Growing up, I was terrified of heights. To cope with my fear, I did what many people do: I avoided it. The funny thing about avoidance is that, while it sounds like a passive tactic and an easy way out, it actually requires energy.
I would plan ways to avoid being confronted with heights. Eventually, I had enough of avoidance. I decided that I wanted to confront my fear. So I booked a trip to the most challenging place I could think of: the Grand Canyon.
It would have been terrifying enough to stand at an observation point and peer down into the canyon. But that wasn’t my plan. I was going for broke. I was going to descend into the canyon on foot.
One step at a time
That slow descent into the Grand Canyon has become for me a metaphor for confronting any fear. The message is simple: Instead of allowing fear to be a paralyzing force, confront it one step at a time.
You don’t need to be afraid of heights to know fear. Fear is the single most limiting force in our lives — whether it’s fear of failing at a new venture, fear that our ideas will be rejected, fear that we’ll lose our jobs, or fear that people will discover we’re not as competent or talented as they think.
The difference is that unlike my fear of heights, many of us don’t realize our fears and we don’t comprehend how they hold us back. Until we can name them, we can’t confront them.
I realized that my fear of heights was crippling when I admitted the lengths I was taking to avoid my fear. People use avoidance around fear all the time: we avoid speaking frankly or truthfully for fear of confrontation or for fear of being perceived as a whistleblower.
We avoid showing emotion or appearing too human for fear of being perceived as weak; we avoid excelling, for fear of being given more responsibility that we won’t be able to handle.
We become conditioned
In some cases, our mechanisms for avoidance are so ingrained we fail to notice we’re even doing them anymore. A boss who has a longstanding habit of intimidating employees and creating a climate of fear will be slow to admit that his behavior is masking his own fears — fears of his authority being challenged or undermined, or fears of being exposed as an ineffective leader.
An employee who fears management may go to great lengths to hide issues of safety on the plant floor; he fears that if management finds out, he’ll lose his job. Avoidance takes energy — negative energy, and can leave us physically and psychologically exhausted over time.
Both the boss and the employee may be so accustomed to avoidance that they fail to realize the toll it’s taking on them. They don’t realize that they would be more effective (and safer) if they confronted their fears rather than avoided them.
Are you using avoidance as a tactic when it comes to fear? Are you spending energy and devising tactics to avoid what you fear?
Where to begin a solution
Begin by paying attention to what you’re avoiding. Listen to your gut as you go through your day. Are there instances where you avoid doing/saying what you know is in your best interests because you fear the result?
Take small steps. Once you know what you’re avoiding, force yourself to take small steps in the direction of your fear. If you’ve gotten feedback that employees find you unapproachable, what can you do to be more open? Start with a small time commitment, such as five minutes.
What can you do in five minutes? Believe it or not, five minutes can be powerful. Perhaps initiate a five-minute conversation with an employee — ask a question, listen attentively to the answer, and then restate what you heard.
Fear keeps us stuck in place — for weeks, months, or even years. The only way forward is through awareness and willingness — awareness of what we fear and willingness to take the first step.
Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, please visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org