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Have you been allowing fear to dominate your life, why you do what you do, and even where you do it? I'm not talking about day-to-day fears of things like spiders, heights, and public speaking; we all have those.
What I'm talking about is the stomach-turning realization that just about every major decision you've ever made has been to please, appease, or somehow meet the needs of everyone -- except yourself. The realization that you have sold out on yourself and your dreams because you were afraid you might fail or displease those people whose opinions you value.
I'm talking about the fact that you make decisions because you're scared to death of what might happen if you don't take the safe way out. That you will settle for what you don't want instead of pushing for what you do want because you are afraid you might not get it and are scared of how much that would hurt. You are afraid that if you don't settle for a "bird in the hand" you will never get the two in the bush. I'm talking about the fact that you will tell yourself no over and over again because you don't want to face the fear associated with taking a risk of falling flat on your face and thus allowing people in your life to say, "I told you so!"
Rather than possibly standing alone or having to fight for what you truly wanted, dreamed of, or hoped for, you went along with the crowd or let somebody else -- maybe your spouse, parents, friends, or employers -- tell you what you should like, want, or do. Peer pressure, unfortunately, is not an adolescent-only phenomenon. The dangerous thing about a fear-based mind-set is that it paralyzes you and puts you in a comfort zone that's safe and predictable, but causes you to waste precious time in your life on things you don't really want. You've stayed in that comfort zone, scared to death that you would be rejected, that you would fail, disappoint, hurt, or be too much trouble if you dared to say, "Wait a minute, what about me? What about what I want or need?"
Any of this sound familiar? If so, rest assured you're not the only one living this way. In my opinion, probably 80 percent of all decisions are fear-based.
I've been there myself many times. For example, I stayed in private practice for years for all the wrong reasons -- for my dad, for my family, for a society that smiles on young, successful doctors. But it wasn't what I wanted to do. Finally I woke up, looked in the mirror and realized I didn't much like who I saw. That's when I started taking steps to close down my practice and open up a trial consulting firm that (while very risky) turned out to be more fun than the law should allow. Fifteen years later, after discussing it with my family, I took another leap, moving to Hollywood to pursue my own television show. I guess you could say the rest is history.
When you discover or finally admit, as I did, that fear has been driving your decisions and interactions with others, you'll usually find that it's due to a disconnect between who you think you're supposed to be and your authentic self. The authentic self is the you that flourished unselfconsciously during those times in life when you felt happiest and most fulfilled. It is the you that existed before the "cool kids" started excluding you at school, before you were scarred by your parents' divorce, or were abandoned by your spouse or your grown kids -- before you tried and failed, or reached out and were rebuffed. Somewhere inside you, your authentic self is waiting for you to find your way back, to reconnect and get on with the business of living your life honestly and fearlessly.
You may be able to remember a day when you were living your own life agenda. You were filled with excitement about your future because you were engaged in pursuits and relationships that fulfilled you and made you feel alive. But somewhere along the way, you let it happen. For whatever reason, you allowed your own script to be traded for someone else's idea of who you should be. From that point on, the breakdown began to take place.
At first the signs were small. In the areas of your life where you were out of alignment with your true nature, you began to experience internal discomfort. For example, you resented your boss's controlling ways but were unable to confront him about it, so it became a stress you learned to live with. But your sense of betraying yourself by not being honest didn't go away -- it just morphed into a need to self-medicate with alcohol, overeating, massive denial, or other self-destructive habits that brought momentary relief.
Somehow you decided that your worth and decisions had to be validated by someone else, and you began to live in fear of being found out or judged as being "less than." Denying your deepest desires, even in the small things, began to change you, to sabotage who you were underneath it all. After a while, it got easier to ignore your own voice, to trade the courage to be yourself for the path of least resistance in your relationships, at work, even in the dreams you once had for your life. Little lies grew into life-size lies, until everything you did was about maintaining the image you created.
If you've given in to fear-dominated decision-making, you'll probably see yourself in some of the results that show up in two of the most common types of inauthentic living: "Fake It to Make It" and "What I Fear, I Create."
In this first phony-baloney way of living, you feel as though you are masquerading and are just one step away from being found out. Your decisions aren't made in order to grow or explore life, they are all about self-preservation and security. You don't aim to win; your goal becomes simply to not lose. This kind of decision-making is based on avoidance rather than desire.
Maybe you endured abuse from emotionally draining people in your life because you thought they wouldn't love you if you didn't, and you decided it's better to put up with them than be alone. Maybe you've been the dutiful wife to your husband, moving to a town you don't want to live in, spending time with people you can't stand -- all to help him get ahead. Or maybe you've been the obedient adult child or employee, following the party line to keep the peace and believing that you are only allowed to "stay" so long as you don't require much (if anything at all) from those in your life. You know, things like them giving you a vote in what happens to you, treating you with dignity and respect, or being sensitive to what you want or need.
The problem is that on some level it must have worked for you -- maybe you thought it was worth living a lie to have that false sense of security in your marriage or job, or maybe you faked it so long and so well that you began to believe the lie.
The second-most-common fear-dominated type of lifestyle is when your fear becomes so powerful you actually create that which you most fear and dread. You set it up by allowing the fear of it happening to actually alter who you are, what you think, and what you do. If you obsess about an end result, especially a negative one, you may become so preoccupied and distracted that nothing but the negative is possible.
If, for example, you fear being left by your spouse, I believe you can and will create that reality in your life by obsessing over that potential outcome; fear will take over your personality and your spouse will eventually flee. If you fear looking foolish in a public speaking situation, you will so distract yourself with an anxiety-ridden internal dialogue that you will, in fact, make a fool out of yourself. You will have created what you feared. It's simple science, really: For every thought you have there is a physiological reaction, and whatever the cues you are sensitized to, you will see them to the exclusion of all else.
Seven of the most common and destructive fears that influence the decision-making process are: fear of loss of control, fear of humiliation, fear of pain and punishment, fear of rejection, fear of responsibility, fear of intimacy, and fear of failure. For more information on how each of these fears work and a quiz to see how much they're affecting you, go to www.lhj.com/fearquiz.
For now, let's look at just one of these fears: the fear of loss of control. If you have this fear, it can show up in different ways. For example, it might emerge as a financial issue, causing you to, say, open a secret bank account even though you and your husband both agreed to share finances and draw from one account. The problem is not that you want to have your own money, but that your fear of losing control caused you to handle the situation in a less than honest way. In such instances, finances are seldom the only secretive area. If you need to control things, you most likely have intimacy issues that keep you from fully engaging with your partner emotionally, and maybe even physically.
At work, fear of losing control might show up in the way you relate to your boss. Maybe you always end up getting your work done, but only after a lot of resistance or debate over how to do it. The tension that comes out of this constant battle (which can take a passive-aggressive tone if you know better than to be too overt in your lack of cooperation) can possibly lead to things like less energy, less trust between you and your boss, and a reputation as a poor team player, which ultimately cycles back into more fear of loss of control. Do you see how far-reaching the consequences of fear can be in your life?
Fearless living is passionate. You must decide that it is your turn and that you fear continuing on the path you're on more than you fear changing. That means deciding you are worth it and you are not going to play the game of life with sweaty palms anymore. Will asserting your will go smoothly? No, probably not, but that's okay because the other life wasn't so smooth either. At least this way you are working for what you do want instead of what you don't want -- trust me, that is not something to be scared about. And, let me say, being true to yourself and your needs is not being selfish. You cannot give away what you do not have. If you cheat yourself, then you are not whole and you cheat everyone in your life.
Now, there's a difference between not being fear-dominated and being reckless. If you've always wanted to be a dancer on Broadway, but you're 5-foot-2, 180 pounds, and have a serious case of asthma, not to mention a husband and two kids at home, I'm not suggesting that you head to New York with nothing but a plane ticket and a dream. I want you to focus, instead, on those areas that you have always felt do not truly represent who you are and what you want to be doing that you are able to responsibly change. And remember, it's not really dancing on Broadway that you yearn for. It is instead the feelings that you believe the Broadway experience will give you, and trust me, there are many ways to create them. Maybe teaching dance to children in the local theater group would come close. You never know until you try.
Also, don't make the mistake of thinking change is necessarily external. Sometimes it involves looking within. So be sure to reflect and start with any changes needed on the inside before you start moving everything around on the outside.
Recognize that there are risks involved in living an authentic life. Be willing to endure losses in order to have what's on the other side, and always remember the high price you've already paid for being inauthentic.
You can find strength within you and ways to better use the energy spent on being afraid. The amount of emotional energy that resides in your fears is tremendous. Just imagine that same amount of energy redirected into those things that will bring you pleasure rather than distress!
1. Decide what you really care about.
What does your life look like in a perfect world? Don't give excuses for why your life doesn't look like that. Just paint in broad strokes in your mind, and pull together those elements that best represent your ideal life.
2. Examine where you are now.
How far off course are you? If, after comparing the list of what you truly desire to what your life looks like right now, you feel like you have bailed on yourself, the next step is to do an audit and see how wide the gap is from where you are to where you want to be.
3. Make a life decision.
This is more than a casual commitment -- it's your psychological and behavioral bedrock. It is more than a passing fancy or casual commitment. It is a decision that has been made from the heart with a powerful emotional commitment. If you are short of cash on your way to the movies, you don't debate, "Gee, do I stop by an ATM or do I rob this 7-11?" Some things are not options; you've made a life decision that you will not steal. if you have been living a fear-dominated life, you must make a life decision to leave what is unreal yet familiar.
4. Acknowledge your fears.
Examine your behaviors and attitudes, then go deeper to find the fears that drive them. Once you have identified your "fear demons," it will be easier to spot them in your decision-making.
5. Challenge irrational fears.
Have you accepted irrational fears as your personal truth? Fears that you're worthless, or if you share your problems or ask things of others you'll lose your relationships? These thoughts impact every choice you make -- and they won't budge unless you challenge them.
6. Make it happen.
The difference between dreams and goals is a time line and an action plan. If you have dreamed of leaving Minnesota winters behind and heading south to set up a cozy little bed-and-breakfast, what are you doing to make it happen? Are you online in your spare time, learning about the best areas for a B&B, identifying a good real-estate agent, and maybe checking out some grants you might qualify for? Are you reworking your financial situation to free up some cash?
7. Get help.
There are a lot of resources out there to help you, starting with informal options like a trusted friend or partner who can help you identify your fears and help you stay on top of your resolutions. Or you can go to the next level with counseling, psychotherapy approaches, or pastoral counseling.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2008.