Last year I came out of my house when I heard two of my dogs barking in a really unusual manner. Looking into the back yard, I saw a groundhog had wandered through the fence- probably trying to reach my garden. The dogs had cornered it and were snuffling its fur, jumping around trying to convince it that they meant it no harm and were inviting him to play. Unfortunately, groundhogs have no desire to learn to speak dog so this poor guy just wanted out and fast. As soon I realized what was going on, I called the dogs off. The moment they turned to come to me, that groundhog took off, squeezing itself though the fence, running across the field and practically diving back back into the woods.
Fear is a powerful force in our lives. It’s an emotion solidly programmed into our DNA- too much in fact. Science has proved that our brains cannot tell the difference between perceived and real danger. Swimming in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy – that’s real danger. Getting up in front of a shareholders meeting to tell them about how your company has been functioning during the last year – that’s perceived danger. In most cases, they aren’t going to try and eat you during your presentation. The trouble is, biologically, your body reacts the same way to real and perceived danger. Your heart rate and breathing increase, you produce a surge of cortisol (among other chemicals), and your brain fires off either a fight or flight response. Fear was a really important warning system when we lived in caves and weren’t always the top participant in a food chain. And it still has a place today, it’s just that no one has told the brain that the fear response really needs to be downsized, there just isn’t the same demand for it any more.
Fear is what keeps us stuck in our lives. It’s what prevents us from changing even when we yearn to change, when we know we need to change. It keeps us from taking risks, from creating, performing or really putting ourselves out there. Fear causes us to contract into ourselves when what we really need is to expand. I guarantee if you want to understand why you aren’t making progress with something in your life, ask yourself, “what am I afraid of?” and you will learn what is blocking your path.
So if fear is biologically programmed into our systems to be trigger-happy and overactive, what do we do when fear is running our lives or blocking our growth, creativity and energy? We confront our fear, one tiny little step at a time.
That groundhog I talked about? After “the incident” we didn’t see him for about a week. Then one day he reappeared at the edge of the woods. For a couple weeks, he’d take a few steps out of the woods, see the dogs and instantly disappear right back into the brush. Over the next month, he’d coming out farther and farther into the field. He’d still run back to safety when the dogs appeared – at first. And then he realized, the dogs were behind the fence – they couldn’t actually get to him. So he started standing his ground. He’d stop eating and watch them as they came up to the fence, barking and calling to him. He’d assess if there was any real danger, checking to see if anything had changed since the last encounter. When he realized they still couldn’t reach him, he’d go back to eating. Now he eats maybe ten feet from them and ignores them completely. They can bark and call and scratch and jump as much as they want, and he’s not afraid because he knows that on that side of the fence they are just a perceived danger.
So can you stand your ground when your fear response kicks in long enough to discern whether or not it’s a real or perceived danger? You can – a little bit at a time. The more you expose yourself to fear, the less power it holds over you. Remember, it’s not an all or nothing proposition. Taking small steps forward help you overcome fear. Just ask the groundhog.