Getting Good at Things That Terrify You

THE FEAR, or general performance anxiety, can be a crippling experience to anyone who needs to perform. Performance, of course, isn’t just limited to athletes and entertainers. It can describe any number of day to day events that are seemingly easy enough for the rest of the world while being a major problem for you. Public speaking and social interactions are the most common and failure to gain some amount of confidence in these areas will effect everything in your life, from your ability to get a date to the likelihood of getting that raise you won’t ask for.

The important thing to know about FEAR is that it stems from one thing: the anticipation of pain. You will see this repeated in any self help book or seminar: the essence of fear, hesitation, procrastination are all part of some calculus by your brain to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. Physical pain and discomfort is especially relatable to lifters; how many of you have experienced sweaty palms and a turning stomach on the drive to the gym on leg day? Fear of failure and embarassment is also a powerful obstacle to performance, as these represent a psychological pain that is arguably more formidable than the physical kind.

The simple wisdom to getting over the fear so that you can execute reliably and with authority is to alter your associations. 

When you consider a situation, say standing on the edge of a skyscraper looking down at asphalt 1000 feet below, you aren’t focused on the grandeur of the view, how blessed you are to be alive in a time of modern marvels. No, your lizard brain has taken over and alerted you to the possibilty of immediate death should you lose your footing. It’s a potent survival mechanism to tell you when danger is imminent, but also one that can become overpowered,  like an autoimmune disease, to the point that it no longer serves us.

Just like accidental falls off the top of skyscrapers are rare enough that they shouldn’t merit any of your attention, neither should the potential consequences from the simple act of communicating to other people or dealing with a moderate amount of physical discomfort. This crippling anxiety is like getting sweaty palms; it’s a vestigal response to stress that might have proved useful at one time in history but now just increases the likelihood of failure (if you can’t securely hold on to the edge of a cliff you are dangling on with dry hands, you sure won’t do it with wet ones). Similarly, the FEAR, which should be alerting you to imminent danger, is actualy CREATING the circumstances that you are trying to avoid.

So it is in our best interest to do away with it.

By focusing on your association, what you immediately focus on in that scenario, you can start to shift your attention to things that don’t just limit fear and anxiety, but that actually create the motivation to do the damn thing and do it well. In short, you have to want the benefit, the end result of successfully completing this task, more than you want to avoid the possible worst case scenario. 

  1. Understand the inevitability of worst case scenario

Failing will happen, especially in the beginning when you have no skill or experience to lean on. Asking someone out on a date will more likely end in a patronizing “aww aren’t you sweet” than a “pick me up at 8, hot cakes”. You will mess up speeches, fumble the ball and generally make an ass out of yourself. But that’s ok.

You only get good by failing. As many champion athletes have said, “I’ve failed more times than you’ve tried”. In that way failure isn’t something to be avoided but ran towards, with all the energy you can muster.

One of my favorite anecdotes on this subject came from Tim Ferris who wrote the piece “Fail Big” in his book, “the Four Hour Work Week”. The story details a class assignment given to college students; to get in touch with people who were untouchable. CEOs, presidents, celebrities, the most influential people on the planet who no normal sane person would consider trying to contact.

The point of the exercise was to show how many of the limitations we experience are completely self-imposed and that by bypassing them, we can do things we never though possible. The moral of the story was this: the bigger you fail, the farther you go.

  1. Increase your tolerance to it

Stoics do this the best. You don’t have to go out and purchase the works of Marcus Aurelius to get the inside scoop. Just understand the core concept: “learn to take it on the chin without complaining”.

By conditioning yourself to be unbothered, you stop getting blown around in the wind like the shopping bag in American Beauty. Minor forces of nature no longer represent cataclysmic events to you and your life. You stop being sensitive, defensive and reactive and instead can plan and execute on things you can actually control according to your actual ability.

If you have greater tolerance to pain and discomfort, the barrier to your wants immediately drops. Mind you, I’m not trying to say you need to be a master of pain endurance: winning the game of Saw is not the prerequisite for being an effective human. You simply have to recognize that you actually have much more tolerance to the freightening things in in the world you think yourself vulnerable to.

  1. Increase your awareness of potential benefits

If you associate talking to strangers at dinner parties with you bumbling over your words, blanking out on what to say next and the horrifyingly awkward silence that comes when your joke doesn’t land, you will all but guarantee those things pop into existence. But if you associate the same scenario with the potential to make new friends, with learning from people from different backgrounds, with expanding your business network and with actually IMPROVING your ability to do these things by practicing it more and more….. then you may not be nervous but actually excited to dress up and go shoot the breeze.

  1. Get right with your WANTS

This cuts to the core of a concept we don’t think about very much, though it drives every decision we make: the idea of ‘want’. Wanting is not what you would wish for yourself should you stumble across a magic lamp. When people can fulfill any wish without cost, they will grant themselves all sorts of frivolous things that aren’t important. People will also lie to themselves about what they really want, without considering the reality that they won’t lift a finger to make it happen.

Get right with your true ‘wants’. What drives you? What keeps you up at night with excitement? What identity do you want to create for yourself, that you would pursue at great cost? If you won’t drain your bank account, work late hours or endure physical discomfort for something, the hard truth is that you don’t really want it.

Once you get right with your wants and are confident in the skills, traits and materials that you are willing to sacrifice for, changing your associations becomes a breeze.

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