A Coaching Power Tool Created by Jennifer FitzMaurice
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
I must not fear. 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 see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.― Frank Herbert, Dune
Everyone experiences the fear monster. That seemingly insurmountable beast that causes our palms to sweat, our hearts to race and our knees to shake. In some cases, fear is based on real and existing threats, and it serves to protect us and keep us safe from harm. Just one example is in not crossing a busy intersection until the light turns red, assuring us that it is now safe.
But often we carry fears about things that we believe to be true; things that we perceive will cause us pain, put us in danger or threaten us in some other way1. For example, we may wish to ask someone out on a date, but don’t for fear we will be embarrassed if he/she says no. Or hesitate to ask our boss for a raise for fear he/she will think we are presumptuous. When we hold onto these kinds of subjective emotions, we miss out on all sorts of positive possibilities.
Karl Albrecht suggests that “There are only five basic fears, out of which almost all of our other fears are manufactured. These five basic fears are: 2
- Extinction (e.g., fear of heights) – fear of annihilation, or of ceasing to exist.
- Mutilation (e.g., fear of spiders) – fear of losing any part of our bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function.
- Loss of Autonomy (e.g., fear of commitment) – fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or controlled by circumstances.
- Separation (e.g., fear of rejection)– fear of abandonment, rejection, or loss of connectedness – of becoming a non-person – not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else.
- Ego-death (e.g., fear of failure) – fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.
When we carry around fear and its related emotions like guilt, shame, or humiliation, we allow the fear monster to rule us, crippling our ability to achieve maximum satisfaction and happiness.
Doing a Google search on fear vs. fact turns up hundreds of references on how individuals or organizations are using facts and statistics to dispel common fears (e.g., pit bulls, nuclear power, menopause or flying). Facts are objectively real; they can be proven. There is truth behind them. Even the most apparent facts, however, may sometimes be hard for us to see or believe.
Tara Sophia Mohr suggests we ask, “Is it true?” Whatever the little voice of fear is saying, it’s probably not true. The fearful part of us is irrational and overprotective. It might be saying you are likely to fall flat on your face if you take a risk, or that no one will like your ideas. It might be saying that moving to a new city could ruin your children, or choosing the wrong job could wreak havoc on your life. When you hear fear-based thoughts, ask yourself, Is what this voice is saying true? or, in Byron Katie’s approach, Can I be absolutely sure that this thought is true? The answer to these questions — especially the latter one — is most often no.3
A variation on this approach is to ask yourself, What’s the worst that can happen? or So what?
These types of questions help you to bring the story to its logical end. When you do this, you will often find that what you imagine will happen is very unlikely to, or never will, happen. Or that if it does happen, you may find it is something you can manage.
The use of facts is a key tool in your fear-battling toolkit, still other strategies that will help you calm the fear monster include using visualization techniques, talking with others, digging deep to find the core of your fear, stepping into the fear, and acknowledging yourself when you’ve done so.
Self-Application: From Fear to Fact
Below are several techniques you can use to address subjective fears.
- Take a pause. Breathe deeply. Start by taking your mind inwards for a moment by focusing on the breath. Take a few gentle deep breaths, from the belly. In and out. Relax … Let go … Continue to concentrate on your breathing for as long as you wish. 4
- Practice mindfulness. Lie down with your eyes closed. Slowly scan up and down your body for tightness and soreness. If you find a tight spot, stop and breathe into it until it relaxes. You might also imagine a healing, white light radiating into the spot.4
- Become curious.Ask yourself, what are you afraid of? Ask the following questions to defuse the energy: Are these thoughts/stories true? How do I know they are true? What is the evidence to prove that they are true? Are they true all the time? Are there ever exceptions?5
- Challenge your fears. Replace fear-based internal dialogue with fact-based internal dialogue. Stop the chatter in your head and write down the exact words you are saying to yourself. This can be done in a minute or so. Often, you will find that you are projecting fear into the future about things that have not happened, or focusing on the past about things that cannot be changed.5
- Channel Fear into Productive Energy6. Instead of dwelling on the fear, and all of the reasons why you can’t move forwards towards your goal or desired state, brainstorm all the things you can do to change the situation. Pick one and try it out.
Bottom of Form
Early on in an enagement, one of my clients voiced a concern that was troubling them. They didn’t give it a tremendous amount of weight or airtime, but included it in the summary of their situation. My client was looking forward to a career change and setting up their own business, yet expressed concern with whether it would be successful and provide the financial stability needed to support their family. More than once, my client confessed to feeling quite risk-averse. This client was passionate about their new career direction and extremely active in laying out each of the necessary actions and relentlessly tackling each goal with gusto. Over the weeks we worked together, their fear regarding the viability of this new career choice would resurface from time to time. Drawing attention to the pattern, I asked whether they would actually put their family at risk. The answer, of course, was “no.” They had developed a strong business plan, tested their ideas with trusted colleagues, put aside savings, knew their limits, and appreciated that their risk aversion meant there would be appropriate guardrails on their choices. After talking it through, they were able to discard their subjective fears and emotions and replace them with objective facts and actionable plans, allowing them to move forward confidently with their dreams.
As a coach, you can use powerful questions to help clients uncover subjective fears and replace them with positive stories based on objective facts.
Examples of questions include:
- What are you afraid of?
- Are these thoughts/stories true?
- How do you know they are true?
- What is the evidence to prove that they are true?
- What evidence is there to the contrary?
- How are these fears holding you back?
- What thoughts/stories would serve you better?
You can ask what triggers them in particular, and then use the questions to help them to understand what they are fearful of and whether it’s a realistic fear. You can then talk about the inner “voice tape” that they may be continuing to play and how they can visualize shutting off the tape. This is a process where they build the strength (just like a muscle) to shut the tape off when they see the triggers.7
- What is the difference between a rational and an irrational fear?
- In what ways do you express fear? Physically? Emotionally?
- Write down any fears that hold you back from accomplishing your goals. How might you reframe them into positive stories?
- Have fears emerged as a limiting factor in any of your coaching sessions with clients?
- What strategies have you used to support your clients in identifying and discarding fears?
Online dictionary (www.oxforddictionaries.com)
Karl Albrecht, “The (only) five basic fears we all live by”, (Brain Snacks, 2012)
Tara Sophia Mohr , “5 Strategies for Dealing with Fear”, (Wise Living, 2014)
Editor, “MBSR: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction exercises” (The Mindful Word, 2012)
LuAnn Pierce, “Focusing on the Facts Can Help You Manage Anxiety and Fear”, (GoodTherapy.org, , 2013)
Isaiah Hankel , “7 ways to replace fear with Fortitude”, (The Blog of Isaiah Hankel, 2011)
Lynda French, Fear vs. Peace, (ICA Forum, 2014)