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Conquering Fear: How to Lift the Fog That Clouds Your Life

Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything -- real feelings, true happiness, real joy.
They can't get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy, you're in for the ride of your life.

--Bob Diamond, Defending Your Life1

By Mike McCurley 2

The 1991 movie Defending Your Life told the story of a mid-level advertising executive (Albert Brooks) who was killed in a car crash and then whisked to Judgment City, the fictional afterlife where the recently deceased are put on trial to determine whether they've learned to overcome fear during their time on earth.

If they have, they get to move on to the next destination the universe has in store for them. If they haven't, they get sent back to earth to try again. (Bob Diamond, the character cited above, is the "Defender" appointed to represent Brooks' character during his trial.)

The movie didn't make much of a splash at the box office, but I considered it worth owning because of its overarching message: fear keeps us from living life to its fullest, so if we want to maximize the brief time we have on this planet (regardless of whether what comes after this life is Heaven, Judgment City, or eternal nothingness), we need to overcome fear.

In many such self-improvement efforts, a life coach can be a tremendous help, providing encouragement and a sense of accountability that solo attempts might lack.

Fear affects us in big ways and small. It may keep us in an unhappy relationship because we're afraid of spending the rest of our lives alone. It might keep us locked in our homes because we fear crowds, loud noises, or strangers. It could be keeping us in a dead-end job because we're afraid we'll lose our homes if we open the business we really want to start.

Fear of failure, dogs, water, social situations, loneliness, intimacy, success-you name it, and somebody, somewhere has a fear of it. For those facing true, life-paralyzing phobias, a physician's help is probably in order. But most fear isn't pathological. It's simply life-inhibiting. With a little work, a lot of determination, and a heavy dose of courage, most fears can be confronted and, ultimately, conquered.

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. 

--Edmund Burke 3

Being brave doesn't mean you aren't afraid. In fact, without fear, there is no bravery. The goal of self-improvement isn't to have no fear. It's to confront your fear and rise above it. Here are some tips to do just that:

Surrender to it: As an exercise, hypothetically surrender to your fear and let your anxieties go as far as they can. If you quit your job and start your own business, you could fail and lose your life savings. You might even lose your home, and your spouse may leave you because your marriage has fallen apart over your money troubles. And you never get to see your children anymore and you're alone and homeless and hungry. All because you started your own business.

It's not a pretty picture, is it? But how realistic is it? Is there anything you can do to prevent that horrific scenario from playing itself out? Knowing the risks and having a plan to prevent or address problems (such as having a well thought-out business plan and sufficient savings) can do much to prevent doomsday from happening.

The same steps work for most situations-stuck in a bad marriage because of a fear of being alone? Then take that to its illogical extreme-dying alone in dirty apartment with nobody to comfort you-acknowledge its unlikelihood, and think about the steps you can take to prevent that from happening, like shoring up relationships with neglected friends and family and getting involved in community and volunteer projects or hobbies.

Afraid to ask out a co-worker you have a crush on because you fear being rejected? Play out that rejection, in the most mocking, humiliating way you can, and then 1) admit to yourself that your scenario is highly unlikely and 2) consider how you can prevent or respond to such a scene.

Educate yourself. Most people's fears are, if not irrational, then at least highly unlikely. Information is usually the best weapon in this regard.

For instance, although some people quake at the sight of a spider, they might be a little calmer if they knew that of the more than 20,000 species of spiders in the Americas, only 60 are even capable of biting a human4. And of those 60, only four are considered truly dangerous to humans. And only two of those pose even a slight risk of death. The chances of your encountering one of those two potentially deadly varieties of spider are remote. And a bit of research can sufficiently arm you to treat a bite in the unlikely event it happens.

Another approach is to find examples of people who swallowed their fears, took a leap, and ended up finding true happiness. A stroll through the auto/biography section of your library will turn up lots of stories of people overcame fear, took a risk, and reaped the rewards-mental, physical, emotional and financial.

The goal is not to live recklessly, but to live boldly.

A life lived in fear is a life half lived.
--Strictly Ballroom (1992)5

Start small. One of the best ways to do anything is to start small. Our bodies are hard-wired to resist big changes, so the way to lessen the shock of taking on something new is to take small steps, experience success (or learn from small failures), and build on those early steps.

Someone who is anxious about social situations would be overwhelmed by suddenly plunging herself into the cocktail party circuit. But occasional small gatherings in her or a trusted friend's house would help her get her feet wet enough to eventually take on a party. She may never make it to Mardi Gras, but she probably won't forego all social interaction for the rest of her life.

Whatever your fear is, finding small ways to confront and wear it down, bite by bite, can ultimately bring big rewards.

Practice optimism. Much of fear is based on seeing the negative side of a given situation. A parent who won't let his child play outside because he fears she will be kidnapped is seeing only the possible downside of playing outside, and none of the upside. If he chose to see the upside to playing outside-fresh air, exercise, getting to know the neighbors-he would come to see the benefits of loosening his grip a bit. (He could also take other steps, like arming himself with information about the extreme rarity of stranger kidnapping, educating his daughter about safety issues, and starting small with brief outings, or by going outside with her.)

The truth is that, for the most part, things turn out fine. Our worst fears almost never materialize.

While it's smart to prepare for disasters and worst-case scenarios, if such preparations dominate our life or prevent us from living it to the fullest, we might as well be holed up in an underground bunker. And that's nobody's idea of a life.

1 Defending Your Life, 1991, written and directed by Albert Brooks

2 Mike McCurley is the co-founder of Personal Enhancement Coaching. He provides personal, executive, drug and alcohol, and
  marital enhancement coaching to clients looking to improve their lives through a rigorous process of self-examination,
  goal-setting, and accountability.

3 Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797) Irish political philosopher and the "father" of modern conservatism, in "A Philosophical Enquiry into the
  Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful" (1757)

4 About Nonpoisonous Spiders, By Mona Rigdon,

5 Strictly Ballroom, 1992, written and directed by Baz Luhrmann

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