How avoiding what we fear can often lead to more anxiety than if we faced it head on

Photo: iStock

Our imagination is a wondrous thing.

Without it, the most beautiful works of human kind would never have been brought into existence. Perhaps you wouldn’t have been either! Yet when fuelled by fear, our imagination can drive us to underestimate ourselves, overestimate the risks and exaggerate potential consequences. By turning shadows into monsters, it can fool us into believing that danger lurks around the corner and that we’re safer staying exactly where we are.

So you want to make a change, or take a chance or shake things up a little … or a lot. But arghhhh … what if everything goes wrong?

Margie Warrell. Photo: Supplied

What if I mess things up?

What if I misjudge the situation?

What if people let me down?

What if I fall short?

What if it turns into a complete and utter unmitigated disaster … like you end up homeless, totally broke, abandoned by your friends, disowned by your family, the laughing stock of everybody you’ve ever wanted to be respected by?

Fear drives you to focus more on what could go wrong than on what could go right.

What if …?!

Let’s face it, for all the beauty our imagination can conceive, when fear takes hold of it, it can come up with some pretty worrisome, if not outright terrifying, scenarios.
It’s called ‘catastrophising’. (Well that’s what I call it anyway.)

It can freeze you in your tracks and guarantee you never fail because it stops you ever daring to attempt. In novelist Stephen King’s words, ‘Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win’.

It’s little surprise that most of the things we spend our lives afraid might happen never actually do. Our children aren’t abducted. We don’t catch the killer virus. Our plane doesn’t crash.

Fear is the by-product of the thoughts you create in your own head; the projection of some possible future occurrence fuelled by an experience from the past. Usually one that is completely disconnected.

FEAR is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. Taming it sometimes requires figuring out whether our ‘monsters and ghosts’ are real or just figments of our imagination kept alive from our past. After all, it’s not what you think you fear, it’s what you link to fear.

It’s not the event that you fear that holds the power over you; it’s your fear of it.

The irony is that in our best efforts to avoid ‘the worst’ we often inadvertently create more anxiety than we would have had we risked full exposure.

Not only that, but we pay a steep opportunity cost as we deprive ourselves of building the confidence, courage, capacity, competence and sheer enjoyment we gain when we dare to do more than we have before. Little wonder people blessed with abundant wealth who do nothing meaningful with it can end up being so depressed. They’re missing the juice of life that is extracted from being stretched and challenged.

Source: Supplied

By asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen and then sitting with any fear that rises up, you come to know that even if it did happen, which is often highly unlikely, it would not kill you. Rather, it would introduce you to yourself on a whole new level: you’d learn, you’d grow and you’d emerge from it a wiser, braver and better version of yourself than you were before.

Daring to expose yourself to those monsters in your head is ultimately far less frightening than spending your entire life running from them.

When you expose your worst fear to the truth, you open the doorway to a whole new realm of possibility: freedom to dare boldly, to speak truthfully and to live authentically.

Expose the monsters in your head

So, as you think about taking the big, bold action towards the future you most want, ask yourself:

What is my absolute worst fear? (Your worst case scenario.)

If it did begin to happen, what would I do to intervene and manage any fall out?

What are the outcomes of more probable scenarios? How likely is it that I could produce at least a moderately good outcome?

How are events from my past amplifying my fear of what might happen in the future and driving me to overestimate the risks?

This is the ‘Stop Catastrophising’ chapter from Margie Warrell‘s book “Make Your Mark”. Warrell is a regular Forbes columnist and has contributed to leading media outlets globally from CNN to The Today Show.

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