A few years ago, within a few months, I had to let go of my career in the international aid sector due to health issues. I had spent close to 15 years in five different countries as a humanitarian and development aid worker.
If I were not an aid worker anymore, who was I?
I felt lost, terrified, and, paralyzed by fear, couldn’t sign the contract termination papers that I had received from my employer.
This experience strangely reminded me of the first time I learned rock climbing and rappelling on a stone bridge in France. It was a less dramatic and more joyful experience, but the same terror grabbed me right before letting go of the stone bridge as I leaned backward into the thin air. My mind was racing and I was convinced that I would die if I let go of the bridge, despite wearing a harness and all the necessary security gear that ensured my safety.
Once I let go of the stone I was holding on to, I was, of course, fine, and it ended up being an exhilarating and liberating experience—just like the experience of leaving the aid sector is proving to be. However, when it happened, I was convinced that my safety and my life were threatened. Below are the five top lessons that rock climbing taught me about fear during transitions.
Fear is the most common human emotion. It will most likely show up when you are about to experience major changes in your life, whether chosen or not. We humans don’t like change and the greater the change, the more prevalent the fear. Our minds are really good at magnifying issues and creating doomsday scenarios when we are faced with uncertainty or the unknown.
Treating fear like a natural response makes it easier to deal with. When it shows up, normalize the situation, welcome your fear and make friends with it. What you resist persists, so instead of trying to push it away, tell yourself: Of course I am afraid; the contrary would be surprising. I am going through this major change and have little control over what lies on the other side. I will do everything in my power to ensure a smooth transition, but I pledge to worry about issues that I am anticipating when they actually show up, not before.
Another really good way to tackle fear is to look it in the eye. Have you ever tried to stop and look at the Monster you run away from in your nightmares? Have you looked at it in the eye?
When you face your fears and look straight at them, it is likely that they will lose their grip on you. Digging deeper to uncover what is underneath your fears can be transformative. When you break it down, fear is always the result of a projection, a “What If” thought. It emerges in expectation of something that might happen, even though the terrible thing we expect hasn’t happened. In that sense, fear is irrational. It makes us perceive threats—often threats to our most fundamental needs—such as our sense of safety, our sense of belonging, or our identity.
The useful questions to ask yourself here are:
- What am I afraid of?
- Am I afraid of the unknown, of uncertainty?
- Am I afraid of failure?
- What perceived loss am I afraid of? (money, reputation, relationships)
Another powerful question I like pondering is: Am I afraid of success? American spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson writes:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”
Question your thoughts
Our minds are fantastic storytellers. Since ancient times, philosophers and spiritual teachers have warned us about the power of our minds in making up stories. They have taught us to question our thoughts—or at least distance ourselves from them through meditation and self-inquiry.
For this stage, I recommend using the work of Byron Katie. Write down the beliefs and stories that your mind is telling you and ask yourself:
- Is that true?
- Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
- What happens when I believe that thought?
- Who would I be without this thought?
If you want to dig deeper using the work of Byron Katie, try out this exercise called Judge Your Neighbor.
For example, if you are thinking about leaving a job that you worked hard to get, it is likely that your mind is telling you that you will never find such a great opportunity in the future. What is not true here?
One of the questions that I also love asking is: What is the worst thing that can happen? Will you have to take a job that pays the bills temporarily? Will you have to go and live with your parents or friends? Will you have to learn to live with the discomfort of not knowing?
Reframing also relates to questioning your thoughts, but in a way that gives you a new, fresh perspective that you may have not considered before. In the case of fear during transitions, a way to reframe is to focus on what is possible if we let go of the old and move forward into this new chapter of our life, feeling full of HOPE (that stands for Have Only Positive Expectations). By reframing, you can come up with many uplifting scenarios and use that fuel to move forward.
The questions here are:
- What am I longing for?
- What will I gain from doing this?
- What will success look and feel like?
- What will I regret if I never do it?
Take Action. . . by leveraging your fear into courage
There’s nothing worse than getting stuck in your fears. The more time you spend inactive and in your head making up doomsday scenarios, the worse things seem to get—and the more fears you are likely to experience.
It is futile to tell yourself to just STOP and do something about it. But at least you can ask yourself what is the next manageable action step that you can take to get past your fear.
Can you break things down into smaller, more “chewable,” manageable goals? For example, instead of saying yes to a job in a hardship location, can you go there on mission for a couple of weeks before making a decision?
The above strategies are the ones I find most useful when dealing with fears, especially during times of transition. Since transition and change are the new normal, we better become good at managing our fears and use them as allies instead of seeing them as obstacles getting in the way of our growth.