Have you ever let fear stop you from doing something you really wanted to do? Did fear stop you from taking the next step in your personal growth, your relationships, your career, or your connection with Hashem?
While speaking in communities across the world and coaching numerous clients, the number one response I get when I ask people what they are struggling with is something along the lines of “I’m scared.” Fear is one of the biggest dream killers. Some are scared of failing, others are scared of what their friends or family will think, while others are scared of succeeding and not being ready or able to handle the weight of it all.
Beyond observing the impact that fear has had on other people’s lives, I know the impact it has had on my own life. For what seemed like forever, I let fear stop me from striving after my dreams and goals, I let it cripple my vision, I let it shackle me to stagnancy. I used to be terrified of public speaking, so I turned down the big invitations. I used to be scared of creating genuine and deep relationships, so I pushed off dating. I used to fear not being good enough for everyone else, so I never shared my thoughts or published my content. Learning about the underlying principles of fear, through both research and experience, allowed me to transform my own life and the lives of countless others. My goal in this article is to share the essential tools and strategies that you can implement to confront and overcome your fears, with the hope that this will help unleash you from a life governed by fear and help launch you towards your true greatness. At the end of our lives, we don’t want to look back and wonder “what if I had learned how to overcome my fears.” So, let’s start journeying towards our greatness together.
The Truth About Fear
The strange truth about fear is that most fears are not based on reality. On the one hand, there is rational fear of danger, pain, and death, such as the fear of heights when walking along a cliff edge. The fear of falling off the cliff to your death is a rational, healthy, and productive fear. But most fear is a matter of perception, such as the fear of uncertainty or vulnerability, or the fear of taking risks and getting outside of our comfort zone. Fear can also be read as an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real” – fear is often a misrepresentation or illusory view of reality.
There’s a story of a man who took a roundabout route home from work each day. Why? There was a bulldog that lived on the direct route, and he was terrified of it; every time he walked by that house, the bulldog would bark ferociously, and several times it had even chased him. He was so scared of being bitten by those sharp, angry teeth that he designed his entire life around avoiding that house. After three years of this tiresome routine, it all came to an end one fateful night. After a long and stressful day, his head still focused on his work, he found himself walking right past the bulldog. One look at the bulldog, and everything became a blur. He ran as fast as he could, but the horrendously loud barking got louder and louder, and he could feel the bulldog gaining ground. Tired and out of breath, panting and wheezing, he bent down and held onto his knees. As he turned around, he saw the bulldog getting ready to pounce. He awaited the painful impact of teeth to skin, beast to prey. But it never came. All he felt was a warm, wet, slurping sensation; the “beast” was licking him. And as he looked more closely, he nearly passed out. Not only wasn’t the dog biting him; it couldn’t. This ferocious bulldog didn’t have a single tooth. All these years, he was running away from a toothless dog!
This is the essence of fear: a toothless bite. We create unimaginably terrifying images in our own mind and then direct our entire lives around the goal of avoiding a bite that has no teeth, no sting. Fear is often an excuse we make to remain inside our limited comfort zone – and when we make excuses for our limitations, we get to keep them. The key is recognizing that fear is a mental construct that we create; it’s an illusion that we generate within ourselves. Once we begin to confront our inner fears, we realize that fear was simply a cage holding us back from our greatness. And as soon as we have this eye-opening revelation, overcoming a life-long fear that we thought was legitimately holding us, we begin to wonder: “What else am I holding myself back from? What else have I convinced myself I can’t do?”
Two Types of Fear
Before developing strategies for overcoming our fears, which we will discuss in the next column, we need to understand the two main categories of fear. Because fear is internally generated, breaking down the two different types of fear can help us see what we personally allow our minds to grasp onto. The first type of fear is outcome-oriented, the second type is process-oriented.
In contrast to process-oriented fears, outcome-oriented fears relate to the destination or final result. For example, we may fear that we are not capable of accomplishing our goal; or, we may fear what other people will think of us if we strive after our goal; or, we may fear that even if we accomplish our goal, perhaps our goal wasn’t even worth striving for in the first place. Let’s delve more deeply into some of the most common outcome-oriented fears. Identifying and understanding these three specific fears will give you tools for identifying and understanding which outcome-oriented fears you struggle with most.
1 – Self-Doubt
So many of us struggle with self-doubt. Whenever we consider setting a new goal, entering a new relationship, or beginning a new project, we often question ourselves and whether our vision is possible. Often, the first thought that goes through our mind is, “Who am I kidding? Am I really capable of this?” We all struggle with self-doubt to some degree; we question ourselves and doubt our capabilities. We’re scared of failure, convincing ourselves that we’re not capable of succeeding, that we don’t have the tools or strength to accomplish our goals.
We also get so overwhelmed by all the moving pieces, all the various ingredients that we’ll need to succeed, and all the unknowns. We often don’t have the self-confidence to venture into the unknown, out of our comfort zone, and risk failing along the way to our ultimate greatness.
2 – Public Perception
In addition to self-doubt, we also worry about our public image. We begin pondering what other people will think of us. What will our friends, parents, our spouse say? If I fail, what will they think of me? If I succeed, what will this mean for our relationship? If I go down this road and give it my all, will this change how they see me?
There’s a famous Seinfeld joke: According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means that the average person who goes to a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
Why are people so terrified of public speaking? A large part of it is self-doubt. We have an overwhelming fear of messing up, forgetting what we prepared and drawing a blank, and feeling foolish. But our deeper fear lies in the very fact that we are going to be judged by everyone. When a person gets up to speak in public, the spotlight is on him (or her), and he is sharing “himself” with the audience. Everyone in the audience is listening, watching, judging, assessing the person who’s speaking. The moment we step out on the stage and open our mouth, everyone will see who we are, what goes on in our head, our opinions, our thoughts. And for most, the idea of being seen by everyone is unbearable, the thought of being so vulnerable is unthinkable, because it brings our public image, and our inner identity, into question.
3 – Disappointment
Beyond the fear of failure and vulnerability, many of us fear disappointment. When we know how much time, energy, and effort it will take to strive after our dreams, we tend to hear this small voice in the back of our mind ask, “Is it really worth it? What if after all of this, I actually succeed, but it’s not as good as I thought? What if I don’t like the outcome? What if the grass isn’t greener on the other side?” This thought can be paralyzing, because the underlying drive behind our journey to greatness is the belief that our destination – our goal, our future – is better than our current state. The moment we begin doubting the quality and value of our dream, we risk destroying it from its very roots.
In addition to questioning the value of our dream, we might also question our ability to handle it if we manage to succeed. After all, what if we’re not cut out for greatness? What if the responsibility is too great, and the pressure crushes us? How are we supposed to know if we’re capable of handling it?
In addition to fearing the outcome of our journey, we also tend to fear the journey itself; the day-in and day-out process or steadily improving ourselves and working towards our goals. The moment we begin thinking about our dreams, dread and doubt begin to crawl in. A voice in the back of our mind pipes up: “So you have a dream? Good for you! But are you sure you’re ready for this journey? Are you sure you’re willing to sacrifice the comforts of your current lifestyle and embark on this quest for greatness?” We begin to realize that to live our dream, we’re going to have to live a very different type of life and give up some of the comforts we can’t imagine living without.
We naturally turn towards ease and pleasure, while shying away from pain and difficulty, so we fear the arduous and difficult journey that stands between us and our dreams. Deep down, we know that all growth and progress require pain, but we fear what lies ahead if we venture outside of our comfort zone and engage in the difficult, worthwhile journey towards our greatness.
The Greatest Fear of All
Beyond our fears of the outcome and process of the journeys that we choose to undertake, we all have abstract fears of the things we don’t have control over. We fear old age, death, and sickness, realities that we have much less control over. But the greatest fear of all, the one that can powerfully affect our lives in a positive way, is the fear of failing to fulfill our potential. When taken to an extreme, this fear can destabilize and hinder our journey, preventing us from enjoying the journey of self-development. But this fear can also help us overcome our other fears, ensuring that we push ahead and strive passionately towards our ultimate destination.
As we can begin to see, fear is not always as bad as we think. Even fear has the potential to be used for the good. Sometimes we need to overcome fear, but sometimes we need to learn how to use it. After identifying and analyzing our various fears in this article, in our next article, we will develop the underlying strategies that will help us overcome our inner fears and achieve the extraordinary.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course. Rabbi Reichman received Semikha from RIETS, a master’s degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago and has also spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.