What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

Eons ago in a college sociology class, the professor shared a study about what people fear most. I found the discussion illuminating at the time and still relevant today, so much so, that I’m frequently referring to the themes with my clients. Several have suggested I write about this on my blog, so here goes.

The research (if memory serves, it was an American Express study) sought to identify the most common and intense triggers that provoke our fear. At the top of the list was public speaking, followed by things like one’s own death and the possibility of other calamities (like loss of job, death of a family member, illness, divorce, and the like).

Yes, you read that correctly. According to that study, people feared public speaking more than their own mortality or that of their loved ones! I don’t know if those results would hold true today given the near constant “public speaking” that occurs via social media, but that was the case way back then. This is not, however, a blog about public speaking.

What continues to intrigue me today, and creates introspection for my clients, is the power of fear to influence our beliefs and behavior. Compounding matters, is that we are also afraid of being fearful.

Franklin D. Roosevelt hit the nail on the head when he succinctly stated: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!” because, YES, we really do fear fear.

Simply acknowledging our trepidation, reluctance or anxiety can be its own adventure in denial and storytelling, never mind the notion of actually addressing what has us frightened.

I’ve worked with many a client who resisted the mere notion they might be afraid of a person, circumstance or outcome. This usually stems from a belief that doing so might serve as evidence of incompetence or weakness, or perhaps shake their very identity, creating a loss. Convinced this would damage their reputation and future, it seemed easier to offer up other logical explanations for their actions (or inaction) that, more often than not, could be lumped into the category of “beyond my control.”

Here are a few of the approaches I use personally and share with clients and colleagues to harness the power of fear when it strikes:

1) Identify the “Meta” Fear: If the outcome you dread became a headline in tomorrow’s news, what would that headline be? Keep re-writing it until you know you’ve gotten to the core. Oftentimes, unpacking and fleshing out our fear can create the necessary distance and clarity to move from a reactionary mindset into a creative one, which can lead to productive and authentic action.

2) Learn from and Leverage Your History: Every single thing you know to do today – whether at a level of general familiarity or total mastery – is something you had zero capability with at some point in your life! You didn’t emerge from the womb as a scientist, financial planner, or CEO. You learned here and there, you studied and applied yourself, and you worked among others whose knowledge and experience you absorbed. Consider other complex tasks and tall challenges you have navigated. Identify the enablers that helped you through those periods.  Both internal enablers (your beliefs, attitudes, self-discipline, etc.) and external enablers (networks, mentors, resources, training, friends) might be valuable in your current circumstance.

3) Ask for and Accept Help: If all you can see is red, invite others you trust to share the perspective they see. Then, importantly, listen and give credence to their observations, experience and advice. If you try to read a book while it’s at the tip of your nose, you won’t see much. Sometimes, resolving a fear is a lot like that … we need someone to help detach us from bogus beliefs and perspectives in order to focus on what’s actually in front of us. When you’re too close to the matter, their judgment might be better than yours.

4) Put it in Perspective & Explore Probabilities: This last one is my favorite “go to” and the title of this blog … Try asking yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” How likely is your fear to become a reality? If it did, what are the realistic consequences you’d face? Will you lose everything you’ve ever worked for? Or are we looking at a bit of a blow to the ego, facing into an uncomfortable conflict or conversation, or having to make a difficult choice? These questions aren’t designed to marginalize you, your experience or the crossroad you’re facing, but rather to distinguish what’s probable and realistic from what’s a perceived tragedy of insurmountable proportion.

Lest you think I’m suggesting that I’m above all this fear stuff, nope. I am not. I can recount many times throughout my life and career when fight, flight or freeze took hold (thanks to my old pal, Amygdala), and I operated in ways that weren’t necessarily aligned with what I genuinely thought or felt in the moment.

In one of my early corporate leadership roles, I sat on a strategic planning committee. Still learning the ropes of the business, team dynamics, and finding my footing at that level, I often remained silent … soaking up the information, taking copious notes and planning to ask questions of certain people later … in 1:1 settings. Why? Because I was afraid that asking questions in that public forum would reveal a lack of knowledge or experience that might cause the other leaders to question how and why I landed a spot on this committee.

The “wrong” question might spotlight my self-doubt, putting it on center stage: Do I really belong here? Am I ready for this?

Within a few meetings, though, I began to notice the questions that other leaders – with years more experience and depth of expertise than what I brought to the table – were asking the group. Doggone it, if they weren’t posing the same questions that I was pondering … and sitting on!

Initially, this comforted me. If these people for whom I had tremendous respect had the same questions I had, then maybe I wasn’t out of place or ignorant of something that everyone certainly would have expected me to know! Phew! A wave of relief.

My observations of others openly asking questions while I sat note-taking in silence ultimately angered and embarrassed me deeply.

Where had my confidence and courage gone? Why was I allowing myself to operate as some second fiddle wallflower, rather than a peer or a partner?

We all know the answer, of course, because … well, this is a blog about fear.

Disgusted and outraged that I was collapsing to a foe of insecurity, I began to speak up. At first, my questions included an upfront caveat like, “I may have missed something, but …” or “I don’t have much experience in this space, but I’m wondering …” and similar verbal underminers.

After a while, those disclaimers got under my skin, too, and I dropped them. Much to my surprise, nobody treated me like an outcast for posing these questions or challenging the information at hand.

My worst fears weren’t realized. Quite the contrary. By being, saying and doing what was authentic, I was able to deliver, contribute and perform … you know, to do what I was there for in the first place. I began to feel and act like the leader I knew was within me, and low and behold, these senior executives I admired so much began seeking me out for counsel, perspective and support.

Fear isn’t real in the way an apple is real and can sit in a bowl or be held in your hand; yet internally, it’s palpable and can loom larger than life – quite real – when it’s our own.

Fear is a mental and emotional framework that serves a purpose and that can be tapped and channeled with intention. It can be a cue to reflect on our beliefs and values, our commitments and our aspirations. We can decide to explore and consider it with curiosity, seeking to understand what triggered it, and then leverage the heck out of it in positive ways.

So when you find yourself afraid, take it as an opportunity to uncover and unleash something powerful and valuable within you. I’m confident the risk will be well worth the reward.

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