Expanding our limits

The emotion of fear is as old as mankind. It is what we experience as a response to physical and emotional danger. If we would not feel fear, then we would not protect ourselves from the threats around us. But fear can also be a very limiting emotion, because often it arises when there is no real danger in sight. It can be triggered by traumas or bad experiences from our past or simply by our mind playing tricks on us.

Humans are not the only species to experience fear. The hardwired fight-or-flight response is found in most animals and is critical to their survival. But fear is not always about survival. Very often it triggers in our brain to try to prevent us from a perceived emotional threat. It are those triggers that often are the biggest limiters to achieving our full potential.

But before we dig deep into ways of overcoming fear, lets get a better understanding of what fear actually is.

Fear is a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of chemicals that cause a racing heart, fast breathing and energized muscles, among other things. The stimulus can be a dangerous animal, for example a snake or spider, it can be a gun pointed at your, or it can be an auditorium full of people waiting to hear you speak.

Fear response in the brain is almost entirely autonomic. We don’t consciously trigger it. There are two paths involved in our fear response. One is quick and involves the amygdala and the other one is slower, involves the hippocampus and allows for a interpretation of events. Both of those paths happen simultaneously. The reason the quick path exists is that it is our fight-or-flight response — it enables us to quickly get out of a dangerous situation. Best way to explain it is that it shoots first, and then asks questions…

The slower response path is more thoughtful. While the quick one is doing the “just in case” response, it considers all of the potential options. It asks itself questions like “Have I experienced this stimulus before? If so, what did it mean? Are there other things that might be happening?”. Using all of this information, it then signals to the amygdala that there is either grave danger or no danger at all, in which case it shuts off or increases the fight-or-flight response.

While some fears you experience, such as fear of a snake appearing in front of you are caused by evolution, then there are also fears that are conditioned. These are for example fear of dogs, fear of flying, fear of speaking in public. Most of the time those are created because of bad experiences from our past. What is even worse, is that sometimes we “inherit” fear from others. Simply by hearing them talk about what happened to them, can cause us to be conditions to fear the same thing.

It is in particular those conditioned fears that limit us in reaching our full potential. Fears of not fitting in. Fears of being ridiculed. Fears of failing. Fears of not being accepted. Fears of being alone. The sad truth is that often those fears are based on incorrect conditioning in our brains.

Lets look at how some of these fears might stop you from being a successful entrepreneur and creating the next $19 billion company to be acquired.

You have a great idea for a new product. You believe it might become really big. But a number of fears start creeping in:

  • Fear of failing — what if your idea is not good enough? what if you don’t get the funding required to implement it? what if you don’t get good enough developers to write the code? what if nobody will use it?
  • Fear of fitting in — what if you don’t have what it takes to found and run a company? what if you are not as smart as others founding companies? what if you don’t know how to be an entrepreneur?
  • Fear of being ridiculed — what if VCs tell you your idea is lame? what if the technology press makes fun of your product? what if your company fails and you have to look investors and your family in the eye?
  • Fear of not being accepted — what if nobody gets your great idea? what if you don’t find the right team to work with you? what if all the VCs turn you down?
  • Fear of being alone — what if your idea fails and everybody leaves you because you are a total looser? what if your girlfriend leaves you because you are not becoming a billionaire?

If every entrepreneur focused on these fears, then no new innovative companies would be founded. Likewise, if nobody feared these things, then we would have way too many startups 🙂 The trick is to find the golden path between those two extreems, so that you are willing to take the risks.

To overcome your conditioned fears, you must find ways to counter them with other responses that are stronger than the fear. A common approach to doing this is to first improve your understanding of what scares you, for example by telling you most snakes are harmless or explaining to you how an airplane works. Then you take steps in facing your fears, for example by getting closer and closer to a snake and finally touching it. The idea is that your fear gets replaced with the “it was ok” memory.

It however is not always this simple to overcome fears. Even if you know everything about what scares you and even if you have memories of things not going wrong — then the amygdala may take over and not allow the hyppocampus to make the rational decision that the threat does not really exist.

When this happens, the only way out is to find something else powerful enough to shift your focus from the perceived threat. It may be something totally different. Someone afraid of flying can instead of trying to remember flights that went ok, change their focus to what the reason is behind their trip. Are they going to meet friends or loved ones? What will the feeling be to meet someone you haven’t seen in a long time. Use those strong emotions to face your fears, rather than trying to convince you there is no threat.

If you are afraid of speaking in public, don’t face that fear by thinking of all the times you have succeeded (or failed) doing so. Think about how great it will be to have your story be heard or use the old suggestion…think of everyone in the audience being naked…it sure snaps you out of that automatic fear response 🙂

If you are afraid of starting your own company, don’t fear what others will think. Don’t try to just educate yourself by reading 1000 books on being an entrepreneur. Go out there and fail. Laugh at your own failures — before someone else might. Learn from your failures and try not to repeat them too often. Enjoy the whole effort as a learning process and remember its all about having fun — not about fear.

For more insight into fear and how it affects leadership — check out my new book The Crisis Leader.

Published February 21st 2014 at Medium