During high school, social anxiety was my biggest demon. I was objectively terrified of any situation that required me to be in the spotlight.
Naturally, dancing in front of other people was pretty high up on my list of fears. In the rare instances where I found myself at a party, school dance, or concert, I avoided the dance circle at all costs.
I can’t count how many times I’d look around and see people having the time of their lives and wish that I had just a little more courage.
As high school was coming to an end, it was time for our senior prom. Our school had rented out the convention center at a pretty swanky hotel, which meant there was plenty of space for all of the students to dance their hearts out.
I remember feeling a sense of dread as the dinner portion of the night was coming to a close. The prom was about to transition into a dancing free-for-all, and my social anxiety was in full effect.
I stayed at the dinner table with my friend for the first couple of songs, and then I proceeded to do something completely out of character. For some reason, I decided to spring onto the dance floor and insert myself right in the middle of the dance circle.
And for the next two hours, I danced furiously to every single song that was played, regardless of the genre.
And guess what? Nothing bad happened.
When I looked around the room, I saw teachers that knew me by name with big smiles on their faces. My friends joined the fun and egged me on during every song. My energy seemed to rub off on everyone else around me.
Every single minute of that night felt like an out of body experience, and it’s one that I’ll never forget as long as I live.
Fast forward to today, and my fear of dancing in public is a thing of the past. If you were to ask any of my friends, they’ll tell you that I have zero fear of dancing in a crowded venue full of people I’ve never met.
During that night of my senior prom, I learned two things. First, I learned that I was actually a decent dancer when presented with the opportunity to shine.
But second, and much more importantly, I learned that everything is scary until you do it.
Why Do We Feel Fear?
The first thing to understand about fear is that it’s vital for our survival. If we were incapable of feeling fear, we’d do all sorts of dangerous things that would jeopardize our lives.
The primary aim of our species is to pass on our genes. In the context of human evolution, those of us who feared the right things were the ones who lived long enough to do this.
We don’t face the same dangers as our ancestors. We’re not going to run into wooly mammoths on our way to work, but that instinct to protect ourselves from danger is still alive and well.
You feel fear anytime your brain senses danger, and that danger doesn’t need to be life threatening for us to experience intense emotions.
- A man who is socially anxious will feel their heartbeat accelerate rapidly when they see an attractive girl that they want to talk to.
- A woman who is terrified of public speaking will feel a giant lump in their throat when they get the news that they have to give a presentation in front of twenty people.
- Someone who has arachnophobia will feel a shiver down their spine when they see a photo of a large spider.
None of these stimuli are life threatening, but our brains see them as such because the fear response is innately primitive. It’s so deeply ingrained that we may experience the physical symptoms of a life/death scenario in situations where the stakes are much lower.
How Fear Leads To Self-Sabotage
When it comes to the things that you are afraid of, you really only have two options — you either face them or you avoid them.
The first option fortifies you, and turns you into a self-confident person that can handle stress, achieve abundance, and live a fulfilling life.
The second option makes you weak, and turns you into the kind of person who always feels like there’s something missing from their life.
Most people choose option two, and spend the rest of their life wondering how to feel alive and excited again.
Each time we betray our deepest values and choose avoidance instead of courage, we give our brain evidence that we’re not strong enough to handle fear. Once our brain has accumulated enough evidence, we form internal beliefs that directly contradict the kind of person we want to become.
How To Systematically Overcome Your Fears
“The thing that’s so interesting about being alive is that you’re all in. This is gonna kill you. So I think you might as well play the most magnificent game you can while you’re waiting…because do you have anything better to do?” ~ Jordan Peterson
This is one of my favorite Jordan Peterson quotes because it serves as a great reminder that we’re all going to leave this earth at one point or another.
Have you ever watched people who are nearing the end of their life respond to the question, “What are your biggest regrets?”
They talk about the business they never started, or the marriage they held onto for too long. They talk about the places they never got to see and the friends that they should’ve kept in touch with.
Put simply, they talk about the things that they wish they had the courage to do.
We’ve talked a lot about fear up to this point, so now let’s talk about how you can overcome your fears and stop feeling lost in life.
The first step to overcoming your fears is to identify them. Now like everyone else, you’re probably afraid of a lot of things.
Simply listing out what you’re afraid of won’t help you. Focusing your energy on the specific fears stopping you from being happy will.
- What’s the number one fear that’s responsible for me feeling unfulfilled?
- In which specific situations is fear stopping me from doing the things that I want to do?
Each of us has moments throughout the day where fear prevents us from taking positive action.
Maybe it’s the moment where you see an attractive person you want to approach but don’t do so out of fear of rejection. Maybe it’s the moment where you feel the urge to speak up in a meeting, but don’t due to fear of judgment.
Whatever your struggles are, identify the fears that are primarily responsible for the situation than you find yourself in.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to address them. We all know that overcoming fears requires consistent exposure to them. Fear is not something that you can simply think through, you need to give your brain new evidence by taking action.
It’s through this repeated exposure that your brain learns that what you’re afraid of isn’t so bad after all. Gradual exposure in the form of comfort zone challenges will lessen the heightened emotions that you experience in response to certain stimuli.
In order to overcome your fears, you’re going to be using a fear ladder. A fear ladder breaks your specific fear into levels, each of which correspond to how easy or hard a specific action is for you.
Here’s an example of what a fear ladder might typically look like:
Primary Fear: Showing interest in & talking to women
- Level 1 (very little fear): Holding eye contact
- Level 2 (mild fear): Nodding and verbally saying “hello”
- Level 3 (getting pretty scary): Hold eye contact + say “hello, how are you?” as an attractive woman walks by.
- Level 4 (Very, very afraid): Go up to a girl that you don’t know + compliment their outfit, looks, etc, and then walk away.
- Level 5 (Terrified): Go up to a girl that you don’t know + give a compliment + introduce yourself
- Level 6 (Sheer panic): Go up to a girl that you don’t know + give them a compliment + introduce yourself and try to hold a conversation for as long as possible.
This closely resembles the fear ladder that I used to systematically overcome my fear of talking to women and become a more confident, social person.
When using a fear ladder to work on your own fears, the key to success is to not rush the process. Don’t just complete a level and then move on to the next one. You must get comfortable at a certain level before moving onto the next one.
When the fear you experience before action is minimal or non-existent, then you know that you can proceed to the next level. On the other hand, if you’re still feeling quite nervous within a specific level, then it’s probably best you stay put.
It might take you a week, two weeks, or even a month for a certain behavior to feel natural.
Don’t worry, that’s completely fine. Facing your fears is a marathon, not a sprint. The people you look up to got to where they are because they learned how to be consistent.
It doesn't matter how many times you’ve let fear win up to this point in your life. On any given day, you’re always capable of forward progress, even if it’s small.
Make tomorrow the day that you commit to creating a fear ladder and overcoming the single biggest fear that’s been holding you back. If you have the courage to start small and take consistent action, you’ll be amazed at just how different of a person that you can become.
About the Author
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