My 4th Strategy of Hope letter is about hope alongside fear.
The year 2020 has slipped through our fingers. But it may, well for a long time, remain locked in our collective memory. The prediction that we face its impact on our mental health as a ‘second pandemic’, thereby increasing levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD is not a happy anticipation to start 2021 off with. It spreads its cloak of fear, threatening to obscure the potential and the newness of the year we have ahead. No super-spreader is faster than fear. I have myself come a long way with fears – overcoming some and accepting others as part of who I am. I just read something that prompted me to reflect again about what a major force fear is in our lives:
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”
A bold statement, but one that contains – both from my own life lessons and my work as coach – a nugget of truth. Fear holds so many people back from even attempting to take the 1st step toward a goal or a dream that lives in their heart. They don’t believe they have the skills, or the brains, or the talent… There are so many excuses: ‘It is never the right time’, ‘There is not enough money’ or ‘There is no support’. How many people grow bitter with regret without even having tried? Fear is indeed powerfully capable of stalling us in our growth. It can keep us away from what we might achieve or strive for in our future. If we let it. What has helped me deal better with fear is to acknowledge that fear has two faces: fear can be my friend and fear can be my foe. To ‘honour the friend’ and to ‘unmask the foe’ also provides us with a strategy of hope to strengthen us mentally and emotionally against this ‘2nd pandemic’.
Fear gets into the body and creeps into the mind
Pounding heart, increased respiration, dry mouth, upset stomach, jumpiness… Neurobiology explains that a certain amount of fear is required for our survival. Our ‘fight or flight’ reaction has seen our species evolve through the centuries. For our intuitive fear-alert signs that steered us away from danger, we can thank our ‘friend’ fear. Research today helps us understand that the amygdala part of our brain is our fear ‘central station’. It buzzes with the acquisition and the bodily expressions of fear. It can also differentiate between our conditioned and unconditioned fears. We don’t have to delve deep into our upbringing and culture to realise that we have been conditioned with many fears for non-existent threats. Yet, we have developed conditioned behaviours of response to them and we feel the fear. Not simple to undo the pattern! One of the most painful and damaging patterns is to live with negative, apprehensive expectations, expecting things to go wrong, accidents around every corner and our endeavours to fail. This I know from own experience. Apprehension rolls over into anxiety. The kind of anxiety that eats away at your soul and keeps you lying awake at night with unease and worry.
Strategy of hope: speak your heart out
Therapy can help unravel and undo the misery of such conditioning. It is hugely liberating and does wonders for our wellbeing. I say this from my own experience. I still bless the psychologist who got to the heart of the matter in just a few meetings. He ‘got’ me and he got ‘it’. The trauma, the curse. I am forever grateful for the directives he gave me to learn how to deal with panic. His support gave me courage to walk the talk. Our level of fear does not always require professional therapy: stress release can set us on our way to mental balance. Stress release takes many forms, from body massage, walking in nature and practising mindfulness, to – yes indeed – engaging in a helping conversation. Such conversation can be had with a caring, unprejudiced and patient listener. Someone to whom it comes naturally to open up about the turmoil in one’s life and how stress affects us. Best it be also an interactive listener, who may just shine some light on a blind spot or suggests seeing or doing something slightly differently. Because we are social beings, all limited in our own perspective, we benefit largely from the outsider’s additional view. The power of such conversations to destress and undo fear must not be underestimated. As most of us know, many fears are born out of loneliness and can grow monstrous left that way. Being able to speak out one’s fear, being able to name it, in the safety of companionship with an empathic listener, has the power to diminish it, to cut it down to a manageable size.
Strategy of hope: journey into the future
Many fears ultimately translate to the personal fear of not being able to control the outcome of situations in our lives. This is at the core of our fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown territory ahead stops us from building a positive relation to our future. It paralyzes our sense of adventure and initiative and smothers our talents and dreams. Old world maps, drawn at the time when science believed our earth was a flat disk, are illustrated with all kinds of monsters and a dangerous abyss at the edge of the world. We would fall into oblivion if we dared go that far. Surely at the times when these maps represented the world view, many people never explored much further than a few miles outside their villages and communities. It is thanks to intrepid travelers that discoveries were made: confirming the existence of a beautiful planet. Back at home base now, we are more aware that our views define how we relate to reality. And yet, on the personal scale, there is much fear to embrace the adventures of our future. Life and career coaching often have to challenge this limitation. ‘Growing up’ equals, for many people, losing the adventurous spirit from childhood, when trying out something new was exhilarating and we found joy in mastering something new step by step. Learning from our failed attempts. Falling off the bicycle and getting on again. Climbing dunes was a conquest as risky as conquering Mount Kilimanjaro. Growing up and being responsible taught us a few things about risks that turned out wrong. We forget that we develop through risking to live.
Even the smallest initiative is a bridge into the future
Taking an initiative is taking a risk. It is also a strategy that connects us in a positive way to our future. The smallest initiative which adds meaning, joy and innovation into our life is like taking daring steps into the bush, shaping a path, creating a clearing. Each person has something they dream of doing, some even have a long ‘bucket list’. The Covid-19 restrictions demonstrate that we are able to innovate and do things differently – when we are forced to. Many Covid-enforced innovations are of a kind we do not even like. After all, 2020 can inspire us to trust more in our ability to handle change and to cope. With a new year’s unknown territory ahead, we can rise to the challenge of taking on our fear of moving forward. If we can implement changes, enforced upon us, how much more can we achieve by implementing changes we desire, out of our own free will? How much can we gain from taking risks with ‘entrepreneurship’ toward wellbeing, creativity and success in new circumstances? From focusing indeed on ‘something we always wanted on the other side of fear’.
Someone who researched the mystery of human initiative profoundly, the great philosopher, scientist and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe left us his unforgettable words of encouragement:
“Until one is committed there is the chance to draw back; always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise not have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it. Begin it now.”