Facing Your Fears Will Strengthen Your Resilience

By Gail Wagnild

Reading time:  4.5 minutes

Have you ever been drawn to lists that show the ‘top 10 common fears’ people have to see if your particular fears are included? The first one on the list is frequently fear of public speaking followed by heights, being in confined spaces and so on. For instance, when I see the legendary photo of workers having lunch on a steel girder high above New York City cheekily waving their hats, my heart speeds up. I don’t like heights.

I also don’t care to jump out of an airplane. But these fears haven’t interfered with my life. I have never had to eat my lunch on a steel girder hanging out over empty space or pull the ripcord on a parachute in order to advance my career for instance. But when fear begins to interfere with our life and results in avoiding doing things we really want to do, then we need to pay attention.

Some fear is good. It helps us recognize danger so that we can protect ourselves. But other types of fears can get in the way of living fully because we find ourselves avoiding things that take us out of our comfort zone or we procrastinate doing things because we’re afraid and subsequently miss out on opportunities for achieving something we want. Fear can paralyze us and prevent us from being who we could be.

We know when we’re afraid. We may experience butterflies in the stomach or our hearts might race. Maybe we become short of breath and our mouth gets dry.  We’ve all experienced fear. So if we’re paying attention to our reactions, we know when we’re afraid.

But what triggers our fear and what can we do about that? How do we overcome fear? Commonly, we are afraid of rejection, being seen as a failure, and looking stupid. These are often the fears that make public speaking so difficult. We feel vulnerable. And this can lead to retreating from anything that triggers these feelings of inadequacy.

Not facing our fears or turning our backs on them, however, can lead to a retreat from life and then our fear controls our decisions. It can feel like defeat. And it doesn’t go away.  I’ve done that before and I’ve found it’s far better to keep going and do what I’m afraid of doing rather than hoping it will go away, because it won’t.  

So what can we do to overcome fear? Here are 4 ideas to consider:

  1. Dale Carnegie wrote “Do the thing you fear to do and keep on doing it…that is the quickest and surest way ever yet discovered to conquer fear.” Many advocate facing what your fear by taking small steps toward it rather than turning away and avoiding it. Expose yourself slowly to your fear. You don’t need to do it all at once but don’t quit.
  2. Use your fear to your advantage. Trevor Ragan in his TEDx talk on overcoming fear says to use fear as a compass. (You might want to listen to his talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrWvPo-KaVs). He says that when we experience fear, pay attention because it’s an indicator that we are going to learn something important about ourselves. It’s okay to be afraid and to use it to our advantage.
  3. Amy Cuddy’s work on “faking it until you become it” can be a resource for you to consider. From her research she suggests that learning to strike a power pose will infuse you with strength and confidence and help you manage your fear (You might listen to her TED talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_may_shape_who_you_are).
  4. Think of a time you were afraid to do something and you did it despite your fears. How did you feel afterward? What did you learn about yourself? And maybe an even more significant question to ask is “what would you have missed out on if you had retreated to a place of comfort and safety”?

How facing fear builds resilience

When we are able to tackle the things that scare us and eventually even overcome them, it gives us a feeling of confidence and self-reliance. Fear no longer rules the day. It’s self-knowledge that says, “I can do this”.  The more we do this, the more skilled we get at facing our fears. Not because the world becomes a less scary place, but because we have the confidence that we can do what we need to do to overcome fear that that may be otherwise holding us back. Learning to face our fears is a powerful and essential element of resilience.

The more practice we get at overcoming our fears, the better prepared we are for facing whatever happens in our life. As our resilience grows stronger, we are better prepared for future adversity. Louisa May Alcott wrote, “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”