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Challenging Fear and Shame-Based Decision Making

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

This post was originally written one week prior to my first Women's Career Support Group meeting. I woke up in a panic, I dreamed that I had somehow invited a man to my women's group. The man that I had invited is a lovely man and I'm sure he would make a wonderful addition to the group, however he's a man so I'm not sure how to reconcile that. Maybe eventually I will have a different kind of group, or more than one group, but for the purposes of this post that was a very unpleasant way to wake up! Reflecting on my mood I notice that my fear and shame have been screaming at me since I started planning the group, going to women's career support meet-ups, and now writing. I think it's safe to say that I'm way outside of my comfort zone. This post is about normalizing fear and shame, and finding ways to battle through them to achieve our goals and grow as human beings.

Fear, Shame and Joy

I notice fear, shame, and discomfort being the strongest when I'm embarking on something that's intellectually challenging or new. I notice that the same thing happens when I first start seeing a new client, particularly if that client is highly educated or successful. When I'm just starting to get to know a new client who is a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, a company president or vice president, I notice feeling really intimidated. My insecurity buttons are definitely pushed by these experiences. My shame and fear-based self-talk are screaming at me: "What are you doing!" "You're not smart enough to do this!" I breathe quickly and shallowly, I'm hot and cold at the same time, but then a funny thing happens. Once the first session starts, after about five minutes I'm no longer even noticing my internal state. I'm completely immersed in the experience of getting to know this bright, interesting person in front of me. I feel like a better person for having met and known this person that I was so intimidated by just minutes before.

This experience is exhilarating! I always end up feeling incredibly grateful to have met new clients. I've learned through these experiences that fear and joy are inextricably connected. We can't have one without the other however, while the fear is fleeting, the joy sticks around indefinitely. I'm also learning that if I'm afraid, it means that I'm doing something right, but I have to push through the fear to find the joy on the other side.

Function of Fear

Fear is an inhibitory emotion. It functions like brakes to stop us from doing things that might get us hurt. This is all well and good when the something it stops us from doing is actually dangerous or might cause us real, physical harm. Teetering on the edge of a cliff is probably a bad idea for most of us. The problem is that our amygdalas don't really differentiate physical danger from threats to our psyche: embarrassment or feeling shamed. Our amygdalas perceive these experiences as dangerous whether the threat is to our physical health or our sense of self. When these moments of paralyzing fear hit, it can help to engage our prefrontal cortex, to process that fear in order to distinguish between shame and physical threats to our well-being. Note: this isn't to say that shame doesn't do real harm to us, it absolutely does, but his harm can be mitigated by rethinking our perceptions of shameful experiences.

Take a deep breath if you're teetering on the edge of that cliff. Breathe and look around, are you safe right now? Ok, if so then ask yourself: "What's the worst that can happen?" Allow your imagination to walk you through that scenario. If the ending doesn't include a fiery death at the bottom of a cliff, probably the worst that can happen is likely manageable, even if undesirable. Now let your imagination carry you the other direction. What is the best that could happen? Sit with that scenario, let yourself be enveloped in the warmth, excitement and possibility. Ask yourself: "Is the potential best case scenario worth risking the potential worst case scenario? If so, let your fear transform into excitement. Susan Jeffers said: "We have been taught to believe that negative equals realistic, and positive equals unrealistic." If you notice that this tracks with your thinking, allow yourself to question the truth of that belief.

Turn Fear into Excitement

One of my professors in grad school once told me that fear and excitement are the exact same physiological state with one notable difference: breath. When we're afraid we tend to hold our breath or breathe very shallowly, when we're excited we breathe normally or even deeply. This means that if you remember to breathe, you can change the message that your body is sending from one of fear and danger, to one of excitement and possibility. If you notice an uptick in fear and shame based thoughts and feelings, it probably means that you're stepping outside of your comfort zone, which is how we grow. Accept the fear because it's the precursor to joy. Breathe into excitement, and take the step into joy.

As always I love hearing about other's experiences with overcoming fear and shame. When I worked in long-term care I noticed that when we reach the end of our life-spans and we're looking back and reflecting on our experiences, we don't regret the things we've done so much as the things we didn't do. What things might you eventually regret not doing? What is shame holding you back from? If you would like to learn more about the interplay between shame, fear, and accomplishment I suggest the following books:

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W.

Rising Strong by Brene Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W.

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