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When What You Want Scares You

How to Persevere Past Self-Doubt | True Radiance Healing Arts

(Reading time: approx. 5 minutes)

When I was first offered the opportunity to teach a workshop years ago, my heart said, “oh yes!” but my head said, “oh no!” Deep within me it felt absolutely right to be leading a workshop, but my mind was full of fears and doubts…
“Who am I to lead a group, to present myself as an expert?”
“What if I stand up in front of the room and forget everything?”
“What if they hate it? What if they get up and walk out in the middle?”

Like many people in this country, I dreaded public speaking when I was younger (ok, true confession, part of me still gets a bit nervous). Even the thought of standing up in front of the class and delivering a short talk at school made me queasy. It was like all the blood would drain out of my brain, rendering it useless, and into my face, lighting me up like a beet.

Given this, you might think I’d be the last person to sign myself up to lead a group voluntarily. Yet, I couldn’t deny that teaching also felt absolutely right. There was a quiet voice in my core telling me that leading groups and workshops was one of my gifts and part of my purpose. How could I say no to that?

It turns out that I actually LOVE facilitating groups and leading workshops, even if it still sometimes scares me. When I teach a group – even one that goes late into the evening – I feel energized and even a bit wound up afterwards. But I would never have discovered this if I had listened to the voice of fear and declined the opportunity.

Over the years as I have worked with more and more people, I have found a common thread in this experience: many of us want to, or even feel called to, do something that scares us.

In fact, the more we feel drawn to undertaking a particular path, the more fear it can stir in us. This path could be related to our career, getting involved in a relationship or making more friends, having a baby, going back to school, or leaving a relationship. It’s not always this way, of course. There are times when we feel compelled in a direction that feels natural to us. Most often it seems there’s a blend, an irrational mix of comfort, confidence, and terror evoked by our desires.

One reason for this lies in the degree of risk we perceive to be involved. If an activity feels like part of our life purpose, it can be thrilling but also add pressure. When it feels like the stakes are high, fear and doubt are often close by. We can be haunted by questions like, “What if it doesn’t work out? What if I’m wasting my time? What if it turns out I’m no good at this? What then?”

Now that I have more faith, I’ve realized that, as long as I do my part, if I’m on the right path then my success is inevitable. Doing my part means being active, taking steps toward accomplishing my dreams. It means braving up and following the little inner voice to do even the things that scare me.

On my own journey and in my work with hundreds of people, there are strategies that I’ve found helpful in persevering past doubt. Here are a few of them:

  1. Rehearse Ease. Whenever we do something unfamiliar, the brain’s threat watchdog, the amygdala, goes on alert. In fact, the amygdala scans all incoming information from our senses and from the cortex. Since the cortex is spectacular at imagining things, the amygdala reacts to scenarios we are imagining as well as events that are transpiring in real time. That’s why even *thinking about* doing something that scares you can elicit the fight, flight, or freeze response (otherwise known to some of us as the “eat, binge watch TV reruns, or get lost in FaceBook” response). Luckily, we can use this to our advantage by imagining ourselves carrying out the activity with ease. This works best if you imagine it just a few minutes at a time, frequently (daily works well), and in as much sensory detail as possible.
  2. Break it Down. Another way to help avoid triggering the amygdala is to break down a goal into small, manageable steps. Again, the key is to take action a few minutes at a time, repeated over time. This repetition creates and reinforces a new neural pathway, which is the structure of habit in the brain. Make a date with yourself to do just a little bit toward your goal most days. If you find you’re not getting to it, make the step even smaller. Over time, you’ll find yourself feeling encouraged by the progress you’re making, which makes it even more appealing to keep going. (You can read more about this in the blog post, The Neuroscience of Changing Habits.)
  3. Focus on the Supportive Inner Voice. We typically have many aspects of ourselves that contribute to our inner dialogue. Often there will be a part of us that knows we are on the right track and fully capable of achieving our goal. Simultaneously, there will be other parts of us who express doubts, perhaps dredging up past failures and generally raining on our parade. It can help to “talk back” to the fearful voices by saying to yourself, “Thank you for your input, and right now I’m choosing to listen to the Part of Me That Knows.” Over time, this supportive inner voice will get clearer and louder, while the voices of fear and doubt will lose gusto.
  4. Collect Reasons to Keep Going. The voice of fear and doubt will offer us a myriad of reasons to give up. Like a detective building a case, start gathering evidence that you’re on the right track. This might include positive feedback and compliments from friends, family, clients, or others. At times it can be easier to accept someone else’s positive evaluation of us than it is to accept our own. Other people see gifts and talents in us long before we are ready to own them. For me, my case for continuing also included intuitive information and night dreams that encouraged me.
  5. Build Trust. One way we can begin to open doors to new ways of thinking is to ask ourselves the same question over and over. Try playing with the question, “What would it be like to trust that things will work out?” or “What would it be like to trust that I’m capable of doing this?” See if you can feel that trust, even 2% more than you did a moment ago. Our plans don’t always materialize the way we had hoped – sometimes things work out in a way that’s even better. Trusting that things will work out means trusting that, even if it doesn’t transpire the way you imagined it would, in the long run there will be aspects that you can genuinely appreciate and enjoy.
  6. Get Support. Just knowing that someone else is on our team, walking the path of challenge and celebrating with us, can go a long way towards our success. You aren’t the only one who has fear come up around something you really want in your life. It can be a powerful asset to have a supportive person you can reach out to just before taking a step that scares you, someone who understands what it means for you to do it, and who can give you a big “Woo-hoo!!” and reflect the depth of that accomplishment back to you once it’s done.

It’s common to both really want to do something and be frightened by or anxious about the idea of doing it. You don’t have to let fear be the boss of you. You can do it! Start today using one of the strategies above or by approaching it in a way that has worked for you in other situations.

The Neuroscience of Changing Habits

The Neuroscience of Changing Habits | True Radiance Healing Arts(Reading time: approx 5 minutes)

Our culture tends to promote a “go big or go home” approach to changing habits, but it turns out that this is completely counter to what works with our brain.

Have you ever thought about changing a habit in your life – maybe starting an exercise routine or getting back into a creative hobby? We tend to make big plans for ourselves with goals like this. We might say to ourselves,

“From now on I’m going to _____ every day,” or “I’m going to set aside a whole day to _____”

These are examples of big changes in habits. Occasionally we’re able to carry out a big change like this for a little while, like a New Year’s Resolution that lasts for a few days or maybe weeks, but we typically don’t sustain them.

When our best laid plans begin to come apart and we find ourselves not sticking to the big goal we set for ourselves, there’s a tendency to beat ourselves up. We think the reason we weren’t successful is that we didn’t try hard enough, we got lazy, or we just don’t have enough willpower.

In fact, the number one reason our attempts at changing habits fail isn’t because of any shortcoming on our part – it’s because of our brain.

Deep in the midbrain is a structure called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze response when we encounter a threat. This part of the brain is always on the lookout for things that are different – and it equates differences in our usual routine with potential threats.

Because the amygdala is closely tied in with the brain stem and the nervous system, it can trigger a reaction in the body before we think about it. When this happens, we often find ourselves on the couch watching TV, grabbing a snack, or pretty much doing anything except for the new goal we meant to do.

This system, while of great benefit when survival is at stake, is less convenient at other times. For example, when you decide you’re going to start exercising every day when you haven’t been exercising at all for a while. Since it’s not part of your usual habits, the amygdala can perceive this big change as a threat. The amygdala sounds the alarm and suddenly you find yourself in fight, flight or freeze – doing nothing, or perhaps chowing down on a donut, but almost certainly *not* exercising.

Meanwhile, wrapped around the midbrain is the cortex. The cortex handles all of our complex thinking: language, creativity, imagination, and strategy. When the amygdala is triggered, all of those resources are temporarily offline and the amygdala is in charge of our behavior.

This means that although we can use our cortex to set goals for ourselves, to imagine changes we’d like to make in our lives, and to make choices in our long-term best interest, all those best laid plans can come to a halt when the amygdala detects a difference in our routine.

Given this sensitive tripwire in our brain, how can we actually make the changes we want in our lives?

The Neuroscience of Changing Habits | True Radiance Healing ArtsThe most effective way to make a lasting change or make progress on a big goal is to break it down into small steps. This approach is called “kaizen,” a Japanese word meaning “incremental daily improvement.” In this case, we’re talking about taking very, very small steps to accomplish a big goal or develop a new habit.

Making changes using small steps allows us to sneak past the amygdala without setting off the alarm bells. Small in this case means 30 seconds to 5 minutes at a time, repeated over time.

Besides being an effective way to change habits in general, a kaizen approach to a changing habits is ideal if you haven’t been able to find the time or energy to start, if you’re a perfectionist, or if the idea of making the change is overwhelming or maybe even makes you a bit nervous.

Here are some examples of changes that work really well with a kaizen approach:

  • Developing a writing habit by writing for 5 minutes – even just writing one sentence – a day
  • Starting an exercise routine starting with simply putting on your exercise shoes, doing one stretch, or walking to the end of the driveway and back
  • Drinking more water by filling a glass or bottle with water in the morning and keeping it with you
  • Learning to meditate by reminding yourself to take a deep breath periodically throughout the day or by focusing on a mantra or affirmation for a few minutes at a time
  • Practicing gratitude by sending a text to a friend every evening with one moment you are grateful for that day
  • Getting back into a hobby you used to love, such as painting or swimming, by imagining yourself doing it, in as much sensory detail as possible, for one minute a day

The small step may seem absurdly small. You might wonder how such a little step could actually get you anywhere, but consider this:

  • Even if you’re only writing for 5 minutes a day, that’s 25-35 minutes over the course of the week and about 2 hours in a month. That may well be more time than you’re spending on it now.
  • Make the bargain with yourself to do the small step. If you feel like doing more, you can always do that. For example, if you set a small step goal of putting on your walking shoes and walking to the mailbox, you can always go to the end of the block and back instead if you’re feeling inspired.
  • All our habits have corresponding neural networks in the brain. Those neural networks get reinforced and strengthened through repetition – not duration. In other words, in building a habit it’s much more effective to do something 20 times for 30 seconds at a time than it is spend 10 minutes doing it just once.
  • Taking these small steps tends to make a goal feel more manageable and it increases our motivation to do them. We get a taste for it and after a little while it feels easier than it did before we started.

How small is small enough? Your small step should be easy enough that you can’t help but do it. If you find yourself not getting to it, take that simply as feedback that you haven’t made the step small enough. Lower your expectation of yourself even further until you can easily do it.

Given how minor and relatively quick it is to do, it helps to put a structure in place to help you remember to do it. A few examples of structures that work well are having a friend or partner do it with you, setting a reminder on your phone or calendar, or putting a sticky note reminder in a place where you’ll see it every day.

One last key to success with small steps: Give yourself credit for doing even the tiniest of steps toward your goal. It may feel a bit ridiculous to part of you (the part that thinks if you haven’t gone “all the way” then you haven’t done it all), but celebrating these small actions acts like gasoline on the little fire you’ve started. It stimulates the reward center in the brain, releasing neurochemicals that help to reinforce the new neural networks you’re building.

If you’re curious how a small steps approach might apply to your goals, I’m happy to talk to you about it. Just send me an email or give me a call.

Breaking Free of Fear

Breaking Free from Fear | True Radiance Healing ArtsFear is a common issue for many people. It can keep us from moving forward in our life in the ways we want to, rearing its head when we venture outside our routine. Fears can spring up after a difficult experience in our lives or they can follow us from early childhood.
From an evolutionary standpoint, one theory posits that our more fearful ancestors were more likely to survive and pass on their traits, thus leading us to be more fearful on average today. Getting past fear is an area I’ve worked on with many, many people — not to mention having plenty of opportunities to practice with myself!
In today’s post I offer a handful of tools for handling fears:
In some cases, you can alleviate the fear simply by talking to someone you trust about it. It’s often said that “fear breeds in the dark.” In other words, when you don’t examine fearful thoughts or beliefs in the bright light of day, they can intensify. What starts out as a mild aversion can become more serious if you let it go.
By talking about your fear with another person you get the chance to see, in many cases, how irrational or unlikely it really is. I’ve had the experience where even just hearing myself say it out loud made me realize how absurd it was–but until I did that I was convinced it was really something worth being frightened of.
When you are afraid, one tool that can help calm you down is a mantra that gets paired with the breath. If you find that your mind is getting carried away imagining a frightening scenario, take a breath in and say to yourself, “I am completely…” and on the exhale, “…stopping.” On the next inhale, tell yourself, “I am safe…” and with the exhale, “…and secure.” You can keep repeating this sentence until you feel a bit more calm.
Many times we spook ourselves with our thoughts. In other words, what we say to ourselves or what we imagine evokes the fear. We have this capacity because the part of our brain that is always on the look-out for potential threat can’t tell the difference between something we are imagining and something that is really happening now.
Take the time to deliberately notice your surroundings and how safe you are right now. Even though you may have been thinking about something that caused a fearful response, in fact you are probably not in danger in this moment.
Fear can also become a conditioned response. If you were in a frightening situation once, going back to the location or seeing the people involved in that particular event can evoke the same emotions, even though nothing bad is happening now. This conditioned response can be interrupted by stopping to relax, using the breathing mantra described above, and taking note of the elements that are different now from the initial event. It usually takes some repetition with interrupting the fear response for it to go away.
If you know you’re going into a situation that scares you, like talking in front of a group or meeting with a doctor to hear the results of a medical test, it can help to take a moment before going into the situation. Bring to mind the people who love you. Imagine their faces in front of you. Let yourself feel their love for you, and your love for them. This can reassure you and give you courage to do the things that scare you.
When you have something like a big project or a big life change that you know you want but it brings up fear for you, one of the things that can help is to break it down into baby steps. Focus on just the *very next step.* In some cases, this might look like focusing on just what you are doing today, or even just for the next hour, without letting your mind get caught up in thinking about the full scope of a project or life change.
These are just a few of the techniques I’ve found work for people when they want relief from a fear or to muster the courage to do something.
There are times a different kind of approach is helpful. For example, if you know you picked up a fear from one of your parents, teachers, or other significant person in your life then doing some work to separate your thoughts and feelings from theirs can be freeing.
Similarly, you may be carrying a fear that has been passed down not just by a parent but along a whole family line. You may have been be born into a family agreement that says, “we don’t do this kind of thing because bad things will come of it.” There can be great power in ending or renegotiating this agreement with our ancestors.
If you’re interested in how fears show up in our dreams, check out our radio show episode in the “So You Think You’re Awake?” archives.
I hope that you will try one or more of these tools for yourself. I think you’ll find them useful–I know I have.
With love,
Susan