What's Fear Got To Do With It?

About 25 years ago when I was just starting to find my career path, I had an interesting experience with fear.

I was living in Hong Kong working at a knitwear factory. I really hated my job but being 10,000 miles away from my family and friends, making a change felt scary. (This was pre-internet days.) I finally mustered up the courage to quit after 6 or 7 months but then had to figure out what to do.

After spending a LONG time thinking about it, writing a list of what I needed to have in my life and then realizing I didn't speak Cantonese, I ended up applying for teaching jobs.

Somehow I knew I was going to get one and before the summer was over, had an offer from an international high school teaching English and art. It was my first "real" job where I wasn't answering the phone or running errands. I even had my own mailbox in the office. Best yet, I got to read books all day! The two weeks before school started were great, I organized my classroom and outlined the textbooks, deciding what to do and when.

I was excited until the night before the students arrived and classes actually began. That's when it suddenly dawned on me that my new job was public speaking all day every day and I had a panic attack. I quickly left my apartment, took the elevator downstairs and went out for a walk.

Statistics indicate that people are consistently more afraid of public speaking than dying and that night I was one of them.

In high school, I lost my voice and throughout college tended to hide, was quiet and often sat in the back. I was smart and engaged but was always afraid of sharing my thoughts. At the end of my senior year I had to prepare an oral presentation and teach the class about a specific painting. For weeks I dreaded it and despite encouragement from my closest friend, was petrified. This was ALL I could think about as I walked off my panic attack that balmy September evening. Maybe I should quit, find another job, leave Hong Kong...

And then a new thought hit me and here's what it said: "What you are experiencing is just fear. Fear is an emotion, nothing else. So, can you do this anyway even though you're afraid?"

My logical mind started processing that idea. Just an emotion, huh? Well sure, I can do this anyway, can't I? And I did. 

What I didn't realize then was that was my first attempt at managing fear. I think a lot of people including myself think courage is the absence of fear or that courageous people aren't scared. What I've come to understand is that we are all afraid, it's the human experience. The key is in the managing of it. Or put another way, do you manage fear or does fear manage you?

Sometimes we experience fear and it can prevent us from living fully or genuinely engaging in life. Like my story, I was afraid because I was moving into something I'd never done before. Even though this is a natural response, we can allow that fear to hold us hostage, preventing us from moving through it. I could have impulsively quit my job, not shown up and gone running home instead.

But sometimes fear also serves us well. Like the feeling we have about a place or person. We get a "vibe" and that's a good kind of fear, the kind that acts as a warning, to remind us to be aware. 

Our job is to recognize when fear is helping us and when it might be hindering us.

Either way, it's a warning about change - good or bad. We can embrace fear as our friend and take it by the hand, recognizing its job is to keep us safe. We need to evaluate the situation and determine the best course of action. Is fear protecting me or preventing me from growing? Then we can respond appropriately. "Thanks I'll make a different choice" or "Thanks but I'm going to do this anyway." Which is what I did when I walked into the classroom the next day. I took a deep breath and never looked back.

How do you manage fear?

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