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Small Steps to Help You Act in Spite of Your Fear

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” ~Nelson Mandela

My dog, Elvis, is a sweetheart and a scaredy cat. When our vet found him, he was roaming free with a wire collar embedded in his neck and a raging case of mange. It took her thirty minutes to chase him down and three months to nurse him back to health.

When we first adopted him, he was afraid of everything: bikes, strollers, loud noises, sprinklers, and people. The only things he was never wary of were other dogs. Through a lot of patience and love, Elvis has come a long way. He is no longer afraid of people or bikes, but he still hates sprinklers and he’s always on guard.

This past spring I took Elvis on a walk at a local state park. It was a beautiful day, sunny, high 70’s with a light breeze. We had a great time traipsing through the woods. When we came around the corner at the bottom of a hill, the river sat gleaming in the sun before us. Elvis stopped, sat, and refused to get any closer.

I knew he needed to get his bearings, so I paused and let him absorb what lay before him. I spoke gently to him and tried to persuade him to keep going.

He dug his paws in and started to maneuver his shoulders into this Houdini twist that allows him to slip out of his harness. I stopped and we turned around. Because of his fear, Elvis never got to see or smell all the wonderful sights and aromas awaiting him at the river’s edge.

People are like that too. We traipse happily along in our routines, always doing and experiencing the familiar.

As soon as we have an opportunity to expand our horizons, to see a new place, meet a new person, or accept a new jobour fear kicks in and we stop. We hold back; it’s too scary. 

We don’t know what lies before us. All we know is it looks big and scary, and we fear all the unknowns. If we could just take that leap, act on faith, and move forward despite our fear we would learn (just as Elvis would have) that while it is new terrain, it is still dirt and grass.

It is still trees and sunshine and a beautiful breeze, only this breeze carries the scent of water.

It’s new and it’s different, but the only thing that makes it scary rather than a grand adventure is our fear.

Unfortunately, one of the only ways to overcome fear is to act in spite of your fear. Just as you can only learn if you can trust someone by trusting them, you will only learn to be brave by being brave. Here are some things you can do to alleviate your discomfort with fear:

Be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to sit in the moment and adjust to your new experience. Just as I tried to comfort Elvis by letting him absorb what lay before him, let yourself pause. Make yourself pause. Take things at a relaxed pace.

Breathe deeply. Take long inhalations. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on your breath and be in the moment. When you are focused on your breath, the sensation in your chest and belly, you don’t have the attention to give to the fear.

Speak encouragingly to yourself. Remind yourself of other times you were afraid and it all worked out. Remember all your successes. Have confidence in your ability to handle whatever happens. Believe that there are no mistakes, only lessons. Whatever the outcome of your action, you will have certainly learned something.

Plan to take action, and then do it. Think about what steps you are going to take. Write out your task list. Think about where you want to be ultimately and what small steps you need to take to get there.

Write them down in order. You wouldn’t expect to be able to fly an airplane without learning how. When they say, “take the leap,” they don’t mean just fling yourself into something without any forethought or preparation. You need to be educated about your new endeavor so that you can be the best you can.

Spend some time in reflection. What have you learned so far? What was new to you a few days ago but now seems familiar or at least not as difficult? What small steps have you already accomplished? When you break a large goal down into smaller steps, you learn as you go, and you realize that maybe this whole thing is not as scary as you thought.

Fear is not always a bad thing. Fear saves us from dangerous situations. If we had a scary experience in the past, we learn to associate that setting with danger and feel fear when it is replicated in anyway. Our fear ensures our survival.

Elvis survived a horrible puppyhood. Naturally he was afraid. He had survived by avoiding people and situations that could potentially hurt him again.

The only way he learned to overcome his fear was by taking action-going on the walks, passing by the biker, sniffing the stroller when it was parked somewhere, and being treated with loving, gentle care.

When you take small steps, allow yourself to pause, speak kindly to yourself, and take educated action, you can learn to act in spite of your fear.

Photo by Mike Pedroncelli

Avatar of Roo Mulligan

About Roo Mulligan

Roo Mulligan is a certified fitness specialist and a Wellness Life Coach with a Master's in Counseling. She specializes in incorporating fun into our health to increase our energy and bring joy into our lives. Learn more about Roo on her website, www.healthylivingisfun.com.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • http://www.smiffbib.com/ Kerry :)

    One Day

  • http://www.facebook.com/kathi.macnaughton Kathi MacNaughton

    I love this article & I REALLY needed it just now. So, thank you!

  • Ronda

    Thank you – this process does work - 

  • Roo

    I’m glad it was able to help you Kathi.  Thank you for reading it and commenting :)

  • Roo

    Your welcome Ronda.  All my best, Roo

  • http://www.bluecollarworkman.com/ TB and BlueCollarWorkman

    Here’s what I got most from this post, the idea of stopping for a moment and taking in the new surroundings or situation. That’s an important step and I tend to overlook it. I think more like, “Run at it or don’t do it at all!” which means that often I won’t do something because running at it seems scary. I used to make fun of my sister for always wanting to get to these 5K races she likes to run early. SHe said she likes to see the start/finish line and get a feel for the course and for the other competitors as they slowly show up to register. She’d show up like 45 min early! But really, she’s just taking an anxious-like situation and making it do-able by absorbing it first. Good post!

  • Roo

    I really did learn that from my dog Elvis. When you are feeling anxious the tendency is to want to do things faster, rush into situations or like you said run away.  By letting Elvis stop and sit and be still for a moment he has been able to assess the situation and decide with a little more logic how to proceed.  Your sister is wise.  Though I might get a little anxious as more and more people show up!  Thanks TB.

  • Sundancebleu

    Thanks so much Roo, I loved this!  Speaks to some fear issues I’m going through in my life.  I especially love the “Speak encouragingly to yourself” section.  Thanks so much!

    - Roger

  • Roo

    you’re welcome Roger!  I am so glad you took away something from it, particularly the part about speaking encouragingly to yourself.  We all need courage and support- we just forget we can give it to ourselves :)

  • Helen

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. Elvis has a strong soul, you are very kind x

  • Roo

    Elvis DOES have a strong soul and I am very proud of how far he has come.  He is a wonderful, loving dog who’s been through so much. I’m glad you appreciated his story. Thank you.

  • http://crazyintrovert.com/ Glori (CrazyIntrovert)

    What a wonderful post!
    I often have a problem in keeping the balance between over-thinking things and just zooming into doing stuff. So I believe there has to be a balance and a little bit of urgency helps to keep you thinking straight. :)

  • Roo

    When we are afraid it is hard to think straight. Taking a moment to get your bearings and being gentle with yourself are wonderful ways to create balance. Thank you for sharing Glori.

  • Blanca

    Thank you for this post. I am at a moment of my doctoral program that feels very promising, but also very fraught with danger. Your post reminded me that small steps are ok. It means I’m still moving forward rather than being completely paralyzed by fear.

  • Roo

    congratulations on getting your doctorate Blanca! Having just completed my Masters I know a little bit what you are going through.  Just keep reminding yourself how far you have come, how intimidating it all was in the beginning but now those things that scared you seem normal and be gentle with yourself.

  • Rishabh

    This is so beautiful Roo… just read when I needed it the most. Thanks.

  • Roo

    you are so welcome :)

  • Echo7070

    These are great thoughts, however what do you suggest for those who have faught the fear, stepped out and then been burned again by greatest fears? Regardless of why it happens, this is totally & completely paralyzing. there’s only so much courage one can muster…

  • Room

    Fear can be paralyzing. Please give yourself credit for stepping out the first time. So often we just give up and say the experience was a complete failure and I will never expose myself to hurt like that again. But it’s never a complete failure and you were so brave to try despite your fears. Try to change your perspective from “I can’t” do it ever again to “I’m choosing not to right now”. This changes the paralysis and allows your mind the possibility of trying again some time.  When we tell ourselves we can’t then we freeze up, limit ourselves and never venture into fear again. Allow yourself time to recover, tell yourself you are choosing security right now but you can always change your mind later. Take very small baby steps towards your fears and always praise yourself and give yourself tons of kudos for the small successes you have. There is a quote I want to share with you by Rae Smith, “Never be afraid to fall apart because it is an opportunity to rebuild yourself the way you wish you had been all along.” I wish the best for you.