My Victory Over Fear

My Victory Over Fear

The Origins of a Fear

I was the recipient of some bullying as a skinny young kid. One older boy in my neighborhood entertained himself with me occasionally by trapping me in our garage and threatening to beat me up if I tried to get out. Later, tougher kids would chase me home from school, I wasn’t actually hurt very much, but I became afraid of being beat up.

Even though I became an athlete in junior high school, the fear of being beat up persisted. One day on the playground Clayton, our star athlete, grabbed me from behind and held me captive for a few minutes, to the amusement of a large crowd of boys in my class. I was humiliated, but didn’t fight or even object. I was scared. In another incident, as I walked my paper route, two of the tough guys in my class approached me a in menacing way that frightened me. One of them punched me in the face, sending me to the icy sidewalk, where I stayed, docile, looking up at their sneering faces, until they went on down the street.

In high school I took a beating that required medical repair. By then I was on the football and wrestling teams and not at all afraid of being hurt in either sport, feeling safe within the protection of rules and adult oversight. But I was still stymied by my fear of physical violence that was unpredictable. Once in tenth grade wrestling practice, my wrestling partner and I rolled off the mat, crashing into Jim Royson, a senior with a well-earned reputation for sadistic attacks and fistfights he never lost. As I rolled off him, he smashed his fist into my mouth, cutting my lip, which erupted in blood. I staggered out of the room to find the absent coach, hoping to find some justice, no doubt. But Coach Shearer seemed as intimidated by my abuser as I was, and merely sent me off to find a doctor.

I walked the mile to the doctor’s office, got sewn up with a half-dozen stitches, and slumped, home in defeat. When I told my usually sympathetic and peaceful mother what had happened, she asked, “What did you do about it?” I told her that I had done nothing. She made no comment, but didn’t speak to me for the next two days, a message about my cowardice that I would not forget for decades after that.

Confronting Fear

Many years later, I read Carlos Castaneda’s first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, and got this perspective on fear:

  1. Fear is the first major enemy of learning that we face.
  2. Most people never defeat this enemy, “Fear! A terrible enemy—treacherous, and difficult to overcome …concealed at every turn of the way, prowling, waiting.”
  3. Someone defeated by fear becomes either a bully or a harmless, defeated, timid person.
  4. To overcome fear, you must not run away, but instead confront and defy every fear.
  5. After a prolonged battle, fear will retreat and one joyful day you will realize that you have vanquished fear and will never be afraid again.
  6. Now a sharp clarity of mind emerges, and, fearless, you will be a buoyant warrior the rest of your life, even if you don’t take the next step in learning.

I immediately wrote down my remaining fears, and there it was: at forty, I was still afraid of being beat up! I was the CEO of an organization, with no enemies who wanted to do me harm, in a safe Midwestern town with little violent crime. I hated to realize that I still suffered from the fear of physical violence. The fear surfaced only periodically, but it was always there like a chronic, low-grade flu. I wanted to be a buoyant warrior, so, fully afraid, I made an unequivocal commitment to defeating fear.

Bizarre Strategies

Maybe confronting our fears always seems bizarre in some way. After all, others around us don’t seem to be doing much about their fears, apparently accepting them as a normal part of human consciousness. And it certainly feels counterintuitive to go looking for what you’re very frightened to confront.

As bizarre as it seemed to me at the time, I started looking for trouble. How else to confront the fear of physical violence but to go in search of it? It seemed crazy, of course, and the last thing I really wanted to do. Nevertheless, I started hanging out in my neighborhood bars on weekend nights, looking for tough guys who liked to hurt other people. I know, I know. Do you have a better idea?

Weeks of bar hopping produced no opportunities. There were plenty of rough looking men in the bars, and my absurd idea was to provoke them by starring at them. But nobody seemed offended by my crude tactic. Nevertheless, becoming fearless, if that was possible, was my top commitment. Literally, my first thought every day upon awakening was about getting over the fear of physical violence, and my last thought before sleep was my unfinished business. I saw that my fears were no longer tolerable. I hated them and was willing to risk just about anything to end them.

My Opportunity

Then one summer night my friends and I gathered at a restaurant and bar. Kay, one of my friends, and I went outside for a smoke. Big boulders were part of the landscaping facing the bar entrance, and some people were sitting on them. Kay and I slid up on a couple of boulders and lit up. There was a group of men standing around smoking and talking nearby.

Suddenly, a burly and very angry young man burst out of the bar entrance dragging a woman by her neck and hair. Struggling to get free, she was screaming, “Help me! Help me!”

I saw the implications of this moment instantly. I had been thinking about an opportunity like this for months and saw with dread that the moment of opportunity had arrived. I didn’t move. I didn’t want to enter this battle. I saw everything in slow motion. The woman was screaming as the man dragged her past us toward the parking lot. I hoped that the group of three men standing nearby would make a move, but I saw that they were paralyzed with fear, immobile.

Kay slid off the rock, Kay, at 85 pounds, was about to act, and I knew I couldn’t leave this to her; I had to make my move. I hopped off the boulder, telling Kay to go get help. The woman was sobbing, dragging her feet, trying to wrestle out of his fierce grip, but the young man pulled her relentlessly forward, now a few yards in front of me. As I moved off the rock toward them, he turned fiercely toward me and said, “Stay where you are, you s.. of a b….!”

I honestly cannot remember taking those next few steps toward the couple. And then I was between them. Both of their faces were close to mine as I said, “Everything will be all right. Everything will be ok.”

The woman, his wife it turned out, darted away to the safety of some people who encircled her. The young man seemed to deflate, quiet now, not knowing what to do next. I stood with him for a while. It was over.

My New Fearless Life

As Castaneda had predicted, the next day was a joyous day. I felt unafraid. I was buoyant. I didn’t want to declare victory prematurely so I waited for months to see if I had actually erased my fear. But something had shifted. I was no longer afraid and would never experience the fear of physical violence again.

My fearless life doesn’t mean that I don’t notice physical danger. I do. Being fearless is a state of consciousness in which fear does not make decisions. The physical reactions to danger are experienced in our bodies. We can’t help it—it’s visceral. But what happens in the next moment is what counts. Fearless, I retain my clarity, listen to my body’s signals, and then make a decision that will best meet the challenge at hand. Fearless, I don’t shrink in the face of a formidable challenge: I stand my ground with a warrior’s advantage of clarity.

Some Good News About Our Fears

In my coaching with hundreds of leaders, I discovered that many of them were blocked by fears of various sorts—the fear of being disrespected by employees, the fear of failing as leaders of the enterprise, or the fear of taking risks that needed to be taken. Once their fears surfaced in our coaching dialogue, I discovered something interesting. Leaders who were able to talk about their specific fears didn’t have more than one or two fears left to confront. They had developed and matured as leaders: there wasn’t a great deal left to conquer.

That’s the good news. If you can talk pretty openly about your fears to a trusted ally, you have only a fear or two left to erase. People with lots of fears, I learned, can’t talk about them. It’s too scary.

Still, because they had rarely talked about their fears before, facing the remaining one or two fears rattled these leaders, who only cautiously allowed a look into their secret vulnerabilities. Some were unable or unwilling to address those fears, unfortunately locking themselves into a limited future. They would always be too timid in their leadership role and in the other arenas of their life.

Others, however, went looking for trouble, hopped off the rock and became buoyant warriors.

Photo by Courtney Carmody

Gary Stokes

Gary Stokes maps the universe of poise on his blog,  www.thepoisedlife.com where you can get a free assessment of your poise.  He is the author of the book, Poise: A Warrior’s Guide.  He lives with his wife, Mary, in Prescott, AZ.

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22 Comments

  1. I have bad memories concerning fear. And now I try to avoid this feeling as when we are really afraid of something it can make true. I know it already.

    We really should fight this negative feeling in most cases. Thanks for sharing this post Gary!

    Reply
  2. Excellent article Gary. Thanks for sharing your story in vivid detail. I think that helps hone in your point & helps us relate (I was never beat up as a kid, but endured a significant amount of bullying).

    BTW that’s cool you live in Prescott. I haven’t been for about a year, but always love to visit the Yavapai County Courthouse area when I go!

    Reply
  3. This is a great story Gary. But I feel like Roman that if we feel the fear to much that it makes our fear a reality. I hope others can talk about this subject and shed some light on it.

    For now, I’m going to see things as they are, not worse then they are and always aim to see things better then they are. That’s how I personally overcome fear.

    Michelle

    Reply
  4. Gary,

    Thank you for writing this piece, it spoke directly to me and my growing up years and even into my supposed mature adulthood. I was very much an outcast and victimized and even paralyzed by fear. avoiding confrontations,a trait I still have that pops up at the worst times, and then in a crazy way much like yours occasionally seeking the fight that I knew I was bound to lose. One day when I was about 12 and had bested a new boy, his name was Bop because of the way he walked, and I remember him to this day. But the other kids made fun of him for losing to a weakling like me, and he jumped me outside my building and he had me down and beaten. Here’s the most horrible thing though, my father was looking out of the window and he just let this beating happen without trying to stop it. All that was needed was a “Hey cut that out” shout and I would have been spared a bad beating that left visible bruises. My father never spoke of this to me, and frankly I was too ashamed and angry to mention it. But it cemented my reputation as a weakling and a loser and the kids made fun of the fact that dad did nothing to stop this ass kicking.

    It was a life altering moment I believe.

    There are other fears besides getting knocked around, I cite one, the fear of making wrong decisions that if made create emotional pain and suffering while masquerading as the vanquishing of the fear of a bad outcome, which may well be the end result. These decisions can be just the ego taking control and saying “I should do this because I fear it and fear is a weakness that I need to conquer.” Again it’s another deterministic decision that because it is consciously directed contradicts the Buddhist teachings of ego obliteration.

    I’d like to think that all our moments of dread and quaking are really telling us that this is the road we must take because it frightens us the most, but I am skeptical, or maybe just cowardly.

    Nonetheless, your story is personal to a painful degree, I feel those terrible moments as my own. But it is an inspirational piece in that it shows fears can be conquered by a resolve to break the cycle. I hope I can take some courage from your story.

    Reply
  5. Thats really sad getting bullied in school. Even I used to get bullied because of my soft voice and my boy looks, but that made me thougher. But I never faced any physical attacks from my seniors, they wouldn’t involve me in all that. But there were verbal attacks- only to make me stonger. Still, being 27, some people in my office try to bully me, I give it back in such a way that they wouldn’t dare to tease me. Everything happens for good!

    Hari
    Glint.im

    Reply
  6. Wow, This has truly touched me. I can relate to your fear of confrontation. I fear making an ass out of myself so I avoid it altogether. I love the way you handled yourself… and some of it was pretty funny… like looking for a a fight in a bar.lol Glad that it didn’t go that far! Its beautiful that instead you were able to face your fear in defense of someone else!
    Great post!

    Reply
  7. Roman and Michelle identify, I think, our natural reaction to the discussion of fear: let’s avoid it because focusing on it might make it worse. The trouble is that we must address our fears if we are to learn and if we are to emerge into our potential. Fears block us, and blocked, we limit ourselves, narrow our options, and tend to live a timid life. Nevertheless, the battle with fear, which is a battle with our weaknesses, is too daunting for most people, and they never take this first step in learning.

    Eric, Thanks for sharing your painful story. Again, you suggest that maybe doing something about pushing back fear is an ego trap. I don’t think so. As you say, our fears direct us to our learning. Overcoming fear is the first step in learning; most people don’t do it, but we can and we must, if we are to discover our true powers.

    First steps: identify your fears. What are you avoiding? What is blocking you?

    Hari, your example of office bullies is helpful. Nothing is more helpful to us as we confront our fears than petty tyrants, people who like to damage us for the pleasure of it. The petty tyrants in our life are a great gift. They don’t know it, but we need them to oppress us so that we can do battle with our fears. The trick is to not become a petty tryant ourselves in the process, the worst strategy we could adopt.

    Reply
  8. Great article Gary. I think most leaders face fears that are more in their heads than in their physical space. FEAR- Future Events Already Realized. Our self-talk, limiting beliefs make us afraid of what might possibly happen in the future, often based on some event in our past. When we are able to express our fears, in the present, we can put them into perspective and create a clear strategy for dealing with them. This is so valuable because anyone who is held back by fear is limited in their career, their relationships and their lives. I’ve been working on overcoming my fears and living full out for years and each step feels incredibly freeing!
    Thanks for articulating the cost of fear so well!

    Reply
  9. Yes, I do love the added comments. It helps a lot to hear these other stories. And thank you Gary for your response as well. This is a great post. Thank you everyone for sharing.

    Reply
  10. Thank you for all the posts. I can so relate to them and has made me feel that much better about myself and my own internal battles.

    Reply
  11. Fear has kept me from achieving what i know i can achieve. it is still an ever-present being and needs to be ousted. no amount of book knowledge or theory has helped. i need to practice. but how to do so when the fear is always there….

    Reply
    • Posman,
      Like many, you know what you need to do, you just are afraid to do it. Fear is holding you back from facing your fears. Been there, done that! A good coach can help you. I’m happy to talk to you to see if I can help and I’m sure Gary would be too!

      Reply
  12. Great post. The experiences of childhood you shared are similar to mine in many respects. Life in itself is a warfare in all spheres, and what makes us human is when we answer to our names.
    Thanks for this insightful piece.

    Reply
  13. Thanks for the sharing of your personal fear, the stories Gary. Indeed, once some incident hurts us, we become fear and afraid of it, remembering the hurt & pain of it, that we’re afraid to move on, and avoid to face it.

    Some of the fears slowly live within us that without any breakthrough or confrontation, we can hardly get out of our own set “trap.

    Reply
  14. Dan, No doubt life feels like “warfare,” as you say. But that kind of warfare puts way too much stress on us if we’re moving toward the poised life. The warrior view on this is helpful: warriors are not at war with their fellow humans or any other element of life: instead, they are at war with their own weaknesses. Fear is a disabling weakness, so it must be the first battle we fight. Only by defeating fear can we open up new worlds of learning. Only by defeating fear can we discover a new buoyant clarity.

    POsman is right in seeing that fear is always there–before we win our battles with it. When we first consider taking on fear, our fear level seems to escalate. That’s because we haven’t allowed ourselves to think about it much in the past, avoiding it as much as possible, shrinking from it and hoping we can dodge it. So, when we have this discussion-open the subject up, and acknowledge that we are afraid, our fears seem heightened and we want to run. One solution if you have more than one fear: pick one fear and confront it If you confront it directly and resolutely, it will evaporate fairly quickly. Now, with more confidence, take on the next one. This may seem like a rigorous life, but it is also very exciting. You won’t be bored! And the payoff is immense.

    Overcoming fear is a necessary step as we move toward a poised life. To see how you’re doing with poise generally, sign into my website, http://thepoisedlife.com/ to take an assessment of your poise. Your results are known only to you. Gary

    Reply
  15. Congratulation to you, Gary for taking your courage to share with us your insightful experience on this subject. Your braveness and courage are commendable.

    I was an introvert guy who hardly share my personal experience till I reached my late forty. I was transformed when I discovered my larger purpose in life. That was the time I began to share my personal experience in public, through several of my blogs, without much fear. As the time goes by, I realised that the greatest fear is the fear itself. FEAR is the false expectation appear real and make us stumble most of the times. Once, you recognise and acknowledge this myth, you have won half the battle.

    Hope the above explanation is helpful to you.

    Reply
  16. Thanks for writing this fabulous post. I found it very thought provoking and after 20 minutes trying to write a comment last night I gave up and decided to write a post on my blog instead. What I picked up on in this story was that when the opportunity to confront fear arose, the solution was not to meet violence with violence, but to resist violence and reframe the situation. That got me thinking that the dialogue about how to respond to bullying is often limited to the two options, flight or fight, neither of which seem satisfactory, and that we need to include a broader perspective. You can check out my response at my blog:

    http://mayandseptember.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/fight-flight-resisting-and-reframing/

    Reply
  17. Living is fear is an aweful place to be, I say this from experience. If not properly managed our comfort zones can cripple our lives. I went to some extreme levels to get myself out of the situation I was in.

    It’s a catch 22 situation, your can’t overcome the fear without overcoming it. I jumped out of an aeroplane to overcome my fears, I had the same experience as you. I thought it might be a fluke at first so I did another 13 jumps just to make sure I was confident I could continue to overcome any fears that came my way.

    Every jump was as terrifying as the first and I overcame the fear everytime. I’m not saying everybody should go to this extreme but the should conciously seek out stuff that makes them fearful just so that they can overcome it.

    The results of doing this permeate through out every area of life not just the fear you’ve overcome and that is the truly amazing part of it

    Reply
  18. I would like to know what you would have done if the woman’s husband would have hit you several times in the face? My father taught me to box at a very young age. He told me never to start a fight, but if someone hit me that I should hit them back. Most kids will not fight if they know they are going to get back as much pain as they give. I am glad that my father was not the type of parent that taught their kids not to fight if attacked. Those kids are exactly the kind that get picked on regularly. Many of your guests probably disagree with this philosophy. It worked for me. Many times I said to the would be attacker, I have been to this dance before and I don’t lay down or quit. Most of the time they decided not to fight me. I have no fear of violence, but I do feel sorry for people that were bullied. Several times in high school I stopped people from bullying others. I never started a fight but I finished several.

    Reply
  19. Really very good article. I already started confronting the fear.

    Reply
  20. Rajesh has turned to confront his fear, and I feel exhilerated because every time someone confronts and then defeats fear, the human race has become more conscious. Darren’s experience jumping out of airplanes and overcoming his fear is a dramatic example of how direct action–doing the opposite of what our fears want us to do–produces incontrovertible evidence that our fears are illusions. James Oh points out correctly that fear is a false expectation. This is a profound truth: as long as we live in the false expectation, we live in avoidance, limiting our potential. Scott asks what would I have done if I had got punched in the face. I was ready to fight if that was necessary to protect the woman; in fact, I was expecting that I would get punched and that I might get beat up.
    Gary

    Reply
  21. Hey Gary,

    This is excellent. I’ve recently been doing a bit of research into the physiology of fear as I too have a bit of a tendency to get anxious about things…

    However I’m even more terrified that being scared might one day get in the way of me doing the right thing.

    Anyway it turns out it’s all in our brains and that old cliche of ‘facing your fears’ actually has some pretty solid science behind it.

    Check out this post for my own research into how fear works if you’re interested.

    http://www.fightemptiness.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/punch-fear-in-face-understanding-fear.html

    Also fair play for the tactic of sitting around in bars waiting for trouble. That’s sort of like the equivalent of getting over your fear of spiders by letting a tarantula crawl on your face…

    Cheers for the post. Inspiring stuff,

    Rob

    Reply

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