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Begin With The Fear Of Falling

By: Mary Shippy, PhD

The rugged space between what was and what is coming is pocketed with turbulence. As a person well acquainted with fear, it is sometimes the catalyst that makes me want to try the impossible. At times I feel the uplift of the soar in the new, yet often on the heels of these strong winds comes the breath-squeezing downdraft of the fall.

As human beings in this world of turbulence, how do we personally navigate the fear? As leaders, how do we address fear and the emotions it brings, with curiosity and openness? I am not talking about the primal instinctual fear for our survival, rather I am talking about the tangible fear of the unknown, uncertainty that challenges us with uncomfortable change. This kind of fear is related to what is called subjective safety – part of how we see the world and how we feel safe in the world – often derived from early life experiences. This sense of safety tints the lens through which we see our everyday opportunities – a promotion, a move to a new city, changing careers or jobs, going back to school, getting married, etc. Subjective safety is also impacted by the changes we see in our world today – pandemics, climate change, wars, economic inflation, politics, etc.

The conversations I have with leaders leading in this turbulence center around not what we can’t control, but what we can. As leaders, we can’t lead others through this turbulence of uncertainty and ambiguity unless we are willing to look at our own anxiety as it relates to fear and uncertainty. Putting our oxygen mask on before we help others. Frankly, addressing and overcoming our fears at work and in life involves hard work which includes stopping to reflect, willingness to be vulnerable, and practicing raw honesty with ourselves.

Reflection, Vulnerability, Raw Honesty
Kegan and Lahey’s groundbreaking work in their book, Immunity to Change, gives us some important and helpful groundwork steps to explore our subjective fear and anxiety. The following is my take on these helpful steps.

Stopping to Reflect:
Where am I stuck? Those places in my life where I circle around and around not being able to make consistent and sustained progress. As a first step, start where you’re stuck. These stuck areas could be personal – I can’t lose weight or start an exercise program even with a nutritionist, a gym membership, or a trainer. They could be leadership focused – my ability to delegate, to prioritize, to have difficult conversations despite attending training, reading books, or being coached.

Erin, a VP of Operations at a tech company, grew up with a fear around conflict. She became anxious personally and professionally every time she sensed a conflict. As a leader she wanted to change this; she attended classes on conflict and read books, and yet when conflict arose, she would get anxious and fearful and would pretend it wasn’t there or try to smooth it over. The fear impacted her team and her ability to make decisions, and ultimately, the bottom line.

What am I afraid of? The second step is to name the fears or anxieties that are holding you back. Such as the fear of never being enough, the fear of losing control, the fear of rejection or not being liked. These anxieties and fears often operate below the surface and at some point in your life served a purpose, however, they now are holding your back, acting as saboteurs to forward movement. This type of reflection asks the reflector to look deep below the surface and to dive into the core fear that sabotages your forward momentum.

After some deep reflection Erin named this core saboteur as her fear of rejection.

Willingness to be vulnerable:
What is the worst thing that could happen? For a moment, imagine the worst that could happen if your fear came true – you looked stupid, you lost control, someone didn’t like you, you didn’t get a promotion, you lost an important client. Our dreaded outcomes that we are convinced will come true, when we are willing to be vulnerable, become a window into our limiting beliefs that are the dictator fears in our lives. These limiting beliefs come from our experiences and family backgrounds and are often unconsciously modeled not taught.

Erin’s limited belief originated from her own family of origin. Conflict was dealt with by silence; people would not talk to one another for days and in some cases years! Erin came to believe as an adult that if she tried to address conflict that she would be rejected and be one of those people that no one talked to for years.

Open to Raw Honesty:
What are my limiting beliefs? Your deep reflection and willingness to be vulnerable opens the window to your limiting beliefs. This is where raw honesty and the baby-step work of testing those sets of beliefs allows you to address the assumptions that keep you from change. When you create awareness of these founding core fears, it helps to illuminate your resistance. These fears and anxieties won’t suddenly disappear – you can, however, turn down the volume – allowing you to move forward and dismantle your self-imposed barriers and achieve forward movement.

Erin created some tiny steps in testing the fear of rejection. She started with her partner – when she sensed conflict coming on, she would pause and ask her partner questions, instead of shutting down. She came to learn the difference between conflict and debate and between passion and anger, between differences/disagreement and tolerance/rejection. At work, having hard conversations right away versus ignoring them created more collaboration rather than rejection.

Erin says that she still gets anxious around conflict – but now instead of shutting down or becoming overwhelmed, she uses the feeling she gets in her gut to inform her when and with whom she needs to have conversations. Sometimes to learn to soar we must begin with fear of falling. As leaders leading in turbulence, the practice of addressing our fears allows us to adjust the volume of those fears. We can do this with courage, with perspective, and with pragmatic optimism – or what I call hope.

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