Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of young women at the Starfish Foundation's PowHERful conference in Birmingham, Alabama. These women are in college or getting ready to apply to college, and come from backgrounds that make it a little harder to succeed in college. I spoke to them about the power of being fearless and mastering your own emotions when times get tough, or when you feel anxious, frustrated or afraid.
Feeling afraid from time to time is entirely human. We are prewired to experience the rush of adrenaline and cortisol that prepares us to defend ourselves or run when we are threatened. It's a survival mechanism that tells your brain to pay attention and your muscles to prepare for danger, and it has been critical to the survival of the human species. However, we are not often faced with life or death situations in our daily lives. Our neural response to rejection from a selective club, or a harsh look from a teacher or boss, or a critical remark from a colleague is the same response we have when faced with a mortal threat. Our environment and circumstances are very different from primitive humans, but our biology is virtually unchanged.
Fortunately, as modern humans we have the knowledge and power to change our responses and thinking about what is happening to us, and shift fear to excitement. When you choose to ride a rollercoaster, you may encounter fear, excitement, or both. The chemical release in our bodies is the same. So what changes fear and anxiety into excitement and anticipation? The chemicals themselves only have meaning when we notice the sensation and then give it a name. And then we might associate that feeling with previous experiences-both good and bad. It is this pattern of thought after the initial rush of adrenaline that creates fear, or excitement. This is the point at which you can begin to change your emotional experience of the situation and what you do next.
Now is the time of new beginnings for many new graduates, and we often have fear associated with embarking on new ventures, be they new studies, new jobs, a new relationship, or even a new project or responsibility. Fear of the unknown-"Will I be successful?" "What if I fail?" "What will people think if I don't succeed?" "How will I manage this?"-reveals a very human desire for control, and our obsession with avoiding loss or failure. Even when our track record indicates we will very likely succeed in our new endeavor, we tend to focus on the dire consequences of a failure.
How can we interrupt this cycle and focus on the positive outcomes we wish to create? Even better, how can we shift fear to excitement? The first key to shifting our emotions is to recognize when they appear and to notice the thoughts we are having about the situation. Promoted into a new job? You might think: "What if I'm not qualified?" "What if no one respects me?" "What if I make a mistake?" These kinds of questions are based on your own underlying fears (I'm not qualified, no one will respect me, and I will make mistakes). What more positive thoughts could you have in the same situation? How about, "I have some great ideas about this new role," "I am going to create a great team," and "I will learn and improve as I do this new job?" You need to choose new thoughts that feel equally true to you, and you can dramatically shift your anxiety to anticipation and excitement.
Fear is a normal part of life. What you do with that fear and how well you shift fear to excitement determines how well you are able to see the opportunity in every moment. To act fearless, you need to acknowledge and confront your fear, change the story you are telling yourself about what that fear really means, and choose a path that is focused on opportunity and positive outcomes. After all, what you focus on grows! Focus on the outcome you most want to create, rather than the poor outcome you are trying to avoid.