2 Mistakes You Make Because You’re Scared, and How to Avoid Them
I never raised my hand in class in elementary school, middle school, high school, or college. Never. Not once.
I never asked a question or volunteered an answer, though I often knew the answers to questions the teachers asked. I was too scared to even know I had my own questions.
(If you know me now, I’m sure you find this hard to believe. But it’s true. Really.)
If a teacher asked me a direct question in front of the class, my heart thudded so high up in my chest that I’d choke on the answer. I responded so quietly that, much to my horror, I had to repeat myself.
When I was around friends or family, you couldn’t shut me up. But I never, ever started conversations with people I didn’t already know well.
Back then they called me shy. Now I know I was socially anxious. Horrifically so.
I think I started off as a cautious kid, not a shy one, but I was socialized into being shy.
I remember how as a little kid I’d stand at the edge of the playground and watch with wide eyes as the other kids romped around. My mother — an outgoing and boisterous woman — couldn’t stand to see me on the sidelines, so she’d almost shove me into the fray, practically shouting, “Don’t be scared! Get on out there!”
Then I’d feel everyone’s eyes — kids’, parents’, dogs’, cats’, birds’, earthworms’ — boring into me. (Do earthworms even have eyes?)
At that point, I’d be not only unsure of what to do, but also almost puking with embarrassment at having my awkwardness called into the open.
In high school, my mom’s admonitions morphed into, “Stop ducking your head!” “Look them in the eye! There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Pep talks that only exaggerated my reflex to crouch and slink away.
I used to think my mother was annoyed with my cautious personality, but recently she told a story about my playground hesitation and I got a whole new perspective. She said, “I could see how much you wanted to get out there and start playing. You were practically jumping up and down. I just had to get you to leap on out there.”
She was right. I’ve never been an extreme introvert who dislikes being part of things. I did want to play with the kids on the slide and the swings. I just needed to do it in my own time and in my own slow and cautious way.
My mom, though, was trying to help me in the only way she knew how. Back in the day, no one taught parents about how to work with different personality styles.
No one taught her how to help me with my fear. She only knew how to force me past it… which made it worse.
Fast forward to when I had a son who was also a cautious little kid.
By then I had some years of therapy under my belt. I’d healed and practiced my way out of a lot of my social anxiety; and I knew I had to find a different way to help my kid learn confidence for navigating the social world.
When he was four years old, my son and I often stopped in at a neighborhood bakery after preschool to reconnect over muffins and cinnamon rolls.
One day, he told me he wanted to order his own cinnamon roll, by himself. But he was too scared to do it.
Having had the good fortune to study empathic parenting tools with a parent coach gifted at helping me peer into the inner world of my kid (thank you, Gail Allen!), I knew what to do:
My boy and I stood side-by-side at the back of the bakery. I squatted down next to him and said (quietly so only he could hear me), “You want to order your own cinnamon roll! But you’ve never done it before, so it’s new and scary. It’s like you fill yourself up with courage to walk up to that counter, but right before you do it, your courage leaks out and you’re left with just the fear.”
He nodded, eyes round.
“What you need is a Courage Buddy.”
“What’s a Courage Buddy?” he asked.
“A Courage Buddy is someone who helps you hold on to your courage so you can do a thing you’re scared to do. Can I be your Courage Buddy?”
Again, he nodded.
“Okay. I have some ideas for how I can help you hold on to your courage. You can tell me if any of them sound good. I can help you practice what you’d like to say to the baker if you want. And then, I can walk to the counter with you and hold your hand or stand next to you. Or I can wait back here, cheering you on in my mind.”
He giggled and said, “Let’s practice!”
We went outside and I pretended I was the baker. He walked up to me at the pretend counter and practiced ordering. Then he said, “I’m ready.” He wanted me to wait at the back of the bakery.
We walked in and again stood side-by-side. I whispered, “Can you feel your courage? I can almost see it in your chest.” He licked his lips, took a deep breath, and nodded. I whispered again, “I’ll be right here.”
He marched up to the counter and ordered his cinnamon roll in a clear, loud voice. He handed over the money, received his change, and turned around, plate in hand. He ran toward me, beaming.
Quietly again, I said, “You did it! Are you proud of yourself?!”
“Yessssssss!” he squealed. And he took a big bite of the best tasting cinnamon roll the world has ever known.
Let’s Talk About Fear
The first story here highlights the two mistakes our culture almost always pushes you into when dealing with fear:
1) You equate courage with fearlessness.
2) When you can’t be fearless, you feel embarrassed, so you go it alone and either give up or gut up.
Neither of these perspectives generates confidence. Instead, they escalate fear and fuel embarrassment and isolation. That’s what happened to me.
How can you approach fear in a way that instead builds confidence, as in my son’s story?
Let’s examine these mistaken views about fear, so you can learn to work with it in a new, more helpful way…
#1 — Courage Is NOT the Same as Fearlessness
Bravery means doing something scary. Fearlessness means not even understanding what the word scary means. — Elizabeth Gilbert
Every day I hear my friends or my psychotherapy clients talk about how when they’re scared they’re obviously not brave. They believe the fear they feel is an indication that they’re weak, or that they’re not up to the task they’re facing.
My question is this: What in the world is courage for, then?
What should be obvious is that if you’re facing something that’s not frightening, you don’t need courage. The whole purpose of courage is to help you grapple with situations you’re afraid of.
The difference between courage and fearlessness is revealed in the definitions of the two words:
Merriam-Webster defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”
Fearless is defined as “free from fear.”
Note that courage helps you withstand fear; fearlessness means you don’t feel fear.
And guess what? You can’t avoid fear, because you can’t grow without feeling fear.
That’s right — growth happens when you face or try something you haven’t faced or tried before, which means you’re stepping into the unknown. And human brains are evolutionarily wired to respond to the unknown first with fear, and then with curiosity, because the unknown is, well, not known, so there’s the possibility that it could be dangerous.
If you think about it, it would be stupid for any creature to haul off into unexplored territory without some measure of fear to make them look around with vigilance to be sure they’re not about to encounter something that’ll kill them.
University of Toronto psychology professor and researcher Jordan Peterson says, “The ‘domain of the known’ and the ‘domain of the unknown’ can reasonably be regarded as permanent constituent elements of human experience — even of the human environment. …The brain has one mode of operation when in explored territory, and another when in unexplored territory. In the unexplored world, caution — expressed in fear and behavioral immobility — initially predominates, but may be superseded by curiosity — expressed in hope, excitement and, above all, in creative exploratory behavior.”
Yes, your brain is guaranteed to express fear when you encounter unexplored territory. So the only way to live a life free of fear is to live a stagnant, small life where you never enter the domain of the unknown, you never try anything new, and you never grow.
To correct the #1 mistake in dealing with fear, then, you need to normalize the emotion of fear and develop your capacity to bear the feeling of fear.
Allow yourself to understand that you’re scared because you’re stretching, expanding, growing (by choice or by circumstance); and that the purpose of courage is to help you bear that fear.
That means that if you’re feeling fear and continuing to live, you’re brave!
(Also, understand that embracing your fear doesn’t mean you’ll enjoyfeeling afraid. I know I don’t. Even though I know it’s a necessary emotion, the fear that twists my stomach every time I press “publish” on a new story, for example, feels icky.)
But I won’t leave you here, spinning in fear’s unpleasantness. Fear’s discomfort can tip toward the excitement of exploration if you … see #2.
#2 — Everybody Needs a Courage Buddy
Human beings of all ages are found to be at their happiest and to be able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise. — John Bowlby
So now you’re feeling afraid. You’re thinking, Great, Candyce, thanks.
As promised, I won’t leave you here all alone.
If you’re caught in the first fear mistake of believing that fear is weakness, you might feel embarrassed about your fear, so you don’t want to tell anyone you’re scared. I hope #1 helped you move through that embarrassment enough so that you can at least admit to yourself that you’re feeling afraid and that that’s okay.
Because what happens if you remain in fear without any kind of help — even from yourself?
You might give up on doing the scary thing because it feels too overwhelming. (That’s disappointing, and maybe makes you feel bad about yourself.)
Or you might gut it up and force yourself past the terror. (You might get results, but it’s a brutal way to treat yourself. It means cutting yourself off from vulnerable parts of yourself, which is not an enlivening way to live and can even be traumatizing.)
The truth is that your human brain is social. Your brain is hardwired to need communal support in order to feel secure in taking risks. Attachment theory (founded by John Bowlby whom I quoted above, and expanded by lots of modern science) reveals that the more secure we feel because of knowing we are helped and encouraged, the stronger our creative exploration becomes.
That’s why encouragement is called encouragement — because receiving support inspires courage within you.
It’s when you feel supported and encouraged that the fear you feel on the precipice of the unknown shifts away from danger-fear, and toward challenge-fear.
What I call danger-fear is when you perceive your fear as your body telling you to fight or flee or go paralyzed because you’re in terrible danger.
What I call challenge-fear is when you perceive your fear as your body revving you up to help you do something new and unknown (and potentially exciting).
Encouragement transforms danger-fear into challenge-fear, fills you with courage, and increases the chance that you’ll feel excited and exhilarated when you step into the unknown, even if things don’t work out perfectly.
That’s where Courage Buddies come in. The Courage Buddy process I enacted with my son when he was little is a practice that anyone of any age can adapt for building the courage needed to face fear at the edge of exploration.
You can ask for support from someone you trust. Or you can even be a Courage Buddy to yourself!
(Your social brain also allows you to carry on relationships between different parts of yourself. An encouraging part of you can support the scared part of you. This is NOT the same as having multiple personalities. This is normal brain behavior.)
To correct the #2 mistake in dealing with fear, then, is to understand and allow for the need for the Courage Buddy process, which is essentially this:
- validate that fear is a normal response to facing something difficult or new;
- invite courage to arise to support you to do the scary thing;
- think of ideas for what kinds of practice or support will help you feel encouraged, and enact the most helpful ideas;
- mindfully fill yourself up with courage; and
- take the leap!
Follow up with celebrating your feelings of pride for having leaped.
When you take a leap into the unknown from this perspective, pride and excitement often spring up naturally. And over time you’ll build a solid bedrock of confidence.
Remember that fear is necessary for growth, and that fear draws courage toward itself when you validate the need for the fear.
May you learn to accept your fear as a natural part of growth.
May you be a kind Courage Buddy to yourself.
May you transform your danger-fear into challenge-fear, and build your confidence.
May you know that:
“It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” — Pema Chödrön
What kinds of activities or situations scare you? Can you reassure yourself that you’re afraid because you’re facing something new or difficult, and that new, difficult things are aspects of the unknown? What would it be like to be a Courage Buddy to yourself?