge off.’ There are so many different iterations of this numbing: overeating, overscheduling (‘busyness’), losing ourselves in social media, anything too keep us from feeling the discomfort of the edge. And as I was reminded at a talk the other night, people who turn to numbing as a coping mechanism do so when strong emotions – whether positive or negative- are triggered. So numbing keeps us from experiencing the good stuff too. If you’re with me that the edge is where the growth occurs, why oh why would we logically want to numb against it? Logically, we wouldn’t. Emotionally, with fear in the driver’s seat, we would. So we first need to wrestle with these competing forces. This requires sitting with the discomfort of the edge. Listening for what this is telling us. Dialoging with it maybe, but by all means pressing through to that more expansive way of being. Letting our inner seven year-olds guide us.