How To Understand And Conquer Your Fears

We fear things that may, or will, happen to us (such as dying, getting cancer, looking old, being old, being alone) and we fear many things we have to do (such as making a public speech, learning to drive, passing exams, making decisions, sticking up for ourselves).

These fears may all appear to be very different. But they aren't. The common theme which links these separate fears is a fear of rejection, disapproval, failure and, rather more commonly than you might think, a fear of success.

And the underlying fear behind all these emotions is the simple fear of not being able to deal with things - of not being able to cope with rejection, with disapproval, with failure or with success. It is that - the fear of not being able to cope - which is the fundamental fear which affects us all. We worry about things which may (or may not) happen because we worry that we will not be able to cope with the consequences.

Dealing With Fear Is Simpler Than You Think

You almost certainly have more than one fear. You probably have scores - even hundreds of fears. You may, indeed, be one of the small number of people who seem to fear just about anything and everything - in which case fear probably rules your life.

If you try to deal separately with all your different fears you will soon be exhausted.

Take J for example.

She is in her forties and she has scores of very specific fears - fears which exhaust her and which dominate her life. Here are just a few of her current fears:

* She is frightened that she is losing her looks.
* She is frightened that her hair is going grey.
* She is frightened that she will be lonely when her children leave home.
* She is frightened that if she tries to get a job she may be a failure.
* She is frightened that if her husband gets the new job he has applied for she will not fit in when they move to a new neighbourhood and start mixing with different people.
* She is frightened that her overweight workaholic husband may have a heart attack.

All these fears leave J constantly bewildered and confused.

But the truth is that she doesn't really have to face - and handle - all these fears as though they are individual threats. She doesn't have to find separate ways to handle losing her looks, going grey, not getting a job - and all those other individual fears. And she certainly doesn't have to worry about the way other people respond to these varied problems.

All she really has to do is handle what happens to her as a result of all these things happening.

And once she has learnt how to handle her reaction to these many separate fears she will be able to cope with anything that comes her way.

That will give her real freedom from fear.

Two Ways To Conquer Fear

There are two basic ways of tackling - and conquering - fear.

The first is to build up your inner strength so that you are better able to cope - and so that you know that you will be better able to cope with any fear you have to confront.

The second is to identify, isolate and study your fears. Our greatest fears involve the unknown. Know your fears and you will move a long way towards emasculating them.

My Twenty Point Plan For Coping With Fear

1. Build Up Your Self Confidence

Our susceptibility to fear is in inverse proportion to our feeling of self-worth.

If we have little self-regard - and consider ourselves to be worthless and of little value - we will be enormously fearful.

On the other hand, if we are genuinely self-confident we are less likely to be fearful. If we know that we have dealt effectively with problems in the past we are likely to have confidence in our ability to deal with new problems.

Clearly, therefore, the first thing that you can do to help eradicate your susceptibility to fear is to build up your feeling of self-worth. You need to be more self-confident. A lack of self-confidence can be destructive and a good supply of confidence can help give you the belief that you will be able to cope with whatever life throws at you.

(There is, by the way, an enormous difference between a genuine feeling of self-worth and the sort of conceit and arrogance which is common among teenagers and immature adults. Conceit and arrogance may provide a veneer of protection but they are no substitute for genuine, well-founded self-confidence.)

You cannot, of course, completely change your personality overnight. You cannot wake up one morning with absolutely no self-confidence and go to bed the same day bursting with confidence in yourself and your abilities!

But, by learning as much as you can about your weaknesses and your strengths, you can help yourself a great deal.

You have probably acquired your feelings of inadequacy because other people have made you feel inadequate and worthless.

In order to build up your self-confidence you must replace negative, damaging feelings of failure, incompetence and unworthiness with positive feelings of success.

Here are some practical ways in which you can boost your self-confidence and eradicate your feelings of inadequacy:

* Sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil and write down all the good things you can think of to say about yourself. Imagine that you are preparing an advertising campaign for yourself. Throw modesty out of the window and try to promote all your virtues and good points. Imagine that you are trying to sell yourself to the world - though in reality, of course, all you are trying to do is to sell yourself to yourself.
br> Try to think of all the good words which describe you: list all your virtues and advantages. If you are shy and lacking in self-confidence you are probably honest, generous, thoughtful, hard-working, punctual, careful, considerate, moral, kind, ambitious, creative. Write down every good word that you think you can honestly apply to yourself. And don't be falsely modest - no one except you need ever see this list.

Read your `advertisement' every day to improve your self-image.

* If you constantly see yourself as a failure, try to substitute your negative thinking with some positive images. Try to see yourself as a success.

* Make a list of all your assets. I don't mean a crude list of the money you have and the things you own - though by all means do that if it will help you feel better - but a list of all the intangibles in your life; your partner, your children, your integrity, your friends, your interests, your knowledge, your accomplishments and your good memories. Those are the real valuables in your life. Write down all the things for which you are grateful. Look at your list if you ever fear that your life is a failure. You may be surprised to find how many things there are that you can be proud about. These are your blessings.

When writing an advertisement extolling your virtues and listing all your good points look down this list and pick out the words which apply to you:

* honest
* truthful
* romantic
* honourable?
* punctilious
* scrupulous
* attentive
* faithful
* decent
* moral
* conscientious
* respectable
* law-abiding
* chivalrous
* unselfish
* impeccable
* obedient
* benevolent
* kind
* careful
* creative
* ambitious
* hard-working
* brave
* witty
* wise
* intelligent
* polite
* punctual
* thoughtful
* fastidious
* agreeable
* welcoming
* skilful

* Write down your top ten memories - the magical times in your life when you felt at your happiest and calmest. Keep the list somewhere safe and look at it regularly. When you've finished one list of wonderful experiences make another. Constantly keep your lists up-dated - adding new special memories to your Top Ten lists as they occur.

2. Identify And Isolate Your Fears

Identify your fears. Make a list of them. Once you know exactly what you are frightened of you should find out as much as you can about each one.

We worry most (and fear most) the unknown so by researching your fears you are emasculating them.

Ask yourself the following questions about each of the fears you can isolate:

* How serious a threat is it?
* What is the worst that can happen?
* How likely is it that the worst will happen?
* What can I do to minimise the threat?

Some fears aren't so obvious and aren't always easy to identify or isolate.

If you have a problem which you want to identify try asking yourself `Why?'. That one word is the key to understanding (and overcoming) fear.

So, for example, if you feel `angry' and suspect that your anger may be caused by underlying fear ask yourself: `Why?' And keep asking `why?' until you get some answers.

Identifying A Basic Fear

Q. You are suffering from agoraphobia - a fear of going out; a fear which is often defined as a fear of open spaces. Why are you frightened of open spaces? What's so frightening about a field?
A. (After thinking for a couple of minutes). It's not actually the open spaces that frighten me. I don't like going out because there are usually people in open spaces. Strangers.
Q. So your basic fear is a fear of people?
A. Yes. People I don't know.
Q. Why are you frightened of people you don't know?
A. Because I feel inadequate.
Q. Why?
A. Because I have very low self-esteem.
Q. Why?
A. When I was a child my parents and my teachers always sneered at me. They always put me down.
Q. Why?
A. I don't know. I suppose because I was shy, sensitive, nervous. I had three very boisterous brothers. I was easy prey I suppose.
Q. Why?
A. That's just the way I am.
Q. What's wrong with being shy, sensitive and nervous.
A. I don't know. I've never really thought about it. Nothing I guess.
Q. You're just a rather shy person?
A. Yes. I suppose so.
Q. And being shy is neither good nor bad?
A. No. I guess not.
Q. So what do you think triggered your current problem - the so-called agoraphobia?
A. It started when we moved house.
Q. To a new area?
A. Yes.
Q. Lots of strangers?
A. Yes. And a smarter, posher area than I'd ever lived in before.
Q. I rather suspect that if you build up your self-confidence then your fear of people (and your alleged fear of open spaces) will disappear.
A. I can see the logic in that. Thank you.

3. Confront The Bottom Line And Take Control Of Your Life

If you are a fearful person you probably often worry about disastrous things happening to you; you may become almost irretrievably pessimistic. Fear of the unknown is a powerful driving force. But you can defuse this particular fear by always asking yourself: `What is the worst thing that can happen in this situation?' You will frequently be surprised to find that the `worst' really isn't all that bad. And once you know the worst you can make plans accordingly. (And remember that someone has been there and has created power and goodness out of it.)

Fear is likely to keep you busy doing a job you don't like because you're frightened of what might happen if you leave. Fears keep people in relationships which have no future. Fear destroys courage and initiative. Fear of the unknown is one of society's ways of keeping you under control.

You can conquer this fear by making a determined effort to use your imagination to help you discover what can happen. The truth is that the worst that is likely to happen is usually nowhere as bad as you might fear.

A woman I know suffered a lot with her nerves. Most of her problems were a result of the job she did. she found the work unpleasant and stressful. She didn't like the man she worked for. But she had worked at the same place for fifteen years and she was frightened of what would happen if she lost her job.

She assumed that if she lost her job she would starve to death. She had never really thought what would happen. But she always assumed that she needed her boss far more than he needed her. That was, of course, partly his fault. He wanted her to feel that way. He was able to use her fear to get her to work for long hours at a dull job for low pay.

She was a classic victim of the society in which we all live. And she was a chronic sufferer from toxic stress.

One day I managed to persuade her to sit down and carefully examine her greatest fear; what would happen if she lost her job. She was vulnerable because society had taught her to be frightened of the unknown and because society had encouraged her to believe that she should dedicate herself to her job without thinking of herself.

She felt frightened at the prospect of surviving alone and she felt guilty at the thought of abandoning her job.

But the more she thought about it the more she realised that the unknown she feared wasn't really all that terrifying. She realised that she had numerous well sought after skills. By looking in the `appointments' section of the local newspaper she discovered that there were plenty of firms advertising for people like her. She realised that her experience and knowledge more than outweighed her age as far as other potential employers were concerned.

She found the bottom line. And she realised that it wasn't as frightening as she had feared.

She applied for another, better paid job that looked more fun. She got it.

And she handed in her notice.

Her boss, suddenly realising that he needed her, offered to increase her salary by over one third. He offered her better holidays and an annual bonus.

But she wasn't interested. She didn't want to work for him. She left. And she did so with a light heart as she realised that he needed her far more than she needed him.

If you have any terrible fear which haunts you try to confront it. and try to define the bottom line. Try to work out what is the worst that can happen.

You will probably surprise yourself. Once you know the bottom line you'll find that you can relax far more than when you are worrying about the unknown.

There are very few problems or threats in your life that will actually stop your world going round. The bottom line is hardly ever as bad as you think it's going to be.

4. Cherish and Nurture Your Friendships

Modern cities and apartment buildings can be savage, lonely places. Too often you will find the world to be cruel, harsh and unforgiving.

But every true friendship you acquire will help you defeat fear. Real friends will help you face illness with strength and will enable you to confront adversity with hope. Friendship can provide you with a vaccination against unhappiness.

When you have friends you can carry true love and affection and caring with you. Friendship will illuminate the darkest moments of your life and brighten the blackest of nights.

You will not, of course, make true friendships easily or quickly. Real, true friendships only develop with time and patience.

But once you have found a real friend cherish him or her and always keep for him or her a place in your heart where your friendship can constantly re-build its strength.

Remember that in this world real wealth is measured in friendships rather than in material possessions.

5. Don't Be Afraid Of Failure

The regret for having tried and failed is usually short-term and soon forgotten. The regret for never having tried will stay with you for ever.

6. Use Visualisation To Help Defeat Your Fear

Most top sportsmen use visualisation techniques to help them do better. Golfers imagine the ball going just where they want it to go immediately before playing a shot.

Thousands of patients have successfully used visualisation to help them too. (See my books, Bodypower and Mindpower.)

You can use visualisation to help you combat fear. Simply imagine yourself coping with whatever it is that you are afraid of.

7. Don't Worry About Being Laughed At

No one who really loves you or cares about you will laugh at you maliciously. Laughter isn't always nasty or vindictive.

8. Don't Be Afraid To Say: `I Don't Know'.

Admitting that you don't know something is a sign of strength not weakness. No one can possibly know everything. The powerful, the wise and the great are always prepared to admit that there are boundaries to their knowledge. Only the weak, the uncertain and the stupid are silly and conceited enough to pretend that they know everything. Liberate yourself from the feeling that you ought to know everything and you will liberate yourself from many fears.

9. Learn To Be More Selfish.

People who have a low self-esteem tend to spend much of their lives worrying about and thinking about other people. If you are a guilt sufferer you probably need to spend more time thinking about what you want.

10. Spend As Much Time As You Can With Positive People.

Emphasising the value of positivity may sound like a cliche but the value to be derived from `positive thinking' is real and crucial - and easily overlooked.

Don't spend too much time with people who are always criticising you, putting you down or looking on the gloomy side of life.

Make an effort to make new friends out of people you admire. What's the worst that can happen? A rejection. What's the best that can happen? A great new friend.

Spend time with people who support and encourage you. Why put up with people who put you down? Keep away from them. Don't bother to share your life with them unless, of course, they change. Write positive quotes in your diary. Keep a `commonplace book' in which you record wonderful moments and inspirational quotes. My book, Daily Inspirations contains 365 quotes which will, I hope, make you think and feel inspired.

Use inspirational books and tapes. If your daily newspaper always makes you feel worse, stop reading it. Keep up with what is going on in the world by reading a once-a-week news magazine. Limit the amount of negative TV you watch.

Remember that if you send out positive thoughts, you will get positive thoughts back.

Physical Proof That Positive Thinking Works

Get a friend to stand up. Tell them to hold out both arms saying `I am strong and in charge'. Tell them to say this ten times. Then try and push their arms down.

You won't be able to.

Then get them to do the same thing while saying: `I am weak and powerless'. They should say it ten times.

Then push their arms down. It will be easy.

Simple proof that positive thinking has a positive effect.

Feed yourself negative thoughts and what you are frightened of may happen.

11. Take Responsibility For Yourself

Don't be a victim. You can be in control. Never blame someone else. Blame yourself. What is done is done. Blaming won't help so don't waste your life constantly blaming others for things that have (or have not) happened.

We are encouraged not to take responsibility for our lives (it's always someone else's fault) but taking responsibility is the only true way. Take responsibility for your own life and you will reduce the fear you have to face.

Thanks largely to `ambulance chasing lawyers' we live in a society where everyone wants to blame someone else for every small piece of misfortune.

But constantly expecting others to take responsibility for your life can create fears.

Consider, for example, the woman who sued her local council (and won over a million pounds) when her sleep-walking son fell out of a window. She claimed that the council was responsible because they had failed to put adequate catches on the bedroom windows in her council house. She said that she had been complaining about the inadequate catches for a long time.

Why, I wonder, didn't the woman replace the inadequate window catches herself? (She could, if she had wanted to, have sent the bill to the council.)

Surely this would have saved her much fear. And it would have presumably stopped her sleep-walking son falling and injuring himself.

12. Don't Create Fear And Anxiety Through The Words You Use

We grow up learning that we are in constant danger. We learn to be frightened from a very young age. (`Take care', we say to one another. `Be careful,' say our mothers.)

Try not to use the words `take care' as a farewell.

Every time you say those words you are encouraging the person who hears them (as well as yourself) to feel the fear.

13. You're Not The Only One Who Is Afraid Remember that everyone else is afraid too. Everyone. I don't care how tough they seem to be. In the darkness and silence of the night everyone is afraid. It is the human way.

14. Remember `Mark Tapley' In `Martin Chuzzlewit'.

Mark Tapley, in Charles Dickens' book, Martin Chuzzlewit is one of my favourite literary characters. Tapley is constantly searching for situations where he can take credit for being cheerful and full of hope. He turns his back on a contented life living in a country pub with a good-looking woman who is a marvellous cook because he feels that no man can take any credit for being happy in such circumstances. Instead he accompanies young Martin Chuzzlewit on a trip to America.

15. Beware Of Allowing Your Fear To Turn Into Aggression

Those aggressive thugs who patrol the streets in packs are aggressive because they are frightened. They are trying to cover up their fear and their inadequacy by pretending to be tough and fearless.

16. Just Do It

Everyone is afraid when confronting something new. Fear leads to helplessness and paralysis. To defeat that, and to take back the power over your life, you must take action.

Fear will never go away. It will always be there. The only way to defeat the fear is to go out and do it (whatever it is that you are afraid of). When you do it you will feel better and more capable. Going through the fear - and realising that you can come out safely on the other side - is, in the long-term, far less frightening than staying fearful and helpless. Living with the fear of being helpless is far worse than doing or confronting whatever it is that you are afraid of. When you know that you can handle whatever comes your way, you can take risks and you can get far more out of life. Decide what you want and go for it. List your choices and make one. Then live with it.

17. Don't Over Dramatise - Don't Use Negative Language.

We all do it sometimes. A shirt button comes off and we become angry and upset. We miss a train and we behave as though everyone we love has died. A pimple appears and we slump into despair. We set the video recorder and immortalise an East European netball match instead of the Bogart movie we desperately wanted to watch. Try not to over dramatise. Every time you do this you are filling your life with new (and unnecessary) fears.

Don't say: `It's all a struggle.' Instead, say: `It's an adventure'.

Regard problems as opportunities.
Don't be weak and passive. Be strong and active.
Don't dignify trivia. Don't dramatise all your minor problems.

18. Don't Listen To Your Home Grown Worries

There is a part in our brains which exists solely to create worries. It is this part of the brain which makes us create an almost endless variety of (often imaginative) fears for ourselves.

If you ignore that part of your mind that constantly worries you, and which creates suspicions and paranoia, it will shrink and weaken.

19. Extend Your Boundaries

We all live within boundaries and inevitably we fear the things which exist outside those boundaries. We worry about the unknown because we worry that we won't be able to cope with it.

So extend your boundaries. Takes risks that improve your self-image. Two things will happen. First, you will increase your confidence. Second, you will reduce the number things which frighten you.

Empower yourself (and reduce your fears) by doing things you don't normally do. If you are nervous about eating out in expensive places go to a posh hotel for tea. Then do it again. Smash down your self-erected barriers by buying an item of ridiculously expensive underwear. Or try a new sport.

20. Remember The Bottom Line

Don't be impatient. Learning to deal with fear will take you a lifetime. You will never stop learning. But start now, take one step at a time and your journey through life will be easier and less fearful.

And remember that everything can be taken away from you except your right to choose your beliefs and your way through your life.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2004