Heart pounding. Hands sweating. Mind racing. For many of us, this is what we conjure up when we think of fear. A freight train of emotion that warrants an immediate and obvious response. However, the toxic residue that lies behind fear is not always the crushing presence of adrenaline. In fact, most often it is nothing more than a whisper. A subtle nudge in our minds, pushing us throughout our day without notice. Fear is a diet of insecurity we put ourselves on thinking it will protect us from the hurt or pain of “not being enough.”
Five years ago, I was boldly reminded of professional discomfort when I left my elementary school to teach in the depths of adolescent hell, also known as middle school. This renewed discomfort was a catalyst for indecision and self-talk that was less than flattering. I began mentally spinning out of control, spending more time thinking about why I couldn’t do something as opposed to how I could overcome my obstacles. I consumed myself with fear of opinions and judgements; no longer were my decisions based off of what may be right, but rather what would make others happy.
Understanding fear and how it drives us is as crucial as knowing how to design the most impeccable lesson known to man. This is because in teaching the currency behind what we do lies within the world of decision making. The average number of decisions teachers make a day is 1,500. Then on top of these decisions we are expected as a collective group of professionals to reflect the hell out every little thing we decide to do. So my questions to you are as follows:
How many decisions do you make that are seated at the heart of fear?
How many times have you shied away from a challenging lesson in fear it will fail?
How many times have you responded to a colleague in a way that does not align with your beliefs in fear of displeasing them?
How many times have you lost control over your emotions because you feared losing control or power over your environment?
Fear is not always the boogie man; sometimes it is the reflection in the mirror.
Fear is seeking control.
Fear is avoiding failure.
Fear is settling into unhealthy relationships and partnerships.
Fear is quitting before you begin.
Fear is resisting change.
Fear is judging others, a futile attempt to make ourselves larger than others.
Fear is… fill in the blank. Fear can be cloaked as anger, shyness, stubbornness, and the list goes on. The problem with fear is that if left unidentified it lends itself to the development of habit. We habitualize our behavior in a way that defines our actions as a justified normal, when they are really just mere seeds of fear that were planted by past experiences. Somewhere along the line humans believed that measuring up meant perfection. This perfection would equate to success, which would inevitably yield happiness. Yet, we now know that within failure is strength and within acceptance is the courage to move forward. We teach our students to see their failures as stepping stones, but as for ourselves, we would rather avoid the stairs and find respite in the waiting room of our known comforts.
So what in the hell do we do about it? Drum roll please…The antidote to fear is love of self…not love of our constructed self, the person we tirelessly created over the years. Rather, a love that does not require the ego to see. A pure unadulterated acceptance of who you are at your core. How would the “you” that is buried within respond if you did not fear the opinion of others? How would the “you” respond if fear was something you merely greeted, accepted, and walked over? How would the “you” respond if fear of failure was a thought always dismissed? If we accepted our strengths and failures as a beauty to the present moment, what could we accomplish?
In the spirit of conquering our fears to be our true bad-ass-selves, here are a few of the many ways to start making fear smaller and aspirations bigger.
- Make a plan: Identify what your hurdle is and possible outcomes that make you anxious. Then make a plan for what you will do when you want to quit or give up. A clear mind can problem solve; a mind that is already activated with thoughts of stress has a limited ability to troubleshoot problems. This is why we plan and rehearse while we are in a calm state of mind because we may not be able to activate those ideas when we are upset. For example, when teachers ask for advice on how to respond to a student who is demonstrating disruptive or non-compliant behaviors, I always recommend we create a consistent response plan and practice without students present. It may sound silly to set limits to an empty chair, but eliminating the stress from the scenario allows us to become familiar and comfortable with our response, making us more likely to follow through when the student is present.
- Find a partner: Find a person who knows how to listen, validate, and push. So often when we are experiencing fear, we go outside of ourselves to find validation. We, of course, selectively go to people who validate while allowing us to stay within our zone of comfort. These are the friends that celebrate our excuses and roll around in our blame game with us. If you want to start stepping outside of your comfort zone, align yourself with those that will be respectful, yet honest about what you can do to make the situation better. These friends or mentors acknowledge all of your strengths and give you food for thought about how to overcome your perceived weakness and push forward.
- Use self talk: No, I am not recommending just rambling to yourself while sitting at your desk as school. Though I have been known to mumble a few choice words under my breath when alone at my desk, what I am suggesting is grabbing onto language that empowers us a bit more. I encourage you to subscribe to a couple of mantras that realign you with your goals and help you to overcome your fear. I personally prefer “I am” statements. These are empowering statements that remind us of the behaviors or values we want to demonstrate. Every school year I reflect on my goals as the year gets underway. I then think about the character traits that are required to meet those goals. I value things such as being solution based, following through with focus on goals, and remaining positive for my students and colleagues. So the “I am” statements taped onto my desk are “I am creative.” “I am dependable.” “I am positive.” You can throw some general statements on for good measure such as, “I got this” or “I am enough.” When difficult situations present themselves (and they will daily) remind yourself that you have what you need to overcome them as opposed to focusing on what you lack.
- Try priming: Priming is a way of instantly shifting your state of mind. Feelings of anxiety or inadequacy can also send us digging aimlessly in the ditch of negativity or hopelessness. This is when we make poor decisions or no decisions at all. The most common way of jarring us out of a negative mindset is using our physiology. This includes getting active: running, walking, jumping, cutting grass, or whatever suits your fancy- just get moving. Another way to prime may be listening to music, meditating, or watching Seinfeld videos. Any stimulus that causes your mind to shift or reset to a better state will help you respond to anxiety ridden situations in a healthier manner.
- Reflect on intent: In the world of behavior, one of the most important words is “why”. When a student misbehaves we identify the function (or why) to better understand how to respond and replace that target behavior with a healthier or more appropriate behavior. Identifying our own why gives us a window into our decisions and actions. I must add that brutal honesty with yourself is the only way this strategy can work for you. If you can be honest about why something upset you or why you did what you did, you will unbury the often subconscious insecurity that lies beneath your conscious choice of action. Even in our daily practice of conversation, we must be cognizant of our thoughts and the selection of our words. Are our words meant to build up our egos, or are they meant to contribute to solutions and the well-being of others? The concept of right versus wrong is a slippery slope of judgment that can lead to unkind behaviors. Remember, if you lived the other person’s life with all of the same experiences, you would think just as they do. Take a pause to examine what someone’s actions or words expose in your individual bank of insecurities or fears. Identify it and respond to the issue with the intent of creating shared solutions instead of repairing a broken ego.
The challenges of being a teacher in today’s world has brought me the most valuable lesson of my life thus far which is peace of mind – contentment – does not come without active practice. Fear can never be fully eliminated, but rather, it must be acknowledged, accepted, and overcome. Expose and compose. Begin striving for awareness instead of perfection. It holds the key to emotional freedom and fulfillment, transforming you into the badass you were created to be.