You know when you’re flipping out because you’re really nervous about a job interview, and somebody says, “Don’t be nervous; you’ll do great!”?
So unhelpful, right? Right.
People don’t say it because they don’t like you, or because they’re trying to be unhelpful. They say it because they don’t know what else to say. Or because seeing your fear triggers their own, and they want to make that uncomfortable feeling go away — fast. Regardless, their assurance doesn’t do much good, because if you feel afraid, it’s for a good reason (regardless of whether or not that reason is logical).
Plus, believe it or not, you might not necessarily want to get rid of your fear, even if you could make it disappear in an instant.
Because fear is useful. Investigating exactly why you’re scared can help you to disassemble a bundle of unmanageable fear into smaller, more manageable chunks. By addressing each of those manageable chunks one by one, you’ll actually be able to prepare for the scary stuff. Eventually, you’ll be even more ready to take action than if you hadn’t felt scared to do the thing in the first place. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Let’s pretend that you’re getting ready to give a presentation at work, the first presentation you’ve ever given. You could try to hide from yourself the fact that you’re completely terrified of doing this new thing, not prepare much for it, and walk into the room on the dreaded day with no idea what to say and a satchel-full of uncomfortable silences.
Or, you could recognize you’re terrified, and you could sort out all the reasons why. Once you’re dealing with individual unknowns, instead of one giant ball of anxiety, you can actually do something to make the experience a little less panic-inducing. I’m not saying that the fear will be gone (most likely, it’ll still be right there with ya’). But you’ll have a better chance at doing a fabulous job, even though you’re scared, and that counts for a lot.
Here’s what this actually looks like in action:
Sticking with the example of giving your first presentation at work, you’ll first want to write down all the reasons this is terrifying. Write ‘em all down, no matter how silly they might seem. For instance, these might be some of the fears that pour out:
- I have no idea what I’m going to wear.
- I don’t know how long my presentation should be.
- I don’t know if I’m expected or able to use visual aids.
- I’m getting over a cold, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to speak loudly enough.
- I don’t feel comfortable speaking off the cuff.
- I don’t know how to pronounce that one French word.
Keep on listing the fears you have, until you can think of nothing more. If more occur to you later, you can always add to the list.
Next, you’ll want to address each item on the list, one by one.
- You don’t know what you’re going to wear.
Perfectly reasonable concern. (Actually, when I’m in front of an audience, outfit concerns usually comprise at least half of my total fear. Really truly.) So what are you going to wear? What do you feel comfortable in? What do you not feel comfortable in? What would make you feel good about standing in front of your colleagues? Work through these questions until you have an idea of what you’re going to wear, or even better, until you have your whole outfit hanging in your closet, wrinkle-free, ready for you to don.
- You don’t know how long your presentation should be.
Also an understandable concern, and one that’s easily solved. Find out how much time you have. Think about what presentation lengths work for you, as an audience member. Consider how much content you’d like to include. Once you know all the variables, you can make an educated guess about how long your presentation should be.
- You don’t know if you’re expected or able to use visual aids.
Ask. Then you’ll know, and you can move on to the next item on your list.
Keep on doing this until you feel really, really well prepared. Note that I didn’t say, “Keep doing this until you stop feeling scared.” That’s because it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll still feel scared, even once you’re prepared.
But there’s a recognizable difference between the way you felt before you engaged with the fear. The before feeling was one of panic, anxiety, maybe even desperation. The after feeling will include fear, but you won’t be immobilized by it. You now have preparation and information and practice to see you through the scary, and that makes all the difference when you step out onto a proverbial limb.
Now it’s your turn. What are you scared of right now, and how might you divvy up that fear so that you can allow yourself to break free of your paralysis?