THE BLOG
05/30/2013 05:27 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

How to Know When to Listen to Fear and When to Push Through It

Fear. Everyone experiences it. It is the most basic human emotion, a function of our reptilian brain. It is there to alert us when we are in danger -- to keep us safe. Sometimes, however, fear gets in our way. While instinctively there to protect us, fear can sometimes tell us that it is not safe to proceed when in fact, it might be wise to proceed. In this way, fear can feel like an obstacle to living the life we want to live. When to respect fear and back off and when to challenge and push through fear -- sometimes it is hard to know.

We live in a culture that loathes fear. Fear is weakness. We get major self-help points when we fight our fear and "do it anyway." We have made fear into an enemy. If we are afraid, counter-intuitively, we must do the thing that scares us. There is nothing worse than being someone who lets fear control them. But in truth, we are often controlled by fear even when we are fighting it.

There is a more wholesome way to look at fear. In the process, it is important to set some guidelines for when to challenge fear and when to honor it -- when we should force ourselves to do the thing that makes us afraid and when we should allow fear to be our wise guide.

Healthy Reasons to Push Through/Challenge Fear:

1. When the gain outweighs the pain.

I personally do something every few months that scares me. No matter how many times I do it, it always scares me. It is a very hard thing to do and never seems to get easier. And yet, the sense of empowerment and strength that I experience as a result of doing it is always worth the pain of the fear. Having lived it so many times, I know, heading into the fear, that I will feel wonderful about myself on the other side. I also know that the fear will ease once I am inside the task, and that I will again feel pleased that I walked through the fire of fear and gave myself the gift of empowerment.

2. When we are not willing to give up the thing that we are afraid of.

A friend of mine is terribly afraid to drive with her kids in the car. Despite driving with them for nine years, the fear has never gone away. She is not willing, however, to stop driving her kids to their activities nor give up family holidays that involve driving. Being able to drive them means participating in their life and this is something that she is not willing to sacrifice. For this reason, she pushes through the fear each day, making the conscious choice not to let fear take away something that is supremely important to her.

3. When we want to be free to do the things we want to do -- and don't want to be controlled by fear.

It feels disempowering to want to do something but not be able to do it... because of fear. If this is the case, it is healthy to try and understand the fear, but also to try and push through the fear. The drive to be free is also a self-protective and life-affirming instinct, and one that presents a good reason to stand up to fear.

When to Listen to Fear and (Possibly) Stop Doing What Makes Us Afraid:

1. Proving (yet again) that we can push through fear.

If we are doing something that continually makes us afraid, but we keep doing it in order to show ourselves that we can fight through the fear, we might want to consider stopping. Stopping the behavior that makes us afraid is not the same thing as giving in to fear. Rather, it is acknowledging that while we can do this scary thing (and have proven this), we can also choose not to do it. Choosing not to do something (once we know we can) is often the stronger and healthier choice. Rather than relentlessly proving, believing that we are growing stronger, we need to ask the larger questions: "Why do I not believe that I can do it no matter how many times I prove I can?" "Why will I not let myself be 'someone' who can do this?" "What am I really proving about myself by being able to do it?" And finally, "What is the risk if I were to let myself stop doing it?" True strength is when we stop having to prove that we are strong.

2. Proving an identity.

If we are doing something that makes us anxious in order to demonstrate that we are a certain kind of person. A former client did a share house in the Hamptons every summer because she wanted to "be" a cool and socially hip person. The problem was that she hated it, every summer, and the experience generated tremendous anxiety that lasted the entire year. Despite the anxiety, being "the kind of person who summered in the Hamptons" was an important part of the scaffolding on which her identity was built.

If we feel we must continue proving this version of ourselves, we can always honor the fear by finding less anxious-making ways to say the same thing about ourselves. However, the fact that we feel so much anxiety about it is a red flag that we might in fact not be this kind of person. Regardless, further self-investigation is called for. Why is it so important that we be seen as this kind of person? If we are this kind of person, then what kind of person does this mean we are not? And furthermore, Why don't we trust that we will be known as that without actively showing it?

3. When the risk is not worth the reward.

Sometimes the danger fear is alerting us to is one we really need to heed. Sometimes the risk is not worth the potential payoff. Last weekend I watched a riding instructor tell a young woman to get on a horse and show a group of top riders "how it's done." Having been in that spot, I knew that the young woman was being offered a huge opportunity to prove her stripes, to show everyone that she was indeed the "It" girl. It was also an opportunity to prove to herself that she could rise to the challenge and deliver on a dime. The potential rewards for her identity and self-esteem were huge. And yet, I could see that fear was there too. She did not have a hunt cap and what if something unforeseen were to happen. Fear vs. fame. The result: She declined the invitation. The boon to her identity was not worth the risk of serious injury. Fear was there for a reason. While her choice was certainly not without loss, she honored fear as the protector that in this instance it was.

How to answer to fear is different in every case. What is important is that we do not automatically react to fear by either doing the thing that scares us or not doing it. Fear is just a warning light, there to alert us that we need to inquire more deeply into ourselves. Sometimes we discover that our growing edge is to move forward, into and through the fear, and sometimes, we discover that we need to stop. How we make use of fear -- as a means to grow and become more self-aware... this is ultimately what matters.

For more by Nancy Colier, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

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