Feeling the Fear and Doing it Anyway
Most of us tend to assume that feeling fear is a bad thing. The kind of fear I talk about in my coaching practice—the kind that comes from our thoughts rather than our body’s instinctual fear-based reaction to something potentially life-threatening—is actually a great indicator that something’s important. The fear shows up when we’re afraid we’re not going to be able to experience something that’s truly important to our soul; quite frankly, if there’s not fear around a new experience, it’s likely not something that means enough for you to pursue.
If whatever you’re deciding on is something truly important, whatever fear comes up won’t erase your inner GPS’s wisdom—that sense of inner knowing is always there. And chances are, if something’s calling you strongly enough, you’ll do what you need to to make it happen.
So what happens if you choose to ignore that inner guidance? Well, you could very well spend the rest of your life wondering, “But what if…?” At some point, you’ll also likely start getting messages you’re going in the wrong direction—maybe physical issues start cropping up as your body’s way of getting your attention, maybe you start getting stuck in the sad/frustrated/angry end of the emotion spectrum, or maybe opportunities will just start showing up to guide you in the right direction anyway.
I can say from experience that as difficult as following your inner GPS may be, not following it is way worse.
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So why does fear show up even when we know we’re on the right track? It’s just how our brains work. Specifically, it’s the reptilian brain, which is essentially responsible for keeping you alive. It’s great for life-threatening situations: “I have to go out hunting or there might not be enough food to get us through the winter.” “I shouldn’t poke the lion with the stick because it’ll get annoyed and eat me.” “I want to get a better view, but walking to the edge of the cliff on this exceedingly windy day is probably a bad idea.”
The problem is that the reptilian brain it hasn’t evolved with the times, so at the very hint of scarcity or abandonment or danger, it speaks up, even if those outcomes might not be remotely true. Positive Psychology calls this a negativity bias. For example, “If I start my own business, it’ll fail, and I’ll end up living in a van down by the river.” Your brain sees this as life threatening as well as pretty much inevitable, so it feels compelled you warn you. The problem is, your brain’s not psychic, and there’s just as good a chance that your new business will exceed all your expectations.
Martha Beck calls the reptilian brain our lizard brain and suggests picturing your lizard and giving it a name. (Mine’s a gecko named Philomena who loves wearing a Carmen Miranda-style fruit hat.) Now, it’s easy to get frustrated with your lizard when it busts in with unwanted thoughts that get in the way of you moving forward, but, really, it is trying to help. It just doesn’t realize its way of helping isn’t always helpful. That’s when you pat your lizard on the head, thank it for its concern, then give it a treat (Philomena likes peanut butter) and send it off to a corner to enjoy.
My other favorite trick is using Byron Katie’s inquiry process, The Work, on any thought or belief that makes me feel stressed or unhappy. The Work is comprised of simple yet powerful questions that can help your brain see other, more positive outcomes as distinct possibilities. For details on the process, click here. (It’s such an easy-to-use and thorough site, it makes more sense for you to get it direct from the source.) Sometimes just the first two questions, “Is it true?” and “Can you know for sure that it’s true?” are enough to help shake me out of lizard brain mode, although I always go through the remaining few steps to ensure a more powerful shift.
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No matter what techniques you use to abate the fear, you still may feel scared, and that’s okay. Again, unless you’re about to try skydiving while using an umbrella as a parachute, your fear is likely just telling you you’re taking a big step and you’re nervous. Always check in to make sure that’s the case, of course, but once you’re sure it is, and once you’ve gotten the fear down to a manageable level, go ahead and take the leap.
How to Choose What’s Right for You
Figuring out what experiences you want in your life is the same thing as finding your road to joy. Sometimes what you feel compelled to do (or not do) makes no logical sense, and that’s okay. At some point in the future, you’ll look back and see why you made choice A instead of B, and it’ll all become clear—you were just doing what you needed to do to get yourself to a place that truly felt like home.
As an example, back in college, I gave in let my friends drag me to “Titanic” despite having zero desire to see it, so that’s $5, 194 minutes (plus previews), and a gallon of tears I’ll never get back. In the grand scheme of things, one movie's not a huge deal, but, looking back, I realize it was a turning point for me. There wasn't one part of it I enjoyed, and when we add up all those seemingly little things we've done that didn’t feel right, we’re talking significant chunks of time here. It’s not something to beat yourself up over—we’ve all done it, we’ve all had reasons we’ve done it, and all we can do is learn from each experience and use that knowledge in similar situations in the future.
The problem is that sometimes it’s hard to hear what our souls want over the droning thoughts like “But people will think I’m weird!” or “I’ll make my husband mad if I do that.” or “That’s pointless—I should spend time doing something more productive instead.” A quick way to override those thoughts and get to a soul-centered decision is to do the following exercise:
As an alternate option if you can’t stand up: uncross your arms and legs and get into a comfortable position. Now imagine the two scenarios, one at a time, noticing how your body reacts; a good way to do this is through a slow and focused body scan from your toes to your shoulders, down your arms, then up your neck and head.
Now that you’re clear on your body’s “yes” and “no,” you’re ready for the last step—letting your inner GPS speak:
3. Do the exercise with an experience you're trying to decide on. Does your body give your “yes” or “no” response? Decision made.
For the record, even if you get a clear “YES—DO THAT!” there may still be some (or maybe tons) of fear to work through. I’ll offer some tips and tricks on dealing with the fear factor in the next—and last—post of this series, but for now, I offer you a challenge: This week, do this exercise with a decision you’re trying to make—start with something small if this is totally new to you—and follow the yes or no that comes with it. Ignore the thoughts or the reactions you get from others. Just play with it and see what happens, and if you want to report in, I’d love to know how it goes!
Join me next week for the last of this series: Part 3: Feeling the Fear and Doing it Anyway.
Using Your Time Wisely
I recently heard the always brilliant Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestselling Eat, Pray, Love say, “I decided a long time ago that I don’t have to have every human experience that there is in this one lifetime.” She was specifically talking about her decision not to have kids, but it immediately occurred to me that this applies to every decision we make, big or small.
It’s up to us to decide how we want to use our time on this planet. I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this blog post, you want to use your time in a way that’s as joyful and fulfilling as possible. Well, the only way any of us can do that is by placing a priority on what feels good rather than what makes logical sense or how we think other people will react. That’s not to say there won’t be stuff in our lives we do for practical purposes (hello, vacuuming!), just that, as much as possible, it’s important to follow whatever makes our hearts sing.
For example, a few years ago, my aunt and uncle were in Israel for an extended period of time. They invited me to come, saying that all I’d have to pay for was my plane ticket. It was by all accounts a generous offer and a great opportunity, and I immediately found myself wandering through TripAdvisor's photo galleries.
At that same time, though, I felt like the state of Colorado had grown arms and was pulling me towards it. I was still early on in learning to follow my heart instead of my head, but I knew enough that a pull this strong—stronger and clearer than almost every other pull I’ve ever experienced—just couldn’t be ignored.
Would I have had a great time in Israel? I’m sure I would have. But it just wasn’t calling me—hell, it wasn’t even whispering or doing a subtle come-over-here hand gesture. So with limited time, limited funds, and knowing I had to follow my heart, I made my way to Manitou Springs, Colorado. It was my first 100% solo vacation; a pivotal, life-changing experience I’ll never forget and a choice I will never regret.
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Ultimately, there are only so many days we get on this planet, and that means we don’t get to have every experience there is. Sure, that sounds a little depressing, but to me, it’s also an incentive. Our job as human beings is to figure out which experiences will feed our soul the most, and then do whatever we can to go after them. My job—and my joy—as a life coach is to help you do that.
So I’m curious—to quote the poet Mary Oliver, tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? And on the flip side, what is your precious heart telling you to not do?
"I think never is enough, yeah, never is enough. I never want to do that stuff." -Barenaked Ladies
Thanks for reading part one of the three-part series, Making the Most of Your Precious Life. Stayed tuned next week for Part 2: How to Choose What's Right For You.
"You didn't expect me to substitute your judgment for mine, did you?" -Isaac Jaffe, "Sports Night"
I'm lucky because, in my experience, most of the time when people offer suggestions about what I should do with my life, they're sharing their opinions because they care about me and truly just want to help.
But I've learned that just because advice is coming from a good place, it doesn't mean you should take everyone else's ideas and let them override your own. Knowing when to take advice and when not to all comes down to where it falls on the YES!/nah/NOT-IN-A-MILLION-F-ING-YEARS! scale. In other words, does the person’s suggestion get you excited and wanting to start taking action immediately? Does it do nothing for you at all? Or does it make you want to scream and do an angry Phoebe run as fast as your little legs will carry you?
Let me let you in on a little secret: even if you specifically ask someone for advice, and even if their advice makes perfect logical sense, if your initial (i.e., gut) reaction doesn’t fall into the YES! end of the spectrum, it’s not the right advice for you and you don’t have to take it. And if you're worried about how they'll react, try repeating one of my favorite mantras, which I learned from Brené Brown: choose discomfort over resentment. Yes, the advice-giver might be mad, but how will you feel about yourself (and them) in a week, a month, a year from now if you follow their suggestion solely to avoid a negative reaction even though it clearly doesn't feel like the right choice for you?
Yes, I realize the irony of me advising you on how to deal with advice, so I want to make it clear that this—along with everything else I write here—is just a suggestion. I’m sharing my perspective based on what I’ve learned in my life, and if it resonates, I’m thrilled. And if, on the other hand, it falls into your “nah” or “never” categories, and you ignore it or disagree, I’ll still be thrilled. Why? Because that’s you trusting your inner GPS, and every time you do that, you get clearer on your road to joy. And THAT is exactly where I want you to be.
Katie Baron: life coach, freelance writer, animal and nature lover, musician, relentless optimist