What Are You Afraid Of?

Last weekend my son turned five; and so for three hours on Saturday morning our house became the backdrop for some sort of cross between ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’ as we facilitated (or attempted to) what my wife assured me would be “a small party” but what I can only describe as World War III perpetuated by terrorists thinly disguised as 5-year old boys.

If you haven’t hosted a party for a horde of 5 year old boys before you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about – but if you have, I apologize for the PTSD you’re currently experiencing.

Anyway, once the clean up was finished and the dust had settled (and the nuclear fallout had reached safe levels), I was taking a well deserved rest/nap in the sun when a balloon that I didn’t know was behind the couch – popped. It all sounds fairly innocuous, and in hindsight I don’t think it was any worse than a regular balloon popping, but to me, in that moment, it was the loudest noise I had ever heard. From a horizontal position I managed to simultaneously karate chop the air with both arms and legs and levitate completely off the couch; and let’s just say it’s a good thing there were no more terrorists around to hear my opinion on balloons and thoughts on some of their alternative uses…

Here’s an interesting fact: Psychologists believe that we’re only born with two fears – the fear of falling, and the fear of loud noises. I don’t care how brave you think you are, a balloon popping behind the couch will send anyone into cardiac arrest – and we’ve all had that horrible falling sensation just before we drift off to sleep (you know the one; when you’re probably the most relaxed you’ve ever been and then your brain short circuits and panics that you’re falling to your death – that one).

That response to those two fears is hard wired into us – there’s nothing we can do to change it, or them.

But every other fear that exists, fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of open spaces, fear of closed spaces, fear of heights, fear of clowns, fear of peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of your mouth (google it – it’s real) – EVERY fear: is a learned fear.

That means that whatever you’re afraid of that restricts you from something or limits your life experience, (unless it’s fear of falling or loud noises) is a LEARNED fear. Somewhere, somehow, for some reason – you’ve learned to be afraid of that thing.

That means – if you want to – you can UNLEARN that fear. You can go on a journey to remove that fear from your psyche, and it doesn’t have to impact your life anymore.

Here’s 5 steps to identifying, removing and replacing fear in your life:

  1. RECOGNIZE the fear:  This is actually harder than it sounds.  Sure you have the obvious ones (I’m really not a fan of spiders), but we’re often largely unaware of the fears that restrict us the most.  For example you might have a fear of rejection that limits your ability to connect emotionally.  That fear can have a big impact on some of your most important relationships, and will continue to do so until you get the place where you recognize WHY you’re sabotaging relationships or struggle to let people in.  So before you can do anything you have to be able to dig deep, be honest with yourself and identify what is actually the problem.
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  2. Get to the ROOT of the fear:  This can be a real rabbit hole. When did you FIRST feel that feeling? What’s your earliest memory of reacting that way or behaving that way?  I said before I wasn’t a fan of spiders – that’s not entirely accurate, I HATE them, even harmless house spiders freak me out.  Why? Once I recognized that other people didn’t share my fear, that somewhere at some point I had learned to be afraid of spiders, I had to stop and ask myself: “When did this start? What’s my earliest memory of a spider?”   And it’s this:  when I was six years old my family moved to Papua New Guinea for a few years.  I don’t remember much, but I DO remember they had huge spiders there, as big as your hand, and their webs were HUGE.  I remember walking down a path once and I walked straight into a spider web that had been spun between two TREES, and as it wrapped around my face I saw out of the corner of my eye this HUGE spider run up the web and into the tree.So- THAT’S where the fear started (flippin reasonable if you ask me!)  Once you’ve got to the very root of it, you then have to dial into WHY you’re afraid.  I have a friend who’s scared of flying, which isn’t uncommon.  But once he took the time to go down the rabbit hole, he discovered it wasn’t that he was scared of flying, it was that he was scared of dying.  That started him down a completely different track of WHY he was afraid of dying, which led him to make some big life changes because deep down he realized that he wasn’t happy with who he was as a person and some of the decisions he was making – but that whole process started because he took the time to ask “Why don’t I like planes?”
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  3. REJECT the fear: This is pretty basic but it’s the most important step.  Once you’ve recognized the fear and identified root of it, you then have to make a decision:  Are you going to reject it, or continue living with it?  It sounds like a simple choice, but one is easy (living with it) and one is difficult (rejecting it).  One will require no effort, and the other requires a lot.  A lot of people will get to step Three and just stop there, because it’s easier to live with the restriction then face the fear.  Someone might have a fear of flying, but rather than deal with the fear they just don’t fly anywhere.  They might have a fear of public speaking but rather than deal with the fear they just refuse to speak in public.
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  4. REPLACE & FACE the fear:  This is a two step process.  First, the best way to break a habit is to build a habit, and it’s the same with fear.  You can’t just remove it, you need to replace it.  I can’t just say “Well I’m not going to be scared of spiders no more!” – I need to replace that fear with TRUTH.   There’s an old saying: “Truth shall set you free.” and it’s true.  Again, to use my example – my fear of spiders is rooted in the fear that a huge spider could fang me to death.  What’s the truth? The truth is, here in NZ we literally have no huge spiders, in fact we have virtually no spiders that can do anything remotely resembling a ‘death fanging’.  If someone has a fear of flying, they need to recognize that on pure numbers it’s the safest form of travel.  We’ve all heard the statistic that you’re more likely to have an accident on the way to the airport than in the air – that’s the truth.The second step is to face the fear.  This is the REALLY hard bit, and it’s not the sort of thing you can just do once and then be forever cured.  It’s a process – and processes take time, but whatever happens – make the decision that no matter what, you will NOT let fear dictate what you will and won’t do in your life.  Feel the fear and do it anyway.  If it’s a fear of flying, feel the fear and get on the plane; if it’s a fear of rejection, feel the fear but be willing to be vulnerable, if it’s a fear of spiders, feel the fear and don’t yell for your wife (ok that last one was for me).
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  5. REPEAT the process:  Look, some of our fears are built up over years and years, and experience after experience – they can’t be unlearned by following a 5 step program and then ‘Viola!’ they’re gone.  The bigger and deeper the fear, the longer it’s going to take to unlearn.  Be prepared to keep working on yourself, to keep telling yourself the truth about a situation, to keep facing that fear and moving past it.  Your goal isn’t necessarily to never feel the fear again (although that would be nice) – your goal is to not allow it to impact your life.  It’s OK to feel the fear and do it anyway – in fact, courage can’t exist without fear.

The big question is: Is fear limiting your life? Because it doesn’t have to, if you don’t want it to.

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