Fear is a natural byproduct of evolution.
We couldn’t survive as a species if we didn’t have a voice in our head warning us to stay away from sabertooth tigers and preventing us from walking into high-speed traffic.
In certain scenarios, fear can fuel our survival instincts and keep us safe.
But there is also a darker side to fear — an echo that ricochets around our psyche, those thoughts that keep us up at night in sheer anticipation that something horrible is lurking around the corner.
These can vary from larger existential dreads to small phobias or nagging feelings that we have difficulty letting go of.
A spouse may leave us. A child might fall ill. We could meet financial ruin. Wars may tear apart our communities.
And, of course, the ultimate fear: the knowledge that everyone we know will one day perish.
How Does Fear Impact Our Lives?
Our fear can sour our relationships, keep us rooted in place, and sabotage our potential.
How many of us have stayed in our comfort zone instead of embarking on a new endeavor because we feared failure? How many of us have lashed out at a loved one out of fear of losing them?
It’s no wonder that we want to rid ourselves of these painful feelings and move forward with ease. But how do we proceed?
The answer may surprise you.
As we contemplate our desire to let go of fear, we must first examine our relationship to fear itself.
Are we trying to deny its existence? Are we pretending that what scares us will never come to pass?
If we attempt to relinquish fear from a frightened and timid place, we will never succeed.
When we neglect our fear, fear holds on more fiercely. When we endeavor to distract ourselves by getting lost in daily minutia, fear returns with a vengeance. When we refuse to examine our fear boldly and honestly, it feels like a bottomless pit that can swallow us whole.
Accordingly, we mustn’t deny our fear or try to rid ourselves of it, but rather, we must acknowledge it and come to peace with it.
In doing so, we free ourselves from a state of denial and turmoil. We can live more truthfully alongside our fear, without letting it dictate our behavior.
In her book, Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes a letter to her fear.
She invites it to be her companion on a metaphorical road trip. She creates a positive relationship with her fear, giving it a voice, but not relinquishing control. She speaks kindly and lovingly, acknowledging the important role fear plays in her life, but she firmly asserts, “you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
You too can cultivate an open line of communication with your fear and prevent it from controlling your behavior.
Want to give it a try?
Here are 6 steps you can take to help with letting go of fear and living with purpose.
6 Steps For Letting Go Of Fear
1. Cultivate Strong Values
Instead of running away from your fear, try running towards your values.
Fear can prevent us from living the life we want to live. But when we’re unaware of our core values, we don’t realize what we’re missing.
Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
When we identify the guiding principles that give our lives meaning, we have a positive goal to pursue. We become alert to the infinite possibilities of our existence.
Now, we’re no longer trying to shed our fear simply to prove something to ourselves or to others. It’s no longer an arbitrary test of our strength or resilience. Instead, we face our fears with compassion in service of our higher purpose.
When we know why we want to face our fears, it motivates us to do just that.
2. List Your Fears
It may sound daunting, but identifying your fears is a crucial first step in confronting them.
Grab some paper and a pen, and spell them out. Take as much time as you need.
Externalizing the voices in your head can give you more distance and perspective. It can also illuminate the reality that your fears are, in fact, finite.
In all likelihood, you are not alone in your fears. Many other people share your concerns.
Now that they are no longer ricocheting around your mind, you can understand them and face your fears, so they cease to hijack your existence.
3. Work With A Licensed Therapist
A licensed therapist can be an invaluable resource, especially if you have a history of trauma.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — “a treatment approach that helps you recognize negative or unhelpful thought and behavior patterns” — is one approach that many therapists use when helping clients overcome fears.
CBT employs many tactics that cultivate mindfulness, composure, and concentration.
A therapist may recommend exposure therapy, during which they will help create a safe environment for you to approach your fear.
In A Guide To Rational Living, authors Albert Ellis Ph.D and Robert A. Harper, Ph.D. outline the ABC model of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in which you identify:
- A. the Adversity or activating event;
- B. your Beliefs about the event;
- and C. the Consequences of your beliefs, including your behavioral and emotional response.
This model can help you identify your inaccurate beliefs, confront cognitive distortions, challenge negative beliefs, and mindfully approach stressful situations.
4. Try Visualization
When we enter a state of fear, we can feel paralyzed, trapped in a moment of disempowerment and helplessness.
Our imagination becomes stuck at the moment of defeat, so we get caught in a loop, replaying a past trauma or imagining the worst outcome for every scenario.
To break the cycle, try visualization.
Imagine a scenario in which you face your fear head-on and take back your power.
Start with the very thing that you fear then imagine overcoming it.
If you’re afraid you may get into a car crash, imagine taking control of the car and maneuvering to safety.
If you fear abandonment and loneliness, imagine comforting your inner child and giving them the support they failed to receive.
Using this mental practice, you can get unstuck, push forward to the end of the story, and cultivate the scenario of victory.
This will prepare you to face upcoming obstacles, like a boxer preparing for a big fight. Notice the sensation in your body and allow that to embolden you.
5. Look For Role Models
When confronted with fear, we often feel like there is no path forward.
We get stuck without any clue of what to do next.
Instead of panicking, try searching for role models who have faced their fear successfully and come out the other side.
You can find examples in literature, history, or in your own community.
Then step back and consider:
- Who do you respect?
- What do you admire about them?
- Where do you align and where do you differ?
Compile your very own hero index, almost like a board of advisors who you can turn to in your time of need.
By examining the ways in which other people navigate through their fear, you can discover lessons and apply them to your own life.
Take their roadmaps and alter them to your needs.
6. Study Your Personal History
Sometimes the best teacher is yourself.
Consider your personal history — how have you weathered difficult situations in the past? Are there fears that you’ve faced head-on and overcome?
Throughout our lives, we face many hurdles.
Examine the moments in which you felt the most triumphant. What brought you to that point? What were the tactics that you used to succeed?
Try making a list of the strategies that helped you in the past. Are any of them applicable to your current situation?
In embarking on this exercise, you can reframe your personal narrative so you are the hero.
Every hero faces obstacles on their journey before they succeed. Consider the fact that you may be in the middle of another story. And like you’ve done before, you will overcome fear again.
The Bottom Line
The great Austrian poet and novelist, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
When we look at fear with this optimistic attitude, it can give our lives meaning.
Fear can be a signpost, showing us what we most value by pointing to the very things we’re most afraid of losing.
Fear can give us an opportunity to face our pain, grow, and thrive.
We cannot deny our fear.
Instead, if we can build a positive relationship with it, our fear can morph into a dear friend who inspires gratitude instead of dread.