Fear is one of the most overwhelming, paralyzing emotions a person could ever have. We’re not talking about the type of fear we experience in a crisis where life and limb are in danger, the “fight or flight” type of fear; we’re talking about the day in, day out fears that prevent us from living a full life and are the greatest deterrent to personal freedom.
We’re all familiar with the typical kinds of fear: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, etc., but then there are the subtle kinds that are often masked to make them unrecognizable for what they are. For example, take the person who is always making “nicey, nicey” even when his anger has reached the boiling point. More often than not, that person is afraid that if he says what he’s really thinking and feeling, the other person will retaliate by spewing the same kind of vitriol. He knows that if he doesn’t want to hear anything unflattering about himself, he’d better always make “nicey, nicey.”
Fear is such a crippling emotion that it paralyzes a person into inertia and explains why so many people are rigid and resistant to change. I find it interesting that the ones who are so proud of their stubbornness and who wear it like a badge of honor don’t realize that fear is the underlying cause of their refusal to change. Most of these people will tell you that even though they are very unhappy, in great emotional pain, and would like to change a destructive pattern of behavior, they are afraid to take that leap into the unknown. It is also one of the prime causes of procrastination although one would never consciously make that kind of connection.
Although there is usually a sound reason for a person’s fear, the impact of it often feels irrational and logic, cajoling, bullying, pleading, coercion, and guilt trips can’t eliminate it. For one thing, a person has to be ready to face it and willing to do whatever it takes to overcome it. I usually tell my clients to take it slowly and not attempt to eat the whole bear at one sitting; it’s easier to make these major changes if you cut it up into bite-sized pieces.
I had an attorney who came to me to help her conquer her fear of standing up to her male colleagues in court. Here was a woman who was extremely intelligent and an expert in her field and she was intimidated by the men whom she had to oppose in court.
I’m known for giving out homework assignments to help people overcome whatever difficulties they’re facing and this was no exception. I told her to buy a Superman costume, complete with the red boots, the blue body suit with the red “S” on the inverted triangle on the chest, the red pants that look like men’s briefs, the yellow belt, and the red cape.
Her assignment was to put on this Superman costume every day and stand on a bed. When she was in the costume and standing on the bed, she was to let herself feel powerful and then she had to say the famous words: “Faster than a speeding bullet… More powerful than a locomotive… Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound… Look! Up in the sky… It’s a bird… It’s a plane… It’s Superman.” Then she was to jump off the bed as if she was flying.
Since this homework assignment was designed to make her feel the power within herself, I had her add different tag lines each day so that she had to think about what she was saying and connect it to what she was feeling. One day she might say that she was so powerful that she could beat any attorney in court. Another day she might say that she was the bravest, most courageous, individual on the planet. But always, she was to feel the power as she was saying the famous words above and jumping down from the bed, ready to swing into action.
She did this exercise every day for several months and eventually she became fearless. She went into court and beat the pants off attorney after attorney after attorney.
A few years later, this attorney came back to me and asked if I had another assignment for how she could change the way she was handling her stress and I said, “Yes, but this homework assignment may sound a little offbeat to you,” to which she replied, “And the Superman assignment wasn’t offbeat?”
Many years later, I was telling another client, a medical student, about this attorney’s Superman homework assignment and she said she wanted the same one. I told her that she didn’t need this assignment because her fears weren’t dominating her life and causing her to experience severe limitations, personally or professionally. She was insistent and told me that she was going to do it, anyway.
She went out and bought the costume and everyday, religiously, she put it on and went through the whole “It’s a bird… it’s a plane… It’s Superman” dialogue and jumped off the bed telling herself how powerful she was. One day, just as she was about to jump off the bed, the doorbell rang. She was expecting a package so she opened the door in her full Superman regalia, to find her study partners at the door.
It’s interesting to note that while this medical student thought the Superman assignment was fun, she didn’t think her own assignment was fun. It is also interesting to note that the attorney who had the original assignment did not think it was fun at the time that she was trying to overcome her fear. If you ask her now what it was like, she would tell you that it was extremely difficult but the experience was worth it because she can finally move from fear to freedom.
by Connie H. Deutsch