Move From Fear to Action, Even if You Expect to Fail

When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Most of our obstacles would melt away if, instead of cowering before them, we should make up our minds to walk boldly through them.
– Orison Swett Marden

Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air.
– John Quincy Adams

Now that you’ve acknowledged some things you’ve been afraid to face, how do you feel? You probably still feel paralyzed against taking action. That’s OK. While diving right in and confronting a fear head-on can be very effective, that may require more courage than you feel you can summon right now.

The most important point I want you to learn from this article is that real courage is a mental skill, not an emotional one. Neurologically it means using the thinking neocortex part of your brain to override the emotional limbic impulses. In other words, you use your human intelligence, logic, and independent will to overcome the limitations you’ve inherited as an emotional mammal.

Now this may make logical sense, but it’s far easier said than done. You may logically know you’re in no real danger if you get up on a stage and speak in front of 1000 people, but your fear kicks in anyway, and the imaginary threat prevents you from volunteering for anything like this. Or you may know you’re in a dead end job, but you can’t seem to bring yourself to say the words, “I quit.”

Courage, however, doesn’t require that you take drastic action in these situations. Courage is a learned mental skill that you must condition, just as weight training strengthens your muscles. You wouldn’t go into a gym for the first time and try to lift 300 pounds, so don’t think that to be courageous you must tackle your most paralyzing fear right away.

There are two methods I will suggest for building courage. The first approach is analogous to progressive weight training. Start with weights you can lift but which are challenging for you, and then progressively train up to heavier and heavier weights as you grow stronger. So tackle your smallest fears first, and progressively train up to bigger and bigger fears. Training yourself to lift 300 pounds isn’t so hard if you’ve already lifted 290. Similarly, speaking in front of an audience of 1000 people isn’t so tough once you’ve already spoken to 900.



So grab a piece of paper, and write down one of your fears that you’d like to overcome. Then number from one to ten, and write out ten variations of this fear, with number one being the least anxiety-producing and number ten being the most anxiety-producing. This is your fear hierarchy. For example, if you’re afraid of asking someone out on a date, then number one on your list might be going out to a public place and smiling at someone you find attractive (very mild fear). Number two might be smiling at ten attractive strangers in a single day. Number ten might be asking out your ideal date in front of all your mutual friends, when you’re almost certain you’ll be turned down flat and everyone in the room will laugh (extreme fear). Now start by setting a goal to complete number one on your list. Once you’ve had that success (and success in this case simply means taking action, regardless of the outcome), then move on to number two, and so on, until you’re ready to tackle number ten or you just don’t feel the fear is limiting you anymore. You may need to adjust the items on your list to make them practical for you to actually experience. And if you ever feel the next step is too big, then break it down into additional gradients. If you can lift 290 pounds but not 300, then try 295 or even 291. Take this process as gradually as you need to, such that the next step is a mild challenge for you but one you feel fairly confident you can complete. And feel free to repeat a past step multiple times if you find it helpful to prepare you for the next step. Pace yourself.

By following this progressive training process, you’ll accomplish two things. You’ll cease reinforcing the fear/avoidance response that you exhibited in the past. And you’ll condition yourself to act more courageously in future situations. So your feelings of fear will diminish at the same time that your expression of courage grows. Neurologically you’ll be weakening the limbic control over your actions while strengthening the neocortical control, gradually moving from unconscious mouse-like to conscious human-like behavior.

The second approach to building courage is to acquire additional knowledge and skill within the domain of your fear. Confronting fears head-on can be helpful, but if your fear is largely due to ignorance and lack of skill, then you can usually reduce or eliminate the fear with information and training. For example, if you’re afraid to quit your job and start your own business, even though you’d absolutely love to be in business for yourself, then start reading books and taking classes on how to start your own business. Spend an afternoon at your local library researching the subject, or do the research online. Join the local Chamber of Commerce and any relevant trade organizations in your field. Attend conferences. Build connections. Enlist the help of a mentor. Build your skill to the point where you start to feel confident that you could actually succeed, and this knowledge will help you act more boldly and courageously when you’re ready. This method is especially effective when a large part of your fear is due to the unknown. Often just reading a book or two on the subject will be enough to dispel the fear so that you’re able to take action.

These two methods are my personal favorites, but there are many additional ways to condition yourself to overcome fear, including neuro-linguistic programming, implosion therapy, systematic desensitization, and self-confrontation. You can research them via an online search engine if you wish to learn such methods and increase the number of fear-busting tools in your arsenal. Most of these can be easily self-administered (implosion therapy is the notable exception).

The exact process you use to build courage isn’t important. What’s important is that you consciously do it. Just as your muscles will atrophy if you don’t regularly stress them, your courage will atrophy if you don’t consistently challenge yourself to face down your fears. In the absence of this kind of conscious conditioning, you’ll automatically become weak in both body and mind. If you aren’t regularly exercising your courage, then you are strengthening your fear by default; there is no middle ground. Just as your muscles automatically atrophy from lack of use, so your courage will automatically decay in the absence of conscious conditioning.

Now this may sound overly gloomy, so here’s a positive way to look at it. Heavy weights can be a physical burden, but they are helpful tools to build strong muscles. You would not look at a 45-pound dumbbell and say, “Why must you be so heavy?” It is what it is. Heaviness is your thought, not an intrinsic property of the dumbbell itself. Similarly, do not look at the things you fear and say, “Why must you be so scary?” Fear is your reaction, not a property of the object of your anxiety.

Fear is not your enemy. It is a compass pointing you to the areas where you need to grow. So when you encounter a new fear within yourself, celebrate it as an opportunity for growth, just as you would celebrate reaching a new personal best with strength training.