Is it really too late to achieve your dreams, or are you just stuck in a fearful thought pattern that’s preventing you from flying? By Catherine Eden
Courage is a commodity we all admire. When we hear that someone has sailed single handed across the ocean or back-packed alone through Africa, our likely response is, ‘How brave! I’d never be able to do that!’
Maybe that’s true, but then most of us are not called to perform such grand acts of daring. It is not compulsory to skydive or fire-walk, and there’s no reason why you should leap off a bridge with a bit of elastic tied to your ankles, just because there’s a mad fashion for doing so. But there is a reason for tackling less dramatic fears that impede your progress. By facing them you grow in confidence and character, and move on to a new level of mastery in your life.
Each of us has different challenges to confront, and they come in all shapes and sizes. For one person, a courageous act may be to conquer an addiction; for another, it may be to commit to a new course or walk away from a destructive relationship. We are required to make choices every day of our lives, and always have the option of taking the safe, familiar route, or the scary, unfamiliar route into the unknown.
How often do you say you are too old, too fat, too stupid or too ill-equipped to try something new? Sometimes we dismiss great opportunities for growth and learning out of a limiting belief that we’re not good enough, not qualified enough or not deserving enough for the experience. We are afraid to try in case we fail, and occasionally we are afraid to try in case we succeed. The trouble with success is that it leads to change, and change can be absolutely terrifying. Yet change is the one thing we can be sure of. Accepting that it is an inevitable part of life opens up a world of fresh possibilities.
Take a risk: try something new
The perception we have of our own abilities determines how much we allow ourselves to expand our range of experiences. We say, ‘I can’t do that’ (move house, get a job, wear purple) because if I do, such and such will happen (lose friends, threaten spouse, look funny). Is this really true, or is it just what we fear might happen? Is it not possible that by moving house we may meet wonderful new friends, and by getting a job we may find a new source of fulfillment and by wearing purple we may develop a new facet of our personalities?
Part of our maturation process is to move out of our comfort zones and challenge the things we believe about ourselves and our world. It takes courage to push our personal boundaries but the rewards for doing so can be enormous.
Ella*, 36, has been blind since birth. She’s lived a life of hardship and deprivation, but has not been crushed by her circumstances. When an opportunity arose for her to learn therapeutic massage, she was torn between her desire to broaden her horizons and her fear of failure.
‘How will I get to classes? How will I manage the theory?’ she asked. At last, despite her legitimate anxiety and her handicap, she committed herself to the programme and found support pouring in from unexpected sources. The experience has changed her life, giving her skill and knowledge that will not only help her to become financially independent, but that will benefit others. She’s gone from feeling useless to being a useful resource person in her community.
Don’t wait; do it now
We are all inclined to put off achieving our goals, and it’s even more tempting to procrastinate when we dread what has to be done. Many people postpone their lives for years, staying in dead-end jobs or expired partnerships because that’s easier than starting all over again. But compromising the spirit carries a heavy cost: it erodes self-esteem and makes us vulnerable to disease. Often, it’s only when the discomfort of staying as we are exceeds the fear of change that we finally take action. Sadly, many people wait until a serious illness jolts them into doing something to change their lives.
Jean*49, put up with a manipulative and verbally abusive husband for more than 20 years. ‘I pretended I was staying in the marriage for the sake of the children,’ she says, ‘but actually, I was afraid of being alone and afraid of fending for myself. I traded my self-respect for financial security. My children confronted me with the truth, but still I couldn’t face rocking the boat. A breast cancer scare was my wake-up call to look honestly at the way I was living. I found the courage to leave and start a new life. Now that I’ve proved that I can provide for myself, I wish I’d had the guts to do it earlier.’
Believe in yourself
Everyone has fears. Rejection, abandonment and failure are big ones for many people, and life has a funny way of serving up situations that present the chance to wrestle with those very issues. Facing your fears does not mean that you’ll never be fearful again, but in tackling a difficult situation you learn that you have the inner resources to cope with whatever comes your way, and emerge stronger from the experience.
Mike*, 35, and Linda*, 31, were locked into creating a life of material wealth and social standing. Mike hated his job, and Linda, who was a talented artist, hated being a corporate wife. He was overworked and tired, and she was neurotic and aimless. Mike’s retrenchment came as a bolt from the blue and forced them to redefine their lives. Linda got a job as a school art teacher, and Mike opted out of the rat race and set up a pottery studio.
‘We were doing what society expected of us, because we didn’t think we had what it took to go it alone,’ he says. ‘Retrenchment, although shocking, was the best thing that could have happened. It pushed us into following our hearts and doing what we really enjoy. I’m using my talent and making a living from it. Linda and I were drifting apart, but now we are excited about building a creative and more fulfilling life together.’
Re-programme your thoughts
Many of our fears are based on childhood conditioning. If you are taught that the world is a dangerous place, you will not go into it with a confident and adventurous spirit. You will approach it timidly, seeing its challenges as obstacles blocking your path rather than opportunities for growth. It’s important to look at the beliefs you hold about yourself. Do they restrict your functioning or free you to explore new territory?
‘I’ve never been athletic, and I was always the last one to be picked for the school sports team,’ says Sarah, 41. ‘I’d shake at the very thought of having to catch a ball or dive into the swimming pool. As an adult, the great outdoors held no appeal because I imagined that anything more adventurous than a picnic would require some energetic display that would expose my shameful flaws.
‘But then I went on a five-day self-empowerment course that had mountaineering and abseiling on the programme. I decided I didn’t want to be the only one to wimp out, so I clipped myself into the harness and clawed my way up the rock face. At the top, I turned around and abseiled down. It was an awesome feeling of achievement. Now I do yoga, I go to gym, and I enjoy being in nature. I no longer think of myself as a useless freak. I have a strong, healthy body and I’ve learned to respect it for what it CAN do.’
There’s nothing to fear but fear itself
Self help gurus suggest that all choices are rooted in either love or fear. When we make a decision based on compassion, generosity, honesty or trust, we are working at the love end of the spectrum. But when we act out of anger, jealousy, insecurity or dishonesty, we are really acting out of fear – usually fear of abandonment, rejection or failure.
These fears may run deep; way back to our childhood programming and the attitudes we have absorbed over the years. But they can be undone. When fear disables us and stops us from developing our joy and our potential, it’s time to examine our motivation for reacting the way we do. Initially, we may devise strategies to silence or rationalise our fears. We may avoid, deny or even obliterate them with sedatives until we are ready to identify and tackle our issues.
Self-examination is tough, but understanding that destructive responses are rooted in fear is the first step towards re-arranging old patterns of behaviour. We all know people who won’t take the smallest risk in case they are struck by disaster, but they might just as easily be struck by good fortune. We don’t know until we try.
This does not mean we should override every fearful feeling and plunge blindly into every new experience that presents itself. When fear is an intuitive response to danger, it should never be ignored. But when it is founded on false perceptions about what we can or cannot do, it is asking to be tested.
Change is not comfortable, but it is inevitable. It makes us grow. Babies understand this instinctively: if they doubted their ability to master walking, they would never have the courage to get to their feet.
*names have been changed.
Published in Good Living Magazine