Though I have been studying and reflecting on the process of working through fear for the better part of my life, my learning came to a head when I was thrown into an environment that provoked a whole spectrum of fear and anxiety. As a martial artist, after learning and practicing basic blocks, kicks, and punches, the time came to take it up a notch and begin to spar.
What does sparring have to do with your life?
What I have learned over the years as I have continued to develop my skill in this area is that sparring is metaphorical for just about any challenge you could possibly be faced with that evokes fear — making a presentation (or any kind of performance), pitching a proposal, going to a job interview, or speaking your mind, just to name a few.
These situations lead you to question whether you have what it takes.
And no matter what the challenge is, there is something at stake — your status, your security, your reputation, your comfort, your pride. However, there is one differentiating factor: with sparring there is a pretty high likelihood that you will get punched in the nose. Literally.
While many lessons come from having positive experiences, much of what I learned about working with fear came through trial and error — a lot of error.
My first error allowed me to learn about focus.
Focus is determined by what you allow to occupy your mind.
When I first started sparring, my focus was on getting it over with. I was fairly preoccupied with a feeling of inadequacy that led me to temporarily forget much of what I had learned over the previous years. Rather than trusting in what I had the ability to do, I became preoccupied by what I did not want to happen — getting hit.
And as a result, I got hit. Hard.
Then, I didn’t want to spar again for a really long time. I took myself out of the game. I allowed the fear to stop me. And my training stagnated. Until the pain of stagnation became greater than the pain of the physical blow.
When I got myself back in the game, my mind shifted from retreat to advance.
Instead of fixating on what I didn’t want, I zeroed in on what I did want. It wasn’t about not getting hit. It was about pushing through the fear. It was about applying what I had learned. It was about having more faith in what I did know than what I didn’t. And it was proving to myself that I had it in me to rise above the challenge.
I threw more punches. I closed the gaps. I began to bob and weave. I learned how to lure my opponent in so I had him right where I wanted him.
But what does that have to do with facing fear off the sparring mat?
Everything. No matter what you do, you have the choice to focus either on what you are moving toward or what you are moving away from. When you are fixated on what you want to avoid, you will hedge your bets. You won’t go all out. You’ll watch the clock. And you won’t really be engaged. You’ll cheat yourself out of the joy of the experience.
When you move toward something, you marshal the forces of desire. You ignite passion. You make what you want more important than what you fear. And this gives you the fuel to do what you really want to do — in spite of the fear.
The second tool for moving out of the grip of fear is presence.
Fear has you consumed with worrying about the future or fixated on something from the past. It keeps you in your head and prevents you from being immersed in what is happening right in front of you.
When I would try to remember a technique or think too much about how to properly execute anything, I’d miss what was happening and get hit. I had no real concept of what was happening, what was coming at me, or what I needed to do to deflect it. I felt as though I was in a blender, at the mercy of the blades and centrifugal force.
Ironically, being in my head kept me in a state of panic that kept me from thinking clearly. In fact, I became so gripped with panic that I forgot to breathe and ended up exhausting myself almost immediately.
In non-sparring environments, being in your head costs you opportunities.
When you are giving a presentation and are so intent on what you prepared that you fail to see that your audience is confused, or bored or irritated, you risk losing them. In a sales setting, being determined to stick to your pitch when your customer has questions that you didn’t plan on can keep you from making the sale.
The irony is that not deviating from what you planned because you are consumed by fear keeps you from being present and often ends up leading to that which you are most afraid of. The antidote? Let go of your preconceived ideas and hold your plans loosely so that you can be present.
When you get out of your head and become present, things slow down.
When I immersed myself in what was happening in front of me while sparring, I realized that every time my opponent would throw a punch he left himself wide open. Rather than worrying about getting hit, I began to look for vulnerabilities. And I learned that I could get him to raise his hands to his face if I threw a few high punches, which would allow me to land a couple low ones while he wasn’t expecting it.
I went from jumping around like a cricket without breathing to moving more deliberately and strategically and conserving my energy. Instead of allowing my opponent to back me into a corner, I learned to pivot and use his own force against him.
In any situation, being present leads to better connections and higher performance.
You will take in more information. You will breathe more deeply, get more oxygen to your brain and access higher creativity. You’ll be more likely to make whoever you are talking to feel more important, because you’ll be more focused on him and not yourself. You’ll think more quickly on your feet and come up with better solutions on the fly.
These insights led me to realize that often what is more important than preparation is practice, which brings us to the third tool: desensitization.
The more you expose yourself to what you fear, the less impact the fear has.
Fear never really goes away. It is a human emotion that is wired into our DNA. While we can’t change the fact that it will be ever present, we can diminish the effect it has on our performance. What allows the fear to diminish, is repeatedly being in the presence of what you fear and realizing that you will be okay.
The first time I got punched in the nose, it was horrible. And though I went to great lengths to keep it from happening again, it did. And when it did, I realized that the memory of it was far worse than the reality.
The more I sparred, the more I began to become confident in my ability to prevent it from happening. And the less my fear kept me from doing what I needed to do.
Many altercations and escalations are the product of untamed fear.
The importance of learning to spar is to develop within the martial artist the confidence to handle a physical fight if necessary — in order to prevent a conflict from escalating to the point that requires any force at all.
And the implication for each of us is that becoming confident in the face of fear allows us to rise to any challenge or opportunity with grace, wisdom and victory. In so doing, we inspire others to follow our lead.
Eleanor Roosevelt urged “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
What would that be for you? Chances are it is connected to something you really want for yourself. As you focus on what you’re moving toward, stay fully engaged in the game and the joy of playing it, and have the courage to repeatedly put yourself in the presence of your fear, the words of Henry Ford will ring true for you as well:
“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t.”
Staying fully engaged without succumbing to fear, pressure and overwhelm can be tricky. The Real Leader’s Guide to Freedom & Flow Group Intensive will give you approaches and methodologies that help you rise to the occasion and not only get better results, but also enjoy yourself in the process. Though the spring program is now full, you can get on the waiting list for priority access to the fall program, kicking off in September. For more information, visit The Real Leader’s Guide to Freedom & Flow Group Intensive.
“Every master was once a disaster.”
I am all too familiar with that awkward, humbling stage that comes with learning something new – when you want to run with the stallions but feel more like a donkey. It’s a universal phenomenon, really. Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that, “Every artist was once an amateur.”
We can all learn a lot about our paths to proficiency by looking at the ways in which we have mastered things over the course of our lives – whether it is how to drive a car, play our favorite sport, or take up a new hobby. Upon reflection, I realized how I can transfer my learnings from one arena to the other.
(1) There is power in persistent practice.
Sometimes my yoga instructor demonstrates a pose that evokes a “you’ve got to be kidding” response from me. I always give it a try, and usually the first time I do I look a lot like I feel – completely inept. She managed to work one of those dreaded poses in for several weeks. But I gave it a shot every time, and I have to say it gradually became less awkward. Before too long I was actually able to hold the pose – even if only for a few seconds. And I realized the more I practiced, the better I would get and the easier and more fun it would become.
Isn’t that like life, though? Every day there are things you can sail through and there are those things that require practice and patience before you can feel even the least bit effective. But if you keep at it, one day you will surprise yourself with how far you have come. And everything that led up to that point will be worth it.
(2) Learn from and admire others, but don’t compare yourself to them.
As a novice, you watch people perform so that you can see how things are done. And even as you gain skill, you can still learn a lot from others’ examples. But the minute you begin to compare yourself, you will lose your focus and dilute your effectiveness. This is true regardless of whether comparing yourself to others makes you feel inferior or superior.
When we gauge how well we are doing by comparing ourselves to others, the energy and focus that is required to perform effectively becomes scattered. And if you do not believe you can do something, you will inevitably prove yourself right. On the other end of the spectrum, when you believe you are outperforming others and become a little too smug, your confidence can turn into arrogance, which shifts your focus from what you are doing to how others are perceiving you. And anything that is more focused on appearances than substance lacks foundation and eventually crumbles.
The best of the best gain their confidence from within – as a product of their effort, focus, and the results that come with effort and focus. They don’t need to compare themselves to other to know that they are good – or to learn that they can get even better.
(3) Lighten up and have some fun.
When we get all balled up in knots trying to make things perfect and avoiding every possible misstep, we risk becoming stagnant and playing small. Getting too attached to the results leads us to stiffen up and become consumed with needing things to happen in the exact way we want them to. Without flexibility, we lose our ability to bend and make the necessary course corrections that allow us to ultimately excel. If you ever look at the top performers in any industry, sport, or artistic endeavor you will notice that accompanying their intensity is an ability to relax into their game in such a way that it appears easy and natural. The ability to play at work is another mark of the master.
(4) Replenish yourself regularly.
In our frenetic lives, it is easy to forget about the importance of pausing every once in awhile to make the most of our experiences – whether by giving ourselves a needed break, or simply taking a moment to assess where we are going, to what degree we are still on course, and what, if any, course corrections are necessary. Being willing to invest our precious time into replenishing ourselves in this way pays handsome dividends – and sometimes the times we think we can’t afford to slow down are in fact the times we cannot afford not to.
The speed and effectiveness with which we move toward mastery is a direct result of the way in which we approach our challenges and opportunities. The Real Leader’s Guide to Freedom & Flow Group Intensive is a program designed to help you make a bigger impact while enjoying the process, both on and off the job. Though the spring program is now full, you can get on the waiting list for priority access to the fall program, kicking off in September. For more information, visit The Real Leader’s Guide to Freedom & Flow Group Intensive.
A few weeks ago, I posted an article about feeling your fear and doing it anyway. I wrote that after going months without writing a single word for my blog. I thought I wanted to write. I loved the idea of writing. But the truth is what I really loved was the idea of having written. There is a difference. I wanted the satisfaction of having a finished, polished product that made me feel as though I had accomplished something worthwhile. But I couldn’t get my heart and head into writing at all.
I told myself it was because I didn’t have the time. There were too many other things I needed to do. Too much going on. And while it was true that there my plate was quite full, it was also true that I could have made the time to write if I really tried.
In a moment of complete honesty, I realized that I was simply experiencing plain old yellow bellied fear. I was talking to a friend one day about my worry that I couldn’t write a decent article. She blinked in confusion. “But – you’ve written and published a whole book! You know how to write.” I laughed in recognition that she was right. But it didn’t matter. I was still paralyzed by doubt. And to make matters worse, I was also judging myself for being a pansy.
Have you ever done something like that?
Have you ever let your fear and doubt keep you from doing what you really need and want to do?
The longer I went without writing, the more monumental the task seemed. I just wasn’t sure I could still pull it off. And to save myself the agony of flailing and failing, I just didn’t try at all. I manufactured a bunch of other things that justified putting it on the backburner. But it continued to eat at me, haunting the edges of my mind – and so despite my attempts to avoid it, I experienced agony anyway.
One day when I just couldn’t stand sitting at my desk for another minute, I went for a run. I didn’t really want to, but I needed to get away and clear my head. It had been awhile since I went running. My body was heavy and stiff.
“Do I really want to do this?” I asked myself.
“No. But I’m gonna do it anyway.”
So I started moving my legs and ran down the street. It was not fun. I was not enjoying myself. But I kept at it because I knew that feeling wouldn’t last long. I just needed to warm up and find my zone, and then it would feel good. Maybe even great. And that’s exactly what happened. I came back refreshed, renewed, and energized.
And then it hit me. Perhaps the same approach that got me into my running zone could get me into my writing zone. Maybe all I needed was to warm up – to give myself permission to not be in my zone, but to move anyway. Every athlete worth his salt knows the importance of warming up. Broadcasters do tongue twisters before they get on the air. Some of the best actors are in character long before they get in front of the camera. Even cars and other machinery runs better when the engines are warm.
I remembered reading recommendations for writing warm-ups. I had scoffed at them before, thinking they were a complete waste of time. If I couldn’t find the time to write as way it was, why would I want to add another chunk of time onto writing something that I would end up throwing away? It seemed silly. But I tried it.
What I discovered is that a warm-up – whether for writing or anything else, doesn’t necessarily need to take a whole lot of time. Five minutes is all that was recommended. Five minutes of sitting at my computer writing a stream of consciousness, letting my fingers dance across the keyboard without stopping, and without regard for spelling, punctuation or typos. Five minutes of typing anything – even if it was “this is stupid, I don’t know why I am doing this. I don’t even know what to write about. I don’t think doing a warm-up is going to help anything. I want ice cream. Blah, blah, blah.”
The more that I typed, the more I began to express my fears and doubts. I moved into my resistance and put it right out there on the paper in black and white. I wrote about what was on my mind, what was weighing on me. What I was afraid I would do. And what I was afraid I wouldn’t do. And I began to feel lighter, less encumbered, and more fluid as my doubts began to give way to something more interesting that was waiting to break through.
Five minutes. The timer buzzed. And then I proceeded to write an article. I was amazed as what used to take hours came flying out in a matter of minutes. I let it rip, deciding not to edit myself as I went along and giving myself permission to go back and polish things up later. I put my judgment on hold and just did what I wanted and needed to do. And it was wonderful. I was enjoying the process again. And when I did, the end result took care of itself.
Later I had lunch with another friend as I shared with him my latest discovery. His kind brown eyes narrowed with intensity as he asked, “Why do we doubt ourselves?”
“Because we’re afraid we can’t do what we need to do.” I answered.
“Do you doubt that you are sitting here in front of me?” He replied.
“No,” I laughed. “Of course not.”
“Why do you not doubt that?” he asked, unphased.
“Because I can see for myself that I am sitting in front of you.” I shot back.
“Exactly!” he said. “You don’t doubt what you can see, hear and feel with your own senses.”
And then I realized why a warm-up is so very powerful. When we doubt ourselves, we begin to tell ourselves stories about how we can’t do anything all that well. And then we believe those stories and become more firmly entrenched on our backsides. We become stuck in inertia without indication that we can do anything but stay there.
But when we start moving in a direction – any direction – we begin to have even the smallest shred of evidence to contradict the doubt. And once we start moving, we gain momentum that allows us to carry on. Even if we are moving in the wrong direction, that momentum gives us what we need to turn things around and go another way.
So I started doing writing warm ups in the morning before I begin doing anything, whether it is writing or anything else. And I challenge you to do the same. Think of it as a bit of stretching and some light calisthenics for the mind and the spirit. Allow yourself a few minutes (even if it is just five) of not judging yourself – write whatever the hell you want. You might be surprised at what comes out – and what letting it rip allows you to do that you may not have ever realized you had in you.
“As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.”
Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Every day when I pull into my garage, my headlights illuminate a box of solar garden lanterns my father bought for me for Christmas a few years ago. Every time I see them I am reminded that I need to set them up. But something stops me. I don’t know what it is, really. Maybe I feel like I don’t have the time to do it. Part of me is unsure exactly where to put them. But I have to admit that I also worry it will be too complicated. That I won’t be able to figure it out quickly. That I’ll get bogged down with it. And so these beautiful lights are still sitting in the box in our garage.
A couple of shelves over from the solar lights are bags of palm tree supplements and fertilizers. I bought them a few months ago with the good intention of trying to give our trees an extra leg up in the scorching summer heat. Every weekend, I see on my list of weekend projects, “fertilize palm trees”. But the bags are still sitting on the shelf. They are heavy and stinky. And it’s hot outside. Admittedly it is not at the top of my list of priorities. But really, why have I let them sit for so long? When I’m totally honest with myself, I realize it’s because I’m anxious about whether or not I’ll figure out the right ratios and the right way to spread the stuff around the dirt – whether I’ll have to dig or sprinkle, and then I just figure there’s something more pressing that needs to get done.
Silly, stupid stuff, right? Maybe. Maybe not. The other day it hit me that these things I let sit in the garage may be indicative of a larger, more significant pattern in my life. One that is keeping me stuck and jamming up my creative energy. You see, I haven’t written in a very long time. I love to write. It frees me. It feeds me. And yet I haven’t allowed myself to do it. Why?
I got hung up in my head. Silly decisions that I kept putting off. Little complications that I allowed to fester and grow. What to write about? Should I do an article or a video? Where should I post it, now that I have a couple of different websites and a column that I contribute to? When should I write? What if I can’t get it all done in the time I have? What if I start and then I can’t finish? I go around and around in my head until I become incredibly irritated with myself.
And then I go find something else to do. Something safe. Something clean and easy to check the box on. And I have a few seconds of a very fleeting and artificial sense of accomplishment that slowly fades into a nagging, unsettling feeling. Over the last few weeks, I’ve developed an irritating muscle cramp that has become so painful I am having trouble moving in certain ways. Whether it is related or not, it is the perfect physical equivalent to what is going on in my mind.
And this morning it hit me. The dynamic that keeps me from tackling the boxes and bags in the garage is the same dynamic that has blocked my writing. I’m in fear. And I’m doubting myself. I’m worrying about all the things that could go wrong. That could make things hard. And I’m creating all kinds of distractions and complications to keep myself from doing what I really need to do most. And it is becoming painful.
The last box that I let sit for months was a printer we got over the summer for my kids to use for their school projects. I could tell you it sat in the box because they didn’t really need it until school started. But the truth is, it stayed in the box because I didn’t want to deal with it. In my mind it was a complicated endeavor that would have me confused and take hours of time. After school started again, I realized I had to muscle up and get the darn thing plugged in.
I know some of you are probably laughing right now. Really? How hard can it be to set up a printer? When I finally tore open the box and started following the directions I was laughing at myself too. It really wasn’t that hard. Until we flipped the switch and got an error message that the carriage was jammed before we ever even put paper in it. I spent the next forty minutes talking to technical support and then finally boxing up the printer to send back to the manufacturer (I had waited too long to be able to just bring it back to the store.)
My fear was validated in the same way that it was validated the last time I tried to assemble a piece of furniture only to find that when I thought I was almost done I had to completely disassemble everything and put it back together again following instructions written in really bad English and accompanied by pictures that didn’t look anything like the parts I had.
This morning I realized it’s not that my fear isn’t justified.
It’s just that I can’t let it stop me.
I almost let this fear keep me from coaching my daughter’s volleyball team. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. But I hesitated because my daughter has never actually played volleyball and I have never coached any sport at all. What if I couldn’t remember how the game goes, what the positions are, how the players rotate? What if I let the girls (or their parents) down? What if it becomes apparent that I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m doing?
I didn’t see it as a lucky thing at the time, but it turned out that the only way my daughter and her friends could be on the same team was if I became their coach. So I did. Reluctantly at first – and somewhat begrudgingly. Then I realized that despite my reservations, it’s really a lot of fun. And I don’t have to have all the answers. Others are happy to help me fill in the gaps, tell me what I don’t know, give me ideas, and offer support. And the look on the girls’ faces when they do something they couldn’t do before is priceless. Thank God I didn’t let my silly doubts and fears keep me from this amazing experience.
Funny how little things like solar lanterns and palm tree fertilizer can provoke such powerful insights. The irony that I am a coach who helps others get out of their fear and into their zones isn’t lost on me. But I get it. I understand why it’s so hard. And I also know why it is so very important. That’s why I wanted to share with you my own inner struggles – because we all have them. The only thing that really matters is what we do about it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some palm trees to fertilize.
Photo credit: David Castillo Domenici, Free Digital Photos
In the Shadow of a Daunting Task
Do you ever get to a place where you’ve just run out of energy and feel like you simply can’t do another thing? For many, this seems to happen around 3pm or so – or right after lunch. I used to think it was just a biological phenomonenon – perhaps the effect of having to digest food, or needing to eat some. I’ve tried chocolate, but it never quite works as well as I’d like it to – and it just leaves me wanting more.
This afternoon, I felt like I hit a wall. And I did. It was physical as well as mental. I actually felt the wall go up as I contemplated a list I recently made of all that I hope to accomplish in the coming weeks and months and tried to figure out where (and how) to start. The sensation originated in my stomach and rose slowly up my chest, kind of like heartburn. Then it sunk heavily like a boulder thrown into a pond, covering my mind with muddy residue. My impulse was to escape. So I left my computer and took a short break, slumping into an overstuffed chair and closing my eyes for a minute.
As I sat there, I began to think about my state and see if I could identify its cause. It was not an unfamiliar feeling. I had experienced it a few weeks ago after our dog tore into a bag of garbage containing remnants of the previous evening’s dinner and spread it all over the yard – and again right after I opened the box containing my new wireless printer and sat staring with an aching head at instructions that may as well have been in a different language. (That printer is still in the box, by the way.) And then I realized that it wasn’t the work ahead of me that was causing me the angst as much as what I was believing about it.
At bedtime, when my kids were young, they would get scared by shapes in their room that they couldn’t make out. In the absence of information, they created their own stories about what they were seeing, which usually involved some kind of monster or other unwelcome guest. But once the lights were flipped on and they realized the shadows were simply the product of a jacket thrown over the back of a chair or a teddy bear with a large hat, they settled back into their beds and slept peacefully.
I think we do this all the time with the projects and tasks we face on a regular basis – and sadly, also with our grandest dreams and visions. In the light of day, we see them glimmer with promise and possibility. But in the dark, our doubts and fears creep in and have a way of distorting things. This is the point where the skeptics welcome the optimists to reality. But it isn’t reality at all. It is an illusion that has been created by a frightened mind.
The stories we tell ourselves in the dark are those of peril and potential failure. In the absence of knowing exactly what it will take to accomplish the task, project or dream and whether we will be able to execute on it, we begin to identify with our doubt which amplifies the enormity what lies before us. The shadow of a task magnified becomes a feat that feels insurmountable. But flip on the lights and challenge the assumptions that make a creation feel heavy, and it becomes a collection of smaller pieces that can be gradually assembled over time. As Lao Tzu once said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Whenever I feel the heaviness that comes with writing the book I started over three years ago, I know that I have entered my dark room. In the absence of light, I am prone to question my ability and my nerve, compare myself to others, and amplify the work it will take to finish the darn thing. The darkness has a way of casting shadows on everything else that needs to get done as well. But in the light, I realize all I need to do is write a page – and then another – and then another. And each seemingly insurmountable task can be broken down into a simpler component that I can get through with even just a little effort. I can breathe through my fear and move into each experience, letting go of the outcome and enjoying the process itself.
When I stop to think about it, cleaning up the garbage the dog scattered around the yard wasn’t nearly so miserable as I thought it would be. And setting up the printer probably won’t be either. The other, higher aspirations can be approached in a lighter, simpler manner as well. With this in mind, I will keep on writing… one page at a time.
Copyright Synchronistics Coaching & Consulting 2010. All rights reserved.
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