The Top 3 Mistakes People Make in the Face of Fear (and what to do instead)

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I was in a small, dark, enclosed space. I couldn’t see. I was moving, but I had no control over it. It felt like the walls were closing in. I could barely breathe.

Just when I couldn’t stand it another second, the car wash ended. I drove over to the Free Vacuum area and sat there for awhile, trying to calm down.

Car washes aren’t scary. What the hell was wrong with me?

My life had been feeling increasingly out of control. It became clear I had to do something. I was afraid of so many things, I was afraid I’d soon be too afraid to leave the house at all. The car wash was the last straw.

Since then, I’ve studied fear. I’ve learned a lot about how it works and how to work with it—how to use it, rather than being controlled by it. I’ve conquered some fears and thrived through others.
Here are the top three things I’ve learned about what not to do in the face of fear.

  1. Don’t focus on what you’re afraid of.
    I have a friend who used to race cars for a living. He’s a 6-time national champion, and one thing he always says is, “Look where you want to go.” When you’re driving, your body will find a way to get the car where you’re looking. So don’t look at the ditch or the guardrail! The more you focus on what you don’t want to hit, the more likely you are to hit it. Instead, look where you want to go. That’s your best chance for getting there.
    That’s how it is in life, too. So many times, we give in to our fears and cause the exact outcome we want to avoid.

    • You’re afraid the hottie will say no and you won’t get to go out with him or her, so you don’t ask—thus guaranteeing there will be no date.
    • You’re afraid the big blog won’t publish your guest post, so you don’t submit one—thus guaranteeing your post won’t get published.
    • You’re afraid you wouldn’t be able to make it in business, so you never try—thus guaranteeing that you won’t build a successful business.

    Focus on the outcome you want, and give yourself a chance. If you try, your odds are infinitely better than if you don’t.

  2. Don’t back off when things get intense.
    When life gets scary, our natural impulse is to slow down and protect ourselves. When a tiger is chasing you, hiding is probably a great choice, but for most of the challenges of modern life, it just makes things worse.
    After my car wash freakout, one thing I did to help myself overcome fear was try autocross. Autocross is a precision driving sport where you race the clock on a course designed to test your driving skill.
    Although it’s designed for safety, it still scared me. I’m not used to pushing the limits, especially in anything involving physics. And, it was a chance to live out one of my biggest fears: doing something badly where other people could see.
    As the slowest driver out there, I got a lot of encouragement from the other drivers: be more aggressive, go faster, push harder. One day, I decided to push it as hard as I could. I was going fast in a turn—it felt like the car was going to lose control at any second.
    I got scared. I hit the brakes.
    And I lost control and spun out.
    When you’re driving all out on a curve, the last thing you want to do is hit the brakes. You need all your traction to stick to the curve. If you try to use some for braking, you will lose it.
    In a way, the experience was good for me: one of my big fears came true, and everything was still totally fine. But it represented an unmissable lesson about life. When things get intense, my first impulse is to hit the brakes—ensuring the outcome I want to avoid.
    Instead, it’s better to lean into the intense times. The car can do far more than it seems, and life is the same. When we stay far away from the edge, we have no idea how much farther we could be going. The only way to find out is to go a little farther. Push it. You will probably be amazed at what you can do.
    If you’re actually risking your life, caution might be the smart answer, but otherwise, what do you really have to lose?
  3. Don’t give up.
    Hitting the brakes is bad enough, but quitting altogether is even worse.
    I’m not saying you should never quit. Sometimes quitting is wise. When a hobby is no longer providing enjoyment, a relationship is taking more from your life than it’s adding, or a job is making you miserable, quitting is the way to go.
    But when you’re just tired and scared, don’t quit. This is another case where giving in to your fear will guarantee the outcome you’re trying to avoid. If you quit, you’ll never become a fast race car driver or a great guitar player or a successful entrepreneur. You’ll never go beyond where you are right now.Instead, keep going. Be kind to yourself and find ways to support yourself as much as you can—get help or guidance, get enough sleep, lean on your support system—and persevere.
    If you stick with it, you have the power to follow your dreams and create the life you want for yourself. Even if it’s not easy, isn’t that worth it?

If you’d like some help getting clear on what’s holding you back and how to overcome it, you might want to check out my free guide: What’s Stopping You? It includes why our dreams scare us so much, how to know whether you should take a risk or listen to your fears (they are right some of the time!), and what to do to make your efforts more likely to succeed.

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