The last two posts here have been about what I call the triad of elements that are necessary to disrupt and unplug the fears and anxieties that we acquire, and which we shield ourselves from with the Comfort Zone.  What follows in this post are some specific examples of the use of those triad elements, along with suggestions on how to start such work with yourself.  

As I said at the end of the last blog post I am VERY, very clear that this is often anything but easy to even think about, let alone do.  Having a clear and articulate map of the nature of fear and anxiety is one thing, facing into those fears is something else – something often frightening, even terrifying.  I believe this is why so many of us (including myself) find the idea of a medication or technique that can take away the fear, or quickly and painlessly “fix” our fears, very attractive.  Many  of us have lived with various levels of fear and anxiety for so long that we can’t imagine deliberately stirring it up, even with the goal of shutting down the causes of that fear and finding our freedom as a result.  It is much more attractive to let sleeping dogs lie, leave those fears where they are, out beyond our Comfort Zone walls, and keep things status quo – however much we limit our lives as a result.

And, of course, our fears activate that part of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle I call the Indefinite Negative Future when we consider challenging the Comfort Zone.  What if I feel this way forever?  What if this doesn’t work?  What if I do this work and all that happens is I can’t stop being even more afraid than I am now?  Etc.  I know that for some people reading the last couple of sentences  has made them a little anxious.  Ugh! 

Let me repeat myself from an earlier blog post: the way out is through.  And moving through the Comfort Zone walls we’ve created does not need to entail years of work or endless hours of fear and anxiety.  Like any set of skills it will take a little practice and a little time.  You probably won’t do it perfectly the first 2-3-4-5 times you do it.  Who cares?  Nobody masters bike-riding in a single session, nobody learns to type in an hour, and nobody will be perfectly adept at facing and moving through Comfort Zone fears out of the gate.  Resolve that you’re going to experience a learning curve, pick a fear you’d like to unplug, and give it a first try…

An example of facing a fear with this triad of elements in mind is something I did this past winter.  In case you don’t know I do communication skills consulting for work, and yet I have never been very comfortable (read: very UN-comfortable) soliciting new clients.  As I worked on the Fear Mastery framework and writing this last 12 months I realized that this was a great opportunity to practice what I was preaching.  I resolved to spend some time every day during the week (an hour, no more) reaching out to people I had worked with in the past, and soliciting from them potential leads for new business.  Even making this decision made me anxious – what if nobody said yes?  What if people implied (or said outright) that I really didn’t have anything they could refer to colleagues and friends?  (This with 7 years of repeated statements from clients about how my work had helped their team, how they were using the material I had brought them years after the training I had done, etc.)  What if… and so on. 

I first needed to move this out of the mostly crisis frame I had this fear wrapped in (what if I don’t get any more consulting business?  What if I run out of money?  What if I have to work at Starbuck’s?)  and decide that it was actually a series of problems to solve.  That immediately generated some serious anxious feelings and physical responses.  It took some effort just to sit at my desk and calendar the time to do this for that first week the weekend prior.  I began finding reasons why I needed to wait just one more week, began to think of all the things I could do rather than chase down new business, etc.  Isn’t it impressive how the Comfort Zone can quickly steer us away from even considering a fear challenge?

During that process I had some pretty interesting, even unnerving, bursts of fear – all of a sudden I’d think “this is pointless!  Nobody is going to refer me!  I’m crazy for even trying!” and similar highly useful thoughts.  And of course I’d start to feel anxious and restless as a result.  As Dr. Albert Ellis, the Father of Rational-Emotive thinking, said, “feelings come from thinking.”  And they do.  And they did!   In the first couple of days I had to take breaks, start slow, remind myself that nothing dangerous or bad was happening, and that in the worst case (outright rejection, which of course in this context never happened) I could step away and start again the following day.

As the initial anxieties crested and eased I created a list of things to do for this work: develop a contact list, create a schedule for following up with those contacts, develop a method for tracking referrals as they came in,  set up a calendar for contact dates and follow-up with people after a reasonable period of time, etc.  Just that exercise helped shift my thinking – not much, but enough to start the ball rolling.   The first few emails were scary.  The next few emails were less so (with bursts of concern and worry still poking through as I continued this work.)  Yet by that Thursday, of the very first week I was doing this work, I came to my desk and discovered that my worry was significantly less than it had been the previous Saturday, when I first started preparing to take on this project.  By the middle of the following week I was finding it to be more comfortable than I had ever experienced, and (oddly enough) began to generate some new business.

Another example comes from an old and excellent friend who, for a variety of reasons, found himself seriously in debt to the IRS.  (I know, just reading those 3 letters in sequence can be scary!)  He had accumulated quite a debt to that agency, and had dithered (for over 9 years!) about addressing it.  What if they threw him in jail?  What if they took his house?  What if he had to work four jobs and never, ever get to see a movie or have any fun ever again?  He had himself really worked up over this, and attempted a number of things to shield himself from this fear, including some very serious drinking.  He was completely terrified of having to call the IRS and deal with his debt.

Through a series of bumps and bangs that convinced him that he HAD to do something he faced into his fear and called the IRS.  He reports that he was barely able to talk to the agent on the phone, but that when he finally finished his story the agent simply said “sir, please, just file your taxes.  We’ll figure this out once you’ve done that.”  He said his chief emotion when he got off the phone was anger – not at the IRS, but at himself, for having 1) taken so long to face this fear, and 2) all the time and energy he’d burned avoiding the problem.

And that’s EXACTLY the point, isn’t it?  That in our (mostly unthinking, highly reactive) avoidance of what we’re afraid of we wind up giving up time, energy, freedom and room to live our lives, when (compared to what we spend in that avoidance) the facing through and dealing with our fears will take much less time and energy?  It is unfair and unnecessary that we let our anxiety and fear rob us the way they can do.  Next up – more examples, and further suggestions for tools that can assist you in using the triad.