How to Hold Fear
- The status quo, dominant culture of our society was not built to and cannot bring about liberation and justice for all people.
- What we practice with our lives — our habits and actions — often reinforces that status quo culture, even when we don’t mean for it to.
- Our opportunity is to become more conscious about what we’re practicing and make choices about how to practice in more liberatory, disruptively self-compassionate ways.
- Creating collective liberation — out in the world, for all people — starts with, and in fact depends on, our own inner liberation.
That is the heart work we’re doing here.
Published: July 1, 2018
FEAR, And How to Hold It
by laura brewer
Everything you want is on the other side of fear. – Jack Canfield
I want to talk about fear. Not ambiguous fear. Not fear-lite. I want to talk about the stuff that terrifies you. The fear that wakes you up at night. The thing you won’t say aloud to anyone else. The fear you’ve spent your whole life running from.
Because that fear – it’s the secret elixir. It’s your magic mojo. It’s the trail to your heart’s longing.
Sound strange? I know. Most people want to tell you – especially when it comes to “strong” or “effective” leadership – that fear is to be avoided, to be stamped out, to be overcome. That you’re supposed to be fearless.
I see fear differently. I believe:
(1) Fear is a compass that points to your desire, your values, and your secret hopes and dreams.
(2) And so: the worst thing we can do is resist fear or try to cover it up. Yet most of us do just that (which means we cover up the trail that tells us how we most want to use our one precious life).
(3) Not acknowledging our fears takes the life out of life.
(4) Our job is to learn to re-relate to our fear – to hold it differently – so that we can use it to move closer to the things and people we love, and to the aspirations we have for our lives.
The Problem with Fear
We have to be courageous. Learning how to face our fears is one way we embrace love. Our fear may not go away, but it will not stand in the way. – bell hooks
Fear is a real nuisance. It’s a shitty energy to feel, can wreak havoc in our bodies, and causes a whole host of residual problematic behaviors that tend to take us further away from the things we really want.
- leads us to hide
- causes us to lie to ourselves about what we really long for, or sometimes deny those things to ourselves outright
- avoids tough conversations
- justifies apathy, indifference, and inaction
Except, actually: fear doesn’t do these things. The way we hold and relate to our fear does.
My teacher Rev. angel Kyodo williams always says: “there’s the fact of something. And there’s how we relate to it.” The fact is that you have fear. That’s the fact – there’s fear. And the fact of something is neutral – it’s simply what is, the current state of reality. Then there’s how we hold something. What I mean by that phrase is: how we relate to the thing in front of us, and what meaning we give it.
For example: there’s the fact that we experience the energy of fear when we think about giving a talk in front of 5,000 people. That’s neutral – it’s just the fact that fear is present. And the meaning we give that fear could be:
- the fear is crippling; I will never try speaking in front of 5,000 people.
- the fear is exhilarating; I’m going to give it a try and enjoy the experience of the rush.
- the fear is shameful; I shouldn’t be afraid of speaking in front of people or using my voice, and am, so I’m going to pretend instead that the fear doesn’t exist.
There’s any number of ways we could hold this particular fear. In most cases, the meaning we give our fear is a choice. But we make the choice unconsciously, lightning fast, and informed by all of our lived experiences (which tricks us into thinking that the choice isn’t a choice at all).
Fear in Leadership
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. — Marie Curie
It’s worth noting that many of the “leadership challenges” out there are really just fears wearing fancy outfits.
Imposter syndrome (fear of inadequacy), perfectionism (fear of failure and rejection), over-extension (fear of lack of worth/worthiness), micro-managing (fear of losing control), mistrust (fear of letting go), indirect communication (fear of rejection and conflict) …
Odds are the challenges you’re experiencing in your leadership, or in your justice work, or both (and also in your relationships and life) aren’t really situational challenges at their roots – they’re likely fear, using the situation to trick you from looking it in the eyes.
How to Hold Fear
Anything that minimizes, overrides, suppresses, or dishonors your fears will drive them into the unconscious and make finding your purpose that much more difficult. – Tim Kelley
Let’s go back to that thing I said about fear being a compass, fear being the secret elixir. I believe that desire lives behind our fears — that fear functions as a protective wall, trying to prevent us from seeing the secret, deepest yearnings of our souls and spirits. When I look critically at my fear of exposure (which is one of many many fears; I’m a pro at staying hidden, because I’m ultimately afraid of being exposed — of all my imperfect parts and mistakes and still-in-processness being seen, because then you may think I’m bad, or unlovable, or a hypocrite. Which also, PS, reveals a fear of being judged; of being unforgiven.), I ask myself: what values does that fear reveal? What desires and wants and aspirations does it point to? For me, it takes some difficult sitting still and inner work to get there, but it all points to a longing for freedom. Freedom from what people think/believe about me; freedom to do the work I love; freedom for freedom’s sake. So if freedom is what I really want, it lives on the other side of this fear of being seen, of being “found out,” of being exposed.
Now I have a choice. Now that I see that this fear of exposure and judgment reveals my longing for freedom, I get to choose what I want to guide me, I get to choose if I want to re-relate to my fear, I get to choose what I want to pursue. As a coach, I spend a lot of time helping my clients get to the root of their fear, stare it in the face, see what’s on the other side of the wall of their fears (the thing they want more than anything else that right now seems and feels impossible – and is, because it’s got a huge cement wall of fear encasing it) — and then never ever letting them unsee that thing because it’s their essence, it’s their lifeblood, it’s their passion, it’s their freedom.
This Do The Heart Work project was in fact born in response to my fear of being seen. I want freedom (my own, and the collective’s). If I avoid or resist my fear of being seen, I will only further imprison, isolate, and sever myself from myself, from the work that calls me, and from others. So into the fear I go. If you follow me on social media, you may have seen that I invited whoever wanted to join to have a front row seat in watching me build my podcast — that was to force myself into exposure. DTHW is about doing my work in public — it was a conscious choice to be seen. Rebuilding a very edgy new brand that will go live in September is about the same thing: coming out, professionally, and being unapologetically me for the sake of my freedom. None of these things would be openings or opportunities for me to go after my desires (freedom) if I resisted, denied, or avoided my fear.
But it’s not enough to just not avoid/resist your fear. You have to learn to hold it and stay put. You have to learn to befriend it. You have to learn to be with it, and use it’s energy.
So: what’s required? How do you learn to re-relate to your fear and use it as a magnet for passion, freedom, and individual and collective liberation?
First, radical curiosity. That’s the first skill and practice. Get incredibly curious about what you’re afraid of — and get closer to it. I imagine the scene in Jurassic Park where the T-Rex is right in the face of a young boy. Its hot, stinky dinosaur breath is all over the kid’s face; its dinosaur drool is on the kid’s shirt. They are eye to eye. That’s how close you need to get to your fear. Ask yourself: “what terrifies me?” and don’t stop getting curious about it until you FEEL fear emanating through your body. If you don’t feel it coursing through your veins, you haven’t identified yet what truly scares you (and what would truly liberate you).
Then, get curious again, and ask: what’s on the other side of that fear? If it’s a wall, what version of my desire and passion and purpose lives on the other side? Another way of asking this is: what is the fear trying to protect me from? Keep asking until you feel joy, passion, sadness, or perhaps even more fear course through your body. Now you know you’re onto something.
Second, go into the fear. Hang out with it. Invoke it, like you’re raising a spirit from the dead. Welcome it. Write about it; talk to it; let it write to you; put yourself in situations where you have to confront it — and practice staying put. Not running away. It doesn’t mean you have to put a spider on your face, or speak at TED, or leave your job. It just means: tap deep into the fear (until you feel it in your body—if you don’t feel it in your body, you’re playing safe by making this a mental game. And it’s so much more than that.) and learn that you can be with it. See if you can get to the point where you actually welcome your fear, because it hones and refines and gets you all the more closer to your dreams, goals, and freedom.
Third, bring awareness to how/if/in what ways you’re making decisions governed by your fears. This is the application of mindfulness to how you’re living, how you’re leading, and what you’re using to make hard calls. You get a choice. It’s of course all right to give into fear — to let it steer sometimes. We all do. But most of us do it without it being a conscious choice. We haven’t dared to look at what’s on the other side of the wall. We haven’t considered that we could let that thing be our compass. Instead, we give in and succumb to fear on auto pilot.
There is no getting rid of fear. In fact, the more you live in open-hearted ways, the more you let your passion guide you, the larger the fear will be. Your fear is feedback and in proportion to the extent to which you’re living your life.
The antidote to fear is trust. And courage. That you have the courage to walk into the fear; that you trust yourself to stay put.
What’s coming over email to members only:
Each week this month, you’ll get an activity for working with/training in relating to fear differently. This month, the membership only emails below will replace the Heart Work Out plans normally available on the DTHW website.
- July 9-13: deep work on how to find what really scares you
- July 16-20: how to isolate your unique desire behind the fear — your secret elixir
- July 23-27: how to pinpoint the fears (and dreams) behind common but elusive leadership challenges, like “imposter syndrome”