The first time you meet someone it can be scary.
What if she doesn’t like me?
What if I don’t know what to say?
What if he is smarter/funnier/richer than me?
Become friends with that person for the next 5 years and the fear goes away completely. You’ve shared your history, stories, emotions, and dreams with this person and they still keep coming back. You are confident in their friendship and no longer worry about being accepted. What was so overwhelming the first time is merely second nature after a short period of time.
Fear is best managed by frequency of exposure. What scares the hell out of you today will scare you far less in a month if you expose yourself to it a little bit every day. This is a powerful lesson to learn because it gives you a reliable method of minimizing and managing your fears in a realistic way.
This is a plan that works whether your fear is physical or emotional, so let’s examine how it’s done.
Managing Your Fears By Increasing Exposure
I’ve always been afraid of falling from any heights. Those heights can be as short as a stepladder or as a high as a trail on the side of a mountain. Bridges are the worst for me, on foot, on a bike, in a car, or on a train. What makes it worse is that I have a tendency to be clumsy. I can easily imagine myself falling over cliffs, railings, and ledges that are easy for other people to walk.
In 2010 my husband Warren and I decided to sell everything we owned and travel the world. Yes, that’s scary. But it was nothing in comparison to scaling some of the high peaks and rickety bridges over fast-running water we encountered on our journeys. We quickly became the outdoorsy type because we were surrounded by so much beauty, but in order to enjoy it to the fullest I had to face my fear of heights (or, more accurately, falling from those heights).
But I noticed something interesting when I got out on the trail. The first scary moment might make me motionless for five minutes as I build my courage to move through it. The next few might give me pause for a couple of minutes. After a while, I see the scary moment up ahead and start mentally preparing myself so I can push through before it gets to me. By the end of the hike, I might even feel comfortable enough to stop mid-way on a bridge to take in the scenery without freaking out.
It’s the exposure that does it, and if I hiked every single day I have no doubt it would reduce my fear of falling to almost nothing. I notice a distinct reduction in my fear of falling when we are doing regular hikes in the mountains (like in South America) than when we’re spending most of our time on flat land (hello, Amsterdam).
Like anything, you have to use it or you’ll lose it. But like riding a bike, you can easily get back on once you’ve fallen off.
How to Expose Yourself
The great thing about these little lessons in fear busting is they build on each other. I know I can soothe myself enough to manage my fear of heights over time. Because of this, when I face another fearful experience, I can remind myself of my success with heights and develop a similar plan of repeat exposure until the fear is manageable. You can do the same thing.
You may not be scared of heights or climbing mountains, but you likely do have everyday fears that get in the way of living the life you want. Here are some easy ways that are very effective when it comes to exposing and managing your fears:
• Fear of what people will think: Eat in a restaurant by yourself once a week
• Fear of approaching people: Ask one random stranger per day for directions (even if you don’t need them)
• Fear of speaking up: State your opinion/idea at least once during every meeting at work
• Fear of being a leader: Suggest and organize a group outing with other people every month
• Fear of small talk: Strike up a brief conversation with the person in front of or behind you every time you stand in line
When you become more accustomed to standing out, speaking up, approaching other people, coordinating and leading, you will find the other fearful areas in your life a little more manageable. The fear never goes away (or if it does it is quickly replaced by something new), but just like regular exercise, you can train your mind to be stronger and healthier with regular mental exercise. This is an ultimate solution to managing your fears!
Betsy Talbot and her husband Warren help people turn their life dreams into reality. After 20 years of playing by the rules, they charted their own path to achieve their dream of traveling the world. Their books include Dream Save Do: An Action Plan for Dreamers. Visit www.marriedwithluggage.com for more information.