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Monday, May 14, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Face Your Fears

Fear is a strong emotion. Although defined as an anxious concern, fear is often a very strong reality for many people and often impacts negatively on a person’s life of purpose.

As a child, I had interesting fears. Although most folks would probably describe me as a bold person who was full of courage and unafraid to charge ahead, in reality there are oftentimes when I have to work rather hard to convince myself to move forward. As I have written about before, it is easier for me to stay home than it is to attend a gathering that includes unknown people. Unless I am in a work or performance situation, I am very uncomfortable meeting new people in general.

As a child, this fear translated itself into the fear of buying something at a store. I did not mind going into the store, but I balked at having to actually make a purchase at the checkout counter. Often I would hover about the checkout area until all the other customers had left, and then I would venture forward with my purchases. I would not buy anything too compromising or private either; I preferred to let my mother do that shopping for me.

As an adult, this fear carried over and morphed into the fear of talking to someone unknown on the telephone. I recall my first assignment as a summer law clerk for a well-known law firm. The senior partner asked me to call an attorney in New York and find out some information. I did my best not to let on how terrified I was at the prospect of calling the other attorney. I spent 30 minutes thinking of every possible question the attorney might ask me and noting every possible piece of information I would need to get from the attorney before I made the call.

Too funny, you are probably thinking. Yes, it is, ha ha. This phone difficulty carried over into my law practice years later. Thankfully, caller ID took away a lot of the stress I had concerning the phone. Once I saw who was calling me, I could then choose to answer the phone or give myself a little time to consider the possible reasons the person would call me.

Fears come big and small, obvious and less than obvious. Our job, as mature adults and especially as teachers, is to identify (recognize) our fears and those of our students and to develop a plan to eliminate or reduce these fears.

A big, obvious fear is one that we easily recognize:
  • If I drive without a current vehicle inspection sticker, I am fearful that a policeman will discover this and give me a ticket.
  • I live in the country, and one neighbor has two pit bulls that roam out freely and unfettered into the street. If I run or if I walk my dogs on a leash, I am fearful that the pit bulls will chew me or maul one of my little dogs.
  • I have a student who is fearful of making a mistake. During these moments, he freezes up and cannot play.
  • I know people who are fearful of performing a task at a less than perfect level. These same people tend to procrastinate and never get started.

The smaller or less than obvious fears seem related to emotional baggage that we carry with us from our past. For example, those of us with perfectionist tendencies (fear of making a mistake, fear of failure) may be following through on an emotional pattern that a critical or demanding parent initiated in our childhood. Our workaholic tendencies may stem from our refusal to face squarely an unresolved emotional issue in our lives. Any addictive tendencies may also be signs that we are running away from a problem rather than trying to solve it.

Fear is a natural part of life. Fear is a useful tool in that it reminds us that something dangerous may be ahead and that we should take the appropriate precautions to prepare for the danger. The problem is when we allow ourselves to fear things that will diminish our quality of life rather than to address the fear and take the appropriate precautions to prepare for or eliminate it.

How can we recognize our fears? The bigger, more obvious fears are easy to spot. Anytime we have feelings of anxiety, butterflies in the pit of our stomachs, or elevated heartbeats, we can most likely assume that we are experiencing a big, obvious fear. We need to deal with these situations as quick as we can: swerve out of the path of the oncoming car, run to safety and lock the gate behind us, do the best preparation we can for the upcoming recital, or stop thinking or obsessing about how we might make a mistake and focus our thoughts on something else.

In the case of less obvious fears, I look for these sorts of subtle signs:
  • My thoughts keep returning repeatedly to the same issue. I keep mulling over something but never make any progress toward solving the issue.
  • I never quite finish something, despite my apparent best efforts to get it done.
  • I make excuses or find reasons not to do something that I know would be good or the right thing to do.

When it comes to knowing and facing fear, I rely on the RAP plan: reflection, awareness, and plan to overcome:
  • First, I spend reflection time somewhere in my day. It may be a time of prayer, writing, exercise, or even commuting in the car. I actively think about how fear may be a part of my life.
  • Next, I make myself aware of times when fear is part of my life, and I especially work to recognize when fear may have disguised itself as something else, such as a perfectionist tendency, a spate of crazy work responsibilities and scheduling, or the fear of meeting new people.
  • Finally, once I have identified a fearful tendency in my life, I write out a plan to overcome it. Just as our musical ability and skill is developed by practice, so is our ability to eliminate fear or at least to reduce it to manageable components.

I joined a new gym recently. The gym’s construction has just been completed, so the membership numbers have not yet swelled to make me uncomfortable about meeting new people. The fact that I can work out at all hours of the day or night is attractive to me, because I can avoid dealing with any fear about meeting new people. I have yet to work out at the gym when someone else was there. I still have to make myself go through the door in the first place, though, because someone might be there, and someone might come in during my workout. I am taking this process a step at a time.

The journey to eliminate unhelpful fears is an opportunity to discover things about ourselves, whether it is to learn about what we fear and possibly why we have the fear, or whether it is to discover much about our strength of purpose and our discipline based on how we decide to handle our fear. Let this week be an opportunity for all of us to make some discoveries about ourselves.

Happy Fearless Week!

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