"Fear keeps us rooted in the past. Fear of the unknown, fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, fear of not having enough, fear of not being enough, fear of the future – all these fears and more keep us trapped, repeating the same old patterns, and making the same choices over and over again. Fear prevents us from moving outside the comfort of what we know. It's nearly impossible to achieve our highest vision for our lives as long as we are being guided by our fears." –Debbie Ford, American self-help author.
Fears present themselves in many forms, whether it is being in a boat and not seeing the bottom of the ocean or not being able to see the results of a pending decision, fear casts a shadow over your life that inhibits you from learning about yourself.
Fear is defined as having an increased sensitivity to ambiguous, uncertain threats, which elicit emotional responses such as worry, doubt and anxiety, and are a result of not wanting to get out of your comfort zone. I am here to tell you that it is acceptable to feel fear; however, do not let that fear dictate your actions or lack of actions in this case. Embrace your fears and face them head-on so that you can experience life to the fullest.
Personal Experience: Fearing the Unknown
In January of 2017, I was preparing for my final quarter of graduate school. At a town hall meeting before the beginning of the quarter, current and incoming students met to discuss expectations and challenges for the upcoming quarter. We broke out into smaller groups, and one of my professors posed the question, “What is something that scares you going into this quarter?” As I thought about it, I realized that once the quarter ended, I never had to go back to school again. Ever since kindergarten began, once the school year ended, I got a short break and was back in school. I never had to think about the next step because the next step had already been planned for me. So, my response to her question was that I was afraid of not knowing what was next. I feared the unknown. Once the quarter ended, everything beyond that was up to me, and that was frightening and made me nervous. I experienced a sense of anxiety, worry and even self-doubt that I could not handle life without someone telling me what to do.
The process I took to overcome this fear started with talking it out. Expressing these anxieties helped me accept my trepidation and why it was there. Coming to terms with the fearfulness I held meant realizing that failure was a possible outcome; however, so was success, and it was just as likely an outcome. I was able to alter my perspective on these concerns and decided to embrace them as opposed to avoiding them. By doing this, fear of the unknown began to fill me with excitement. I did not know what was coming next, I did not have anything planned, which started to excite me because I began to see that I would be in control of my life and what I wanted to do next. This all started with a debilitating fear that I turned into motivation.
The Four-Step Process
To shed your fear of the unknown, you can take four easy steps: understanding, investigation, acceptance and embrace. First, you must develop an understanding of your fear. The brain prefers to view things negatively and does not like being in unfamiliar situations. The brain responds with self-limiting beliefs based on what might happen versus the actual reality of the situation. You begin to develop this “what if I fail?” narrative that keeps you from stepping into the unknown. Therefore, the first step of understanding the fear of the unknown is acknowledging that the mind is creating this idea that since we do not know what lies ahead, we should not continue down that path. Your brain is creating this fear by the thoughts that your brain is hardwired to develop.
Next, do some investigative work on the cause of your phobia of the unknown. In other words, trying to identify why this is something you dread. Fear can be paralyzing and can stop you from living life to the fullest. When you get into unfamiliar situations that require you to step out of your comfort zone, take a second to analyze why this situation is something that scares you. Developing an understanding of why this fear exists within you can help you cope with and move past your anxieties. For example, when I feared the unknown during graduate school, it existed within me because I never truly felt like I was in control of my own decisions, so I felt I was not ready or prepared for that after graduate school. Once this realization occurred, I was able to implement power statements, “you will be great”, “you can do this”. These helped identify all of my qualities and traits that showed that I was prepared for life after graduate school, that I was ready to make decisions on my own. Once you can identify the cause of this fear, you can begin brainstorming on ways to respond when placed in those situations.
Part of the reason the fear of the unknown exists is that you have no idea if you will succeed or fail. Therefore, you must accept the possibility of failure in these situations to move beyond this dismay. Nobody wants to fail, that is certain, but there is this negative connotation on what failure actually means. Failure can be defined as the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, which is true, but failure also leads towards the path of success. Without failure, there is no success.
J.K. Rowling, the famous author of the Harry Potter series, was rejected by 12 publishers before someone took a chance on her. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in the history of the NBA, was cut from his high school junior varsity team as a sophomore. He also has one of the greatest quotes of all time related to failure: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Failure is an opportunity to learn about yourself and learn which ways work and which ways do not. Therefore, remove the societal idea of failure and use these experiences as opportunities to learn. Doing this creates a positive outcome associated with those situations. If you cannot accept the possibility of failure as an option, then your fear of the unknown will convince you to stay put in your comfort zone, minimizing your chances of being successful and fully experiencing what life has to offer.
Finally, after you develop an understanding of your fear and have learned to accept failure, let the fear excite you. Embrace the unknown. Instead of viewing the unknown as a potential threat, start seeing it as a challenge for you to overcome. Turn those nerves of fear into nerves of excitement. For example, I went skydiving a couple of years back, and I was so afraid because I did not know if I was going to live or die. I let the fear of the unknown paralyze me from this experience. Once I embraced the unknown and reinterpreted these nerves as excitement, I jumped out of that plane and experienced many emotions that I may never experience again. Let's say you are investing your money in some new venture. You might be afraid to invest because you do not know if there will be a return on your investment. This is a high risk-high reward situation, but you are solely focused on the risk. Instead, let that moment excite you, embrace that you do not know what is going to happen next. By stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing the unknown, embracing change will open your eyes to a world of opportunity and potential growth. By making this philosophical change that fear, failure and the unknown are fundamental aspects of life and growth, then you can manage them more successfully and live a fuller life.
Nelson Mandela once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Facing your fears is a courageous act, it shows bravery, it shows belief in yourself, and it shows that you can withstand what comes next. Your fear of the unknown is created by your thoughts and self-limiting beliefs that are all held in your mind. The goal should not be to eliminate fear entirely, but too often its hold against you. When facing the unknown, remember to understand the fear, investigate where it’s coming from, accept it, and embrace it. Just breathe and enjoy the ride.
By Joey Velez MA, MBA