I’ve spent the vast majority of my life—34 years—scared shitless. While some fundamental shifts have occurred in how I handle fear over the past five years, I can’t tell you that I’ve beaten it. In fact, I’m scared right now.
I begin writing this post, and then stop. I return to it the next day, only to freeze up again so that I can watch Netflix or get some ice cream or even better to do something “productive” like clean my house or catch up on sleep or read some bullshit book about how if you just think happy thoughts and watch Teletubbies your fear will go away.
I’m engaging in a dance of stupidity, but I feel that I can’t help myself. Why? Because I’m scared. I’m scared because I’ve had a mammoth amount of psychological, cultural and environmental conditioning. I spent my first few decades agonizing over what people thought of me and living a recipe comprised of one part action, five parts hiding, so it’s not hard to see how I ended up giving years of my life to everything except what was most important to me, wondering what I was doing with my life.
I was relinquishing my power repeatedly, day by day, and it felt like there was nothing I could do about it.
I had some great “help” with this growing up. Some of my earliest memories involve being ostracized for living with a disability, wanting to die in the wake of devastating seizures, and fighting periods of debilitating depression.
As a kid I was smart and talented, but I was too afraid to do anything about it. On the surface I appeared to be fine, but internally I was a time bomb.
My life became a cataclysm of shame. I had periodic successes—moments of authenticity and power—but I did all I could to hide that from the world. I gave a fuck about everything I didn’t need to give a fuck about, and not nearly enough of a fuck about what really mattered.
But not now. I no longer really give a shit about what people think of me, most of the time. But here’s the kicker: I’m not in a position to say this because I’m strong, I can say this with confidence because I’m weak, and I know I’m weak.
Many people ask me how I’ve managed to create a meaningful, “successful” life, despite my losses and the daily physical and neurological challenges I face. My responses are decidedly unsexy: I’ve found power in my vulnerability, strength in my weaknesses, and resilience in my trials. I’ve forced myself to become disciplined and focused, through thousands of hours of tedious, hair-splitting practice, and by intentionally putting myself in uncomfortable, constraining environments.
I speak to people about their struggles all the time, and the most common thread that binds most people’s adversities together is fear: fear of being judged, fear of failing, fear of abandonment, and on and on.
One of my biggest issues with the personal development space is that the vast majority of responses to questions surrounding fear are grounded in mindless platitudes. People are told that if they just take responsibility for their fear or tell themselves how awesome they are every morning or follow so-and-so’s seven steps to confidence, their lives will be transformed and they’ll conquer fear forever.
Bullshit. We’ll never conquer fear. It’s literally hardwired into our brains and serves a very important evolutionary purpose. Unfortunately we also happen to live in an age of rampant loneliness and individualism, which exacerbates the usage of our favorite cocktail of idiocy: platitudes. In so doing, we pathologize fear in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar to how we pathologize grief.
We’re happy to acknowledge people’s fears when they seem to “beat” them, but when people are paralyzed by fear we’re much quicker to ridicule and marginalize them; treating them as if there’s something wrong with their fears. This creates an ethos of humiliation, which is passed down from generation to generation in a cycle of shameful insanity.
This ethos is horrific, because it essentially says if you can’t beat your fears, you’re a loser, a coward, or a weakling. You’re not entitled to people’s respect, so piss off. This isn’t just cruel, it’s ridiculous. Why? Because our abandonment of the fearful only exacerbates the fear. And since we’re all afraid, it’s no wonder we’re all beginning every year “resolving” to move beyond our terrors only to come to the end of the year and find that we’re just as scared as we were 12 months prior.
I’m not very prescriptive in my writings, because I’d much rather challenge you to think and come to your own conclusions, and the reality is that there aren’t any clear-cut answers to these types of questions. Not only that, the “gurus”—those most in a position to influence (and profit from) people usually offer the most damaging solutions. So I’m committed to offering you only what’s resulted in demonstrably tangible changes in my own life and those I work with, through thousands of hours of practice.
I can’t tell you how to beat your fears, but I can offer you some ways in which to live with your fears, and take action anyway. This is ultimately what leads to our killing our fears. The caveat is that we’ll be killing them for the rest of our lives. And the only way to do that is via action in the face of fear. After all, what is courage if not the decision to take meaningful action when fear is smiling at you?
Instead of offering you some formula or nonsense platitude, I offer you five strategies, all of which can be actioned immediately. They’re simple, but not easy, so if you want these to have any real effect on your life, you actually have to do them. These have helped me immensely as I’ve radically transformed my life, and I return to them regularly.
If you want to confront your inner fears, wage war against the adversities that paralyze you, and make an impact, dive into the following experiments.
1. MAKE DECISIONS QUICKLY
Ever spend two hours deciding what to eat? Methodically agonize over whether to walk up to that guy and say hello? Spend more time browsing Netflix than watching it?
I certainly have, and the best way to confront the fear that the paradox of choice brings about is to simply start choosing, quickly and deliberately.
We tend to think that every decision is important, so we find ourselves terrified of every decision. Ya know, like worrying about the repercussions of what will happen if you go to that new sushi place and it ends up tasting like shit. But the reality is that the vast majority of the decisions you make are irrelevant and inconsequential. If you choose to do A over B and A doesn’t work, the vast majority of the time, nothing will actually happen. There will be NO consequences, no one will care, and it will only be after the fact that you find you don’t really care either.
So get into habit of making decisions as fast as possible: this will immediately expose the overwhelming amount of attention you’re devoting to decisions that aren’t of any real consequence, and help you to clarify what’s actually important to you.
As you begin to make decisions more quickly, some of them will be wrong or stupid or misguided. That might seem unpleasant, but there’s an opportunity in this: you’ll see that in most cases those stupid decisions you make don’t really matter, and you’ll become more adaptable and fearless.
Making decisions quickly also gives you a stronger sense of control, because you’re devoting more of your time to that which you can control, rather than waffling in trivialities you have no control over and handing over your power to the beasts of paralysis and self-sabotage in the process.
The result? Increased confidence, living more in the present (rather than talking about being present, which is just another stupid platitude), and a greater capacity to make difficult decisions when you’re presented with a choice that’s actually consequential.
This also has the effect of helping you to lie to yourself less, because you’re reminded that some decisions don’t really need to be made, and that some questions don’t need to be asked. If you’ve recently quit smoking and you have a craving for a cigarette, your inner fear is going to want you to deliberate: Should I have a cigarette? It’s only one. I can cheat today and stop again.
But you already know the answer. A cigarette isn’t an option. So as soon as the craving arises, you recognize it and say no. It feels lousy for a few minutes, but then you realize you didn’t need to deliberate and move on. This is applicable to all kinds of choices you already know you don’t really need to agonize over.
2. STOP ASKING FOR ADVICE
By the time I was in my late 20s, I was fat, sick, lonely and fairly hopeless. I resolved to make significant changes in my life, but daydreaming was much more effective, soI didn’t do much of anything. Instead, I spent inordinate amounts of time asking for advice. My own very unscientific estimate is that I spent several thousand hours asking people for advice, most of which I didn’t need.
Over time I realized that most of what I was hearing wasn’t relevant to me, and even when it was helpful, it didn’t mean squat because I wasn’t willing to act. I was in no mood to do much of anything, so the advice became a mild addiction. It was the perfect narrative fallacy: I was able to convince myself that I was making tangible changes in my life, when I wasn’t doing a damn thing.
When I started to become friends with some of the same writers and entrepreneurs who advise me now, I found something curious. Generally the smartest people weren’t really giving me advice at all. In fact, they were saying: I don’t know. This is your path, and you’re going to have to figure it out on your own. In the words of Whitman,
You must travel it for yourself.
That’s the kind of phrase that makes you want to conquer the world like a badass and bury your head in an oven at the same time. Because it’s true. It is a matter of fact that this is your path, and although advice can be helpful in critical moments, it’s usually just repetitive nonsense. Forcing yourself to stop asking for advice for brief periods of time helps you to see where you’re being flippant, and forces you to identify where you truly need help.
Try it for a week. Don’t ask for any advice at all. This will force you to rely on your own inner compass, which is stronger than you think. You’ll be terrified at first, but that’s the point. By relying on your own values and will, you’ll lean into your fear, and learn to cultivate resilience in the face of it. You’ll be amazed at how often you want to seek out advice when you really don’t need it at all.
Don’t take it from me, either. If you want a little additional inspiration, take solace in the words of Jay-Z:
“Don’t listen to anyone. Everyone is scared.”
3. STOP SAYING SORRY
You probably believe that you only apologize when you do something truly wrong or harmful, but I guarantee that’s not the case. In fact, you either explicitly or implicitly apologize for things you’re not responsible for all the time, and you probably aren’t even aware of it.
So try this, even for just 24 hours. Don’t say sorry, at all. This will be harder than you think.
Note when you feel compelled to apologize reflexively, for no reason at all. Understand that most of the “offensive” things you’re doing aren’t actually offensive. This will have the effect of revealing what you allow yourself to be offended by, which is itself a powerful weapon in the battle against fear.
I’ve often warned of the dangers involved in allowing oneself to take offense easily, and the extraordinary liberation that comes from choosing to not be offended by minor trivialities. Remember, most of our cultural institutions—particularly the media—are deeply incentivized to scare and offend you. They know that our brains have evolved such that fear sells, so they feed us an endless barrage of sensationalist bullshit, because they know we’ll buy it. The good news is that you don’t have to buy it. You can choose not to take every mindless occurrence personally. This alone engenders confidence and encourages fearlessness, because you see that you’re choosing to not be offended by every stupid thing that people think you should be offended by.
Refusing to apologize for short periods of time can be especially helpful if you’re grieving, because “sorry” is one of the most pervasive words used by those who are greving. When you’re devastated by grief you’re far more likely to feel exposed and fragile, and given all the damaging cultural narratives surrounding grief—which insist upon the grieving person’s getting “better” at all costs—most grieving people find themselves apologizing for everything.
By refusing to apologize when you’re devastated, you take some of your power back. This doesn’t make everything better, but it helps you to see that everything doesn’t have to get better.
After all, apologies are often just mechanisms of shame. They serve to shield our hearts and have the paradoxical effect of discouraging vulnerability, rather than encouraging it. That’s why when we truly should say we’re sorry, we have such a fucking hard time doing so.
So don’t apologize to anyone for a day and write down every time you feel the urge to let the words out of your mouth. This will be incredibly effective in cultivating confidence, engendering self-honesty, and taking responsibility for your own actions, rather than feeling the need to be responsible for what those around you are doing.
4. ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU DO EVERYTHING YOU DO
It’s no secret that we’re creatures of habit, but what so many people fail to realize is just how powerfully those habits are ingrained into our brains, and thus, our way of life. This is particularly true in periods of intense fear, because habits often serve as vehicles of escape.
When I’m afraid, I’m usually stuck. When I feel stuck, one of the first questions I ask is this: why are you afraid? That’s right: I’ll literally ask myself that, out loud. When I do that I invariably find that the fear begins to subside, because I see that my fear is irrational 99% of the time. If I’m in a period of particular distress, I’ll take this a step further: I’ll ask myself why I’m doing everything I do.
Try this for a day. As you proceed to do anything, ask yourself: why am I doing this? It will seem annoying and tedious at first, but it will be incredibly revealing. You’ll be alerted to where you tend to procrastinate (which is often just a manifestation of fear), you’ll identify choices you’re not even aware you’re making, and you’ll become more mindful immediately. This mindfulness will lead to a greater sense of awareness, stronger self-reliance, and an ability to see how ludicrous fear really is so much of the time.
Most importantly, asking yourself why you do what you do will help you to understand your own psychology, which is critical in navigating fear. As the great Stoic Publilius Syrus said:
“Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.”
This is only possible if you cultivate the art of radical self-honesty, and one of the best ways to do so is by asking yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Remember: your life is the result of the choices you make. But it’s also the result of the choices you don’t make. Forcing yourself to assess why you’re doing everything you do—even for only a day—can have an incredibly clarifying effect on your fears and shine a light on what you really value.
5. BE BORING
If you want to write a book or save starving children or launch a startup, you’re probably obsessed with getting everything right. You hatch ambitious plans, seek out counsel, and map a strategy. And then what happens? You don’t do anything. You think about doing something, but before long that thinking has morphed into an obsession of avoidance. Why? Because you’re scared. You’re taking more pleasure in the imagining of your vision than in the execution of it. Imagining requires nothing of you. Execution puts everything on the line.
What’s a real shame is that in succumbing to the paralysis of imagining, you’re not understanding that what’s involved in making any of these ambitious plans happen is merely a series of tasks, most of which aren’t particularly sexy. So if you’ve been sitting on your masterpiece for five years and you’re desperate to get moving, start by defining yourself in the most boring way possible.
I mean, look: most people just assume that accountants do accounting, and that doctors perform medical procedures. It’s, ya know, obvious. But when we want to create anything that might signal some kind of impact, we freeze and rush to find some sort of imagined perfection. That is never gonna happen, so just define yourself generically, focus your attention on what is front of you, and act, as best you can. Do nothing else.
The best way to make this happen is to be boring as shit, and proud of it. Define yourself in the most mundane, ordinary way possible.
Look at it this way: I’m a writer. If I define myself broadly by saying I’m a writer, then I write. It’s my job, so I do it.
But as soon as I say “I’m a highly successful blogger with millions of readers” I freeze and don’t do shit. Why? Because I’ve moved from the objective (I’m a writer) to the subjective (so many people are counting on me and I have endless expectations to fill), which exposes me to the baggage of caring what people think and oh my god what if they don’t like this post and what if I fail and my readers abandon me and then I’ll be a complete loser and alone and give up and soon enough I’ll be homeless and end up dead!
Yep: that’s EXACTLY what happens, all the time. It’s completely irrational and ridiculous, but the brain often can’t distinguish between actual threats (having a gun in your face) and mere unpleasantness (someone criticizing your work). In the brain’s efforts to protect you, you go from “I’m having a hard time writing” to “I’m going to end up a loser and dead” in the span of just a few seconds. So it’s imperative to develop systems by which to help your brain understand that nothing’s really wrong. One of the most effective ways to do so when you’re trying to accomplish something meaningful is to be as boring as possible in how you define yourself.
So, if I say “I’m a writer” and end up banging out 5,000 words in a single sitting, why does this work? Because I’m focusing only on what actually is, rather than worrying about how I want things to be or agonizing over what hasn’t even happened yet. I’m focused only on the task at hand, and no one can take that from me.
From this vantage point I have no choice to be more assertive and honest in my writings, because I truly have nothing to lose. The very worst that can happen is that some people won’t like my work or stop following me. That’s an inevitability anyway, so I might as well tell the truth and see what happens.
If you’re working on something ambitious—anything that’s truly meaningful to you—define yourself in the most mundane, generic way possible: I’m a creator, a father, a human who serves people. This will give you fire, because your energy will be diverted away from the anxieties of the past and future and into the present. In so doing you’ll see that most of your immediate fears wash away, because the only thing you have to focus on is doing your best with what you have. That’s a lot less scary than feeling you have to save the world or write a manuscript or raise a million dollars for your business right now.
SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
In the end, all of these questions and tests work because they help you to confront your fears, rather than avoid them, which is exactly what most people do, most of the time. By implementing these strategies you have no choice but to learn to live with fear, which is really one of the most courageous things you can do in life. You don’t “defeat” fear by beating it, you “defeat” it by riding with it and making friends with it. Most people never attempt to do this. Instead of trying to understand and acknowledge fear, most go about their lives hiding and running from it, which is about as successful as trying to kick a heroin habit by pretending you don’t have one. It never works, but it’s what so many of us are conditioned to do.
Many people who reach out to me assume that I’m some sort of high-caliber machine of discipline and confidence. That isn’t true at all. I simply acknowledge that I’m scared and weak, and act anyway.
I get a lot done not because I’m some sort of purveyor of industriousness, but because I know I’m lazy as shit. I’m bold in my writings not because I’m the most confident man alive, but because I force myself to sit and write for hours at a time. I thrive despite living with chronic illness and disability not because I’ve “conquered” them, but because I acknowledge how they limit me and in the process I don’t allow them to conquer me.
In short, the more I’ve admitted my weaknesses and fears, the stronger I’ve become. The more I’ve hidden my weaknesses and fears by pretending they don’t exist or masking them in facades of false confidence, the more terrified I’ve been.
The paradox is found in understanding that we kill fear by embracing it.
This is, at its core, the essence of vulnerability, and vulnerability is one of the most powerful experiences available to us. It is also deeply underrated and even more underutilized.
Fear is one of the most universal human experiences, yet it is one of the most shamed and paralyzing. It is destroying many lives and dreams right at this very moment.
It doesn’t have to destroy yours.