02/01/2012 12:45 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

Three Things to Do When the "F" Word Stops You Cold

What is the number one "reinvention killer" for all of us?

HINT: More dreams have died in the grasp of this emotional "F" bomb than from any other cause... bar none. It comes up suddenly, predictably and stops us dead in our tracks time after time.

You know the answer... FEAR

If fear stops you, does that mean you're "chicken" or lack the willpower for your own reinvention? Popular culture would say yes. I will respond with an emphatic "NO."

The antidote for fear is not courage unless you are on the battlefield. Thank heavens that is not where your reinvention takes place. There are simple tools that will help you reach new goals and literally reinvent yourself -- at any age -- despite the universal presence of fear.

Before I show you these fear bypass methods it is important to know why this powerful emotion comes up in the first place. If fear is the enemy, the more we understand about its origins the better.

The Three Foundations of Fear -- And Their Antidotes

1) Our Human Neuroanatomy

It is said that there are two prime motivators for all living things.

  • We move toward pleasure
  • We move away from pain

However, these are not equal drives.

Our avoidance of pain is much stronger than almost all pleasure seeking impulses because it is hard-wired into our neuroanatomy. Deep in the core of our brain lies a structure called the brainstem. The brainstem is often referred to as the "reptile brain" because it is a structure we share with more primitive life forms like lizards and snakes. It sits down below the thinking parts of our brain, functioning on autopilot, with one prime imperative: protect this human. It is always on and always looking for danger, threats and problems.

This automatic protective function is what creates our comfort zone. Your brainstem sorts your life into two distinct classifications:

  • Things it knows and trusts. These fall into your comfort zone
  • Everything else -- which is, by definition, dangerous and not to be trusted

Here's the rub.

  • Everything you HAVE is in your comfort zone
  • Everything you WANT -- but don't have -- lies outside your comfort zone.

The fallout is this: Any new goal that is part of your reinvention is automatically in the brainstem's danger zone. It doesn't want you to go out there and get anything new. Who knows what might happen in that strange place? It shoots the emotion of FEAR across your bow time and time again. Once you understand this you will realize...

Fear Is Absolutely Normal

It is an automatic and unavoidable reaction to any attempt at life change. No real change happens without it. In fact, if fear does not come up as you think about a new goal, most likely the goal doesn't even lie outside your current comfort zone. Pick a bigger goal if you really want to change.

The next time you feel fear, welcome it as confirmation that you are indeed human... and a sign you are planning to step outside your comfort zone to true reinvention. (Read on to antidote number three.)

2) Our Imagination

On top of the "reptile brain" sit the two hemispheres of our cerebral cortez. They are the home of the uniquely human faculty of imagination.

Imagination is like most superpowers... it can be used for good or evil. Its default setting is to serve the reptile brain lying just beneath. With the reptile brain at the controls, our natural tendency is to imagine danger and threat in every step to our new goal. This is imagination's dark side.

Your imagination can also be your most powerful reinvention tool. Not even a supercomputer is as powerful at brainstorming creative ways to reach your goals, but only once you wrestle control from the brainstem. Here's when and how to do just that.

When you notice the brainstem say, "This could be dangerous you know, you don't know what you're doing, why don't we just stay here in this nice warm comfort zone..." Put your imagination on the reinvention team with a question like, "What are six ways I can reach this goal using skills and contacts I already have?"

Your imagination loves questions that start with "what" or "how" and ask for a specific number of answers. With a question like that in play, your imagination will be happy to come and work for you rather than for the brainstem.

You must put your imagination on your team... or the brainstem will automatically place it on "worst case scenario" duty.

3) The Brain's Tendency to "Telescope"

This is another tendency hard wired into our human brain structure. Whenever you think about a new goal... one that lies outside your current comfort zone... our brain's natural tendency is to see only the beginning and end of the journey. It telescopes.

Your mind will focus on just two points: your current position and the end goal. Its only concern is the size of the gap between where you are and where you want to be. It doesn't pay attention to anything in between.

Telescoping shows up when you feel like you are standing on one rim of the Grand Canyon and your goal is way over on the opposite side. The gap is a mile-wide chasm. You would die if you tried to jump across. The little voice in the back of your head declares this an impossible task and makes a list of all the bad things that could happen along the way.

We have all experienced the hypnotic effect of this flavor of fear. The gap overwhelms our desire and we stop before we start. Its a tragedy because telescoping is selling you a mirage.

After all, there is a trail leading from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other. Thousands of people walk it every year. They accomplish this task the only way possible... a way your brain does not naturally take into account...

One step at a time.

When you notice your brain focusing on the gap, look down at your feet and ask, "What is the smallest step I can take?" Then take it.

In my life and with many of my clients this is the way reinvention happens.

  • You pick a goal with meaning
  • Fear comes up (so you know you are on the right track)
  • Take a baby step
  • You actually survive (can you believe it?)
  • And learn exactly what the next step is
  • Repeat

When it is time for your reinvention, don't let your neuroanatomy, imagination and the mind's tendency to telescope gang up on our dreams.

  • Realize it is normal to feel fear any time you go for something new. It's not a character flaw. It's hard-wired into the deepest structures of your brain and a sign you are actually stepping out of your comfort zone.

  • Put your imagination to good use listing the skills, resources, people and experience you have that will make the journey to your new goal easier. Don't let your brainstorm drag it over to the dark side.
  • Most of all... take ridiculously-tiny baby steps. The smaller the better. One after the other. Each one will show you the next.
  • You will reach your goals like all of us do... step by tiny step.

    "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." -- FDR


    Dike Drummond, M.D. is known as the "Do-Over Doctor." When you are ready for your do-over, fresh start, reinvention... let Dike show you how to use a "Functional Midlife Crisis" as a major shortcut to living your dreams.

    For more on mindfulness, click here.

    For more by Dike Drummond, M.D., click here.

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