People often seek therapy to help mitigate fear or discomfort. No wonder. Being on the back end of the life spiral is not much fun. However, did you know that pain and discomfort are precursors to growth? Let's explore this together.
Each of us was born with an instinctive drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain--both real or imagined. As cave dwellers, the latter kept us from getting eaten by predators whilst out foraging for bison and berries. So let's be grateful for that!
Times eventually changed and so did our brains. However, the part of the brain that is responsible for logic and reasoning (frontal cortex) is located nowhere near the part where primal fear occurs, (amygdala). Thus, many of us today struggle to accurately interpret fear.
Sometimes fear is meant to notify us of imminent danger. However, it is more common to experience fear in the absence of a true threat. Fear in the absence of danger is called "anxiety." Anxiety would have us believe there is a tiger in the grass when, really, there is no tiger.
Because fear can be quite convincing, many of us choose to mitigate it with avoidance, even when the feared stimulus is (somewhat) neutral, like dogs, conflict, bridges, public speaking, or peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of your mouth (yes, that really is a phobia).
The imagined equation looks like this: fear + avoidance = relief.
However, what most of us don't know is that avoidance actually increases the likelihood that we will experience more fear the next time we encounter the feared stimulus. And what coping strategy are we most likely to use to handle this fear? You guessed it: avoidance!
So, the real equation looks more like this: fear + avoidance = self-doubt + more fear + future avoidance.
This is not how most of us want our lives to add up!
I once observed an interaction between a mother and her teenaged son, the latter of whom struggled with social anxiety (i.e., an excessive fear of being judged, scrutinized, or criticized in social situations). The son decided he wanted pizza for dinner and, when it came time to call in the order, the mother automatically assumed she was the best candidate for the job. When I asked why her son couldn't order his own pizza, she was gobsmacked. "He has anxiety!" she exclaimed. As if I was the one with problem for asking. The loving mother could not see how this kind of "protection" deprived her son of the option to know his own strength by challenging his fear.
The taproot of all anxiety is the fear of temporary discomfort. For example, if the boy would have phoned in his own order, the worst case scenario was that he would have felt awkward or uncomfortable for a little while. Discomfort, like any other transitory emotional state, is felt and then released. No one has ever died of discomfort. But many have regretting not having fully lived!
Avoiding what we fear is a way of whispering"I can't do it!" into our unconscious minds. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we allow fear to drive our decisions, the smaller our worlds become. The next time you feel gripped by anxiety, try this:
1. Name your fear. Say out loud exactly what you are afraid of. Sometimes we can deflate fear just by hearing it spoken aloud in our own words.
2. Ask yourself: "What might happen if I do ___?" Ask yourself what the consequences would be if you challenged your fear. If the answer is anything that resembles, "I will feel awkward, uncomfortable, look stupid, etc." tell yourself this: "From now on, I choose to live in the light. I am reclaiming strength and joy in my life."
3. Ask yourself: "What might happen if I don't do ___?" What opportunity for growth would you be missing if you chose to avoid this fear? Remember, the temporary relief afforded by avoidance is a prequel to more fear and self-doubt. You deserve better!
4. Go for it! Your confidence is hiding, just beyond your fear of discomfort. Doing what you fear is the only way to access it. Why deprive yourself of feeling capable? (Hint: there is no good answer to this question.)
5. Pay attention to your feelings. As you live by this new creed, pay attention to how you feel. It is okay if things do not turn out perfectly every time. Perfect is the enemy of the good enough. The most important thing is that you tried. So keep trying!
Remember that courage is not the absence of fear--it is what happens when we feel afraid and do it anyway. Each step away from fear is a step toward confidence. You are creating the life you deserve by showing yourself that YOU are stronger than fear!
Not sure you want to try this alone? Email me to find out how you can kick fear to the curb!
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and writer. She offers dating consultation and counseling services in Seattle, WA.
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Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and writer whose therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of Seattle, Washington. She has been providing counseling and dating consultation services since 2000.