How to Face Your Fears4 min read

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience
in which you really stop to look fear in the face.
—Eleanor Roosevelt

Every time we face a fear, we weaken it, because we see the feared object for what it is, and it’s almost never as terrifying as we thought.

Facing our fears means stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone. Doing so, daily, increases our belief in our capacity and expands our comfort zone. We learn, from experience, that we can handle much more than we originally thought.

Do you sit at the back of a conference room to avoid interactions, arrive late for meetings to avoid small talk, never go anywhere alone, or over-prepare for everything? These safety behaviors, as they’re known in psychology, provide short-term benefit but often hurt your confidence in the longer term. Instead, it is better to consciously face your fears using exposure therapy.

Exposure Therapy

Go from comfort zone to confidence by regularly—and gradually—doing exposure therapy.

If you face a big fear all at once, the experience may be overwhelming and even traumatizing. On the other hand, if you avoid facing the fear altogether, you are bowing to it and letting it impose limits in your life.

Exposure therapy engages you with the feared activity little by little, in real life or through visualization, in a way that feels uncomfortable but not overwhelming. You learn to manage your strong emotions through deep breathing, relaxation techniques, and awareness tools.

When you know you can manage difficult emotions that may come up as you face challenging situations, you feel more confident.

As you repeatedly expose yourself to the things you fear, you become desensitized to the fear. The action begins to feel normal, rather than threatening.

Step 1: List Opportunities

Imagine you were perfectly grounded in confidence. What things would you do that you are currently not doing? Make a list.

Your items may be simple or grandiose. If it stretches you out of your comfort zone, it counts.

Here are some ideas:

  • Speaking up in a meeting
  • Going to the movies by yourself
  • Starting a conversation with a stranger every day
  • Taking a class in something you’ve never tried
  • Making a silly “mistake” in public, such as spilling your drink, then calmly cleaning it up as if it were a normal occurrence
  • Taking a 30-day rejection challenge, where you aim to get a “no” every day
  • Telling a joke or a story in a group setting
  • Cheering loudly at a sports event
  • Correcting an order at a restaurant
  • Asking a favor from an intimidating person
  • Giving a compliment
  • Spending a day outside—without your phone
Step 2: Sort and Choose

Sort all items in order of difficulty, starting with what’s easy.

  • Easy: Things you could do now by facing a minimum amount of discomfort
  • Medium: Things that would cause some distress, but that on a good day, with strong intention, you could stomach
  • Hard: Things you’re not willing to do yet

Choose a challenge that is big enough to stretch you, but not so big that it paralyzes you.

After you work through your first challenge, you’ll come back to the list and choose another. As you practice this, your fear threshold will get higher and higher—you won’t be so easily triggered anymore.

Once you work your way down the list, to the challenges initially listed as hard, they may then seem doable! If not, break them down into smaller steps so that it falls in the easy or medium categories.

Step 3: Develop the Right Mindset

Expect some level of emotional discomfort. It’s a sign that you are going beyond your comfort zone. You might experience rejection, feel silly, or get mocked. Learning how to feel comfortable with these experiences is part of the exercise.

Remember that you are in control here. Since the difficulties you will experience are intentional and highly expected, they say nothing about who you are. You can be grateful for these experiences, as they give you an opportunity to grow.

Know that overcoming your fears requires some commitment, perseverance, and the willingness to do the emotional work.

Step 4: Exposure via Imagination

Use imagination as a stepping stone toward exposure therapy in real life. It’s also useful when it is not possible or desirable to go through the actual situation. The POWER Visualization exercise will guide you.

Step 5: Exposure in Real Life

Go and actually do the thing you fear, and experience all the emotions.

Your heart may palpitate, your body may shiver, your stomach may contract. These are good signs. Feel the sensations, but don’t let them stop you.

Stay in the challenging situation long enough for your fear to subside. If you leave as soon as discomfort arises, you’ll reinforce a sense of helplessness in relation to your fears, which would further damage your confidence.

If needed and possible, manage your emotions with deep breathing, the ROAR Method, or any other tools from the Awareness Pillar.

Repeat as needed. With some feared activities, you may need many layers of exposure therapy until the activity no longer triggers you.

When you have trained yourself to be at ease even in the midst of unpleasant emotions, anxiety and fear won’t be able to stop you anymore. At that point, well done! Celebrate your win, then move on to the next item on your list!

For a deeper dive into these concepts, see Chapter 15 of Wise Confidence. You can also try the Exposure Therapy Preparation guided meditation in the app, before going through the activity, to ensure that you are in the best possible state for it.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.

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