THE BLOG

Overcoming the Fears That Prevent Your Happiness

10/01/2013 11:51 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

"Why do I always sabotage myself?" she asked, afraid that she would do it again, having lost 30 pounds and closing in on her goal. "Am I afraid of succeeding?"

Fear has great power in our lives. Thank God it does, keeping us from doing things that could hurt us, like taking unnecessary and dangerous drugs. However, it is a terrible problem if it is keeping you from making your life better, like losing weight and keeping it off, getting a better job, having a good relationship or doing and having any number of things that would make your life happier.

Fear of Success

It sounds silly that a salesman would be afraid of succeeding when he desperately wants to earn more for his family, or a woman who is miserable because of her weight would be afraid of solving her weight problem and becoming healthy and trim. However, it's not unusual at all. There are dangers that lurk around the corner if you succeed.

While losing weight and becoming fit might be your heart's desire, many people are actually afraid of it. You might attract unwanted attention, get "hit on" and not be able to deal with it. Your husband or wife might have a history of being painfully jealous if you look too good. Maybe your girlfriends will treat you differently and you'll lose them.

If you succeed and reach your goal, then what? You know you'll have to work at it the rest of your life to stay successful. Do you really want that? It would be easier not to succeed. Then you'd not be expected to keep it up. This is the fear a lot of people have about success in business. They'd have to work like crazy to get to the top, and they're afraid they'd be expected to work like that all the time! If there is no way they are willing to work like that, it's easier not to get there at all. If you're successful, then there's pressure to keep at it. If you're not, the pressure's off. With either weight loss or business, if you're afraid of what it will be like to succeed, something in you will keep you from it, just like it keeps you from going down a dark alley in a bad part of town.

What if being big has served a purpose for you? What if it kept unwanted aggression away? What if it helped you get your way? Would you lose that power if you lost the weight? Feeling safe is one of our priority needs, more important than almost anything else. Being able to get your way is important too. If you've depended on your size to protect you, whether it's bullies or mashers, or you think you'll lose your edge if you shrink, you'll find it impossible to succeed unless you find some way to make up for that loss. Fear will hold you back.

Fear of Failure

Of course, we are more familiar with the fear of failure, the dread of working hard and being denied what we want. Who wants to work hard for nothing? Worse, with every failure in our life, we likely suffered humiliating shame and guilt. Who can stand that?

I was hopelessly overweight for 25 years. Every once in a while I'd get up the gumption to try again, and for years, each time I failed miserably until I finally "got it." Until then, I got worse and worse with each passing year, always in the dark as far as how to succeed. With each failure, I reinforced my belief that I was just a big fat failure and suffered yet another trauma to my soul. It got so my attempts to get better became fewer and farther between, and then I gave up altogether in my mid-20s, the only way to avoid the terrible pain of trying and failing. The fear and dread of that pain caused me to accept being overweight for good, a sure way to stop the suffering. Of course, it didn't stop the suffering, and thank God I tried again, but that's another story.

Whether it's leaving home, meeting someone, getting a job, making a call, or trying to lose weight again, fear can paralyze us, or worse, in a diabolical trick, make us screw up and fail again. Fear of failure is the devil. How can we avoid it? Easy. Don't try at all. But do that, and you become a prisoner of the fear, short of what you can be and have.

I've written of the almost magical way our mind works to have us unconsciously create what we imagine. That's great if we have great desire or faith in our success. We vividly imagine our success. But if we are consumed by fear of something, that's what we imagine with great intensity 24/7, and that's what our mind will be working to make for us: what we most fear. Fear is the devil. It not only prevents us from getting better, it makes things worse.

Overcoming Fear

A client once came to me because of a fear of elevators. Riding on them was so unpleasant that she always took the stairs. In the past, she had panic attacks several times, terrifying experiences where her body would have the "fight-or-flight" reaction to the extreme, heart racing wildly, a feeling like she was going to die, hyperventilating to the point of passing out. After those, no more elevator rides. However, now she had the opportunity to take a job in a downtown bank where she would have to ride an elevator numerous times a day to do the job. She wanted the job, but only if she could overcome her fear and eliminate the risk of the panic attacks.

There is very effective treatment for panic disorders, behavior therapy that desensitizes the system and quiets the body's tendency to react. However, those things don't change the thinking and feelings about elevators. Without that, she could just not get herself to feel okay about getting on the elevator.

I asked her about the worst thing that could happen if she got in an elevator. "I'd have a panic attack," she said. However, she now had a way to deal with the onset of a panic attack and stop it.

"Do you think you could handle it?" I asked.
"I wouldn't want to," she said. "But I could."
"What else could go wrong?" I asked.
"It could get stuck and I'd be trapped," she said.
"Could you live with that?" I asked.
"I guess so, but it would get hot," she said.
"Could you live through that?" I asked.
"For a while, but if it was on a weekend, I could be stuck all weekend."

I pointed out that with cell phones and emergency phones and janitors working on the weekend, it was unlikely, but I asked her if she could live through that. "Maybe, but I could have a medical emergency and die alone there!"

"And you're afraid of dying?" I asked.
"Of course!" she said.

We discussed dying and that we don't really have any control over that. It's going to happen eventually, perhaps out of the blue tomorrow, stepping off a curb. "Well, I know that," she said.

"And that's not okay with you?" I asked. "You're not able to face that if it happens?"
"Well," she said. "I don't want to go right now, but if it happens, it happens. There's nothing I can do about that."

And with that, her fears began to lose their power. She had decided to accept the worst if it had to be, instead of running from it. She didn't invite the things that were fearsome, but she didn't refuse to deal with them either.

When we react to the things we fear by refusing to face them, they hold a great power over us. They make us prisoners, stuck where we are, unable to move from where it is painful. When we are able to face what we fear and accept dealing with it rather than running from it, the fear loses power. When we have a method to take us to our dreams, whether it is a way to ride elevators without discomfort, an interview for our dream job, or a way to solve our weight problem for good, we can break out of the prison of our fears.

But where do we get the energy to call for the interview, or get help for the panic disorder, or try again to lose weight? Where do we get the power to break out of the prison?

Desire. Desire for what lies beyond the limits of our fears. Passion. Passion for what we dream of. Devotion. Devotion of ourselves to what we would love to be and have.

Some people have been described as fearless. Heroes. Fire fighters. Soldiers. However, when you speak with them, they will attest to you that they have not been fearless. They will tell you that they, in fact, have experienced great fear, at times almost paralyzing. Their success has not been because they were fearless. It was because they had something that overcame the fear, that replaced and overpowered it.

We speak of courage. And what is that? The word "courage," according to my Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, comes from the French word for heart, and when we are talking about courage, we're not talking about anatomy. We're talking about spirit. The heart we are talking about is the center of a person's being, their spirit (as in body, mind and spirit) the one characterized by passion and desire, love and devotion, their spirit of life and energy. It is not a physical or intellectual thing as much as an emotional or spiritual thing.

Those who have overcome fear have done it by displacing the power and spirit of fear with a greater power and spirit. They have filled themselves with this courage, the devotion of themselves to a greater fortune than the one they had been fearing. Spiritual people say that perfect love casts out fear. This is certainly the case for those heroes of 9/11 and all parents, saints and patriots who give their lives to save what they prize more.

Let yourself be possessed by the power that will deliver your dreams instead of the power that would keep them from you. Face what you fear with a way or method that has real promise and determine to persist until you perfect it. Let your imagination be occupied and fueled with your healthiest desires, passions and dreams instead of your fears.

Your life will be ruled by one or the other of these spirits. Both cannot live at the same time in your heart. Let it be the one that has to do with love instead of fear.

William Anderson is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who specializes in weight loss, eating disorders and addictions. He is the creator of "Therapeutic Psychogenics", which helped him lose 140 pounds permanently thirty years ago after years of obesity and dieting failure. He has written a book about it, The Anderson Method, and he is teaching these techniques to individuals and therapists all over the country.

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