The What If Experience

Explore a new "What If..." question about life each week with some thoughts, some answers and some action steps. Share my journey of personal growth and living in possibility.
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Nov 26, 2017

Welcome to week five of a five-week series on fear. It's the last week! We talked about safety and regret in episode 56 and then the following week, I explained how I used three tools to help me get out of my comfort zone. Then we learned about different types of fear and how to respond to them. Last week, we covered the first part of the process I use to deal with ego fear.

Today, we're going to finish talking about a process to deal with what we call ego fear. As a refresher, ego fear is a type of fear that is trying to keep your ego safe from things like shame or embarrassment. Fears of failure, success, or people who are different from you in some way all fall into this category. This kind of fear needs to be addressed and dismantled so that it doesn't drive away with your life.

Last week, we did step one and two in the process. We acknowledged the fear, and talked about why that matters, even though it seems lame. And we did a brain dump and named all the reasons we're afraid of something.

Remember early on in this series when I mentioned that fear is a reaction to a perceived danger and that danger might be a real threat or not a real threat...but that our bodies react the same regardless? This is the point that we can begin to see the difference between real and not real threats.

So, pull out the list that you made last week. We're going to take each fear on that list and process it three different ways. By Facts, Feelings and Fundamental Truths. You're going to look at a statement you've written and respond with facts. Then with feelings. And then, after looking at the facts and feelings, decide what the fundamental truth is that you're dealing with. I'll show you how I did that with one of the fears I have about the job shift that's causing me some anxiety, but first, I should mention that you may have some things written down, that in your head seemed like a big deal, but when written down, seem rather ridiculous.

For example, I had written down that I'm afraid that the team I apply with will find out that I'm really a fraud and that I can't do anything well and then everyone will know that I'm not who they think I am. This is imposter syndrome speaking. Also, I have written, "I'm afraid that they'll find out that I can't do everything perfectly and I'll be exposed for being lame, either in the application or interview process or if hired." This is perfectionism speaking.

So, did you hear that? I'm afraid that I can't do anything right and I'm afraid that I can't do everything right. Both are real from an emotional standpoint and I do need to deal with both of those problems: imposter syndrome and perfectionism. But, when written in ink on paper. Or, when I say them out loud to you...they sound fairly ridiculous. They are lies. The fact is that I can do some things well. And no one can realistically expect perfection. So, I was able to write those facts next to these statements and move on. I didn't need to dig into feelings and truth. The facts are the truth. These are lies. So, some fears may not require as much processing as others.

Fact, Feeling, Fundamental Truth Filter

But, what about fears that appear legitimate? Real threats? I have written, "I'm afraid that if I work for someone else full time, I'll be a worse parent to my son." This isn't a value judgment about working outside the home vs. working from home. It's a fear that I don't feel like I'm the best parent I can be right now and with less time and less flexibility, surely I'll be a worse parent. So, let's run this one through the Fact-Feeling-Truth process and see what happens.

Fact: I will never be a perfect parent and I might be thinking unreasonably about this. Fact: My son's a middle schooler and I'm looking at missing about 2 hours a day if I was working a normal work day. Those two hours, I'm typically working and making dinner and he's playing with friends, so this isn't time we're spending together now. Fact: I'd have less flexibility for in-school activities. But, the days of class parties and in-school things are mostly in the past. There are going to be far fewer of those things now anyway. Do you see how I'm thinking through this issue with facts rather than the fear?

Now, to deal with feelings. Feeling: I'm sad about him getting older and our relationship changing. He needs me less and that makes me sad. Feeling: I'm feeling guilty in that I believe he is my foremost responsibility in life right now and I don't want to shortchange that responsibility.

Before I move on to the truth portion, I will add that I asked him about this. I was concerned here how I felt about it, but I wondered how he would feel about it. What would he say the most important part of parenting him is? This is a gifted kid...but he's home with a nasty virus and running a 102-degree fever. It's a good time to ask, right? His answer to the most important thing I do parenting him? "Well, I suppose it's that you take care of me." Beyond being brilliantly insightful. It wasn't exactly what I was looking for. So, I told him what I was thinking about and asked how he felt about it. He concluded with, "Well if you're making that decision responsibly, for money reasons and it provides for us...I have no problem with that. We can deal with any issues that come up." Interesting.

But, let's get back to the process and move on to the Fundamental Truth or Truths. Remember, the fear is that I'm not going to be able to be as good a parent. But, after processing those facts and feelings and asking him, I've come to the understanding that my truth about this fear is that the differences in the jobs wouldn't have to affect the quality of my parenting.

Here's what we've done so far: Consciously admitted being afraid, Identified the fears. And put them through the Fact-Feeling-Fundamental Truth filter. I took the two fears that I felt were legit on my list and ran them through that process.

What Do You Want?

The next step is to identify the underlying want beneath the fear. We're typically afraid because there's something we want. What's the Want? In this case, by the time I'd worked through the three-part filter, I'd realized that what I really want, my fundamental desire, is to be a good parent.

If I really want to be a good parent, then that gives me something to focus on. The next step is making an action plan to get what I want. What can I do in this situation to be a good parent? Can I block out Saturday afternoon as sacred time with him? Or, dinner on Friday night? Can we have 30 minutes together each night of intentional activities or relationship time? Or, should I figure out his love language and be intentional about using it. There are a thousand different steps I could take to directly address the want...that in turn helps eliminate the fear.


So, to review, the five-step plan is this;

  1. Acknowledge the fear by consciously admitting what you're feeling. "I am afraid."
  2. Identify all the perceived dangers. Write down all the fears. Cross off duplicates.
  3. Run all the fears through the Fact-Feelings-Fundamental Truth filter.
  4. Find the underlying Want which is generating the fears.
  5. Create an action plan to get what you want.

When I finished this process, I felt crazy better. I'm sure that fear will crop up again and I didn't eliminate all of it. But, I felt peace and the freedom to make a decision based on things other than fear.

I made a worksheet with this process outlined that you could print and use whenever you need it.


Putting this series together has given me some tools and perspective that I didn't have before, so I hope it has been helpful to you. If it did help you, I'd love to hear how. Click the voicemail link on this page, or email me. I look forward to hearing from you!

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Nov 19, 2017

Welcome to week four of a five-week series on fear. We talked about safety and regret in episode 56 and then the following week, I explained how I used three tools to help me get out of my comfort zone. Last week, I talked about different types of fear and how to respond to them. Today, we're going to start talking about a process to deal with what we called Ego-fear in the last episode. As a refresher, ego fear is a type of fear that is trying to keep your ego safe from things like shame or embarrassment. Fears of failure, success or people who are different from you in some way all fall in this category. This kind of fear needs to be addressed and dismantled so that it does not control your life.

For the past several months, I've felt pulled toward going in a different direction in my work. I own a small business that's been around for about 20 years. It turns out that thinking about going to work for someone else after working for myself for so long brings up a huge number of emotions and fears. Here are a few of them...I didn't really realize it, but part of my identity is built around being an entrepreneur. If I'm no longer an entrepreneur...well, what then? There's a performance fear...what if I can't do anything else well? There's a fear of choosing a route that settles for good when best may be in a different direction. There's a fear that I won't be as good a parent to my son if I'm working full time for someone else instead of at home. There's a fear that I can barely manage my life right now, what would happen if I change things?

That's a good long list, right? These are ego fears and those are just the ones I can think of at the moment. I sat down a few weeks ago and clarified them a bit, so they were pretty easy to identify. But, until I went through the process I'm about to share with you, all these things were swirling around in my head and heart, just under the surface, causing anxiety and fear. Not directed energy that's useful, but a generalized anxiety, worry, and dread.

I was at a conference in September, where I heard Gillian Ferrabee talk about fear. She talked about fear as it relates to the creative process and I decided to take my fear of a career shift through a framework she briefly outlined. So, what I'm about to talk you through came mostly from her, with a few tweaks of my own. I found it really helpful, maybe you will too. I'm going to give it to you in two parts, half this week and half next week.

Ready? Ok, let's dive into this...

I mentioned earlier that I've had a lot of thoughts chasing each other around in my head and heart about considering going to work for another organization. One of the problems with this is that all of these thoughts are half submerged in murky darkness. They don't come out and parade in front of me, to be seen clearly in the light. They poke tentacles up and slither away before I can catch sight of them clearly, so that I'm left feeling the results of fear with nothing to anchor it to and no way to deal with it. This process is about how to change that.

Step 1: Acknowledge

The first step is to acknowledge that you're afraid. We don't like to do this, because we think it's weak, or we think that will make the fear bigger, or we just don't want to deal with it. But, acknowledging that we're feeling fear is the first step to neutralizing it. This isn't just a good idea, there's real science behind it. When we name our emotions, we access a different part of the brain than we were experiencing the emotion in and this process seems to disrupt the intensity of that emotion. So, simply realizing you're feeling fear and saying so is a first step. You can say that out loud. In your head or on paper. I sat down and said it in my head and I pulled out my journal and wrote it down. I feel scared. And then of course, I had to elaborate and went on to say, "I do. I'm stressed. I'm anxious, I'm having a hard time dealing with life. I'm scared."

Sitting with that realization for a few moments, for just long enough to write that out cleared a bit of the emotional fog and got me into a place that I could then explore it more objectively. It was like I'd been leaning my back on a door trying to keep it closed while I dealt with other things in life. Scary things were pushing on the least I assumed they were scary, I really wasn't sure what they were. So, this first step is like turning around, looking at it and saying, ok, I'm dealing with a door. I'm just going to deal with the door. Naming something tends to give you a power over it and that's a whole different conversation, but after doing this, I felt more clearheaded. Fear and anxiety function most effectively in the background, so bringing them to light reduces their effect.

It seems like I'm belaboring a silly first step, but it's truly more important than you think. Researchers call it "affect labeling" and its effectiveness is similar to that of mindfulness training as a way to establish conscious emotional regulation.

So, you've labeled it and called it out. You are scared. Then what?

Step 2:  Identify

Step two is deceptively easy to say. It's to identify the fears. This may sound simple, but it's not always. Sometimes you might not know exactly what your fear is. And even if you think you know, you might be surprised. Like an onion, when you peel one layer off, you might find several more layers underneath. Usually, when asked for a reason...about anything...usually the real reasons are buried several reasons in. It's the same with fear. What you think you're afraid of may not be the real deal, you might need to dig a little deeper for the underlying cause or causes.

So, pull a journal, notebook or 4' x 6' whiteboard, depending on how much room you think you need and just start writing. You're not aiming for organized thoughts. You're not aiming for sentences. You're aiming to just get the emotions and half-hidden thoughts down on paper. You can deal with them later. Start with, "I'm afraid that..." and complete that sentence as many times as you can until you're all out of sentences. You may repeat and rephrase the same things, that's ok. You may get stuck for a bit, that's ok too. But, I encourage you that if you think you're done, just sit with the process for a few moments and see if there's anything else. It's very normal to write down the surface stuff and then assume you're done and it's easy to quit the process before the important things come to the surface. Don't worry that there's too much. Don't worry about it making sense, it doesn't have to.

Doing this, I filled two journal pages with "I'm afraid" statements. They ranged from, "I'm afraid I'll be a worse parent than I already am." to "I'm afraid of looking like a fool." I had about nine or ten small paragraphs or long sentences when I was done. This is like brainstorming, you're getting all of it out on paper and will evaluate it next. Putting it into words does a few things.

First, like admitting fear, it takes these nameless anxieties and puts labels to them. This both reduces the intensity of the fears another step, allowing us to be more objective by switching the part of the brain we're using and it gives us something more concrete to actually work with.

Step 2A: Edit

The next step is to read through your list and see if there are restatements of the same fear. Cross out all but one the duplicates. Keep the one you think is most clear and accurate, or rewrite it to cover all your bases...but only combine things that are essentially the same. Keep separate fears separate.

So now we've said that we're afraid and we've dumped all the fear out of our heads and onto paper. And we've cleaned up that list a little bit. Our head might feel more clear, but we still have this list of fears to deal with. That's what comes next. Hold onto that paper, add to it this week if you need to. And next week, we'll talk about where to go from here.

Nov 12, 2017

We're in the very middle of a five-week series on fear. We've talked about safety and regret in episode 56 and last week I explained how I used three tools to help me get out of my comfort zone. Today, we're going to talk about responding to four different types of fear.

As I've been reading and thinking about how fear affects us and what to do about it, I realized that just saying "fear" lumps a whole lot of different reactions into one big category. It's like talking about a stomach ache. Abdominal pain can be caused by something as common and harmless as gas and as life-threatening as appendicitis. Choosing a treatment or a course of action depends on knowing what kind of stomach pain you're having. Because I certainly don't want to be treated for appendicitis if I just ate too many beans for dinner.

We immediately understand needing to clarify stomach pain to determine treatment. But, with fear, it's a whole different story. First, because we don't always think we can or should do something about it. We assume that fear is fixed, that we can't change it. We assume we should and can treat and correct a stomach ache, but we often just think we need to live with fear and muscle through it. Plus, the idea of dealing with fear is scary in and of itself. We're already afraid of whatever we're responding to, so intentionally dealing with it is likely to be even scarier. It's more comfortable (short-term) to ignore it or muddle through it as fast as possible and move on with life.

But, what if we could talk about fear in a way that made it possible to know how to resolve it? As I was reading, I ran across a framework that I thought was helpful and I wanted to share it with you. This terminology comes from a writer, coach, facilitator, and speaker named Heather Plett. There are other ways to think about categorizing fear, but her way to think about it has practical application for helping us deal with it. She sorts fear into four categories. I'm going to give you each category, describe it, and then tell you how to respond to each of those types of fear.

Warning Fears

Warning fear is responsible for keeping us safe. We've all experienced this kind of fear. It's the body-flooding fear you get when you step off a curb and suddenly a blaring horn and a rush of wind tell you there was a car coming that you didn't see. Probably because you were looking at your phone. It's the healthy fear that gives you a surge of adrenaline to help you catch yourself when you trip on the stairs. Or, in my case, over cracks in the sidewalk. Warning fear also crops up in much more subtle situations, like those mental and emotional warnings that say that this really isn't a relationship or business partnership that you should get any deeper in and would be better off pulling out now.

When we feel warning fear, we should listen to it and take action. Jumping back on the curb out of harm's way is an instinctual and immediate action, but the more subtle warning fears should be acted on as well.

Ego Fear

This is the kind of fear that says that my ego is in danger. It's trying to keep me from feeling shame, embarrassment, guilt, or any other feeling resulting in a perceived threat to my carefully devised assembly of personal identity, worth or capability. Fear of success and fear of failure both fall into this category. Fear of "other-ness" also lives here. It results in divides across belief, race, culture, class and gender barriers. Immanuel Kant calls our ego our, "precious little self." It's not who we are, but rather, who we think we are. And we are very, very good at protecting our precious little selves. Fear thinks that it's in charge of that, but it shouldn't be.

Ego fear is one that we should thoroughly examine and disassemble. While warning fear should be allowed the reins of our lives at times, Ego Fear is one that we should be directing when to speak and when to be silent. Once it's surfaced, this is the kind of fear we need to choose how much freedom it gets in our lives. It needs to be our choice, we're in charge.

Invitational Fear

If you've read Stephen Pressfield's book, The War of Art, you'll recognize invitational fear as what he calls "resistance". This is a type of fear that you might experience before stepping into something you were meant to do. It's closely linked with creative work and it often appears when we are starting or approaching something; a project, a job, a new task, a new idea, a blog post, even.

I remember learning a new quilting technique several years ago. It's a non-traditional art quilt method that's fairly unusual. Instead of using the technique on an instructional project, I thought I understood the concept and tried it on my own piece. I'd cut all the pieces and before I started to sew, I felt the strongest resistance. I sat there for a few minutes at the sewing machine unable to start until I realized it was resistance. It was starting something new. Something that I didn't really know how to do. It was venturing into the unknown. Which is kind of silly when I realized if it didn't work, I could just try again. I was talking about a 4" square finished piece. It had about 30 pieces, so it was complicated...but there was certainly no major life-threatening situation if it didn't work. It was just the fear of something new.

This is the kind of fear we need to befriend when we feel it. Treat it as a sign that you're doing something right, not wrong. Work with it and let it help fuel you to move forward or at the very least, ignore and proceed anyway. This fear tends to dissipate pretty quickly when we begin doing the thing we're supposed to do. Ms. Plett also calls it "the trembling", because it often manifests physically in your body.


Finally, the appendicitis of the fear categories. Trauma-related fear should not be treated lightly. This can be fear related to an injury, a sickness or disease, an assault, abuse, an accident or any other traumatic experience, both small and large. These may be logical or seem illogical.

While the other three we can often work through on our own, you wouldn't feel qualified to take out your own appendix, right? So, allow professionals to help you with trauma-related fear.

How Does This Help?

If you're feeling fearful about something and you can label it as trauma, invitational, ego or warning fear, you can then choose an appropriate response. If it's a subtle warning fear, you might realize that you need to pay attention to the warning and take action. If it's an invitational fear, realizing that it will dissipate quickly if you step over that threshold is helpful in moving through it and even using it as motivation.

If you're experiencing ego fear, well, now we come to the type of fear that we need to work through and not let control our lives. I'm going to give you a process in the next two weeks that helps me and hopefully, it will help you too, move through that type of fear, so come back for those episodes!


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Nov 5, 2017

I mentioned last week that one of the little brave moments I had was to choose to go to a conference by myself, where I was not only going to not know anyone, but I'm not really the target client of the conference, so I was probably going to feel seriously intimidated. But, I went anyway.

This was a conference for educators in a specialized niche segment. I'm a parent of one a student in that niche. Having parents there isn't unheard of, there was actually a seminar track for parents, which is why I thought I could legitimately be there, but, in general, most of the parents there were really also educators, which is why they became interested in that education niche, to begin with.

To boil down the situation for you. I was attending alone, in the midst of experts, in a field I know little to nothing about. That's an uncomfortable situation for a perfectionistic introvert with imposter syndrome.

I also told you last week that I was going to put together a toolkit on fear this week. And, I started to. But, like overwhelm, the number of suggestions out there for dealing with fear is...well, overwhelming. And, riddled with what seems to me to be stupid advice. So much so, that I tossed the toolkit idea out. Many of the first-aid style tools used for immediate relief of overwhelm (the type mentioned in episode 54) will work as first-aid for fear as well.

Instead, here's what I'm going to do. Today, I'm going to use my conference experience to explain three tools to help you act in spite of fear. Next week we're going to talk about different types of fear so that you can understand what you're experiencing and the best ways to deal with it. And, then, I'm going to give you a process for dealing with a decision or a situation that is making you scared. It's a five or six step process, depending on how I break it down and I'll walk you through how I applied it to a decision I'm struggling with fear about this week. It was super helpful for me, and I hope you'll find it helpful too.

Countering Fear With Practice

But, today, back to my conference. I like to do conferences with a pal for a couple of reasons. First, doing things with friends is just more fun. Second, I find interacting with strangers difficult. And, I like having someone to process the conference content with. For today, the relevant reason is that I'm not a talking-to-strangers kinda gal. I admire people who are, it's a really valuable skill. I remember sitting on a bench at a marina where I was soaking up alone time and recharging in front of water and sailboats, two of my favorite things. And, my husband at the time was wandering around talking to people. He came back, sat down and started telling me about one of the boat owners he'd met who had previously worked for the CIA and details of that CIA experience. I remember looking at him incredulously. He'd been gone for 15 minutes. In 15 minutes, I might have said hello to someone. From a distance. Maybe. And he'd practically gotten their security clearance information. How is that possible?

I realized about a year ago that with the work that I do and the schedule that I keep, I was becoming more and more isolated. That the trouble I have opening up conversations with strangers was becoming more and more difficult for me...because I never put myself in a position to do it. So, what did I decide to do about that? I volunteered at my church in a position that would make me do it over and over. I'm not a door greeter, that would be easy for me. Smiling and saying hello when it's expected of me isn't really uncomfortable. It's initiating real conversation and connection with strangers that's tough. So, I make myself do it every. Single. Week. And, you know what? It's helped. I was much less stressed at this conference than I would have been a year ago.

Here's another example. In high school, I was terrified to speak in public, like statistically, most of you. Speech days were the absolute worst. In college, I wound up in a major that required me to present my solution to a problem and sell my ideas to a group three times a week. After presenting regularly, I remember vividly a speech to a larger group where I felt like I really had the audience with me. I could have told them anything and they would have believed me. And I was talking about the design of the Biosphere 2, a science research facility in Arizona. This wasn't a talk about something of critical importance. At that moment, during the speece, I was feeling this, for lack of a better term, power to influence, and I was hooked. While I might get nervous now because I haven't done it in awhile, I am not afraid of speaking anymore.

Incremental exposure to our fears has the power to break their hold. You may not love whatever you were afraid of like I learned to love speaking, but the fear can be significantly reduced.

Countering Fear With Gratitude

Another approach is countering fear with gratitude. Tony Robbins has said that you can't be fearful and grateful simultaneously, but I like the way Wendy Fontaine said it better (Sorry, Tony).

It’s impossible to think about how scary life is when you’re focusing on all the ways it is beautiful. It’s like trying to keep your eyes open when you sneeze. You couldn’t do it, even if you wanted to...Gratitude shines a light on hope, and hope drives away fear.

How did that apply to my conference experience? I truly was grateful that this conference was available to me. I needed the information for me and for my son. While it was mostly geared toward educators, parents were welcomed and encouraged. I was grateful for that. It was local-ish. I could drive into Nashville for it each day, so I didn't need to travel and I didn't have hotel costs. It was relatively inexpensive and it was on a Friday and Saturday, so I only had to miss one day of work. Focusing on how grateful I was to be able to attend and made fears recede.

Countering Fear With Purpose

Gillian Ferrabee, who I'll talk more about next week says that fear lives in the vacuum of un-intentionality. Having a strong "why" helps you act in spite of fear. If you haven't read Simon Sinek's book, Start With Why, I strongly recommend it. The concept can be applied to so much more than leadership or even personal development. Studies link a sense of purpose not only to slower rates of cognitive decline as we age but to lower rates of disability and death as well. A purpose, a "why", is a big deal in life. And it can help get you through a conference by yourself too.

One class at this conference was the real reason I was going. It was on perfectionism. As it turned out, I'd seen these presenters before about 6 months ago. I didn't realize they were the ones doing this talk and it was still valuable because it was so content-dense that I caught some information I missed when I heard them speak before. But, there were other jewels at this conference that I would have totally missed out on, had this class not been the reason driving me to get over my fear enough to get me there.

Three different approaches that you can use in very practical ways to get you past your fear to action. The first was incremental exposure. Do the thing you're afraid of in small doses, increasing over time. Second, focus on gratitude. And, lastly, choose an intentional purpose that you feel more deeply than the fear.

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