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.
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 door...at 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 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.
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.