I sat in my car next to the tennis courts watching other people arrive. My hands shook and my stomach churned. I told myself I would get out of my car and walk onto the courts the second the clock on the dashboard switched to .
I had just joined a meetup group and was at the park that morning to play tennis for the first time in years with people I had never met.
And I was terrified.
It seems silly to be afraid of such a little thing like meeting people to play a game. But it’s indicative of the fear I’ve lived with for much of my life—fear of making a mistake or a poor decision, fear of looking silly, of being rejected, of not being perfect.
I have often let the fearful part of me have a dominant voice. As a result I stayed small. I didn’t let many people into my community. I didn’t try new things. I didn’t do the things that really excite me. I didn’t grow.
I thought I was just a fearful person who was not made to do brave and exciting things. Now I’m learning to change the way I experience fear and opening the door to a more joyful, fulfilling life.
1. My fear is a part of me.
Fear isn’t an outside force invading my mind to make me miserable. Because my fear is a part of me I can never really get rid of it. Trying to shut it out or shut it up won’t make it go away. If I don’t allow it to express itself, my fear will continue to try to get my attention by any means it can. Sometimes fear is like a small child trying to tell me something she believes is very important. If she thinks I’m not listening, she’s going to get louder and more obnoxious to get my attention. It’s important to listen to what my fear is trying to tell me—both to determine whether the concern is valid and to be respectful of all parts of myself. Stuffing down my fear is stifling a piece of myself.
2. My fear has a purpose.
Fear does not exist to be mean or keep me from doing the things I want to do. My fear is actually trying to protect me. It just doesn’t always go about it in a pleasant way. My fear really kicks in when it senses a threat to my well-being, whether the threat comes in the form of physical danger, potential rejection, or possible failure. Sometimes my fear is valid and can help me avoid a harmful situation. Other times my fear might just be uncomfortable because I’m expanding outside my comfort zone. The only way I can know for sure is to listen to what my fear is saying.
3. I can decide how my fear talks to me.
It can be hard to listen to my fear. My fear believes it has a very important message to tell me and will do whatever it takes to be heard. But I don’t have to listen to abuse or obnoxious behavior. I can tell my fear that I want to know what it has to say, but it’s really hard to listen when it is unkind. I can ask it to rephrase and tell me its concerns in a way that doesn’t make me feel bad. I often do this by writing out a dialogue between myself and my fear in my journal. Find a way to set boundaries for your fear that works for you.
4. My fear isn’t a reason to not do something.
Sometimes my fear has a very valid point and helps me avoid something harmful. Often, however, my fear is triggered by anything that stretches my comfort zone. While moving outside my comfort zone is…well…uncomfortable, it is also necessary to grow. If I limit my actions and interactions to only things that are comfortable, my life experience will be very narrow. If my fear is trying to hold me back because I might look silly or make a mistake, it might be the best and most enjoyable thing for me to do whatever I’m afraid of anyway.
Everyone is a beginner sometimes and nobody is perfect. These things are just a very normal part of being human. The only way to move past being a beginner is to let ourselves begin. If we let our fear prevent us from ever stepping outside our comfort zone and trying something new, we miss out on so much. If I wait until I stop feeling afraid to try something, I’ll likely never try. The only way to stop being afraid to do something is to do it. In fact the more often I try new things, the more I can afford to make mistakes because I know I’ll have another opportunity to try again.
5. The presence of fear doesn’t mean the absence of other feelings.
It’s natural to feel afraid when we try something that stretches us, but new experiences can also prompt excitement and joy. They aren’t mutually exclusive. We can feel excitement and joy right alongside our fear. When we are willing to acknowledge and accept that we’re afraid, but choose to focus on the parts that are exciting and fun we’re more likely to have a positive experience in spite of our fears.
6. Fear sometimes shows us what we care about most.
It’s easy to think of our fear as a warning against things that might harm us. But sometimes fear actually points to what we really desire. We are afraid to test the things that are important to us because as long as we don’t test them they are still a possibility. But when we don’t try those things we care about most they remain only a possibility, never a reality. The longer we put off following through on our dreams, the higher the pressure to get everything just right becomes and the more afraid we are to ever try. If something doesn’t really matter to us we’re less afraid to try because it doesn’t matter if we fail.
Fear will always be a part of my life. It’s a valuable part of me. But when I know how to interact with my fear in a healthy way it doesn’t keep me limited and hidden. Instead I can lean into the discomfort of trying things that will help me grow and take steps toward building a life that truly excites me, all the while knowing there is a part of me watching out for my well-being.
When I got out of my car to join the tennis group even though I was afraid I showed myself I don’t have to banish my fear, but I don’t have to be limited by it either. I did not play as well as I would have liked, but started improving the longer I played. People were kind and patient. I had fun and the fresh air and exercise energized me for the rest of the day. I still had to talk myself out of my car the next week, but each time gets a little easier.
What is your relationship with your fear? Do you ever feel like you’re in a constant battle to dominate or be dominated? What is something your fear is trying to tell you today? How are you going to respond?