Courage Is Not the Absence of Fear. It’s the Willingness to Walk Through It.

Many of my clients have heard the statement above, because many of my clients’ most serious issues revolve around long-standing patterns that perhaps once served a valuable purpose but that are now no longer functioning positively. These patterns can exhibit themselves in virtually any area of life. In the workplace it might mean staying in a dead-end job for way too long. In the area of relationships it might manifest itself in being stuck with a partner that brings more pain than joy (or perhaps merely boredom). In health, it could appear as an addiction to a harmful substance, or a long-standing pattern of overeating or inactivity.

In conversation after conversation I find that my clients know on some level that a dysfunctional pattern needs to change, but they find themselves inexplicably frozen, unable to begin the process of breaking the old pattern and starting to replace it with something different. I’ve also observed that, virtually without exception, some type of fear underlies the thought of changing the status quo. For some, the fear is of giving up something that, while harmful in some respects, is nonetheless enjoyable (think cigarettes or physically abusive relationships with great “make-up sex”or the job that brings in enough to pay the bills). For others, it is fear of the unknown (even if the status quo is unpleasant, maybe it’s better than the alternative: out of the frying pan, into the fire).

In the same way that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for career or relationship counseling, there is no single prescription or recipe for how to bring about change. Sometimes a series of gradual shifts turn out to be the best way to overcome a pattern. That gradualism is what underlies the most widely accepted form of treatment for phobias: behavior modification through conditioning that involves gradually increasing exposures to the feared stimulus (from snakes to heights to dogs to water). Yet we all know of examples of people for whom “cold turkey” works best, whether that be in quitting an addiction (to nicotine, alcohol, or another substance), in ending a relationship, or a successful new year’s resolution (however uncommon that success may be).

The one common element to successfully changing a dysfunctional pattern, and indeed the essential first step in any attempt to do so, is willingness. Alcoholics Anonymous articulates this beautifully when it states that the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking. Coupled with the willingness will be fear, without a doubt. Remember, though, that in 99% of cases the fear is a product of our thinking, not of an actual physical danger. Over the eons fear has been programmed into us, and into all sentient beings, for our protection. The warier members of a species tended to survive more frequently than the more reckless ones. But this genetic programming no longer functions very often as a survival mechanism, simply because there are so few threats to our individual survival. Unlike our ancestors, we’re unlikely to round a corner and come face-to-face with a predator. So today fear almost always arises from our mental projection of the future. Now, ask yourself these two question: 1) what percent of the time has something you feared actually transpired?; 2) 1) how often has that anticipation of something negative actually happening provided you with some type of valuable preparation to deal with it?

For most people, fear is merely a hurdle standing in the way of an imagined, but highly unlikely, dangerous outcome. Focus on your willingness to walk through that fear, to surmount that hurdle, and trust that your life will wind up being better for having done so. Virtually every one of my hundreds of clients over the years would back me up on this assertion. Try thinking about your fear that way, and then try walking through it.

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