Scary till you do it

H P Lovecraft - Fear of the unknown

I find that things can be scary to me until I do them. If not scary, at least intimidating or overwhelming. Giving a performance, running a marathon, making new friends, confronting a coworker, or even just a little handyman project at home.

“It’s scary till you do it” seems like a good general rule to me, and one that can be very helpful to remember.

I say “general rule” because on occasion, things we are scared of get even scarier after we make ourselves do them. Case in point: Giant crowds or loud parties can get worse and worse every time for an especially introverted introvert.

But this really is a more common theme in life than we may first imagine. Sure, most things in life don’t scare you right now. But they used to. When you were a newborn baby, meeting a new face scared you. As a toddler, dogs scared you until you had met a few of them. You were scared of riding your bike without training wheels until you finally just went for it. You probably used to be scared of the pool. And even though you’ve gotten used to most things in life, there are probably a few things that still really scare you. Interviewing, mortgages, or maybe even spiders.

A perfect example: My wife and I were hiking the other day and found a snake. She assured me it was harmless. She and her siblings used to catch them in their yard. In my head I believed her. But when she reached down and grabbed its tail, I just about had a heart attack. The thing is, she had plenty of experience at this. I did not. Easy peasy for her. Not for me.

More applicable to day-to-day life–and what got me thinking about this in the first place–is car shopping. Last Saturday I went with my brother-in-law to a dealership to look at cars. The entire process was brand new to him, whereas I had bought from a dealer twice before, loans and all. More than anything, I was really there to help make it less overwhelming, to lend some confidence. After a day at the dealer, my brother-in-law talked about how much easier it would be next time around for him. He knew what to expect now. It was no longer uncharted territory. And someday he’ll be the experienced car shopper helping someone who’s a little scared because they haven’t tried it before.

 

Understanding that things are less scary after you do them doesn’t magically make things not scary. It just makes scary okay. It helps us do the scary thing anyway so we can have the big reward.

Planning our entire wedding and honeymoon trip to Italy by ourselves, when neither of us had traveled far in a long, long time, was very nerve-racking. I just kept feeling like something wasn’t going to work out. Like we’d get there and realize we hadn’t gotten our plans quite right. Like we weren’t actually going to be able to pull off our dream wedding. But there was also a little part of me that remembered traveling to Africa alone when I was younger, and how much easier and less scary it was than I thought it was going to be. So we took a leap and did it. It was absolutely incredible, and now travel planning is a lot less intimidating.

 

Understanding this general rule helps us to do scary things anyway. Understanding a bit more about how it works might make life even easier. So here are a couple more things I’ve noticed:

The longer you put something off out of fear, the scarier it gets. Standing at the top of a cliff, staring down into the water below, friends daring you to jump in–you realize just how high it really is. You take a step back and start to launch yourself. Halfway through you freeze. You panic. It’s too far. So you wait and wait and wait. You keep preparing yourself to jump. But for some reason, it gets harder and harder and harder the longer you wait. Sometimes life is easier when you just do the scary thing quickly.

It might still be scary after you do it–just probably not quite as scary as before. Doing something you were scared of doesn’t guarantee it won’t be scary anymore. In fact, with many things it will probably stay scary even if you’ve done it a number of times. Like starting a new job. It could be your tenth employer and you’ll still be nervous. But I’ll bet you’re not as when you started your first job.

The more you do the scary thing, the easier it gets. If you want to be less scared of something, do it again and again. I have come to love public speaking, but I was definitely not a natural at it. The first time I ever tried, I lasted about 10 seconds, did more squirming than speaking, and cried in front of an audience. Then I kept doing it through the fear. After a few times it was still awful, but a little less. I kept doing it through high school, and then later on through a Toastmasters club. Eventually, public speaking became so familiar and comfortable it just wasn’t scary anymore.

It is okay to be scared. Just let yourself be a human. You’re going to do better than you think.

 

Courage isn’t not being scared. It’s doing something even though you’re scared. And the more you exercise your courage, the less scary things get.

When you were laying in bed as a kid, the coat hanging in the closet that looked like a monster got a lot less scary when you got up the courage to go check it out for yourself.

Now that you’re an adult, remember: Big scary things life things usually aren’t so scary once you get to know them.

Priority #1: What do you dread?

I have a natural tendency to ignore stressful things until they go away. (Which they don’t.)

It’s not really a natural tendency. I think I learned it through some very tough young adult years full of confrontations and stalemates. But I want to say it’s “natural” to give myself some credit: It’s not “The New Me.” I’ve been trying to kill it for years. It’s putting up a good fight, though.

I’ll call this tendency “Avoidance.”

A breakthrough in my fight against Avoidance came a couple years back when my insightful manager started using a kind of a mantra with me: “Rip the Band-Aid off!” It was excellent advice. She helped me see things in a new way. Dealing head on with a stressful issue is always, always, always (always) less stressful. It’s like when you were a little kid wiggling at your Band-Aid, tears brimming in your eyes. It hurts less if you just rip it off–no matter how scary.

But dealing with problems is not always as quick and easy as “ripping the Band-Aid off” sounds, so I want to explore this idea a little further and in a bit of a different way.

 

Sometimes you have an extra difficult choice to make, and it’s one that looks less like a quick fix and more like a long, exhausting journey. And you can choose to avoid it.

Picture yourself at the most out-of-shape you’ve ever been. I remember gaining 75 pounds after I got back from Africa 6 years ago. A bachelor, full of emotional stress, not sleeping, and eating free burritos every day. Suddenly my body was almost 150% its former size. I felt stupid and unattractive. I felt incapable. Defeated. You know how I felt and you know how hard it is to make the change I needed to make.

I dreaded seeing myself in the mirror, putting on clothes, letting my family see who I’d become, being shirtless in front of my girlfriend. Painful feelings–fear and disgust.

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t just “rip the Band-Aid off.” When I have to tell my landlord I accidentally put a hole in the drywall–that’s a Band-Aid I can rip off. 75 pounds, on the other hand, is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. That’s a giant mountain you have to move.

 

So I’m 75 pounds heavier than I was just a couple short years before. Feeling ashamed and insecure. I want to be fit, I could be fit, but I’m just not. And I have two choices. I can start my long, hard journey back to a healthier me–or I can avoid dealing with this problem. Tell myself not to worry about it–it’s okay.

Avoiding it means I also get to avoid dealing head on with how I really feel about myself. Avoidance means a lot more time on the couch for me, a lot less time sweating and feeling insecure at the gym in front of a bunch of people who the world tells me are a hell of a lot “sexier” than me. Avoidance tastes more like pizza and less like broccoli. Avoidance is way easier.

But the stressful issue of my weight remains. It’s not going away. And the longer I avoid it, the worse it’s getting.

Dealing head on with the thing I dread is my other option. I can start the journey I know deep down inside I really want to start. I can start making healthier choices in what I eat, how much I exercise, and when I get to sleep.

So I choose to make the change. I tape up a piece of notebook paper in my closet. Every day I weigh myself and mark my new weight on the paper. Then I pull the hanging clothes back in front of my paper because I feel embarrassed and I don’t want my girlfriend to see my struggle.

I lose 5 pounds and I feel excited. Inspired. Then after the weekend I step on the scale and I’ve gained it back plus a little to spare. I feel my heart in my throat. This happens a few times and I give up.

Avoidance is easier.

After a few sad years of feeling ashamed, powerless, and out of control, my girlfriend helped me make a change–just a couple months before we got engaged. We committed with each other to be in this for the long haul. We completely restructured our day to day lives. The dreaded problem become one of our top priorities. We fought it every day. Not sadly or without a little fun and relaxation here or there. We fought it in a positive light, with excitement and ambition. We fought with consistency and dedication. With focus. It became a major priority.

It no longer was a dark cloud always in the back of my mind. It was my challenge. I felt good about how I was dealing with it. Yes, it was still hard and stressful. But I was dealing with it.

 

Work is really the same way.

Why do heart attacks occur most often on Monday mornings? (It’s true, Google it.) Because we dread going to work. Because there are big, scary, stressful, depressing issues at work. There are the things that cropped up yesterday and there are the things that have been simmering for a long, long time.

Usually when it’s a situation that came out of the blue, you can rip it off like a Band-Aid.

But then there are the underlying realities at work that make our jobs stress us to death. Unrealistic sales goals. An unfair boss. Self-centered co-workers. Irresponsible employees. Our own bad habits. There’s always a mix of these, but usually there’s the big one: When you leave work thinking “If only…”–what’s that “if only?”

Let’s say for example that this is why you dread work these days: “If only my boss would actually listen to me.”

How did we get here? The first time your boss cut you off, you didn’t immediately lose all motivation. So how did it become the big thing you dread about work? I’d argue it’s a mix of two things:

1. It’s happened a lot.

2. It’s become your “mental model.” The way your mind knows and explains how your boss functions at his core.

Sure, it’s your boss’s fault that he keeps talking over you and won’t give you the time of day.

But maybe it’s your “fault” that you’ve let it happen to the point that you think it’s just the way things are, your boss is a jerk, and it’s not going to change.

Notice that this is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. You have so much pent up frustration, and your boss is so entrenched in his habit, that it’s going to be a long, slow, painful, stressful journey to a healthier relationship. You have to retrain the mental model you’ve created for how and why your boss is who you think he is. You have to keep addressing the offense, patiently and positively.

If you start working on it today, and I mean really working on it–making it one of your very top priorities at work–it will slowly get better. More importantly, you’ll feel better–sometimes immediately.

Or you can avoid it. Avoidance is easier.

But it will get worse, and worse, and worse. And one day you’ll suddenly realize, “I hate my job! This is killing me!” And you’ll find yourself completely incapable of dealing with it anymore. And you’ll give up and walk away, battered and bruised.

And then the process will start over with the next “big thing” that goes wrong at your replacement job.

Avoidance or chasing the solution without delay. . . .

 

What if every morning you felt yourself stressing about work, you asked yourself: “What do I dread about going to work?” And then made that your #1 priority for the day?

We can make a practice–a habit–of immediately dealing head on with the things we dread, or we can let Avoidance rob us of time and happiness and continue in a cycle of failure and broken relationships.

What big thing do you dread? What can you do about it today?

 

Picture two different worlds a year from today: A world in which you started dealing head on with your big “what if” today, and a world in which you put it off a little longer.

before & after