Fear is Your Friend

With all the “think positive” advice out there, what’s a person to do with their fear, anxiety, worry and other “negative” emotions? Block them? Stomp them out?

I have found it useful for myself and my coaching clients to think of fear as a friend. All of our behaviors, beliefs and feelings have a positive intention behind them. Constricting feelings like fear and anxiety exist to keep us safe from something, like failure, embarrassment or pain. They broadcast loudly to get our attention. (Robert Dilts, an outstanding thought-leader in NLP, provides excellent detail on the concept of positive intention.)

What I do with constricting emotions like fear, worry and anxiety makes all the difference. If I let them hobble me and stop my progress, then I’ve missed their gift. If I stop and listen carefully to those emotions, there’s always a useful message about what I want and need to feel balanced and take the next steps along my path.

Here’s some questions you can ask to do this for yourself:

1. What is something you keep feeling, thinking or saying to yourself that drains your energy or makes you hesitate to move forward?

For example, I used to dread international travel. My thoughts and feelings before a trip were not excitement about going to a new country, they were all dread and anxiety about being trapped in a plane for 12+ hours. It took me enormous emotional energy to prepare for a trip when so much of me was in resistance to getting on the plane.

2. Ask yourself how this thought, feeling or image is trying to help you; for example, is it trying to show you a way in which you could be better prepared?

When I listened more closely to the travel anxiety, I specifically kept imagining how uncomfortable I was going to be during the long flight. I saw myself not sleeping, feeling my legs twitch, my back ache. These are all things that happen to me regularly and would in fact keep me from being fresh enough to work effectively when I arrived.

3. What actions can you take to address your underlying concern and resolve the anxiety, worry, doubt or fear?

I used my specific concerns to plan my trip better: book an aisle seat, look into mileage upgrade, consult with a Feldenkrais practitioner to find out how to sit more comfortably, get permission to fly in a day earlier, ask well-traveled friends what they did to fly comfortably. The result of taking all these steps was gaining a whole new set of useful travel strategies that continues to give me a feeling of complete inner calm before international travel. I listened to my anxiety and it no longer needs to broadcast loudly. The most amazing result? I’ve even learned how to sleep on a plane.

Here’s a story based on a client’s experience (name and details changed for privacy):

One of my coaching clients Peter had taught a couple of training classes at work and loved it. He knew he wanted to do more and hoped some day training would be a regular part of his role. When a re-organization at work gave him a new opportunity to train a class, he immediately said yes. The class was being sponsored by his new manager Teresa, who would likely be in the room observing him. He’d heard Teresa had very high standards and he found himself nervous about training with her at the back of the room watching.

Peter decided to take action and really brush up on his training technique. He had seen me train several times and admired my training style and presence, so he called me for some short-term coaching on how to be an even more effective trainer. We had a great first session, during which he enthusiastically committed to several follow-up steps. We made an appointment to meet again in two weeks.

At our next coaching session, Peter reported having a terrible two weeks. Every time he thought about training the class, all he could think about was his new manager Teresa sitting at the back of the room watching him. The more he tried to concentrate on preparing for the class, the louder his fears got. He began having nightmarish dreams about the training going badly—participants clearly bored or openly challenging his knowledge, completely forgetting what the class was about, having his words get caught in his throat. All the while with Teresa as a dark figure at the back of the room, staring at him as he failed miserably, taking notes on everything he was doing wrong. He was a wreck.

He was embarrassed to admit that he had not completed a single one of the follow-up steps. Yes, he thought they were all excellent ideas. No, it wasn’t that he had run out of time. “All I can think about is not being able to control Teresa’s opinion of me,” he finally confessed.

I observed that it sounded like his fear of training in front of Teresa had him paralyzed. “Part of that fear is really valid—you want to do well in front of her, you know she has high standards, and you were already feeling like your training technique could be better,” I said. “Do you know what specifically Teresa considers hallmarks of good training? It seems like not knowing what would work for her leaves you worrying that she could criticize everything you do.”

Peter was initially resistant to asking Teresa about her training standards. He worried that she would take his questions as a sign of weakness. But the more he sat with the idea, the more he realized that without specific information on what she was looking for, his mind was left to make up worst case scenarios.

We listened to his worry about talking with Teresa–he wanted to look confident, not weak. So we planned out questions that he felt confident asking, like “What would success look like for you with this class?” and “In your experience, what are great qualities in a trainer?” These questions felt less personal and more naturally professional for Peter to ask Teresa.

After talking with Teresa, Peter felt calm and relaxed. He knew exactly what to emphasize in his training and how to best leverage his trainer style to be successful in front of Teresa. The most useful result for Peter was that he remained calm and relaxed even when he hit a few bumps, which allowed him to gracefully course correct and continue on with the training day.

Fear is Your Friend is one of many tools available in The Passionate Professional: How to Make Your Ordinary Career Extraordinary. Want to learn more? Check out the free Passion Discovery Worksheet.