The first time I pulled the trigger of a shotgun at the FBI Academy, the recoil was so powerful that I not only thought one of my tooth fillings had been jarred loose, my right shoulder felt like it had been hit with a sledgehammer! I didn’t fall backwards, but I needed to regain my balance before I lowered the muzzle and prepared for the next shot. Instinctively, I became afraid of a weapon that could literally kick my butt.
As I hesitated, my firearms instructor started shouting, “Lean into it! Treat it like a lover. Hold it close and hold it tight—NOW!” I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to jump back into it so soon, and surely holding it tighter would only produce a stronger recoil? But the instructor was inches from my face and he looked steamed, so I did what I was told.That day I learned something important about fear—to increase safety, move toward the threat.
While this may sound counterintuitive, research has shown new memories that produce fear remain unstable and malleable for a short period of time. If we don’t intervene during this window of time when the new fearful memory is still unstable and not fully formed, it becomes embedded in our mind. So the sooner I moved toward my fear of the weapon, the more successful I would be in overcoming it.
My fear on the firing range with the shotgun is nothing compared to the chronic fear faced by soldiers in combat or women in abusive relationships, for example. Special Forces instructors suggest we can all learn how to face our fears if we use mental toughness to focus on both our thinking and our behavior.
Whatever the situation, here are ten questions that successful people need to ask themselves to overcome their fear:
- How can my fear be a guide? Before we can master your fear, you must first acknowledge it. Rather than avoiding it, become aware of it and use it as a guide to sharpen focus and decision-making. Do not let fear get out of control and become panic.
- How can my fear be turned into an opportunity? A little fear keeps you on your toes. It keeps you from becoming complacent. It can be an excellent opportunity to develop courage, confidence, and discipline. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?”
- How can I focus on my goal rather than on my fear? Do not let your precious energy be wasted on fretting. One of the characteristics of willpower is the ability to focus, and once you focus all your energy on your goals, you are less likely to see failure as an acceptable alternative.
- How has fear prevented me from doing what is important to me? If you are letting fear keep you from doing what you really want to do, it is paralyzing you. Break it down into small steps. Focus on progressing toward your goal a little more each day. Memorialize each step as a victory, to help you keep moving ahead.
- How can I acquire information about what I fear? Most fear is generated when you are faced with the unknown. One of the best ways of beating back this fear is continually trying new things so you become comfortable with moving into the unknown. Then you won’t be as surprised or overwhelmed when something new or different presents itself. Most successful people want to push themselves beyond past accomplishments. In order to do this, they push themselves outside their comfort zone. This means facing the fear of failure continually so they can predict their own responses when stressed and stretched. This self-awareness provides valuable information about what they fear, the circumstances under which their fear rears its ugly head, and how they can best move forward when faced with it.
- How can I learn the skills necessary to master my fear? Whether you are in Special Forces, on a high school football team, or an FBI agent investigating a case, the answer is the same—train! Practice the skills you will need repeatedly until they become second nature. When you’ve trained how to respond to a crisis, you respond automatically to a checklist of skills that you’ve already mastered. You do not become fearful; you become intense and focused.
- How can I go it alone? You can’t! Facing fear is easier when you’re accompanied by other people you know and trust. Strong ties with other people are important. When you have supportive friends or colleagues by your side, you are more confident and better able to cope with problems.
- How can I stop feeling fearful? Remember that your limbic brain system is programmed to pay more attention to negative information that produces fearful responses. It’s our survival instinct at work. And we tend to remember negative or traumatic information better than neutral or even positive experiences. To counter this, you need to hunt for the good stuff in every situation. Find at least five positive responses to every one negative response.
- How can I retrain my brain to look at my fear differently? Every time your fearful memory is retrieved, it becomes unstable again for a brief period of time. Just as my memory of the shotgun recoil was unstable, it opened a window during which the memory could be updated and changed. It is possible to modify fearful memories when they are retrieved if you “get back in the saddle” and confront the very thing you are afraid of.
- How can I modify a fearful memory? Researchers agree that we must expose ourselves to our fear—but in a safe environment! The exposure also needs to last long enough for the brain to form a new memory. Your brain will recognize that the fear is no longer dangerous in your current environment. Look fear in the face. You will be amazed at how unscary it really is.
LaRae Quy is the author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths” and “Secrets of a Strong Mind.”