Years ago, perched prominently above the stacks of work in my grey, florescent lit cubby hole in a Manhattan skyscraper, were Eleanor Roosevelt’s words printed on bright blue paper and framed with care: You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.... You must do the thing you think you cannot do. I remember staring at those words long and hard before I took a deep breath, stood up, grabbed my papers, and made my first presentation to senior leaders. I remember calling upon those words the day I left New York to start my own business...6000 miles away on an island. And I held those words tight the night when it was clear that my mom would lose her fight against pancreatic cancer and I had to say goodbye. I still believe in looking fear in the face and moving forward anyway. What’s changed for me is gaining altitude on the fear first.
Fear is a raw, palpable, naked emotion. It pulls us back, throws us forward, or paralyzes us, in classic fight, flight or freeze mode, with the basic primal purpose of alerting us that something has changed that could be threatening or dangerous. Neuroscience tells us that’s because when we experience anything new, a new neural network must be formed and we must satisfy the needs of the most primitive parts of our brains first, typically focused on the losses we may encounter with the change. To me, all that neuroscience may be going on, but it just feels like I am pulled straight into the fear, and physiologically, I can feel the constriction.
So before I can look fear in the face, I need to separate myself from it and widen my perspective on it. I seek to gain higher ground and understand more about the fear. Fear of what? Fear of the unknown? Fear of losing security or comfort? Fear of failure? Fear of success? Fear of not being accepted or liked? Fear is often about loss.... Loss of what? If I can name three losses I worry will come about as a result of the change I’m facing, then I can figure out which one is most significant and why. If I could handle that one greatest loss, what would happen to the others?
On a hike, when the red rocks stretch out in front of me in glorious, commanding strength, beckoning me to explore their ragged edges, winding rocky pathways and challenging heights, I know that with every step forward, I will gain a wider view, a broader vision. In the same way, fear invites us to gain altitude and discover what potential losses are driving us most, and from that vantage point, choose our most empowered action forward. With the wind on our face at the top of the mountain, we own our fear, but it no longer owns us.