Originally published on January 27, 2022
Revisiting Old Posts, Fast Forwarding to “Face Your Fear”
Last summer, in one of my posts, I used the story of Medusa — the serpent-headed, Greek monster with a stone-turning gaze — to show us that looking directly into the eyes of our fears can figuratively fossilize us. Put more concretely, as we focus on whatever it is that scares us — usually in an attempt to get past it — we counterintuitively become more anxious about it.
Such a strategy can prove quite harmful in our lives. For example, if we’re going to dinner with someone we find attractive, sitting in our rooms and fretting all day over how the date will play out can propel us into a revved-up, fearful state. That state often then sticks with us until the time of the rendezvous itself and makes us nervous, uptight, and unlike ourselves throughout it. And so, in some ways, the object of our focus becomes our end experience.
In that same Medusa-inspired blog, I also said that we can learn from her tale to find a new, more beneficial way of approaching that which scares us. That is, just like Perseus — the hero who beheaded our snake-haired foe — we can slowly inch ourselves toward frightening events without thinking about them too much or “looking them in the eye.” Then, at the last minute, we can turn and strike our version of Medusa in whichever fashion seems appropriate, given the circumstances.
In the case of a first dinner date, “striking” could very well mean simply arriving at the restaurant, sitting down, and sinking into the conversation unfolding in front of us. Or, in an athletic competition, it could instead mean getting pumped up or “in the zone” right before the starting gun, so we’re able to channel all our energy into the demanding physical task that awaits us.
When I wrote and later looked back at that Medusa-themed post, I thought to myself, “One way or another, what I’m basically telling folks to do here is face their fears in a calm and grounded fashion.” And that’s what we’re going to cover throughout the rest of this post.
Face Your Fear, the Right Way
With all this talk about demons, heroes, and beheadings, I want to make sure I clear something up before we go any further: Just because I’m talking about stories of guts and glory here doesn’t mean I’m glorifying the concept of facing our fears. Nor is that my intention. After all, that’s why the title of this post refers to a grounded approach— not a glamorized, romanticized, or unsubstantiated one.
For, when we look at it empirically, painting anxiety as if it’s some battlefield where we brazenly stand up to and vanquish our opponent rarely gets us anywhere good. If you’ve ever utilized such a strategy in your own life, you’ll know, firsthand, that taunting your distress and acting like a tough guy (or gal) doesn’t actually alleviate any of your symptoms. It just exacerbates your unease and pits your only true friend in this battle against you: yourself.
So, when I talk about facing your fears, I’m not referring to some larger-than-life, slow-motion-cut-scene sort of thing you’d see in a gladiator movie. Instead, I’m alluding to a more humble or methodical kind of strategy. The same one Perseus used (minus the mythological hype), and the same type I cited above in my dating and athletic competition examples. The one where we put wherever it is that lies before us on the back burner and continually seek presence until that event, happening, or circumstance finally arrives.
The reason this strategy works is it allows us to approach legitimately frightening tasks and ordeals without fully acknowledging their scariness. It forces us to put one foot in front of the other until we reach the summit, all without letting the distance between us and that point discourage us. And most importantly, it pushes us to stand up to our fears, albeit in an indirect and much more useful fashion.
But Why Face Your Fear?
A common question I get from coaching clients goes something like this: “What’s the point of facing my anxiety? It’s scary. That’s the last thing I want to do. Why not instead just chill on my safe, warm couch and watch TV?”
Though there are certainly a million ways I, or anyone else, could respond to these questions, my answer boils down to two things. And, as is almost always the case when it comes to mental health, there’s a little nuance to each of them.
First and foremost, we should face our anxiety because we don’t want to miss out on life. Yes, some of the things that scare us are just that — startling ideas, possibilities, or events — and nothing more. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, many of those things scare us because of the uncertainty they bring us or represent. And, much of the time, that uncertainty revolves around something important to us.
To explain what I mean by that, let’s dig into one of our examples from earlier. Namely, when we’re nervous about going out to dinner with an attractive person, the reason we feel the way we do is that we’ve identified what it is we want out of the situation but aren’t sure we’ll get it. Or, instead, we’re afraid we’ll get something much worse altogether. For example, our date storming out on us, finding us repulsive, or bad-mouthing us online afterward.
Even though these negative outcomes feel like the very things we should “turn and face” in this situation, they aren’t. Instead, facing our fears here would mean simply showing up to the date itself and seeing where it takes us. And that leads me back to the two reasons we should face anxiety in the first place.
First off, and specifically, every time we say, “No, fear, I’m not dealing with you today,” we miss out on an opportunity. For example, the chance to date someone we’re really interested in or take first place in a competition.
And secondly, just about every time we face fear, we learn something about both it and ourselves. Sure, sometimes such lessons come in the form of failure or frustration, but still, they’re lessons nonetheless, and we can take them with us the next time we dance with our worries. Moreover, we can stack all those learnings up until, one day, we look back and see we’ve made some serious progress with our mental demons.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that actually approaching fear in a balanced and grounded fashion is ever easy. In fact, it’s often extremely difficult. But you’re here reading this, which means you’ve got all the ambition and grit you need for that task already. And that makes me confident you’ll one day become your own anxiety hero, capable of slaying even the most daunting opponents — albeit in an indirect, methodical, and non-glorified kind of way.
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**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2022