Research Paper By Cheri Tibbs-Voellmann
(Executive & Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Fear is a normal emotion that is part of the human experience. However, one must move through it and into action if one is to grow and succeed in their goals. Eddie Rickenbacker, a famed WWI fighter pilot once said
Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage without fear.
In doing so, he verified that despite his daring during the war and the bold life he led outside of the war, he wasn’t without fear, instead he found a way to push through and discover his courage within. Supporting and motivating clients through this process of getting from fear to action will greatly increase a client’s chances of success and enable them to develop skills that will be of help for the rest of their lives. What are some ways in which a coach can support a client through this process?
First, it helps to understand what fear is. Fear wears many faces, two of which are instinctual fears and the fears associated with real danger or threat. The amygdala portion of the brain works to keep us alive and holds a primary function of processing our fear. One of its tools to keep us safe is biologically creating risk aversion. Risk aversion can work to keep an individual safe; however, it can also over reach its purpose and keep one in inaction. This leads to the type of fears that require a paradigm shift in which a coach can assist. These inactions center around conditioned fears and beliefs often connected to comfort and security.
Understanding some fundamental behavior and learning principles can be of help in one’s coaching practice when it comes to working with a client in overcoming their fears. Some basic definitions of a few of the behavior concepts addressed herein have been included at the end of this document along with scenario examples of the concept.
The desire for safety and security underlies many of the fears that we have. Uncertainty as to what is going to happen and if one were able to handle it can very often be at the heart of the fears people have about the unknown future. People may have stories of fears to support their behaviors as a way of keeping themselves in a place of comfort and security. The fears which people use for these stories are ones that they have learned through conditioning starting during their childhood and now carry into their adult life either in the form of fear itself or in the beliefs which support those fears. Another place people’s fears come from, that support staying in a place of security, is in generalization and higher-order conditioning where one fear can expand into different areas of life simply through a perceived similarity to a fear or belief that one already has.
Often times, people don’t even realize that there is a fear effecting their behavior because its underlying in the sub consciousness. However, there are clues in the client’s language, stories of perception and behaviors that allow opportunities for further exploration. Some clues may be living in-authentically and not in alignment with values and goals, needing control in an attempt to decrease uncertainty, self-sabotaging type behaviors like behaving contrary to their conscious goals, the use of repeated excuses to procrastinate or avoid action toward goals and perfectionism that keeps one from moving forward.
Though fear is a normal process of growth, and most people can admit to having all of these behaviors at one time or another, some people’s fear is so great that a coach may need to refer a client to a therapist. Sometimes when that may be necessary is if the fear is excessive, unreasonable, disabling, causes significant distress, long lasting or simply unable to move past when it is their desire to do so.
In his book On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers talks of a man’s tendency to actualize and become his potentialities by expanding, extending and developing. The tipping point from where fear goes from being a normal human emotion into being an obstacle to one’s goals, is when fear gets in the way of a person’s desire to actualize in the way of their conscious choice and instead turns into avoidance of expansion and growth. This avoidance of growth comes in the form of avoidance of action. One must face their fears in order to overcome them, and that means getting to a place of action. The learning that comes from the action is where the growth and expansion can occur.
There are many different ways coaches can support clients in the process of getting from fear to action. One of the first steps would be using the coaching tools to bring a client to awareness of fear that may be keeping them in inaction. Often this can be a hard learning or admittance for a client and may leave them feeling uncomfortable. Avoidance is a perfectly regular response to fear and is a survival coping skill that is innate. One feels safe in their comfort zones and sees the risk of the unknown outside these zones so it is normal to have some feelings of fear while working towards expanding these zones. If clients can re-frame and step back to view their fear without judgment, while seeing them as normal, and as a clue, they may feel more comfortable working on moving from fear to action.
Additional Coaching tools that may aid in supporting a client’s moving from fear to action
Beyond the release of burden one can experience when understanding that their feelings are a normal part of the process, is the learning that there is a real benefit in the acceptance of the unknown and releasing some beliefs that put strict rules on the right and wrong of one’s experiences. This viewpoint allows one to be open to more opportunities as well as easing some of the significance of fear. Not only does this make a more comfortable environment in which to see and acknowledge fears and the ways they limit a person, it can potentially bring about some lightness and fun into the process of moving through the fear and into action. Viewing their fear through the lens of curiosity may be a great way to explore this mindset as it may switch a belief of,
I’m afraid to… into, I wonder what will happen if I….
A willingness to explore and challenge one’s negative thinking may be a necessary part of overcoming one’s fears. Byron Katie says that it’s not our thoughts themselves, but our attachment to our thoughts which causes ones suffering. As mentioned previously, fear creates a behavior of avoidance, however, when one can get into a place of greater lightness and able to find some joy and pleasure, they may be more willing to trymore exploratory or novelty seeking behaviors that could support their goal of moving into action. This may open up a space in which a coach and client can work together on exploring and re-framing negative thinking.
Mindset is incredibly important in this process as moving through fear requires a real commitment to the process of overcoming. A client has to want to make this difference in their lives, make the choices needed to work through the fear, be willing to challenge themselves and build the habits of their brand new chosen way of being. Just like the learning of any new skill or creation of any new habit, one can expect fits and starts along the way and clear declarations of one’s commitment can be a support resource when the going gets tough.
As a client works to challenge their fears and feel solid in their commitment, their ability to trust themselves in the future when such feelings arise will increase. As this trust in their ability to push through the fear increases, so will their confidence, and they will be more willing to learn from imperfect action. As confidence grows thus may the willingness of a client to live boldly by learning to enjoy the challenge of leaning into their fears.
It’s important to be aware that there is a physiological element to fear as well. When one experiences fear, the body is designed to automatically protect itself, and prepare it for fight or flight in the face of a perceived danger. When this occurs, our system gets flooded with neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and cortisol to give us an extra surge of energy and strength to increase our ability to protect itself from the danger. We can often feel this in the form of a fast beating heart or shakiness. However, the types of fears being addressed here are not actual dangers and therefore, one can have an increased level of hormones and neurochemicals for fear that are not needed or healthy in those circumstances.
Techniques to decrease the neurochemicals created through fear and increasing neurochemicals more inline with the client’s goal of moving past the fear may be an additional tool to support the client. Practices and techniques that could increase the calming neurotransmitter serotonin or the neurotransmitters associated with joy, motivation and confidence may serve a couple of purposes. The first is to support a client at the time of a perceived fear feel more confident or aid them to calm themselves when needed. The second is to help develop the feelings of calmness and joyful confidence even during times when there is no fear.
The science of neurobiology is quite complex but understanding that our neurotransmitters can have an effect on our emotions and energy, and therefore, our actions can be of help. Even more helpful is understanding the process works the other way as well. Our actions, energy and emotions can alter our neurotransmitters. Such practices your client may enjoy to that could increase these types of neurotransmitters might be acknowledging and rewarding themselves for their actions, spending time on joyful activities, gratitude, meditations, breathing exercises, visualizations and affirmations.
Even when one isn’t feeling in a place of courage yet, there are many actions that one can take to aid them in moving through their fear and giving courage a fertile ground in which to grow. One such action is in breaking down large future goals into tiny pieces of action. One may feel overwhelmed or fearful when viewing the goal as a whole. They can use chipping away at the fear and actions by taking one small step at a time as a means to build forward momentum. This allows them to do what they can with who they are in that moment.
Similar to positive thinking mentioned above, is language. The language one uses can change the lens one views their experiences as well as interacts with those around them. While it’s important to have awareness and admit to fears as a means of gaining courage by seeing the truth in them. It’s also influential, if one chooses to transform into a different way of being in connection to their fears, to change their language into something that is supportive of the direction in which they want to grow. Something as simple as changing “I can’t because…” into, “I can because….” can be very powerful.
As previously mentioned, actions such as meditating, deep breathing, a practice of gratitude, etc. can be very assistive in how one builds supportive thinking but also in the invisible way of altering one’s neurochemicals to a calming more joyful state. Similar to this way of tricking our bodies into altering its state is to alter one’s body language. Just a couple of minutes in a more open body position instead of a closed body position can alter one’s hormones and give rise to feelings of confidence.
Physical activity in general, such as going for a walk, can support one in decreasing stress hormones and allow one to keep a healthier state both physically and mentally as they work on their fear.
People who are working through the challenge of moving fear into action can be greatly supported by creating a support team. Their coach is one person on their support team, and the client is another. The client can develop many systems of support for them selves, such as affirmations, creating new habits and structures to support their goals. Journaling or blogging can also support one’s journey as they move from fear to action and supports acknowledging the learning that is occurring. One can even decrease fear by watching others do what they are working toward doing. In addition to their coach and themselves one can look to other people such as friends or family to be part of their support team.