I withdrew from the group. I needed time alone to think through the options in front of me. If I chose to move forward, it would mean I experience vulnerability at a level I’ve never experienced before. There was a wild debate happening inside my head that sounded like “what if … what if … what if …”. My palms were sweaty, my heart was beating faster, and I had this urge to just run away.

Although the above might seem a bit dramatic, it was a real experience for me. The experience sticks with me even though it was a couple years ago. It is an example of what I experience when I am confronting something which has invoked a big fear response in me.

In this series, I am exploring the important and uncomfortable topic of fear. Fear is something we all experience, and it comes in many different shapes and sizes. I use the word fear in a generic sense to talk about how your mind and body responds to an uncomfortable situation.

You likely don’t experience fear when you are doing something you’ve done thousands of times. For example, I’m willing to bet most people do not experience any level of fear when brushing their teeth. This is because you are operating in your comfort zone.

For many people going to the dentist will invoke some fear if, like me, you hate needles. Needles in the mouth are that much worse. I get sweaty and even try to avoid the situation by procrastinating to book my regular visits.

Fear is a normal part of everyday life. If you were walking down a busy street and heard gunshots you would have an immediate fear response. This could be life and death. While this level of fear would be fascinating to explore, this article focuses on the more common fears we experience every day.

The behaviours of fear

In many cases, it can be difficult to recognize an experience as fear. This is because through your whole life you have developed a set of stories to protect yourself from your fears. You might call them saboteurs, gremlins or just a bullshit story you’re telling yourself.

When you tell yourself a story long enough it starts to feel real. You tell yourself this story so many times it might actually be coming from your comfort zone. It’s what makes fear such a fascinating topic for me. We do things from our comfort zone, which are actually counter-productive and keeping us in our comfort zone. 

Seeing the truth about our stories can be difficult. This is why it’s important to look beyond the stories we tell ourselves and see the behaviours we’re exhibiting. These behaviours happen without thought, and they are as unique as you. For example, when confronting a fear you might notice your body reacting in one of these ways:

• Feelings of butterflies in the stomach
• Sweating (body, forehead, palms, etc.)
• Shortness of breath
• Rapid heartbeat
• Emotional responses such as anger or crying
• Paralysis (i.e. unable to decide or move forward)
• Tightness in the chest or other parts of the body
• Involuntary shaking, pacing or other physical movements
• Withdrawal (i.e. to be with one’s own thoughts)

Stop and look at your behaviour the next time you’re telling yourself you don’t have a problem. Why are you withdrawing if you don’t have a problem? Perhaps you notice your palms are sweaty. Hmm … what do you make of that?

In Leadership

I often hear leaders tell me stories of how their people are resisting. They might tell me how people withdraw or get upset when asked to do something. While this can be pointing to many things, there is also a good chance there’s fear present in this situation.

The people might be outside their comfort zone. Cool! The only place growth occurs is when someone leaves their comfort zone. The question is what fear are they holding? A fear of failure? A fear of being criticized … possibly by you? A fear of letting others down?

When you can see the behaviours brought on by fear, it’s possible to get beneath them to the real story you will find there. This is where things are going to start getting interested.

Don’t give the behaviour a tissue

In the past, I was uncomfortable when an adult cried. I felt anxious and in extreme cases, I might even start panicking on the inside. I would reach for the tissues in hopes their tears stopped. I can now see my unconscious intent was to make them comfortable, which really isn’t about them. It was actually about me as having the tears stop would reduce my anxiety.

For me, tears are a sign something important is bubbling to the surface. In the case of fear, tears might be pointing to something big for this person. The person might be way out of their comfort zone and it’s scaring the hell out of them. However, if they confront this fear and push through to understand and confront it they will grow.

In reaching for the tissues I run the risk of sending an unintended message to this person. The tissue might send a signal and invalidate their tears. If this happens I will likely send them back into the comfort zone. Sending them back to their comfort zone would be unfortunate as it means the opportunity for growth is lost.

Fear is not the problem in our everyday situations. In fact, fear is a good sign as it is pointing to the potential for growth. When I see someone, including myself, exhibiting uncomfortable behaviours I sometimes think “Now we’re getting somewhere!”

Don’t give them a tissue. People know what they need, and will get a tissue themselves if that is what they need. Help the other person explore what they will find beneath the tears. That’s where the important stuff is!

I’m using tears as the example as it provided the perfect illustration through “don’t give them a tissue.” The same is true for any fear-based behaviour. Pacing, sweating, nervousness, emotion and everything else you might be witnessing. Don’t try to fix the behaviour by reducing anxiety and increasing comfort.

When helping someone, including yourself, look past the behaviours. I usually follow a couple of basic steps. I offer it here, although your mileage may vary with them:

First, acknowledge the behaviour. In the case of tears, I might say something like. “By your tears, I can see there’s something very important about this for you.” Acknowledging the behaviour is important regardless of what the behaviour is. Doing this tells the person you see there’s something important happening and you want to support them.

Second, I go on to ask a powerful question to get the other person looking past the behaviours brought on by fear. I want them looking directly at the fear they’re holding.

Obviously, not all conversations are as simple as these two steps. Just get curious, and support the person in front of you. Help them dig deeper into what’s causing their fear. When they can acknowledge their fear, they will start to disempower the fear.

Life is about growing and moving forward. What are you doing to get out of your comfort zone every day?

Wait … what was that?

You might be wondering what happened to me given my opening paragraph. The details are not overly important.

I have become extremely aware of my fear-based behaviours. When I notice one of these behaviours I summon up the courage and move forward. The coaches I hire have always pointed out the degree of courage I have when it comes to confronting my fears.

On the day I describe, I chose to move forward and confront a big fear I’d been holding onto for a long time. As a result, my life has never been the same. I know I made the right decision. It wasn’t easy, though, and resulted in a big vulnerability hangover.

Despite the short-term impact, I do know it was worth confronting and pushing through my fears.