And why fear isn’t always a bad thing
On Tuesday night I performed at a standup comedy event for the second time. It went pretty well and taught me a lot about what I could do better next time. Naturally, on the way to the venue and for most of the day beforehand, I’d been feeling nervous and apprehensive about what was to come. What if no one laughs? I asked myself, or what if I forget everything on stage? You know, just my brain doing its thing. I tried to picture everything going well as much as I could, but nevertheless I couldn’t completely shake off the fear that came with participating in such an event.
This got me thinking; what would it be like if I literally had no fear or nerves whatsoever around doing something like this? Would that ever be possible, and if so, would it be desirable?
As someone who has suffered with anxiety for a long time, I have come to distinguish between different kinds of fear pretty well, and I’ve largely boiled it down to two different kinds – that which I call useful fear, and the other one – you guessed it – useless.
The difference between these two is fairly clear. Useful fear is centered around a specific event which is definitely going to take place (or at least all logical signs suggest so) and is likely to take us out of our comfort zone. When I decided to do free hugs for the first time in Brighton a couple of years ago, I was definitely scared. Scared of what people might think of me, scared of what they might say, scared no one would want any hugs from me! The very idea of giving away hugs to a load of complete strangers outside of the main shopping centre in the city was well outside of my comfort zone, and my mind was going crazy. However, I really wanted to stretch my comfort zone with people and so I did it despite the fear. The fear was annoying at times and not particularly helpful, but it was useful insomuch as it presented a clear barrier to be broken through and overcome. When I did free hugs for the second time, I was barely even worried.
A similar sort of fear would be present if you decided to jump out of a plane. Your survival mechanism would kick in and try and talk you out of it, but once you’d made the leap and were safely back on earth, you probably wouldn’t feel scared at all; rather, you’d be exhilarated and very proud of yourself! Such were my feelings after doing free hugs for the first time, and after attempting standup. Your comfort zone has expanded; you’ve taken yourself on and you have succeeded.
There is another kind of fear, however, the one I call useless – that is certainly not about taking yourself on, attempting challenges and succeeding or failing at them. This is the kind of low-lying fear that I spoke about in a previous article about anxiety, and comes from worrying about things over which we don’t have direct control. This could range from anything such as unjustified ‘what if?’ thoughts about your health, to worrying endlessly about money or that someone you work with doesn’t like you very much.
This kind of fear, if left unchecked, can easily begin to run riot in the mind and lead to a kind of paranoia. If you find yourself frequently in such a state, I recommend you read my previous article on anxiety here. This is the kind of fear we ideally want to minimise in our lives as it does not serve us in any practical or positive way.
The kind of fear we can tolerate, or even encourage, is the first fear I mentioned earlier. I’m not suggesting we should all become adrenaline junkies setting ourselves tough challenges left, right and centre, but a healthy level of challenging oneself is not only exciting, but also good for boosting self-esteem and confidence. Taking ourselves on in healthy, positive and uplifting ways grows who we are for ourselves in our minds and has us see ourselves as bigger people than we initially thought. I don’t know about you, but I find that when I take myself on in this way and succeed, my mind has far less of a tendency to get lost in useless, self-sabotaging fear. It’s in periods of stagnation in my life, when I’m doing the same thing day in day out with little or no challenges, that a kind of mental rot has much more of a chance to creep in.
I once read that if your goals don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough. I think this is largely true. We need to ascertain what we really want in life, what we really want deep down, in our hearts, and then have the courage to do it. I’ve known that I’ve wanted to perform for years, but haven’t had the courage to even try it until fairly recently. I’ve known that I’ve wanted to write and publish a book for years, yet haven’t actually got anything out there until very recently, largely due to fear of what others might think. The fact that I am now getting myself out there is of course confronting for my mind, but at the same time exciting and highly liberating.
Even if you aren’t sure what you really want to do with your life, start to think about how you could begin to take yourself on and step outside of your comfort zone in a healthy, self-compassionate way. It might be something you’ve been curious about doing for a while, or perhaps something new. And then have a look at how you can do it. The act of taking yourself on in this way, and hopefully succeeding, will really begin to change the way you see yourself, and how others see you. You’ll see yourself as bigger, bolder and more courageous, as well as being truer to who you really are. And you might even begin to see that fear can be your friend, rather than an enemy you always need to fight.
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