I’ve been experiencing a lot of fear these days. Scary, wildly emotional, gut-wrenching fear.
Not the adrenaline fear when you’re about to jump out of an airplane. Or the freaked out fear when you get chased by a spider. It’s even stronger than the fear of taking a risk and failing—although all of these are real fears of mine.
It’s a new kind of fear to me. The fear of not doing something. The fear of staying comfortable. The fear of regret because of the things I didn’t do, the actions I didn’t take.
I really don’t want to wake up when I’m 50 and wonder, “what if?”
It’s the fear of inaction—the fear of regret.
In society, we’re always encouraged by the world to take certain steps: go to school, graduate with a degree, fall in love, get a good job so you can afford to buy a house (ahem, maybe not for us Vancouver folks), have 2.5 kids, retire with a pension, etc. etc.
But the world is changing. We live in an age of access—to information, to new forms of work, to discoverability on a massive scale.
We can use the tools we have to create the job we want and actually get paid for our craft or creativity. We don’t have to fall into the status quo and opt in for a life of security and comfort.
If you dream it, you can do it.
Enter: the fear of failure.
Diverting from the safety zone isn’t always easy (or, really, easy at all).
If you want to start your own business, go back to school in your thirties, choose a new career path that isn’t deemed “respectable” by society, travel instead of plant roots in one city, or do something that is seen as straying from the beaten path—you’re taking a risk.
Risk = potential to fail.
Failure = THE WORST THING EVER.
Actually, regret of what we didn’t do (or fear of inaction) seems to outweigh our regret of failure in the end. We look back on the opportunities we never ran after, the dreams left at the doorstep, and wish we could see where that path may have led us.
It seems like “playing it safe” could actually be the biggest danger of all.
Say hello to the fear knot of failure and regret.
For me, this knot or paradox has been a start-stop-repeat mechanism for the better part of this year.
The fear of regret jumpstarts my need/desire/yearning to create or do something meaningful with my time. And then, the fear of failure stops me in my tracks.
Two types of fear at odds with one another. One step forward and two steps back, as they say.
After months of this push-and-pull with fear, I just felt ‘off’ and really out of touch with what I wanted. I made a big decision to commit to a new career path this year because of my fear of inaction—but at the same time, my fear of failure was pulling me in the opposite direction.
I’m really over this whole game of tug o’ war with my fear.
So, I went to my therapist to talk it through… and I learned a few lessons about our frenemy called fear, and how to start untangling it all.
LESSON 1: Fear just wants to keep you safe
I wrote about the concept of self personas in Treat Your Inner Critic Like a Person and See What Happens but it deserves mentioning again.
Your fear is not the whole you—it’s just a percentage of you. It’s the part that keeps you safe, and biologically our fear has done this for centuries.
You sense danger? Fear gets you out alive.
Fear wants nothing more than to keep you in your comfort zone, away from uncertainty and the scary world of the unknown. And can you blame her? You’re going against all her warnings, and she’s freaking out!
Which leads into our next lesson…
LESSON 2: Remind fear that she’s being heard
When you go against fear, she can get really loud and obnoxious—especially when it comes to taking a risk with a career or life path.
I see fear like a version of Regina George telling me that’s the ugliest f-ing skirt she’s ever seen so change into something plain and normal that people will understand. All for the sake of keeping me “safe.”
Fear likes to lash out when she feels threatened. It kinda hurts my feelings, kinda makes it easy to say NOPE and try to tune her out—because, rude.
But as much as I try to ignore fear (or even fight back), she gets louder and louder until she’s so loud it’s hard to remember why I was taking a risk in the first place.
Before it gets to that point, what if we listened to what fear was saying? Can we remind fear that she’s part of the conversation and give her a seat at the table?
Fear, you can sit with us.
LESSON 3: Don’t let fear run the show
Okay, but even if fear gets a seat, she doesn’t get to call the shots.
Let’s hear her out, listen to her concerns, and take her seriously. Fear matters on this journey—but she doesn’t get to determine the outcome.
This is a concept I first heard from Elizabeth Gilbert’s welcome speech to ‘fear’ whenever she embarks on a new creative journey:
“I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still—your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote.”
I love this lesson. Fear is always going to come along for the ride—and she should be there. But she does not get to sit in the driver's seat.
LESSON 4: Being fearless isn’t the answer
Why keep fear around at all though? Isn’t she just holding us back from chasing those big dreams of ours? Shouldn’t we focus on eliminating fear altogether?
Dealing with fear doesn’t mean becoming fearless.
It’s important to feel afraid. We need it in our lives. Fearlessness is unnatural—by eliminating fear, we usually inadvertently eliminate something tied to fear, like our creativity.
Instead, acknowledge the bravery it takes to feel scared and do it anyway. Sit with your fear, understand it better, and work to overcome the irrational parts of it.
LESSON 5: Play out the fear-based movie to the very end
How do we understand our fear better? I like the concept of playing out the fear-based movie right to the end. Who are the characters? What is the plot line? Risks? Triumphs?
Here’s a quick way to go through it:
What am I feeling? Fear of failure.
What will happen if I fail? People will think less of me. I’ll be broke. I’ll have to go back to my old job and start all over again.
What will really happen? My ego will take a hit. All these other people made it and not me—that sucks.
What will you have from this experience even if this failure happens? Tons of creative content for myself. New connections and relationships. A sense of purpose. Tapping into my willpower.
Can you survive this fear? Yes. I’m smart enough with my money. I have a strong support system. I can try again if I want to.
Playing out the movie helps to see where our fear is being irrational and childlike. Then we can acknowledge it and maybe even see that what you’re fearing isn’t so bad after all.
LESSON 6: The way out of the fear knot is through
Okay, a bonus lesson.
If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time thinking about things. I live in my head (a lot) but thoughts can only get us so far.
Understanding our fear better, sitting with it, imagining her as a person, it all helps. It’s mindful and therapeutic, and puts things into perspective.
But the best way out of the fear knot is through. It’s taking action, instead of just thinking or talking about it.
Even little steps, small actions towards your goal, starts to break down the fear. It’s playing out the fear movie in our head, or writing out the script, but then actually doing it to see what happens.
Because our fear is just a part of us. And we’re standing in our own way.
I really believe it’s a gift to be able to decide what we want to do with our lives, creatively or otherwise.
The curious thinkers, the ambitious doers, the pursuers of dreams. There is magic in doing what the world has conditioned you to fear.
I also believe that it’s all a journey. My journey with fear is a never-ending one, and it will continue to be a push-and-pull of fear vs. inaction.
But as we learn more about fear and how we interact with it, and start taking steps forward, it’ll help make failure and regret less daunting.
It’s time to free ourselves up, untangle the fear knot, and move in the direction we want to go, instead of standing still and always playing it safe.