In our previous article, we identified the various fears that hold us back in life, including our fear of failure, our fear of the difficulties we will face during the process of growth, and our fears rooted in self-doubt. This article aims to help you confront those fears. We will develop strategies for overcoming our inner fears so that we can fully unlock our potential and achieve the extraordinary.
I remember when I was still a college student, and I was undergoing a tremendous inner struggle. On the one hand, I wanted to go out into the world and teach, write, and inspire. On the other hand, I had several fears holding me back. I didn’t think I was good enough or worthy of succeeding. I hadn’t yet finished s’michah, completed my degrees, or positioned myself as a professional. A large part of me feared that without the credentials and professional positioning, I would fail miserably. Not only wouldn’t my skills and talent be good enough to achieve my desired results, but no one would take me seriously. Perhaps it would be better to wait several years until I finished all my degrees and successfully positioned myself, and then begin the journey of teaching and impacting others. However, another part of me knew that even before achieving any of those things, I had the ability and responsibility to start sharing what I had learned and help inspire others to achieve their greatness. But I realized that what was holding me back was fear; I decided that the only way I would be able take the leap into the unknown and strive after my dream would be to study the topic of fear and determine the best strategies that I could use to overcome my fears.
1 – Develop an Empowering “Why”
While fear is a powerful and debilitating force, it has its limits. The best way to overcome the force of fear is to have an even more powerful force: the existential power of an empowering “why.” A “why” is an underlying drive, an all-encompassing vision that motivates everything else in your life. Your “why” can be centered around providing for your family, proving to yourself how great you can be, or the contribution you want to make to the world. But the greatest “why” a person can have is living one’s God-given purpose and achieving one’s ultimate greatness. When you know why you are striving for greatness, when you have a crystal-clear vision and purpose, you can harness your willpower to overcome anything, even your greatest fears. When fueled by the strength and passion of meaning and purpose, you can push forward and withstand – even embrace – the pain, doubt, and sacrifices that come with the journey.
As we discussed previously, suffering is meaningless pain, and therefore unbearable. But when our pain takes on meaning – when we understand why we are undergoing this painful process and the sweetness of the fruits it will produce – it becomes bearable, even enjoyable. When someone at the gym lifts weights, he is ripping his muscles, a painful and strenuous experience. But he knows that this pain is the source of his growth, the source of his progress, so it becomes a meaningful pain. The same applies to existential growth: When we rip ourselves out of our comfort zones and push ourselves to the limit, the pain becomes the source of our growth and progress, and therefore becomes a meaningful pain that we can not only bear, but even embrace.
2 – Break It Down
Much of fear’s impact, especially its ability to paralyze us and cause us to shrink away from tackling our goals, is due to our tendency to turn things into something disproportionately larger than it truly is. Fear causes us to turn things into infinitely expansive and unconquerable obstacles; our fears distort and magnify our challenges, making them too large and overwhelming to even think about approaching. As a result, we avoid taking even the first step on the journey towards greatness. For example, while we know that we are physically capable of spending an hour exercising or speaking up in front of a group at work, our fear of exercising or public speaking can make it seem literally impossible. Even a simple step towards our goal, like exercising for ten minutes or saying one sentence in public, can be so overwhelming that we avoid it completely.
The first step to overcoming this aspect of fear is to acknowledge what the obstacle actually is and break the obstacle down into tangible parts. When we allow fear to live in our head unchecked, it expands infinitely. When we acknowledge our fears for what they are, we bring the challenge into the finite, from the unspeakable to the spoken, from the theoretical to the real. Is this actually dangerous, or is this only self-doubt? Am I risking my life, or my comfort? Am I scared of slipping off a cliff and falling to my death, or am I scared of failing or looking unprepared and foolish in front of my peers? When we fail to understand what we are truly afraid of, our fears build up into something they’re not, taking on a life of their own, endlessly expanding into something infinite and unconquerable.
Sometimes, we even actively magnify our fears and make them more complex, just to avoid confronting them. I remember one of my clients, who was scared of going to the gym and exercising. I asked him, “Why do you think you’re scared to go to the gym and work on getting into better physical shape?” He thought for a moment and answered, “It’s just too much for me. First, I’ll need to get changed. Then, I’ll have to go to the gym and try it out. When I get there, the gym will ask for ID and then try to get me to sign up for a trial period. When I finally get into my gym clothes, I’ll have to wait for a machine to be ready; and I’ll also have to wash it down before I can use it. And once I finish that machine, I’ll have to wait again for the next one. And all this time, everyone else is going to be staring at me, judging how I look and how I exercise. Then, I’m going to have to go home and change. And then I’ll have to do this with a few other gyms, so that I can know which gym I should commit to. It’s just too much for me!”
Let’s be honest: This does sound like a lot. So, I asked my client, “How do you eat breakfast each morning?” He answered, “What do you mean? I eat cereal…” “Are you sure? Don’t you take out a bowl, then a spoon, then the cereal, then the milk, and then open the cereal, pour the cereal into the bowl, and then open the milk, pour the milk into the bowl, then pick up the spoon and put the spoon into the bowl, scoop up some cereal and milk, then put it into your mouth, then chew, then swallow, then place the spoon back in the bowl, then…”
If we want to, we can turn anything into an endlessly daunting and overwhelming obstacle. The key is packaging and framing. If we turn a fear, such as exercising, into something unimaginably difficult and burdensome, we will never be able to overcome the fear. But if we acknowledge the real reason we’re not exercising, which might be our fear of failing or giving up, or the pain of the workouts, or sacrificing the pleasure of all the junk food and unhealthful food that we eat, then we suddenly have a concrete, finite, and solvable obstacle that can be overcome when approached in the right way. In addition to having an empowering why, you can respond to the actual reason behind the fear: Not only can you question the reason behind the fear to determine if the reason is valid, but you can also counter the reason with an empowering solution.
If you’re scared of failure, then think about why you’re scared of failing. If it’s because you simply don’t want to fail at your goal, then not trying will guarantee failure. If it’s because you don’t think you’re capable of succeeding, then work on developing an empowering identity and learn the importance of failure, as it’s a crucial ingredient that leads towards success. If you’re scared of what other people will think of you, then perhaps it’s time to question why other people’s opinions of you means so much to you.
If you’re scared of the pain you’ll encounter during the process of growth, then consider the pain of a life unlived, where you let your potential go to waste. Or consider the pain of continuing to live the way you do now. Furthermore, consider the fact that the pain that comes from growth is the most meaningful and enjoyable pain imaginable. And if you’re scared of sacrificing the pleasure of your current lifestyle, consider the fleeting nature of that joy relative to the lasting existential happiness and fulfillment of becoming your ultimate self. Instead of focusing on what you’ll lose, focus on everything that you’ll gain. Breaking down the fear you experience and understanding what exactly is bothering you is the first step in overcoming it. Once we understand exactly what we are afraid of, we can develop strategic plans for overcoming our fears and achieving our ultimate greatness.
The underlying principle is clear: Instead of living as a victim of our fears, we need to take responsibility for our lives. As Earl Nightingale said, “All of us are self-made, but only the successful among us will admit it.” Once we acknowledge our actual fears, we can develop strategic plans for overcoming them and achieving our ultimate greatness. In our next column, we will delve deeper into this topic and continue exploring the strategies we can use to overcome fear.
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.