I had a T-shirt when I was in my teens that read: F.E.A.R. – F**k Everything And Run. It was my favourite item of clothing, mostly for the fact that it had the ‘F’ word on it, and I felt super cool to be old enough to get away with wearing it.
It also tied in with the ethos of the man in my life at the time who happened to be a flighty 16hh ex race horse.
In more recent years I adopted new words for the same acronym that I’d seen in Susan Jeffers’ book Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway (which is a great read by the way), and those were: False Evidence Appearing Real.
What it really serves to tell us is that fear itself is just a product of something we perceive to be worth fretting over, so it is a problem of our own creation. And that means, if we made it, we can break it.
I find it interesting that we are constantly trying to find ways to understand, deal with and conquer our fears. After all, the existence of fear itself, as an emotion and a feeling, is to ensure our survival. Early man relied heavily on fear to be able to avoid being eaten, drowned, maimed etc. Those fears served him well, as we can tell by the fact that homo sapiens have made it all the way to 2021.
But the sort of fears you and I experience day to day are for the most part not helping to keep us alive. If anything, they are stopping us from living.
We are conditioned from an early age to “be careful” from well meaning parents (yes, I put my hand up: I am one), our teachers, our friend’s parents and more. We live in a society where people are so quick to point a finger and lay blame, that there exists a new type of fear, which is the fear of not being fearful enough, and deemed to be reckless or negligent.
What a mess!
No wonder we grow up not being able to differentiate between things that we genuinely should be afraid of, and things that are harmless.
My approach to dealing with fears has always been to break them down into smaller, manageable chunks, and see if they still seem scary. It’s a bit like a mental flow chart that I use to process them. I start with asking the following questions:
- What is the worst thing that could happen?
- And if that happened what would be the result?
- And what would my life be like after that?
- What would happen if I didn’t do whatever it is that I am feeling fear towards doing?
- Would I regret not doing it more than if I did it and failed?
- What if I did it and succeeded?
Admittedly, there are times when I don’t have the time to go through the checklist, and then it’s just instinct that kicks in, but it’s amazing how the more I have practiced the questions, the quicker my brain has arrived at the decision that I should just do it. You see the predominant fear we experience is that of failure, and failure seldom ends in death unless you’re a skydiver or similar.
I recall teaching a very nervous and fearful child on her own pony somewhere in the early 2000’s. She didn’t want to canter with him and I was trying to find ways to encourage and convince her that she was capable and should give it a go. Most children at this point in their riding have experienced a fall or two and generally really want to avoid another one because they tend to hurt, hence where their fear stems from. I was prepared to explain to her about how she had the correct safety equipment, and the arena was enclosed, so the pony couldn’t go far, and he wasn’t that big, so if she did fall it wasn’t too far to the ground, and it was a soft sand arena etc, etc. What I didn’t expect was that when I asked her:
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” that she would reply:
“I might fall off and die!”
Well she stumped me on that one, because, let’s face it, it could happen. I mean it would be a complete freak accident if it did, but I couldn’t emphatically promise her that it was not a possibility. I’ve never been able to lie. I’ve always just felt much more comfortable with telling the truth, even to little kids, even when I’ve been told a little white lie wouldn’t hurt them…
I was amazed that kids that young even had thoughts of mortality! I am sure I had never considered that there was a chance something I did could kill me when I was just 9. I was still jumping out of trees and riding my bicycle at breakneck speed down narrow, winding country roads. Looking back, the pony I had when I was 9 probably could have killed me, but it never crossed my mind at the time. Even when he galloped away with me across Ickworth Park, little Abby pulled with all her might on the reins with zero effect, as 12hh “Bilbo Baggins” broke the sound barrier on his way back to the horsebox. No, I thought I was pretty much invincible even then.
And yet here was this child. Crippled by her fear of death by canter.
I can’t remember what I said to her after that, but I am certain she didn’t canter on that day. I do remember later down the line that she did eventually muster up the courage to canter the pony, and hopefully that would have served as a moment in her life where she managed to prove the fears in her mind to be unfounded.
The only way to squash that fear is to do whatever it is that you are afraid of, so it’s done. Imagine the fear is an obstacle in front of you (because that’s actually what it ends up being), and you are in an army tank. You are totally indestructible. All you have to do is drive over it. Once it’s behind you, and mangled on the floor, the next time you see that same fear, you’ll know you conquered it before, and you can do it again.
There is a real sense of elation when you’ve pushed yourself to do something that you’re scared of. When I lived in South Africa I used to love doing Obstacle Course Races. At the end of each race you had to climb up scaffolding and jump off an 8m platform into muddy water below. Now I don’t really have a fear of heights, but jumping off something that high was still daunting, I won’t lie. Yet the adrenaline rush you get when you have done it is so good, you want to climb back up that tower to do it again! Even as I write this, I can feel a faint sensation of butterflies in my stomach just reliving the memory!
The first time I took the jump was the scariest, but after that I looked forward to that part of the race the most, because I knew it was something that I could do, where others faltered. Some big strong men, who you wouldn’t imagine would be afraid of anything, couldn’t even do the smaller 6m jump. Yet every person who competed at these races and did the jump, went home at the end of the day, ready to race again at the next one. Which brings me to my husband James’ favourite question:
“But did you die?”
Any time my daughter is moaning about a scrape or a bruise or anything to be honest, he will ask her: “But did you die?” It’s brilliant, because it instantly puts whatever it is into perspective, and tells her, “you’re okay, you’ll live”.
Ultimately, we all have fears of varying degrees of a plethora of different things. We cannot eradicate the feeling itself. It still serves to keep us alive in certain dire situations. But we do need to be consious of keeping it check, and being positive that we don’t allow it to influence us negatively.
If there is a chance someone could ask you the question after you’ve done your fear inducing thing; “But did you die?” and your answer would be, “Yes,” then that is a legitimate fear, and you should probably keep a hold of that one.
Otherwise – acknowledge your fear and move beyond it. That’s where you’ll find happiness.