How many of us have been in a situation where we have wanted to express ourselves but the little “rational” voice in our head shut it down?
- You feel compelled to introduce yourself or reach out to someone that you’re interested in but you hear your own voice come up with 1000 reasons for why the moment isn’t quite right – “she’s with her friends, I’ll wait until she’s by herself and then I’ll say (insert cliché line here)” or “We’re at a work function, it’s not appropriate, I’ll try to get their number for something else and then send a happy hour invitation text tomorrow” or, more directly, “They’re out of my league, what’s the point?”
- You’re in a meeting and you want to speak up but that same voice pops up and says “you’re new to the project, you may not have all of the information and someone else probably already brought that up anyway” or “It seems like my manager is pretty set on their decision, so what’s the point in wasting anyone’s time?”
- You’re in a social situation and the conversation turns into something like gossip or negative talk about someone who isn’t there – you want to stop it but then you hear “My friends invited me here, I don’t want to stir the pot” or “whatever, I’m never going to change their minds so why bother?”
- You see someone clearly upset and your heart calls you to go comfort them with a hug or a few words of encouragement but there that voice goes again “you barely know this person, that would be awkward” or “who am I to share words of encouragement to this person, I have my own shit I am dealing with…”
- You want to go for that new job but you read the job description and the voice starts up again “I don’t have that experience” or “they’re looking for a more technical background, they’re not going to take me…”
If you’re anything like me, it’s likely that you’ve experienced all of these situations at some point in your life.
- By the time your moment finally comes to make your move and say hello, you’ve played it up so much that you’re crippled with fear and never say a word OR the words come out in a panicked manner with a hint of vomit in the back of your throat
- You don’t speak up in the meeting and leave feeling timid, or someone else says what you were thinking and gets a “great thought, Susan!”, or your team runs into the barrier that you anticipated but never expressed and its worse for everyone involved
- You leave the social situation feeling uncomfortable and timid, your anger with yourself turns to blame of the “others” who were gossiping and you distance yourself rather than work with them to potentially change their perspective or at least open their eyes to a new one
- You miss a golden opportunity to share love, encouragement, and positivity and both parties walk away from the situation feeling bad
- You don’t even try to go for the job and you sit wondering about what might have been, each day resenting your current position more and more
Sometimes it’s not as intense as these examples, sometimes the situation could be as simple as singing or dancing. We sing songs and dance with gusto when we are by ourselves (shower and car time are prime examples) but as soon as you add new people into the equation your voice lowers to a murmur and your feet start to turn to cement until all you are doing is a stationary head bop when your body feels like its about to explode.
The obvious question becomes “WHY?!”
Why do we hold back? Why do we stifle these urges when we know and feel that it’s what we truly want? Why don’t we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and instead numb ourselves to what might be possible if we followed our hearts?
The answer is quite simple, and something I have been exploring very intimately for the better half of the last year. But first, I want to introduce two related concepts.
As I sat to write this post, I started going back to situations where this phenomenon of holding back was clearly visible and looked at the elements at play. Each time, it seemed to come down to these two concepts which Brendon Burchard articulates very eloquently in his book, The Motivation Manifesto.
- Social Oppression – the caging of our spirit and stifling of our potential by others
- Self Oppression – letting our own negative thoughts or actions restrict us
Social Oppression – sometimes this comes in an “in your face form” of a conforming team culture, a stubborn/abusive partner, a bully etc., where the other, makes us feel small and inadequate. Sometimes however, it comes in a more subtle manner when we are sitting in a room with a group of best friends – and these are the moments you need to watch out for because it’s hard to realize what is happening in real time.
I recalled a time where a close girlfriend of mine came over on a Saturday afternoon with a few close friends. She had recently been seeing someone that she was really into. She arrived in the middle of a texting conversation with this guy and started sharing some of it with us (sorry guy). I remember she was SO excited about him, the connection was there, they both seemed to have a lot in common, and they were talking about an adventurous but AWESOME date that they wanted to go on. However, what started with a lot of love and excitement, quickly morphed into confusion and uncertainty.
- “Omg don’t say that you’re going to sound too excited, don’t make it seem like you’re available”
- “Really? It’s only your second date… isn’t that a little much?… Maybe suggest switching to casual drinks”
- “Look, I love you but don’t get too excited, you don’t really know this guy yet, he could be a f*ckboy and I just don’t want to see you get hurt again”
Thinking back on it, I remember noticing my friend sitting on the couch just staring at her phone, her smile was gone and now she looked puzzled. Her energy had been sucked out of her by her best friends who THOUGHT we “had her back” – she felt one way but the voices of her close friends, me included, were pulling her away from that authentic, amazing feeling and bringing her to a place of uncertainty and insecurity. Like so many early stage relationships, what started as a pure and vulnerable feeling grounded in love, quickly morphed into a disingenuous mind-game of who could save face and win (aka not be the one who gets hurt or taken advantage of) grounded in ego. And no…the relationship didn’t work out, it never really even took root…
Self Oppression – often times the oppresion we face comes from where we might least expect it, ourselves. We hold back because we want to avoid the pain of potential failure or rejection. We hide our projects or gifts from the world because they are not yet “perfect.” We start to downplay our presentation before we give it to “set expectations” when really we just want to lower the bar that we feel we need to hit in order to be accepted.
To highlight self oppression, I could just give this example of a job I really wanted but didn’t get:
— I poured my heart and soul into the application process but I did so behind closed doors, when people asked me about it, I acted lukewarm “yeah I’m not sure if I even want it because it my sister is about to have a baby and I don’t want to move…” What was really happening was that I was protecting myself from the possibility of having to face these same people after not getting the job, giving myself a crutch to save face rather than express how bad I really wanted it at the time. —
BUT, this story is in the past and has a very happy ending that led to my sabbatical opportunity so, it’s too easy to use as my example (this is after all, a post about facing fears) – so let’s go with something still in flight that will test me on this concept of fear and vulnerability…
F*ck it, here goes… I’ve been talking to this awesome girl lately and our conversations have been full of energy and connection. It feels great. But recently, I caught myself doing two things (closely related) that highlight this concept of self-oppression.
- First happened as we were having a conversation that was really lighting me up. My body flooded with positive feelings and I wanted to scream something like “I feel so connected to you right now and you make me so friggin happy!!!” but in an instant that voice came up… “Matt relax, its too new and that’s too much…dial it back…”
- Second, was when I was telling my sisters about it. The fact of the matter was that I was stoked – it’s been a while since I felt this type of connection with a girl but as I was telling my sisters I kept catching myself every time after saying something good, including a caveat like “well idk, its pretty fresh so who knows…”
P.S. ^ this story isn’t over but I’ll get back to the outcome of this in a bit
So we know that social oppression and self oppression are the culprits but if we look at it more deeply, what do they both have in common?
FEAR. They are both grounded in fear. Fear of uncertainty, fear of disapproval, fear that we will be rejected, abandoned, or isolated. Fear that we will not live up to our expectations of ourselves and the expectations others have of us.
The problem is this – when we allow fear to permeate our minds, our once bold ambitions and behaviors become small and constrained. We turn away from what we truly want and who we truly are until fear fully engulfs those desires, turning them into a distant memory. It would take me a month to cover all of the unwanted outcomes that fear leads to but for the sake of this post; just understand that this fear runs deep, it has taken captive our minds and our culture, and it holds us back from pure freedom of self-expression which is what all of us truly desire – whether we are consciously aware of it or not. When we are fearful, we can’t be free.
So what can we do to combat this epidemic and liberate ourselves from the grips of fear so that we can be free to passionately pursue our heart’s desires? Here is what I learned so far through my journey of facing many of my fears over the past few years – and believe me I still have a looong way to go.
- The first step is understanding fear and where it comes from. Normally, fear doesn’t come about from a single event. It is more commonly the result of multiple events, compounded over time – conditioning us to be fearful. As I mentioned, the scary part is that these events that condition us to fear don’t always stem from malicious intent. Sometimes it’s the loving but overbearing mother who hovers over their child’s every move, constantly telling them to “be careful!” or the pragmatic father who paints a very articulate picture to his child on why it would make more sense to pursue a job with financial security rather than pursue their dreams of being an artist. I’m not suggesting that we stop listening to our friends, family, and advisors altogether, but we must become astute in recognizing when our trusted ones are speaking from their own fear-based opinions.
- The second step is being able to catch ourselves in the moment when we are basing our actions in fear rather than freedom. This is much easier said than done because often times when we are in a state of fear, we get tunnel vision and hyper-focused on the stimulus that is causing the fear. It’s normally only after the event that we can see and admit to ourselves that our actions (or lack thereof) were driven by fear. However, through conscious thought and disciplined action, we can start to catch ourselves in a fear state and we can choose to replace that fear with more empowering feelings and emotions. A great way to do this is through mindfulness. If you follow my blog, I’ve already quoted this, but it’s one of my favorite quotes and certainly applies here “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” – Viktor E. Frankl. Start tuning in and catching yourself in that fear-based narrative – chances are, you will start see a pattern (i.e., it normally happens when I talk to my boss or girls or when I am in a large group setting)
- The third step, is once you start understanding your fear-based thoughts and know what your fear triggers are, replace them with empowering feelings and beliefs. Love and gratitude are amazing replacements because you can’t hold both emotions at the same time – when you are grateful or full of love, you can’t be fearful. Second, stop thinking about what would be lost if the worst should happen (broken heart, loss of confidence, etc.) and start focusing on the upside – what could be gained if you broke free from the fear trap? If you want to lose weight and get into shape but you’re scared of the sacrifices you will have to make or the initial struggle you might experience in the gym, what if instead, you choose to pump yourself up about the new confidence and possibilities that will come with a increased fitness and the new healthy dishes you can share with friends and loved ones. At first, this practice may feel fake and like forced positive thinking, but so what? What do you have to gain from continued negative thought patterns? Overtime you will rewire your brain to a new way of thinking and eventually this perspective shift will become your norm.
- Finally – do one thing that scares you every day. It doesn’t have to always be intense. For me, my default is taking a freezing cold shower every single morning. I’ve been doing this for the last 2 years (at least). The purpose of it is to rewire my brain to get used to doing things I am scared of or don’t want to do – to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Force yourself to step into that fear. We build these mental muscles and learn to overcome our fear only with practice and consistency. I’ll never forget the first time I had to speak in public at a professional event… my heart was pounding and I nearly went blind, I forgot everything I wanted to say and started profusely sweating until a man in the front row pulled out a tissue and handed it to me so I could blot the sweat from my face…I was MORTIFIED. Why would I ever want to do that again? But I knew I could either dwell on it and talk myself into a prison of fear OR I could jump back in the ring and face my fear again which is exactly what I did. Now, I love public speaking and it’s become one of my strongest assets in my personal and professional life. We all have the choice to be courageous and face our fears. Overtime, the fear subsides and you will look back with kindness and ask yourself, “How was I afraid of that?”
We’re almost done! But before I close, lets quickly go back to this mystery girl I mentioned earlier…a perfect opportunity to put this to practice in real time.
Yes, I recognize IT IS early and I DON’T know what the future is going to bring, but is that a reason to suppress how I am feeling in this very moment? I can’t control the future and maybe nothing comes of it and maybe there will be a time where I have to tell my sisters “I got ghosted” or some other shitty outcome but that’s out of my hands – so should I proceed more timidly (when that is so not my style) out of fear of the unknown? I can only focus on what I can control and the rest is up to God or the Universe or Chaos Theory or whatever you want to call it. I’m on a mission to push all fear from my life and be free to express myself and pursue the things I want wholeheartedly – so when I caught myself in that self oppressive state, I stomped it out, I expressed what I was feeling, authentically with no filter to save face, both to the girl and to my sisters and guess what? It felt great and I didn’t die and I don’t really care to get hung up on the future because as Mark Twain put it “I’ve known a great many troubles in my life, none of which have ever actually happened…”
So, my call to you is to step up and give fear the finger. F*ck fear, it doesn’t serve you. Chasing your dreams with fear is like trying to climb to the summit of a mountain with a 6000 lb. boulder in your backpack. Find the fear and beat it to shit with positivity, love, gratitude, and optimism. I’M NOT SAYING IT WILL BE EASY but you are so much more than your fears. Don’t you think a better and more free life is worth the struggle it takes to get there?
Dare to follow your dreams and crush your fears because either fear wins or freedom wins…which will you choose?
Thanks for listening fam ❤