Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Frank Herbert, from Dune
In 1997, I appeared on a TV program in the UK called “Put it to the Test”. My challenge was to put the NLP Fast Phobia Cure to the test on national television. Three arachnophobics joined me in studio, hooked up to EEG and EKG machines by electrodes and monitored by two medical doctors. During the show they were shown a clear container which contained several tarantulas, and sudden increases in heart rate variability and electrical activity in the brain spiked off the monitors. I worked with them for approximately 30 minutes, at which point they were returned to studio, re-connected to the equipment, and once again exposed to the tarantulas. This time, their heart rate and brain activity remained near normal, even when the spiders were brought directly in front of their faces.
Despite the medical doctor’s amazement at the results, I wasn’t particularly surprised (relieved, yes! As I had seen the technique work hundreds of times before. What I found most interesting about the day happened before we began filming.
A few hours before we were due to go before the cameras, the volunteers were hooked up to the monitors for a dress rehearsal. A stage manager brought in the empty container in which the spiders would eventually be placed. As soon as the volunteers saw the empty container, their heart rates and brain activity spiked exactly as if the real spiders had been brought into the room. What was suddenly obvious was that they were not afraid of spiders – they were afraid of what they made up in their minds and bodies when they thought about spiders.
What I have come to see in my own experience and that of my clients is that this is not just true of phobias but of all fears:
You aren’t afraid of what you think you’re afraid of –
you’re afraid of what you think.
Since the source of 99% of fear is in your thinking, you can quickly and easily release your fear once you know how, without anything having to change in the world.
Here are seven strategies for releasing and overcoming the limitations of fear in your life. When I use one or more of them, I experience peace, passion, and power in my life; when I don’t, I experience fear, helplessness, and depression. It really is that simple!
1. Cultivate your curiosity
“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 1911, for reasons no one has ever been able to ascertain, a man appeared, naked and alone, in the foothills of Mt. Lassen in Northern California. With the help of two anthropologists from Berkely named Thomas Waterman and Alfred Kroeber, it was learned that he was the last remaining member of a once strong tribe of Native American Indians known as the Yana. Although accepting the friendship of the Westerners who took him in and gave him a home at the local University, he would never share his real name, and he became known as “Ishi”, which translated simply as “man”.
Having never before lived in what his benefactors called “civilization”, he was continually being introduced to things he had never before experienced. On his first visit to San Francisco, Ishi was taken to the Oroville train station. When the train approached, he walked quietly away from his travelling companions and stood behind a pillar. When they beckoned for him to join them, he strode forward and boarded the train.
Back at the University, he was asked by Kroeber about his strange behaviour at the train station. Ishi told him that when he was growing up, he and the members of his tribe would see the train pass through the valley. Watching it snaking along and bellowing smoke and fire, they thought it was a demon that ate people.
Amazed, Kroeber asked “How did you find the courage to get on the train if you thought it was a demon?”
Ishi replied, “My life has taught me to be more curious than afraid.”
2. Identify your hidden fears
If you know what to do to reach one of your goals but you’re still not doing it, chances are you’re afraid of something. Here’s a simple exercise from author Steven Scott which will assist you in identifying these “subtle and often time unconscious fears”. Choose an area of your life where you feel stuck. Then, ask yourself the following three questions:
1. What do I really want?
2. What obstacle or obstacles stand in my way?
3. What keeps me from confronting or attempting to overcome this obstacle?
For each fear that comes up in response to question 3., run it through the following questions to gain some valuable perspective:
1. What’s the worst that can happen if that which I fear came to pass?
2. What’s the best outcome possible for me or for others if I “felt the fear and did it anyway”?
3. What’s more likely to happen than either of those two things?
3. Recognize that it’s nearly always alright NOW
No matter how bad or painful we think something is going to be, life is almost always all right in the present moment. For much of our lives, what causes our pain and fear is in fact our expectation of further (and worse!) pain and fear in the future. By checking in with ourselves in any moment to see “is it all right now?”, we discover that invariably, the answer is a resounding “yes!”
As you develop your skill in staying present moment by moment, it can be a powerful experience to go back and revisit something which frightened you in the past with your new awareness. In fact, it has sometimes been recommended that you should try any potentially worthwhile activity at least three times – once to learn how to do it, a second time to get over the fear of doing it, and a third time to figure out whether or not you actually enjoy it!
4. Stop looking to fear to save you
As children, we are taught to fear things in order to keep us safe. Rather than take the time to explain the dangers and subtle nuances of a vast uncharted world, our well-meaning parents and guardians pass on a sort of ‘shorthand of fear’ in an effort to ensure our survival. We then naturally inherit the nearly global assumption that fear is what keeps us safe.
In fact, as Zen teacher Cheri Huber points out, “Intelligence is what keep us safe… what would be helpful is for someone to explain it all – not as if the child is stupid or careless or headed for disaster – but simply by way of giving information to someone who doesn’t have it.”
Former Navy Seal Richard Machowicz puts it like this:
“Fear is not a true indicator of danger, evaluated experience is… It’s a given that fear exists for every one of us. But never for a moment think that if you’re afraid of something, that fear is somehow a warning and will save you. Good evaluation of past experiences makes for good decisions, period. And it’s good decisions that will save you.”
I remember the first day this really made sense to me on a visceral level. I was waiting to cross a busy road, stepping back involuntarily whenever a car whizzed by, when I realised I didn’t have to be afraid of being hit by a car to not step out into the road. I could take care of myself in this way simply because I wanted to and knew how to – I no longer needed fear to help me do it.
5. Do at least one thing you’re scared of doing every single day
“You must do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.”
I will always remember my very first parachute jump. On the day of the jump, we went down to the aerodrome, had two minutes of basic training, two hours of waiting, and then into an open-bellied plane. As we gradually climbed higher and higher to our “cruising altitude” of ten thousand feet, it occurred to me that although what I was about to do was considered “risky”, I had probably never been safer in an airplane before. (Usually the parachutes are stowed underneath your seat – this time it was already on my back!)
It wasn’t until the moment of jumping, as I looked out of the plane at the vast expanse of unknown sky and cloud below me, that I realized that this was in fact not a new experience – that in fact, jumping out of airplanes was something I’ve done my whole life. Sure enough, there was that familiar jolt of adrenaline as I considered what I was about to do. Next, the almost invisible moment of decision, the head-long, out of control rush to the edge, and much as I wish it had been otherwise, falling more than jumping head first into the void.
Once I got used to the speed of freefall, the parachute kicked in, and soon, I was able to control my descent, aim for the landing site, and enjoy the view as I floated effortlessly towards my target. I also had time to reflect on the experience.
Because we are conditioned to think our fear will keep us safe, we often treat it as a ‘red light’ – a signal from our bodies that we should stop. By taking time every day to do at least one thing which is a little bit scary for us, we are reconditioning ourselves to see fear as a ‘green light’ and developing courage, the muscle of the heart.
We are then free to follow the advice of Sir Laurence Olivier, who responded to young Albert Finney’s question of how to deal with nerves by saying “Do what I do, dear boy – amaze yourself with your own daring!”
6. Connect with your inner mentor
“If we can become for ourselves the mentor we always wished we had,
then everything in life becomes an exciting adventure.”
What if you had someone in your life who would walk with you every step of your path, love you unconditionally, and support you no matter what, even when you were “wrong”? What if you felt absolutely safe and cared for and loved and approved of and watched over? Would you be more willing to take on a challenge? To take on the world? To take on your life?
Your inner mentor is that part of you who is always present, always loving, always kind, and always there for you. If you haven’t met them yet, take a few moments now to guide yourself through this exercise…
1. Relax your body and allow yourself to become fully present – seeing these words, hearing the sounds around you, and feeling what you feel.
2. Now imagine you are sending love into every part of your body – your toes, your eyes, your thighs, your nose – go through every part of your body until you are tingling from head to toe.
3. The part of you that is able to give yourself love is your inner mentor. As you practice spending time with yourself in this way, you will find your fear begins to disappear and new possibilities become available to you.
7. Prepare to die
“No one is truly free who is afraid to die.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
On most people’s list of empowering beliefs to live by, “We’re all going to die” doesn’t make the top ten, or even the top fifty. Yet for me, this is one of the most motivating and inspiring concepts in the world.
You see, if we’re all going to die, and we don’t know when, then it would only make sense to live each moment fully. If we’re all going to die, and we don’t even know when, then what would be the point in engaging in activities that brought us no rewards along the way but might one day get us something that we want? If we’re all going to die, and none of us knows exactly when that will be, wouldn’t it naturally follow that we would want to make provisions for our loved ones and family?
Several years ago, I stood atop the then standing World Trade Center in New York and got a terrifying jolt of vertigo. I closed my eyes, took several deep breaths, and reminded myself that I was going to die anyway – the only question was when. Bizarrely, rather than increase my fear, reminding myself of my own mortality completely eliminated the fear. From that point on, I was able to walk around the observation deck and look out over the city with a feeling of ease and grace.
In some ways, all fear stems from the fear of death. Follow the ‘ladder of fear’ down rung by rung (and what are you afraid would happen if your fear came to pass? And what are you afraid would happen if that came to pass? etc), and you will inevitably find yourself bumping up against your own eventual demise.
By making peace each morning with the fact that today might be our last, we ironically free ourselves up during the day to truly live…
Have fun, learn heaps, and as former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his inaugural address to a nation struggling with financial depression and the threat of war:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”