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06 Facing Fears: Why we have to go through fear

by Achim Feige

Dear Transformers, dear Co-Creators, dear Shapers of a new time!

After sensemaking, making sense of yourself, you want to move on. If you want to become a Transformative Leader, you have to grow beyond yourself.

But how? Where do you go from here?

There is a clear answer to this question: The unrealized potential always lies where we are still blocked. Where fears stand in the way, be they conscious or unconscious.

That is why we have to look where it hurts, go exactly there, work exactly with that part of ourselves. Much of what lies in the bright light of day, we have now already experienced and built into our thoughts and actions. The greatest potential for development now lies in the dark.

By that I mean the things we don’t like to look at. I don’t even mean the repressed parts of the psyche that Sigmund Freud talks about. But on the very everyday level there are many things that we hide or avoid. How often do we say, “That doesn’t suit me, I reject that, I don’t want that!” – But exactly those things you reject are mostly split-off parts of yourself, or old beliefs, which actually stand in your way.

You can use and transform fears. You don’t have to stand helplessly in front of them and you don’t have to hide them. Face your fears! That is the big task now.

I know that “fear” is a big word and some people may think something like, “I’m not afraid, I’m healthy, I’m functioning.” And yes, you hopefully don’t have a full-blown anxiety or panic disorder (the numbers of these disorders in society are unfortunately skyrocketing, current research suggests that a quarter of people experience an anxiety disorder at least once in their lifetime). But small fears, small avoidance behaviors, and ingrained strategies of simply not approaching this or that issue – most of us have all of these.

The role of fear is to keep us stable and safe, that’s its evolutionary job. In the brain, fear is associated with the amygdala, a small structure in the limbic system that regulates emotions. The amygdala is the brain’s smoke detector, so to speak. It lets me feel: I am safe in my environment. As long as it gives the green light, you are relaxed and feel good. What if it sounds the alarm? Fear! Then you have the choice between the notorious fear reactions, which run as if by themselves and leave us only the choice between freezing, flight, and fight (in everyday life mostly anger). At least, this is how the brain will feel if it does not consciously deal with the situation.

But conscious handling would be possible – you can achieve that by a little training. Because we are not in the jungle and not on the hunt. We are in the company, in the collective, in the project – and actually, in the modern world, when the amygdala speaks up, it only says this: “Attention! Here comes something new!”

That’s all it is, what makes us cringe, what scares us, what we would prefer to avoid: the new. The unfamiliar. However, this is exactly where your potential lies. You can use what is hidden there. You have to use it if you want to move forward.

Fear is like a seismograph that shows you where things are getting interesting.

We want to use and transform fear – as a motor for our development.

There is one area from which you can learn this particularly well. That is sport. Because top athletes have always been doing this. They have to go to their fear, to their limits. With them, the first goal is always to rise above themselves. With them, everyone starts small and then feels their way closer and closer to mastery – in sports, there’s no other way at all. You constantly expand your abilities. Step by step. Do it like a top athlete: You unlock new elements all the time. And then, at some point, you’re suddenly somewhere completely different, a whole level further, and can achieve unimagined things.

Our enemy on this path is fear. And our enemies on this path are also fear’s little brothers and sisters, the negative beliefs. These are beliefs that tacitly exist, that we no longer even question. Supposedly self-evident beliefs, such as, “I think if I don’t work 80 hours, I’m not a good performer.” Or, “I’m afraid if I only work 40 hours, I’ll be perceived as an underperformer.” These beliefs run deep. They seem almost impossible to defeat. That’s why Harvard professor and developmental psychologist Robert Kegan speaks of an “immunity to change” that many have unfortunately acquired. An immunity to change. But change is not a virus, it’s a good thing if we face it and manage it.

Kegan’s book about this has become famous in the USA, a much-cited bestseller in professional circles that has attracted a great deal of attention in modern top management. In Germany, on the other hand, it has not been noticed, the book has not even been translated. Yet this idea is very important for us: This immunity to change is so difficult to overcome because it often operates in the unconscious. That is, we don’t even realize how we are getting in our own way. We have to hack our own operating system in order to move forward.

Three things we should understand about this:

1. what the circuits of fear are in the brain.

2. what courage actually is.

3. what having a Growth Mindset means.

I have just mentioned the circuits of fear (1.). They are the evolutionary ancient reflex that gives us exactly three options: Play dead, flee, or fight. These mechanisms could be very useful, especially in the animal kingdom they can still be observed in experiments today. But we are not guinea pigs and wolves anymore. That’s why it’s about (2.) proving courage. And in my view, that simply means: breaking patterns. Separating ourselves from the seemingly security-providing mechanisms that have guided us for so long. And this is where (3.) the Growth Mindset comes into play. Ask yourself how your mindset, your mentality, is actually structured. Fixed? Or flexible? The mindset that accompanies you, even in business, is either based on fixed ideas (fixed mindset), or is it ready for change and expansion (growth mindset). We need the latter.

Think about your point on our great hike. You have ascended (waking up), you have found deep insights on the summit (exstasis). Now we descend again and connect what we have learned to our thinking so that it is firmly anchored there and we arrive at the bottom as new, grown persons (growing up).

It seems risky to now release all the new energy that was announced at the top. Because, as I said, that is the newness, and that is scary. What I have seen can scare me. What great changes have been announced there! That forces you to leave the old paths and to give up the old patterns. And that is not easy. The new insights are there now, but also the old inhibitions to implement all this.

There can be anxiety if you find that your job just doesn’t fit anymore. There can also be the fear that your relationship won’t last. The fear that you will have to give up security. All of this is all too understandable! Because the brain loves what it knows – even if it is stressful.

How do you give up security? You need to train yourself to be comfortable with uncertainty. Develop tolerance for ambiguity. What I mean:  the key is that you have to put your self-esteem inside, not get it from the outside.

All of the techniques already mentioned here will help with this.

The trick is to play with fear, to appreciate it. That doesn’t mean ignoring it! That would be an old mountaineering mistake. Stay awake! Notice the fear! Notice your limiting beliefs, feel what they are trying to protect you from.  Most of the time it is something you could just as well go through. Work on the borderline. Otherwise you will never rise higher. Welcome to the new! Now my change begins. Using Fear instead of fearing fear. This is the mindshift.

Today I give you five tips what you can do next on the way:

  • The Small Steps Technique. You won’t achieve everything right away – on the contrary, it can cause new anxiety if the goal is too far away. This is not necessary at all. A small success – five minutes of running, making a difficult phone call, reading the first two pages of that paper on your desk – is often enough. Because the progress is exponential after that. You have to get into the act, every day, and the rest will come naturally.
  • Breathing against stress. Look again at box breathing (about here). It is just one of the techniques to regulate your nervous system with breathing – but it is the simplest and most effective. Stress, the precursor to anxiety, often sets in without us realizing it. Get yourself to come down, to a level from which you can act thoughtfully and cool! This can work wonders before a big meeting or presentation.
  • Prepare. Use mental training. In competitive sports, some people can do the improved serve in tennis or the new shot in basketball without having been on the court much: Much of the training takes place in the mind. For example, before a big task that may be new or scary, you can talk yourself through the ideal sequence of events. (For a brief summary of how this has long been done in sports, see here).
  • Train. If you overcome your fear and dare to do something new, not everything will succeed immediately. That is normal. Try things out, practice trial-and-error, again and again. Build practice and improvement into your routine. In companies, we too often think that everyone has to be able to do everything already. This is neither useful nor necessary.
  • Get support. Remember: You are not alone! Managers in particular are often lone warriors. That’s because for a long time it was considered a weakness to ask for advice. We don’t think that way anymore. If you let yourself be helped, you become stronger and unleash your potential.

If you don’t go through fear, you don’t change. Then you remain stagnant. Then you may create some refinement in your business, but no real change. Only when you overcome your beliefs, you slowly become a different person. If you lift heavier and heavier weights, your body will change – the mind works the same way.