Have you ever felt like if you just had the confidence to be who you really are (or trust your gut, or believe in yourself) you’d be able to do that thing you’ve been dreaming about?
Let’s talk about that confidence thing.
Last week I explained that the tricky part isn’t gaining confidence. It’s unlearning fear. And I promised to tell you just how to do it.
Most fear is learned …
Scientists aren’t in complete agreement over the biological underpinnings of fear. But the current bulk of research points to this:
1) We are born with very few innate fears, such as the fear of falling, fear of loud noises, and fear of being left alone / starving.
2) We are also predisposed to other fears, which are a factor of our environment. If our parents are afraid of spiders or we have no access to the ocean, we’re more likely to grow up with a fear of spiders or the ocean. If not, then those fears don’t develop.*
3) But the vast majority of our fears accumulate over time. They are learned orassociative fears. Did you stand up to your older brother, only to find yourself knocked to the ground? Then maybe you felt more fearful about standing up to a grade school bully, and later to your boss (especially if the “lesson” was repeated several times).
We are ALL taught fear.
Bad things lurk around every corner when we’re growing up!
A car will hit us if we don’t look both ways, then look again.
We’ll get ridiculed by the teacher if we give the wrong answer.
Our friends will jeer at us if we stand out from the crowd.
And never, ever talk to strangers.
Consequently, most of us carry some degree of fear of upsetting others, of not being loved or not fitting in, of failing, of never measuring up.
We fear the terrible consequences dreamed up by our imagination.
The point is, a lack of confidence is NOT what causes your struggles.
Dawn Barclay, whose life’s work is helping people unlearn fear, says,
“A lack of confidence is not the cause, it’s the effect.”
… so luckily we can unlearn it
The great news is that if fears are learned, you can unlearn them.
Here’s what you need to understand: Your brain is extremely sensitive to similarity.
If it perceives that a situation is similar to something that happened in the past, the amygdala, a tiny little almond-shaped section of the brain, will orchestrate the release of specific neurotransmitters triggering a very precise emotion.
This can happen completely unconsciously; you won’t even realize WHY your palms are sweaty or you’re suddenly feeling sick to your stomach.
Luckily, we have another part of the brain called the neocortex, which processes logic. It’s only a few cells thick, but it’s a powerhouse that covers the entire brain.
Thanks to the neocortex, we can stop and employ logic when we feel those familiar negative emotions spring up. No matter your fears, you have a choice when it comes to how you react to each new situation.
As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
The key takeaway here is that emotions are reflexive but behaviors are a choice.
To unlearn fear, follow these steps:
To unlearn fear, you need to pay close attention to your thoughts and feelings. (Just give it a go. It gets MUCH easier the more you do it.)
When you feel the familiar discomfort of fear, remember The Three Rs:
Recognize --> Reframe --> Reprogram
1) Recognize what’s going on.
Take a hard look at how fears are getting in your way, in order to aid your determination to shed them.
Interview yourself about the stories and baggage in your head. Where did they come from? When do you first remember feeling that way?
Recognize that those are beliefs but not necessarily truths. Sometimes the way we remember something isn’t even how things really went down!
You are what you believe. Only you can reprogram your beliefs, and it takes a firm, daily commitment. The thoughts you repeat in your head are your own responsibility. (That doesn’t mean you should judge a thought when it arises. Just acknowledge it and move on to the next step.)
2) Reframe your thoughts
Take this familiar fear, for example: “If I fail, I’ll never be able to live it down.” Find a different perspective that is kinder and likely more accurate: “I probably won’t fail, but if I do, it won’t be the end of the world.”
Remember that you were naturally confident in the past, and bring to mind areas in your life where you still feel confident.
Replace negative self-talk with compassionate self-talk or humorous back-talk. When your inner monologue says, “You’re such a loser,” immediately respond with “I’m amazing,” or even “You’re obviously wearing blinders! I’ve got winner written all over me!”
3) Reprogram your emotional response
Now don’t just say it … take a second and FEEL it. Imagine the feeling of being amazing, of being a winner. The human brain has an uncanny capacity for empathy. Just imagining being a winner can trigger the same neurotransmitters that would be released if you had actually won something.
Practice. The more positive associations you can make with the situations that used to trigger fear, the more you will override the release of fear-inducing neurotransmitters. Prove to yourself that you won’t let fear stop you, and that the world doesn’t end when you forge ahead.
Each time you take one little baby step past an old fear, reward yourself heartily and flood that brain with feel-good juice!
The long game
This is how, over time, you’ll unlearn your original fear and relearn a different, more positive response to similar stimuli.
(Can you imagine yourself about to enter a room full of strangers and feeling excited rather than nervous and grumpy?**)
Happily, once you disprove a previously held belief, it’s hard to ever adopt that old belief again.
So next time you’re about to do something that feels a little scary, think of it this way:
Maybe the only thing you stand to lose is fear! Which leaves the door to your future wide open with possibility….
Here’s to releasing your fears,
P.S. Please do me the favor of sharing this article with your friends, because everyone who wants to live an uncommon life could benefit from less fear. Thanks!
*Some scientists believe these are actually innate fears, but do not form until later in life when the brain has matured more fully.
**I’m not there yet, either. But I’ve gotten to the point where I can at least feel neutral rather than miserable :-)