I recently reached out to the readers of this blog and those that follow me on Facebook seeking an answer to a very specific question. I was curious as to the reasons we all have for staying in roles in our life or career that no longer suit us. I admittedly had a couple of hunches what some of the results would be, but one of the important things I’ve learned doing this work is that I really don’t know until I ask the question (and I’m always surprised by what I hear back). After the results poured in, I pulled them apart, one-by-one, and something interesting jumped out at me.
Over 75% of people mentioned the word fear as a major motivator to avoid change, even though many reported feeling miserable, disconnected, and like they were living someone else's life.
I was floored. Over 75%? The other thing that surprised me, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence, was that roughly the same percentage knew not just what they would rather be doing, but knew it would be more powerful, meaningful, and more consistent with their personal goals. But still, a drop of this fear and POOF: the dream was gone. And, boy oh boy, there was a lot of fear mentioned: fear of failure, success, criticism, embarrassment, financial loss, not being perfectt, having to crawl back to a job you hated AFTER you failed, etc. (the list went on). So I wanted to air the dirty laundry that we’re all carrying around and break down this thing called fear.
What Is Fear?
WE CAN DIVIDE INTO TWO CATEGORIES: reasonable fear, and unreasonable fear. First, there are some very reasonable fears that are present in our lives. We could be experiencing a serious illness or a train could be barreling down the tracks straight at us. Like, real death stuff for ourselves or someone we love. However, most of our day-to-day fears are a lot more on the unreasonable side, so this is where we're going to dig deep. Unreasonable fears are fueled not by a fear of physical harm, but by acute feelings of otherness, destabilization, groundlessness, and instability. To sum that up, it’s our sense of self, which is this constructed thing that gets us from one second to the next, that is feeling threatened.
It's important to note that, in and of itself, fear doesn’t actually act. It has no moves for the dance floor. But what it does provide is energy for whatever the next action may be that will put some ground under your feet when you feel it pulled out from under you. And, how THAT plays out, is a study in human nature that you may recognize.
How we React to Fear:
1) Anger and lashing out (fight)
2) Running and avoiding (flight)
3) Grasping or fixating onto an idea or theory that will give you a sense of protection and structure. (Obsessing)
So this is what we’re all working with all the time: constantly trying to place this ground under our feet to give us a sense of order and safety and control in this world. As I did more and more research into this, I saw how this was something that was so clear in my own life. Defensiveness, confrontation avoidance, and desperately trying to connect the dots on a Grand Unifying Theory of, well, anything - it's all there in my life. But what can we do about it?
How to Work with Fear.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE, most powerful quotes, is by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.”
It's so simple, it's almost too simple. While we're all so busy trying to push ground underneath these difficult groundless moments by reacting, or running, or trying to make it all make sense, it's so clear in that moment we're running up against SOMETHING. You can feel the effort that this all takes. It's exhausting. And, the reason it all feels like a fight that's based in some sort of grasping desperation, is because there is no ground to even begin with. The thing we're doing to try to make ourselves feel better is literally the thing that is making us feel worse. It's all in an effort to make these uncomfortable moments more bearable in the short-term so we can just get through it, but it takes us away from true resolution. It prevents us from developing the muscle to just be able to withstand what life throws our way. So, giving up that idea that there IS ground is your first and your last step. Just give it up, knowing that the fruitless practice of trying to create ground where there is none only creates more misery, more fear, and leaves you less prepared for what you run up against in the world.
Being in the groundless, fear-filled space, and just experiencing it, can be one of our greatest teachers. It's not about fixing anything because there isn't anything that's broken. It's about listening to it and asking yourself: what truth am I avoiding here? What might I have to give up in order to just breathe right now? What am I really REALLY afraid of? And, finally, what's really important here?
Something to think about, for sure. Most of us, unless we're very wise or are the reincarnation of a monk, have a lifetime of behavioral habits crashing up against this practice. But, practice we must if we're to move towards a place free of fear where we can focus on the big picture.