Fear Not: How to Overcome What's Holding You Back

Fear.  It raises your heartbeat, roils your stomach, it might even make your hands shake.  Fear isn't just stressful, it's limiting.

When I fear something new, something I don't know how to do, a difficult decision – I just want to turn away from it.  I want to do anything else but deal with the issue.

Of course I know that continuing to avoid what I fear doesn't make it go away.  In fact, the situation may become even more difficult as I continue to ignore it.  But as soon as I contemplate facing it, the thudding heart, sick stomach, and clammy hands return.

live performance

Fear can keep us paralyzed.

Can you relate to my feelings?  Are there situations, large or small, that bring on fear for you?  I'm not even talking about physical danger, which thankfully I have rarely faced in my life.  I mean plain old everyday challenges.  Most of them matter to no one but me.  Yet my fear can keep me paralyzed.

I feel inadequate.  Rudderless.  Poised on the brink of failure.

These feelings can keep me from trying anything new, which limits me to doing only what I've done in the past.  I'm not saying there's no value in the tried-and-true.  But the world keeps changing.  We keep changing.  It may be unsettling at times, but we have to accept new things.  We have to at least examine new information and new ways of doing things.  As much as I might wish things to remain permanently stable and predictable, that just isn't reality.

Some fear is useful.  Fear in a dangerous situation is a survival mechanism, and it causes us to fight or flee.  But fear of something we imagine, that isn't happening now, holds us back.  Much of what we fear never happens, so we've wasted energy and strength for nothing.

It's okay to feel fear, but what will you do with it?

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits points out that feelings of stress, overwhelm, and fear are signs that you think of a particular task or situation as a burden.  And maybe it is indeed a heavy state of affairs.  It's okay to feel the fear.  It's good to admit it.  What's important is what you do about the feeling.

For many years, I've been a singer.  I sing opera and musical theater, and before that I was a church musician.  I've been performing alone in front of an audience since I was 8 years old.  I learned a long time ago to deal with the anxiety and nervousness that's called stage fright.

What is stage fright? 

  • the fear that you won't perform up to your or others' expectations 
  • the fear that you'll look ridiculous or incompetent 
  • the fear that you'll forget something important
  • the fear that you won't be able to gracefully handle the unexpected
  • the fear that it will all fall apart

There are ways to deal with stage fright that I've found pretty effective.

8 steps to deal with fear

1.  Appreciate the challenge.

This is a matter of mindset.  Let the task be a way to grow, discover, and create.

2.  Commit.

Sometimes, commitment comes from the intersection of your talent and your passion.  Other times, commitment is a matter of necessity.  Decide to accomplish the task, and dedicate yourself to it.

3.  Recognize and rely on past experience.

Recall your successes and failures.  They have prepared you for today's task, because you've learned from all of them.  You can call on this hard-earned savvy and poise.

4.  Practice, practice, practice.

As a singer, learn the notes and translate the words.  Work with your vocal coach.  Do exercises that perfect your technique.  For other new challenges, study the tutorials, ask questions, break the task into a step-by-step procedure.  Rehearse the steps, if you can.  In some situations, you'll want to look for practical, emotional, even spiritual support.

5.  Slow down.

This is part of your preparation.  When you encounter a difficult section, don't push.  Stop and consider different ways to approach the problem.  Don't let yourself give up and move on to something else, because you'll just keep delaying and procrastinating and never reach a solution.  Even a few minutes' focus on a detail can make a big difference, perhaps even leading to a breakthrough.

6.  Don't cram.

The day of the performance, rest.  Hydrate, stretch, do a few warm-up exercises.  Don't obsessively cram more practice or more study at the last minute.  In any situation, cramming makes you tense and anxious.  It's time to trust all that you've done to prepare.  This is the only way to proceed with the confidence, composure, and flexibility that will enable you to deal with the unexpected.

7.  Just do it.

When it's your turn to perform, rather than spending time in fear and doubt, simply begin.  Take a supported breath and start singing!  Breaking free of inertia gives you access to energy and momentum.  Simply settling to the task may be half the battle.

8.  Focus on now.

Once you've begun, focus only on what you are doing.  As a stage performer, inhabit your character.  Let your thoughts, your voice, your face, and your gestures communicate the truth of that character.  When you stop thinking about yourself, and focus on the task at hand, you stop worrying and move forward, a step at a time.

A surprise discovery

Composing this post made me think about fear in a different way.  I never realized that I routinely conquer a certain type of fear.  I didn't know that by analyzing my coping mechanisms I would find new ideas that might work in other anxiety-producing situations.

If fear has been holding you back from trying something new, or has kept you in a mode of avoidance and procrastination, know that you are not alone.  And know that you don't have to let fear overcome you.

Updated June 2023


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