Facing your fears is one of those ideas in the realm of personal development which is getting so wide spread I think it’s becoming dangerous. Why? Because I believe facing fears can be done in many ways, and some of the more popular ones have more negative consequences than positive ones.
The basic premise of this advice is that by facing your fears and doing what you know is right, not only that you get the desired results, but you also make the fear go away as you get used to the thing you’re afraid of. Sometimes, this truly happens, which is why in principle, getting out of your comfort zone and facing your fears is solid advice.
However, sometimes (more often than a lot of people would like to admit), facing your fears does nothing to lower your anxiety and actually reinforces them. Let’s dig into some human psychology and cognition, to find out why.
Imagine a person who is afraid of public speaking. So she decides as part of improving her people skills, to face this fear head on. So she forces herself to speak in front of 500 top managers, at an important business conference. She thinks this way she’ll get read of her fear once and for all.
She is up on stage, looking at the people and feeling scared like she’s in front of an execution squad. She feels the fear, she sees the audience, she’s thinking to herself: “Damn, I’m scared! This was a bad idea”. What happens in this situation is that mentally, the intense fear and the public speaking situation get linked one with the other, and the fear of public speaking only gets reinforced.
In my coaching activity, I have met a lot of people who go around facing their fears every day like this. And most of the time, they are still afraid of those same things they’re facing for a long time. They’re running around scared half the time. I don’t know about you, but I call this self-torture.
There are better ways to do it. Methods like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), which I often use in my coaching practice, provide some solid, well documented ways for facing your fears effectively. Here are two essential traits they have:
1. Gradual exposure. You don’t face a stimulus which triggers fear at its highest intensity. You start with a low intensity one, and as you get used to it and your fear decreases significantly, you move on to one of a higher intensity. If for example, you are afraid of public speaking, you start by speaking in front of 10 people who seem friendly.
2. Combining the behavioral with the cognitive. As you face your fears, you also focus on addressing your automatic thinking and your limiting beliefs which fundament these fears. Your combine using the right external tools with using the right internal tools.
If you do it this way, over time, the fears you’re facing will actually drop and eventually disappear. It will take time and practice, but you will see it happen. This means you can start to enjoy the things you dreaded, that you experience more freedom. It’s what I like the most about personal development.