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Nothing to fear

Derek K. Miller

Everyone is afraid of something. But avoiding the things you’re afraid of may be holding you back personally and professionally in ways you may not even be aware of.

This week on “Take Care” speaks with author Patty Chang Anker, who herself was deathly afraid of a variety of things. She tackled those fears one by one and also researched fear – interviewing experts and other people with fears. That journey led to the book “Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave.”

Patty Chang Anker says she decided to dedicate her life to studying fear when her anxiety over her own fears became too great. Anker said after being a successful student and having a successful career, her anxiety of failing became crippling.

“Every possible outcome was laden with things to worry about,” said Anker.

Her fears became compounded when she had kids. “If you have fear of not being in control then having kids will be a problem,” said Anker.

She says she got to the point at age 39 where she was afraid of taking any step in wrong direction. So she stopped taking any step. She was nervous about taking her kids to the playground. She developed social anxiety. She said “no” to all sorts of things.

Anker says she was sending her kids out into the world and telling them to try new things and be brave, yet she wasn’t holding herself to the standard.

Things changed when her daughter pointed that out to her.

So Anker decided to confront her fear of diving into a pool for her daughter. Anker said she thought it would be torture, and she was just doing it to be good mom. Anker said it turned out that she found diving to be exhilarating. And it turned out she was good at it.

Most importantly, that discovery taught Anker that she was wrong about herself when it came to her fear of diving. She didn’t know herself very well, which let her to question what other things about herself could she be wrong about?

Most common fears

In her research Anker said there are a couple different kinds of fears.

Primal fears are fears of things like heights or moving water. That kind of a fear is a primitive response that is protective.

Metaphorical fears are things like public speaking and fear of rejection, which leads to a fear of intimacy or relationships. Those are a fear of metaphorically dying, not fear of physical harm.

Anker says demographics and cultural backgrounds play in to what kind of fears people have.

“Fears of a feather flock together and we can end up reinforcing each other’s fears,” said Anker.

For example, groups of new moms fear their kids getting sick or starting a new job. Older people often have the fear of illness or fear of death.

Anker says what this shows is that not all fears are universal. It’s very possible to work through all of them.

You can also find groups of courageous people. Anker says if you want to confront a fear, hang out with them and have that rub off on you.

For example, Anker said when she was trying to confront her fears about participating in athletics, she met a group of women who were older than her, and some were sick, and they were still training. She decided to model herself after them.

Anker says if you put yourself out there in different spheres, you can change.

Advice to people ready to confront fears

“The important thing is it doesn’t really matter how you begin,” said Anker.

One way, says Anker, is you could take one small step – go to a different place, accept an invitation. Go do something small you never in a million years thought you would do.

Or another way to confront a fear is to decide enough is enough and pick one big fear you want to confront -- like driving or public speaking. This will take more time and practice. Anker says you need to decide to commit to that one thing, and you’re not going to quit.

Anker says it’s very important when deciding what challenge to take on to have some support around you. Have a friend who shares the same goal hold you accountable. Do it together. Anker blogged about her confrontation with her fears, making her goals public so everyone knew. The fear of humiliating herself was worse than the fear she was trying to overcome.

Anker says it helps people confronting fears to know they are not alone.  Once you start talking about your fears, you’ll find other people with those fears.

Anker says confronting one fear will make you realize anything is possible. You are capable of so much. Confronting one thing leads to confronting the next. Anker says this was very common for her to see in people she talked to about their fears.

The hardest part is the first step, Anker says, after that everything is easier. And if we all knew that we would take that first step.