I can hardly believe I’m doing this. Again.
It’s mid-December, and I’m standing in swimming trunks on a boat ramp situated along the snowy shore of Lake Superior. Near-30°F water stabs at my feet, punishing them, numbing them.
I’ve never taken a dip in such threatening water before. It’s like knives. I’m not sure I can do this.
I gaze out at the ocean-like expanse that extends to the horizon, and I accept the course of action. I’m here. I’m nearly naked. Okay, go.
My lower body feels frozen and cumbersome, but I will myself forward, step by step, vaguely registering the slimy rock beneath my feet.
I’m now submerged up to my lower thigh; my surroundings are distant, blurred. I’m so cold. I stare down at the glassy surface, and for a moment, it mesmerizes and taunts, challenges me.
I lunge forward, closing my eyes, and my head and torso greet their frosty fate. Momentarily, everything is dark. A world of icy, black silence engulfs me.
I’m suspended in nothingness. The world is different down here.
An instant later, I erupt from frigid infinitude, disoriented, stumbling desperately to the comfort of a towel on shore.
As the shivering subsides and warmth returns to my feet, an indescribably refreshing feeling washes over me.
I am invigorated. I am alive.
I did it.
The power of this 3-word utterance should not be overlooked, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
The Realm of the Bare Minimum
As we meander along, going about our everyday lives, how often do we surprise ourselves by doing something we aren’t sure we can do? Something that perhaps makes us feel uncomfortable?
Most people will go to great lengths to avoid attempting anything of the sort.
It seems that many of us are content to limit our actions to the realm of the bare minimum — that is, we’ll perform the actions we must, and nothing more.
These bare minimum actions are often engrained in our daily routine anyway, so we can accomplish them without discomfort or fear of failure.
This aversion to doing anything which we perceive as frightening or uncomfortable is among the most powerful motivators in our lives.
As it turns out, we’re all deathly afraid — afraid of feeling vulnerable, inadequate, stupid, or unworthy.
This fear is a byproduct of evolution. It is nothing more than a remnant of a time when it was useful to live in an ultra-cautious state.
Nowadays, it tends to work in counterproductive ways. Whether we admit it or not, we constantly make excuses not to do something because we’re afraid.
Ultimately, when we allow fear to dictate our action, we become a slave to the realm of the bare minimum, our comfort zone.
The Stakes are High
When we examine our lives honestly, we find that the things we most want to do are also the things we most fear.
The stakes are always higher for our deep hopes, our passions, or anything we crave that seems difficult to gain.
We care so darn much about what we desire that we end up making excuses not to try for it at all.
We try to avoid defeat by avoiding pursuing new things altogether, but we end up defeating ourselves before we begin.
Deep down, we realize that if we were to find the courage within ourselves to do what excites us, freedom and satisfaction would follow.
But we don’t.
We don’t ask her out to dinner. We don’t backpack through Europe. We don’t quit the job we despise. We don’t form the exercise habit.
If we’re not careful, we sacrifice almost everything important to us because of fear.
Adventuring as a Means of Battling Fear
This is where adventuring comes in.
When I say “adventuring”, I don’t mean trekking through Middle Earth on a quest to save the globe.
Adventuring can be anything, as long as it’s beyond your comfort zone, beyond the realm of the bare minimum.
When we make a conscious effort to be adventurous in our daily lives, we teach ourselves to see fear for what it is — an illusionist.
Make no mistake. Fear is the world’s greatest illusionist. Fear has the power to transform one man’s simple, everyday routine into another man’s cataclysmic, panic-attack-inducing nightmare.
Which is why we must do what we can to put fear in its place.
By taking actions, both small and large, that are beyond our comfort zone, we train our minds to overcome fear.
We can never fully eliminate fear. This enemy is hardwired into our brains.
What we can do, however, is train ourselves to acknowledge our fear, recognize it for what it is, and smile as we follow our real desires, in spite of it.
The way to do this is, as I said, to make a habit of adventuring.
It is the smallish, manageable adventures that will prepare you to cast off the shackles of fear when the stakes are higher.
Smallish adventures might include:
- Learning a new skill, like photography or playing an instrument.
- Taking an opportunity to speak in front of a small group of people.
- Letting loose and dancing wildly in public.
- Telling someone how you really feel about their actions toward you.
- Smiling at a random stranger or striking up a conversation with them.
- Wearing something edgy that may draw confused looks.
You get the point. There are so many minor things we avoid daily because of the slightest of fear.
Once you begin to do just a couple things a week that press the limits of your comfort zone, you’ll notice that your ability to act in spite of fear markedly improves.
Mine sure did.
Three years ago, I was nervous and uncomfortable in the most trivial of social situations. I thrived on my comfort zone. I was afraid.
By pushing myself to become more adventurous, I slowly learned to deal with fear. As a result, I was able to do things I wanted to do but hadn’t been able to.
I skied black diamond slopes in the Rocky Mountains. I lived for a month with a host family in Spain. I dated a variety of women. I gave a presentation in front of 100+ people.
I don’t cite these examples to brag myself up. I just want you to know the power of becoming adventurous, of stretching that comfort zone.
Incrementally, we build and grow. Slowly but surely, actions solidify into habits.
Developing the habit of defying fear is crucial to feeling free and at peace. Acting in spite of fear is the only way to live life on your own terms.
Other Methods For Managing Fear
Yes, it’s easy to say, “I need to be more adventurous!”
It’s also incredibly easy to continue doing precisely what you were doing before reading this article.
If the smallest of adventures seems overwhelming, or if you’re currently committed to something that causes major fear and anxiety, here are a few more tips to push past the resistance:
1. Worst Case Scenario — Identify the worst possible thing that could happen. It’s never as bad as we imagine. People might judge you? She might say ‘no’? This way might not work, and you’ll be forced to try something new? So what?! Recognize that these scenarios are insignificant, and that not trying at all eliminates all possible best case scenarios.
2. Realize You’re a Storyteller — We tell ourselves stories every day, stories about who we are and what we can and cannot do. What stories are you telling yourself? How are these self-narratives leading to fear? In the stories we tell ourselves, most of us sell ourselves short. Recognize that what you do is the real story, not what you think you can’t do. Now do it, and re-write the script.
3. Start in a Small Way — We often overwhelm ourselves by considering how far we have to go. This is a self-defeating attitude. Rome was not built in a day, and success in anything is usually as simple as starting, then refusing to quit. Think of the smallest possible thing you can do to get started, and do it. Now, you’ve begun. You’re doing it. One foot in front of the other.
4. Remove Expectation — In Buddhist philosophy, expectation is at the root of all suffering. Anytime we want the world to be a certain way, we’re resisting accepting life as it is. Fear arises because we know that life may not unfold according to our hopes, but we still cling to our expectation. Realize that it is a fool’s game to base happiness upon the fulfillment of expectation. The wise man understands that he can but direct his own energy and effort, then focus on embracing whatever the outcome may be. Stop resisting.
5. “I am afraid because…” — Explaining aloud to ourselves why we are afraid is a useful way to grasp the irrational nature of our fear. “I am afraid because I don’t ever want one person to reject me.” “I am afraid because I can’t stand the thought of others looking down on me.” When we admit these things aloud, we more plainly see our unrealistic expectations at work. People will judge and reject you. That’s life, and it’s okay not to care about their opinion.
6. Breathe — Draw a long, deep breath into the depths of your lungs. Focus on the air rushing in. Hold it there for a moment. Release it, listen as it flows out. Deep breathing is a wonderful calming exercise. Breathe more often, close your eyes, and relax. Everything is going to be okay.
You Can Do it. I Hope You Will.
Remember: Fear is a parasite. Fear will manipulate you. It will convince you that you are somehow undeserving or insufficient.
Please don’t let it.
Only you can wrestle with your own demons, but by adhering to the suggestions I’ve laid out here, you can learn to manage fear in a healthy way.
Feel the cold water, and dive in anyway. Get a bit disoriented. Come out feeling stronger.
Being able to say “I did it.” is liberating. It’s satisfying. It is living.
You have everything you need. Now, go live life as you please. And make it an adventure.
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
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Also, I’m curious. What other methods do you know of for overcoming fear? Drop a comment below and let me know, thanks.