Sunday, March 13, marked the 20-year anniversary of the scariest day of my life. It was the day my son almost died. I don’t make that statement lightly and I’m not exaggerating. He was born with a rare birth defect that caused narrowing in his airway, and it wasn’t discovered until he was almost one. He had extensive surgery and suffered major complications that almost took his life the day before his first birthday.
My husband and I were staying at the hospital with our son, and the “code blue” crisis happened as I was holding him that morning. My husband quickly alerted the nurse, they rushed in a baby-sized crash cart, and the medical team raced our son back to intensive care to save his life. It was the most terrifying and surreal time as we waited for the prognosis. That was REAL fear.
The good news is that our son is happy and healthy today. He turned 21 on March 14 (I can’t believe my child is officially an adult), and is loving life as a cadet at the United Stated Military Academy at West Point. He proved the doctors who said he’d be a sickly child with a lifetime of respiratory issues wrong by playing competitive hockey and lacrosse all his life.
For 20 years, March 13 has been a very bittersweet day for us. On one hand, I can remember in the clearest and most visceral way the day I felt real fear. I can vividly recall the entire sequence of life-threatening events, what I was wearing, who was there, how the hospital smelled, and how it felt to be in complete shock. On the other hand, it’s a day of total celebration and tremendous gratitude.
It’s also a day to remember the difference between real fear and fake fear.
We all manufacture fear and use fear to hold ourselves back…myself included. The most common fear among women is the colossal fear of failure, and at the same time, a debilitating fear of success. The “what ifs” become paralyzing. “What if I fail? I’ll be so embarrassed. I’ll have to run off and hide from all the shame I’ve caused myself and others. The disappointment will be so overwhelming I may never get out of bed.”
The fear flipside is equally as daunting. “What if I succeed? Then the expectations will be greater, a higher goal will need to be set, my whole life will change. I’ll be more successful than my partner and that will disrupt the balance of power in our relationship, or there will be a new bright light shining on my performance and I won’t be able to fly under the radar.”
These are real examples from real clients. This is how manufactured or fake fear can wreak havoc on our lives. The bottom line is that it’s the fear of the unknown, not knowing what might happen, and not having enough confidence to know you can handle any outcome. But is that real fear or simply an excuse to not try?
Within a few months recently, I had a friend who was mugged and a neighbor whose house was robbed. Both crimes happened in the middle of the day, and both conversations after the horrific violations were the same. It was the realization of what real fear felt like, and how that made all other fears pale in comparison. It turned other fears into mere apprehensions or moments of self-doubt, but not real fear.
There is tremendous power in recognizing the difference.
I am certainly not suggesting you put yourself in harm’s way or experience a major medical issue in order to have a healthier perspective on fear. I am simply suggesting that we all ask ourselves one critical question, “Is that real fear or fake fear?” We all use fear to sabotage ourselves and hold ourselves back, but what if we only used real fear to guide our instincts and decision-making?
As an executive coach, I’ve had clients too afraid to make a follow-up phone call, to invite a colleague to connect on LinkedIn, to pursue a promotion, to speak up in a meeting, to deliver a presentation, to accept a nomination to a board position, to raise her rates, to change careers, to say no, to ask for help, to negotiate for a raise, to provide feedback, to hear feedback, to manage a team, or to resolve a conflict. These are all legitimate scenarios that cause most people to at least pause and think, and perhaps break out into a sweat and loose some sleep, but they also allow the fear to hold them back.
Think of what we could all accomplish if we put fear in its proper place…if we had much more of a “fearless” mindset, and looked at those moments instead as opportunities for growth and development. As adults we only grow and learn when we feel uncomfortable, so embrace those butterflies in your stomach and know that you’re on the verge of an exciting, and potentially transformative, life experience.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along’…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Taking risks, seeking greater challenges, and conquering new heights don’t need to fill you with fear if you truly understand the difference between real fear and fake fear. Shift your mindset and perspective and don’t let fear stand in your way.
Cut that fake fear down to size and go for it!