In high school, I decided not to run for student body president because I was afraid of losing to the most popular guy in school. I didn’t read a single self-help book until two years ago because I was afraid other people would think I was “soft.” I once participated in a beauty pageant simply out of fear that if I didn’t my mother would be disappointed in me.

Fear can render us paralyzed – like a deer in headlights – or it can motivate us to act. But if the fear is not justified, our actions will often lead us in the opposite direction of our North Star.

Fear of failure. Fear of disapproval. Fear of losing money. Fear of putting yourself out there or being vulnerable in some way. Have you ever been rendered paralyzed or been motivated to act from a place of fear?

If yes, next time try my handy dandy strategy for defeating fear.

Step One: Make Friends with Your “Inner Lizard”

The most primitive part of the brain is called the reptilian brain or as Martha Beck likes to call it, “The Inner Lizard.” Its purpose? To continually broadcast fears of lack (you will never have enough time, money or love) and attack (something terrible is about to happen). There is really no way to stop the reptilian brain from broadcasting fears so don’t bother trying. A better strategy is to make friends with the lizard. You can do this by creating a vivid picture in your mind of your inner lizard and give it a name (my inner lizard is Lizzy). Whenever you start to get into a fearful state of mind, picture your lizard and notice what he’s saying to you.

Step Two: Listen to Your Inner Lizard

Your lizard loves to offer elaborate, and often very creative, worst-case scenarios about the future. Start to notice what he’s saying. When my father-in-law was in the ICU, for example, my husband was doing a lot of travel back in forth to see him. My lizard was telling me that, because hubby wasn’t able to work, we were going to go broke for sure. We would have to sell the house…. I would have to give up my career as a life coach. My family would be out in the streets in a matter of weeks!

The thing is, the lizard only tells worst-case scenarios. He thinks he’s helping you. In reality he’s just making you sick (fear puts the body into a hyper alert state that, if sustained, can lead to chronic disease), uptight and extremely unhappy.

Martha Beck puts it this way:

“Fear in the absence of an actual physical threat (such as say a grizzly bear) is always ridiculous because it’s not actionable – there’s nothing I can do about an imagined danger except develop ulcers and high blood pressure.”

Oh and, by the way, focusing on your worst fears does not make you safe! More often it brings about what you fear. Think about it. Have you ever been so anxious about getting a job that you went into the interview feeling desperate? I bet your potential employer could tell and I bet it’s why you didn’t get the gig. Or maybe you have a clingy friend who, out of fear of being alone, calls you everyday. All of which leads you to distance yourself from her.

Step Three: Offer Yourself Other Scenarios

After you’ve identified the very worst-case scenario courtesy of your Inner Lizard, see if you can come up with some other scenarios about the thing you fear. For example, I have a client who came to me very worried about her daughter moving away. Her lizard was telling her that the daughter would have no support, suffer financial setbacks, become isolated and depressed and perhaps do something harmful to herself. Or at the very least become a welfare mom. So I asked my client to come up with a neutral-case scenario. She said it was also possible the daughter might just be unhappy with the move but stick it out for a year to fulfill her lease. Then I asked my client to think of a positive-case scenario. My client eventually conceded that the move might actually benefit the daughter – the change might expand her horizons and encourage her to explore some new career directions. Finally I asked my client to think of a fabulous-case scenario. You get the idea.

Step Four: Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis of Each Version

Keep in mind that all these scenarios – worst, neutral, postive, fabulous – are all just stories we project onto the future. The positive-case scenario is just as likely to happen as the worst. So ask yourself, what’s the benefit of buying into the worst-case version? If you think there’s a benefit to holding on to the worst-case, I challenge you to question that belief. I have a hunch it’s only going to lead to more suffering for you. Now ask yourself, what are the costs of focusing on the worst-case? As I mentioned, it’s more than likely just making you sick, miserable and even more vulnerable to the thing you fear. Go through the other scenarios and do the same thing. Are there benefits to believing the fabulous-case scenario? What might they be?

Step Five: Notice that Even the Worst-Case Scenario Offers Opportunities

My client noticed that that even in the bad case version, there were opportunities for positive outcomes. Her daughter might learn from her setbacks to take more responsibility for her life and her own happiness…

As Martha Beck points out:

“You can create a post hoc interpretation of your life as a wonderful process where bad things are always meant to create good things. Please realize that this is no more arbitrary than creating a post hoc interpretation of your life as a meaningless parade of events that usually end badly. The personal story in your head is always a fictional story crafted to match your biases…”

So remember to ask yourself, even if the thing you fear comes true, how is it happening for you and not to you?

And by the way, remember my fear that we might go broke because my husband wasn’t able to work? Well, as soon as his clients found out that his father was sick, they generously sent him an avalanche of business that he was able to do when he was back in the office. He is now having one of the best months financially of his entire career.

Step Six: Act From a Place of Peace Not Fear

Armed with a picture of other potential scenarios and a respect for the opportunity that often comes with difficulty, you are much more able to act from a place of peace. When you are not acting on irrational fear or rendered paralyzed by worst-case scenarios, you are more likely to address challenges, act on your own behalf or on the behalf of other people much more effectively.

Pema Chodron, in When Things Fall Apart, tells the story of a young warrior who battled Fear.

The young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved and do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the warrior learned how to defeat fear.

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2 Responses

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amy Pearson, Amy Pearson. Amy Pearson said: Here's a quick way to defeat your fears: [...]

  2. edna says:

    yes, thank u so much for this article it is owsome, yes i know what u mean by the lizzard i call it the chatterbox, yes it is full of negatism, sometimes when i have to go up in front of the class and say a speech my chatterbox is full of negatism, lots of fear, that i’m not going to say the speech right, or what the student are going to think of me when i’m up their,and so on, i have learned to say daily affirmations, like its going to be allright, i can face it, i wanted to thank u for that little story it is very owsome.

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