“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 job, our 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