Building My Confidence – Step 5: facing our fears

This is the fifth post in the series about building my confidence:

Step 1: How confidence works
Step 2: Improving my public speaking
Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings
Step 4: Knowing our own strengths – self-esteem and self-efficacy
Step 5: Facing our Fears
Step 6: Making Confident Decisions
Step 7: Finding my Vocation

“There is nothing to fear but fear itself” – FD Roosevelt

The good news we learned in Steps 1-4 is that our degree of confidence is neither predestined, nor permanent. It’s a skill rooted in a set of behaviours we can learn, and there are practical steps we can take to build habits which help us become progressively more confident.

Here, we think about our fears and anxieties, and how we can better face them.

Fear is an important emotion. Rational fear, aroused by impending danger, is our friend, and has always protected us from harm – from fire, mammoths, hairy men with clubs. But often fear is irrational – we are afraid of situations that are simply not life threatening: speaking up in meetings, intimacy, changing jobs, failure at work, making good decisions. Here, fear is more foe than friend. And yet the symptoms of anxiety caused by our fears (lack of sleep, breathlessness) are identical whether we face physical danger or mental threat. And while the presence of fear in our lives is perfectly natural, the way that we deal with this can impact our happiness.

People often overestimate the danger of the threat, and underestimate their ability to deal with it.

It’s usually low grade worry that we experience, not high level fear. Nevertheless, instead of rationally facing our fears, we normally choose one of three things: we become immobile (freeze), strike out (fight) or escape (flight). And the alternative to facing our fears is avoiding them of course, which only delays the inevitable.

“You’re much better off to face your fears than you are to wait and let them find you.” Jordan Peterson

Wim Hof – The Iceman

He climbed in the Everest death zone at 7500m in just pair of shorts, ran marathons above the Arctic Circle and in the Namib desert barefoot. More recently he starred in BBC’s Freeze the Fear, with eight contestants taking on fearful challenges in freezing temperatures in the Italian mountains.

Hof was asked recently what he did in those moments when he found himself lost in a blizzard on Everest or stuck underneath thick ice looking for an airhole, he replied: “I learnt in nature how to deal with that. Cold brought me that science, that wisdom. It has been shown that stress hormone levels can be raised simply lying in a bed more than someone going for a bungee jump. So I learned how to deal with the situation in front of me without panicking.”

This is interesting, but does it help with our less visible, more irrational fears? The fear we have of those things which are more internal, but no less painful? The experiences which make us most anxious are after all normally in front of a group at work, rather than in a snowy wilderness.

Singer, and contestant in the programme Alfie Boe said, “I now realise that in the same way as you embrace the cold or acknowledge the fear, you have to acknowledge your own insecurities, your worries, and once you embrace them, they’re easier to deal with.” So by controlling the stress, this helps us to focus on the actual situation.

Why does facing our fears build confidence?

In Notes on a Nervous Planet, Matt Haig says, The thing with mental turmoil is that so many things that make you feel better in the short term make you feel worse in the long term. You distract yourself, when what you really need is to know yourself. Unlike my smartphone, there is no slide-to-power-off function for anxiety.“ Distraction from anxiety only prolongs the anxiety. Wim Hof’s philosophy is based on the idea that when we challenge our faulty beliefs, this directs our attention to the things we need to tackle, giving us belief that we can overcome most things thrown at us in the future.

In her book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers says fear is an educational, not a psychological problem, a fact of life which should not hold us back from living a rewarding life. As I push beyond my comfort zone, the fear does not disappear, but with each risk that I take, I move beyond what is comfortable. And as I stretch my comfort zone, the magnitude of risk increases, I lean into every new fear with a confidence that it will be OK, even if it is does not feel OK, because last time it was OK. Eleanor Roosevelt says, more simply, “You must do the thing you cannot do.”

We tell ourselves each morning to eat the frog: accomplishing one thing a day can stretch our comfort zone: making that difficult phone call, challenging someone at work, being more ambitious about our clients, praying for something you doubt can happen. Building a habit of facing fear adds a little risk every day, and keeps me moving forward. Successful people learn this, knowing that being regularly afraid is simply part of life, not something to be ashamed of.

Break big fears into smaller fears

One of the reasons our fears seem so big is that we choose not to examine them closely. The Roman philosopher Seneca, although rich, at the heart of government living in a large house, was desperately afraid that poverty would find him. So he practised something weekly, to ensure that the thought of being poor would never have the power to frighten him. Next to his lavish bedroom, Seneca built a tiny chamber. Once a week he slept there, on a wooden bunk, eating only dry bread, olives and water. “We suffer more in imagination than in reality,” Seneca

What exactly am I afraid of?

When I speak in public, am I really afraid that people will watch me blush, or that they may think my ideas aren’t original, that I’m no expert, or that my voice is boring? Only when I articulate it for myself can I really begin to break down the irrational fear into something more logical which I then can deal with. If I decide it’s that I don’t know the subject well enough – then why not explore this with colleague with the most knowledge in this area so they can strength-test my facts?

Our fear of public speaking is usually not the ability to deliver a speech (we have the cognitive ability to do this), but simply the number of people in front of us which is the key barrier. Imagining them in a state of undress doesn’t help me overcome nerves, but breaking down the few high-stakes moments into lots of low-stakes moments definitely does. Two high-stakes speeches could be equivalent to ten moments where you summon the courage to speak up in a meeting.

Build up the the fear slowly

We’ll probably make more progress if we expose ourself to steadily increased anxiety by working through a hierarchy of fears. Here, it’s important to remain in the feared situation (eg. practising in front of a colleague) until the anxiety has subsided and cognitive restructuring occurs (Neenan 2002). Our language can change from I can’t stand it, to I don’t like it but I’ll keep trying, and each one of these low-stakes interactions a tiny part of you is saying CAN DO as well as CAN HAPPEN (see How Confidence Works). Each tiny moment builds another plank on the bridge of confidence.

Confidence is a team game. I never lack confidence on my own because I’m not competing with anyone and most things are within my circle of control. Alone, I know I can prepare, master a subject, train myself to get better. But when there’s audience in front of me, my belief falters. I sense a gap between the person they are expecting, and what I bring. This is the difference between solitary practice and public performance, and why so many sportspeople fail to make it. It’s like watching a clever contestant on Mastermind whose expert knowledge evaporates before our very eyes. When I lack confidence, I am always much more aware of the faces in front of me, and I imagine the negative things that are in their heads, rather than the positive facts in mine.

Fear of success

As we discovered in imposter syndrome, one of the things we are most frightened of, counter-intuitively, is that we might succeed. The problem with success is that it feels fleeting, leaving us worried that at some stage people will find us out that it was all pretend. We fear being unmasked. One way to ease this is to accept that people will like and accept us even with our imperfections. We can make mistakes, get things wrong or fail in some way and still remain a perfectly good person deserving of love and respect. When we begin to apply the scale we use against others to ourselves, we allow ourselves to relax. We silence our inner critic.

Solitude and Silence

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the information age,” former US Secretary of Defence James Mattis says, “it’s lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to focus on proactive decision-making, rather than reacting to problems as they arise.”

Where might we find freedom from our worries and anxieties? The other day I asked a colleague what they were worried about, what they were afraid of. They told me, I need to know if this role is bigger than I can manage? I need to build in some boundaries for myself, some headspace for my personal life. I need to carve out my time for me.”

I don’t have enough silence in my lives because I don’t plan enough solitude. And when I plan for solitude (a trip to the mountains, a walk with the dog, leaving my phone at home) I don’t regret a single minute, even if it rains. When I’m alone, when I allow stillness, I invariably have my best ideas. When I don’t respond instantly to the email trail of the night before, when I respect my need for space and quiet, time seems to slow down, my productivity increases, I’m inevitably happier and a nicer person to live with. Ryan Holiday reminds us, Solitude is not for hermits but for healthy functioning adults.”

There are untapped aspects of ourselves, describes Rosemary Lain-Priestley in Does My Soul Look Big In This, which we can only access once the noise of our daily lives is shut out. We need to integrate these moments more successfully into our daily lives. At the end of a long year we are in need of our own portion of stillness and silence. We achieve this in different ways. In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland describes making the decision to create more silence in her life, travelling to geographical landscapes with the space she was looking for. Silence, was for her a form of freedom, producing better choices, providing greater clarity.

The challenge for us today is to find positive silence at work and at home. In the 2005 BBC series The Monastery, five people with no religious background, volunteered to live at a Benedictine monastery. Abbot Christopher Jamison says the hardest challenge for them was not the religion, but simply finding silence because it was such a change from normal life. “There are times when good words are left unsaid out of an esteem for silence.” – Rule of St Benedict.

In his book Silence – In the age of noise, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge describes how finding physical silence is a good way to foster inner silence, because we find a space within which we can hear ourselves think. It is not just withdrawing from modern life. “When you get the chance, know that the opportunity to walk alone, even for a bit, is a rare gift, one that will hand you insight that can change the course of your life.” – Brianna Wiest

In our organisation, our headteachers, who face all sorts of pressures from inside and outside of their schools, access periods of time out for reflection. Along with 1:1 coaching, Diocesan Schools Advisers provide pastoral support and offer a Performance, Resilience and Support Programme, which provides professional development focusing on wellbeing. These focus discussion on the areas of our leadership which causes most stress, supports mental health and finding collective solutions to build greater resilience. There are even opportunities for headteachers to sleep over at the SCMJ convent at Wantage – itself an oasis of peace and tranquility.

This kind of support may be a small drop of silence in an ocean of noise, but people seem to be increasingly choosing to do it, and it’s a powerful opportunity for a renewing source of energy. It can help us as we help to build confidence and reduce fear in those we lead next year.

Enjoy some solitude and silence this summer.

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